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In 1996, neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti made one of the most important discoveries in the area of neuroscience: the crucial role of mirror neurons. What exactly are mirror neurons? Simply put, mirror neurons are groups of neurons which activate when we execute an action, when we observe an action being executed or by having a mental image of it. For example, the same mirror neurons activate when we laugh, when we see someone laugh, when we hear someone laugh or by saying the word ‘laugh’. 

When we see someone laughing, there is an inner replay of this movement in us, and signals are sent to the limbic system which oversees emotions. In this way, we as the observer understand how the person who is laughing feels. Mirror neurons, therefore, enable us to comprehend and interpret a situation by “walking in someone else shoes”, which is key when practicing empathy. This is also why when a teacher walks into the classroom with a worried look on their face students pick up on it, reading how he or she feels and, at the same time, unconsciously reproducing the feeling of worry in them. The reality is that the mood of others affects our mood, changing the way we feel in a matter of seconds.

Mirror neurons are located in different parts of the brain, influencing several functions, such as motor skills, language, interpersonal skills and learning. In the developing stages we constantly imitate. That’s why our body language, the way we talk, the way we relate to situations and people tends to be similar to the people we spent more time with in our youth, for examples our parents and teachers. Now we know the science behind Mother Teresa’s words: ‘Do not worry if your children don’t listen to you, they observe you all day.’ 

As education professionals, we should pay more attention to our actions and remember that we don’t only teach through our words. We can talk for hours about how to behave in a considerate way towards others, but if we fail to embody this value it will have no real impact on our pupils. Having the awareness that our behaviour is, at a certain level, imitated by the students around us reminds us of our responsibility of being a positive model for our pupils, influencing them to become empathetic and compassionate individuals in society by being so ourselves.  And the truth is that, whether we like it or not, this doesn’t end when we leave school. We teach in every encounter we have, just from the way we chose to act. Like Patrizio Paoletti keeps reminding us with his aphorism: ‘Every man is an educator’. 

At TeachStrong, this is one of the core messages we want to convey. We cannot expect kids to be eager to learn when the staff they are in presence of every day are stressed, overworked and in many cases experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression. Real change will only come when we acknowledge how focusing time and resources in nurturing teachers’ well-being is not a luxury, but the best return on investment for all of society. Studies have proven the direct link between teachers’ well-being and students’ social and emotional development. Let’s reshape our society by empowering teachers and, as a result, inspiring generations. 

Julia x