This column was submitted by New York’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, Amy Hysick, a high school science teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High.
In recent years, I have earned a reputation at my school for wearing really crazy outfits.
In the week leading up to Homecoming, each day has a different theme (Retro Day, Flannel Day, etc.) — I have outfits that capitalize on them all. My outfits also stand out on our school’s Ugly Holiday Sweater Day right before Christmas break. Lest we forget, my wardrobe arsenal also includes science-themed shirts, dresses with DNA or chemistry lab equipment prints, and of course, shoes to match.
Now before you dismiss me as a “crazy science teacher” who has spent too much time around the chemicals in the lab, there is a good reason that I can get away with my own flavor of a “professional” wardrobe, but it requires a quick lesson on brain function.
The Chemistry of Memories
Human brains are complex networks of nerve cells that are constantly exchanging electrochemical messages called neurotransmitters. There are different neurotransmitters for different messages, and some of those can impact learning and memory. Students under stress release large amounts of a chemical called cortisol (also called the “stress hormone.”) Cortisol, along with adrenaline, helps you survive in traumatic situations by helping to trigger the “fight or flight” response, suppressing immune function and digestion, and inhibiting the formation of long-term memories. All of these are great if you’re being chased by a lion – but not so much when you need to learn algebra.
The good news is that there is a yin to the cortisol’s yang. Dopamine and serotonin are in a class of neurotransmitters called endorphins, which can counteract the effects of cortisol. They are part of your brain’s natural ‘reward center.’ When you perform an action that is good for your body, like exercising or eating nutritious foods, your brain rewards you by releasing these feel-good chemicals. You feel pleasure, which is great — but this action of the reward center also activates your long-term memory center! This pleasurable sensation and the action that caused it are more likely to be retained and stored as long-term memories, making them easier to recall.
So what does that have to do with the outlandish costumes in my class? That beautiful moment when my students enter the room and are met with the unexpected — that moment is pay dirt. Novelty, whimsy, and laughter (yes, even AT me) are carefully-wielded actions that promote the release of endorphins.
By creating an experience that engages their emotions from the moment my students enter the room, their neurons fire more rapidly and there is a heightened sense of anticipation as they wait to see what comes next. Emotional states change, and brain chemistry is altered, as I trick my students’ brains into releasing the very chemicals that will actually help them learn and store this new learning in long-term memory. Score? Teacher: 1. Student brains: also 1. We both win. I’m sneaky that way.
Fostering Positive Learning Environments — with Fashion
When students have these positive experiences in class on a repeated basis, they will begin to associate you and your classroom with positive emotions — even those students who struggle with your course content. They will be more likely to seek you out for support or encouragement, want to hang out in your room even when class isn’t in session, and they will know that your room is a safe place for them. Building relationships with your students starts with you presenting yourself in a way that they find approachable and creating opportunities for positive emotional connections.
This doesn’t mean that you need to brush up on your sewing skills and start making your own costumes (unless you want to!), but you can make purposeful decisions to promote the emotional and mental states of your students, allowing their brains to learn more effectively in your room, no matter what happens to them outside those walls.
So much of our students’ lives are completely out of our control (and many times, out of their control as well). Our mission should be to create positive experiences within our classrooms that prime our students’ brains to make their own connections and fast-track that new information to their long-term memory. Costumes are one way to do just that.
Even if you don’t think costumes are your ‘thing’ — I challenge you to do it anyway. (Watch your students’ reactions closely, and then tell me how much fun it was!) There is tremendous power in choosing your own path and confidently walking it, no matter how many people look at you strangely. Plus, it’s just plain fun to be weird and not care what anyone else thinks. Invent your own version of a “professional” teaching wardrobe. (You and I will know that it’s really a purposeful, carefully crafted, pedagogically sound teaching strategy that helps to promote beneficial changes in your students’ brain chemistry, aiding in the formation and retention of memories.) But that can be our little secret.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my cape out of the washer.
Share your costumed adventures with me! I can be found on Twitter at @hysickscience.
For ideas and inspiration to create these experiences in your classroom, get your hands on a copy of “Teach Like a Pirate” by Dave Burgess. He outlines ‘hooks’ you can employ to increase engagement and involve students’ emotions to make your lessons unforgettable. And for more on the neuroscience of learning, try “Research Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning” by Judy Willis, M.D., and “Teaching With the Brain in Mind” by Eric Jensen.