How Teachers Are Like Superheroes

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A teacher affects eternity; no one can tell where his influence stops. –Henry Adams

It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it!” –my wife (more times than I can count)

superteacher2Guys, let me tell you, I’ve been married for fourteen years now, and the moment you hear that, it’s pretty much over. Sure, you can debate semantics and linguistics all you want, and logically, on paper, I’m sure you’re on the money. Still, I hate to break it to you—you’ve got no shot. It doesn’t matter how airtight your logic. Your best option is to run up the white flag and surrender. Apologize as sincerely as possible and try to change the subject. Drop it and move on. This is fourteen years of marriage speaking. Trust me.

There is no way to win this fight, because what you said doesn’t mean a thing. The only thing that matters is what she heard. And what she understood about your meaning has a lot more to do with your tone of voice, facial expression, posture, and proximity than the words that came out of your mouth. Forget that you were in the process of pulling a bee’s stinger from your eyeball. It doesn’t matter.

I’ve noticed this to be true in the classroom as well. Regardless of how I feel on any given day, if I make a conscious effort to bring energy to my craft, the kids always seem more upbeat too.

It doesn’t matter what I say. If I say it with a smile, if my tone is upbeat, if I’m standing straight with my head up high, if I’m moving around the classroom, making eye contact—the kids are more engaged.

And thus, more learning takes place.

The opposite is also true. If I’m blah, to a certain extent, so is the rest of the classroom environment.

But this is all common sense stuff, right? Much like the stand-up comic, as teachers, we all know that our “delivery” matters . . .right? This isn’t rocket science.

Turns out, however—it is brain science.

How Feelings Are Contagious

According to research done at Harvard and the University of California at San Diego by Dr. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, who have been mining data collected from nearly 5,000 people over a period of twenty years, “Happiness spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion.” So if you bring positive energy to your lessons, that energy is going to rub off on your students.

But why is this? Here is where it gets truly fascinating. They’re called, mirror neurons, and their job in the brain is to literally mirror observed emotions so that a person actually feels the pain and joy of others.

This truly astounding neural WiFi was discovered by neuroscientists in monkeys in 1992; but they have since also confirmed the presence of mirror neurons in the human brain through a series of experiments so sensitive it boggles the mind. It turns out we now have electrodes so laser-thin that they can be implanted within a single brain cell. Not only are they small, but these electrodes are so sensitive that they can measure the firing of a single neuron.

In his book, Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships, Dan Goldman reports of a remarkable study. After implanting and monitoring an electrode in a fully conscious person, scientists found that the same specific neuron will fire when a person anticipates pain (of a pinprick) as well as when watching someone else receive a pinprick. As Goldman puts it, the lighting up of that electrode is the equivalent of taking a “neural snapshot of primal empathy in action.”

Tiny electrodes can take “neural snapshots of primal empathy in action."
Mirror neurons are responsible for the feelings we have at the movie theater. The actors are sad, we are sad, the actors are excited, we get excited. It’s no different in the classroom.

But that isn’t even the most powerful discovery. To understand that, we have to revisit what Christakis and Fowler discovered about happiness. As it turns out, the energy you bring to the classroom doesn’t merely stay there for the benefit of only that class with only that lesson. It ripples outward and affects people you don’t know, have never met, and in places you may have never been.

According to Christakis and Fowler, if you project positive energy, you increase the chance of feeling good in those near you by 25%, but it doesn’t stop there. When your students leave the classroom, people close to them (friends, family, neighbors, etc . . .) enjoy a 10% chance of experiencing positive energy. Likewise, a person close to that person has a 5.6% chance of getting a positive charge.


Ever wonder what happiness looks like? Each node in the diagram represents one person (circles are female, squares are male). The lines indicate relationships (black = siblings; red = friends, spouces). Color represents degree of happiness, with blue indicating “the blues,” and yellow indicating sheer joy. Green is somewhere in between. Images by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, courtesy of BMJ

The Impact of One Teacher

What does this mean? Let’s just say, for the sake of simplicity, that you come in contact with 50 students a day, and each of those students then interacts with just five other people. That’s 250 additional people that you can affect–bringing your total to 300. But it doesn’t stop there. Remember, you still have a 5.6% chance to affect all those who connect with those additional 250. If we keep it simple and give those 250 each five contacts, that increases your potential outreach by 1,250–bringing your grand total to 1,550 people each day.

And that’s just based on the students in your classes! (Yes, yes I know you teach more than that, but, “Dammit Jim! I’m a Language teacher not a mathwiz!”) Now calculate, if you like (and you are a math wiz), the rest of your contacts in a day, and you’ll truly begin to understand the scope of your influence.

. . . as a teacher, you have great power to affect a great number of people.
Simply put, as a teacher, you have great power to affect a great number of people. And as Spiderman says, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” That’s right, as a teacher, based purely on the number of people you interact with each day–and your potential to ripple joy into the lives of those connected to the students you teach—you are a superhero. Numbers and logic don’t lie.

You should feel good about that. Still, guys, it would NOT be wise to bring that up during your next communication snafu with your wives or girlfriends. It won’t help. Trust me on this one. Sometimes it is what you say.

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  1. I'm just starting "The Law of the Few" chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, and it coincides nicely with the article. Essentially, "connectors," as Gladwell dubs them, have the ability to affect change on people around them by their mood. Studies Gladwell points to actually support the idea, so we as teachers can in fact impact our classes' mood significantly.

  2. All of us who are teachers probably have that one teacher while a student who influenced them to become a teacher today. Keeping that in mind should inspire us that we truly do have an impact.

  3. As I read this, I thought of Madison, a student in my homeroom. She walks in every morning, passing out smiles and hellos. Each day class starts out upbeat and positive, and everyone she comes in contact with has a chance for a great day. As much as I value her positive attitude, how could I help but share my own.