In part 4 of this 4-part interview, Harvard GSE researcher Heather Hill talks about what educators need to do themselves to improve their classroom culture.

– Welcome to another PLtogether Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, the video platform that helps streamline feedback to teachers. Today we’re talking with Heather Hill. She is a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She’s also the co-author, along with Susanna Loeb, of a column in EdWeek called What Works, What Doesn’t. Heather thanks so much for joining us.

– Thanks Adam, I’m glad to be here.

– Well, we’ve been talking about a lot of different things, like do this, not that. And I want to get into a place that a lot of people are thinking about which is making sure that school feels like a positive welcoming environment when students are inside classrooms. And oftentimes the way we think about doing that is, for lack of better word, activities or interventions with the students and the teacher. And you’re here to tell us, hey, not so fast.

– Yeah, well I think, well, okay, so first, I totally agree with this premise that kids need to feel secure and happy in classrooms to learn. And I think that the pandemic has accelerated our concerns in this area as have, as has the movement toward racial justice. Because I think that there are classrooms in which things are not necessarily great, and I think people are saying like this would be a win for everyone if we can improve the quality of those environments for kids. Because kids are more engaged, there’s fewer suspensions, teachers and students have better relationships. It’s just, that’s the kind of classrooms that we want. Especially now after COVID where we really need to sort of pick up the pace in the coming year. So I did a dive into that literature for the EdWeek column and I was surprised by a couple of things that I found. So the headlines here are, I think, empathy based programs for teachers and mindfulness programs for teachers. And I can talk a little about them if you’re curious.

– Oh absolutely. I mean, I think you’re saying we should still have some ice cream socials, but we need a something else. So we better talk about the something else. So when you say empathy for teachers, I mean most teachers probably feel like they’re empathetic. So what, what does that mean? What does that intervention look like?

– So this is an intervention that’s put together by Jason Okonofua at Berkeley. It’s a very short intervention and it’s based on social psychology principles of sort of how humans think about other humans. And so what he did was to put together a very very short program in which teachers read an article, and it was a non pejorative article about students and what might cause student behavior. So it wasn’t saying like, oh, you know like, kids are bad for these reasons, what it actually was, what it actually did was say, you know, first there’s a lot of social stressors for adolescents and that’s a contributing factor. And there’s also some, some brain changes that are going on at that time that can contribute to student misbehavior. The program also encouraged teachers to really understand and hear and value students’ experiences. And also, you know, they gave this cool example actually, of a teacher who’d been through their program. This is an example of this sort of hearing and valuing. And you know, what, the teacher gave a detention, but then instead of just sending the kid off the teacher sat down with the kid and explained and they actually had a conversation where the teacher said so give me your perspective and like what was going on with you, so that there was more of a two-way conversation. So that’s the kind of goal, like that’s the kind of classroom that we’re looking for. So after this short, relatively short kind of online program, suspension rates in the treatment group dropped about half. So teachers who got the intervention referred kids for suspension at about half the rate as kids in the control group. So it was 10% of kids were getting suspended or yeah something of that nature, 10% to 5% was the size of that differential. And that’s huge because A, we need kids in school and B, we know those suspensions are differentially targeted at black and brown kids. And so any way that we can mitigate that is a huge win.

– I’m curious, I mean, do the students report back that they’re noticing differences in the classroom?

– Yeah, so it actually, the effect there is among the kids who are already suspended. So it’s kids who are already in the neighborhood of maybe having some conflict with the teacher. And those were the kids who felt like they enjoyed a better teacher student relationship after the treatment.

– Better student teacher relationship, that is the heart of classroom culture and it starts from there.

– Yeah.

– Okay, so that is an empathy intervention. Pretty exciting that you get, you know, such an effect with a relatively short intervention. What about mindfulness? I mean, this is a big category. There’s a, you know, good breathing, a lot of people think of yoga, and other specific activities, but, you know, tell us about this general area of mindfulness and teachers and you know, maybe a, we should be investing some effort here.

– Yeah. So, okay. So I’ll start off by saying I’m from New England. So I’m not very familiar with mindfulness because that’s, I’m old Yankee, we don’t do mindfulness kinds of things. But it really actually seems to work to create better classroom environments for kids. And it may also reduce teachers’ racial bias, implicit racial bias, which is a huge thing. If we can, if we can get teachers there because that’s very hard to, to act upon. So the program I’m thinking about, and there’s actually several that have shown similar results, but the program that I’m going to talk about is one by Matt Hirschberg, up at the University of Wisconsin. This was with pre-service teachers and they had them they randomly assigned teachers, some of the teachers to these mindfulness sessions and I think there were nine sessions over the course of a semester. And they were doing things like meditation, being present in the moment, loving thinking loving kind thoughts, like, you know trying to be like generous and respectful of other people. And the outcomes for that intervention were reduced implicit racial bias and also improved classroom quality in terms of instructional support and also classroom organization. So that was super interesting. It was like, I hadn’t thought that I guess I hadn’t thought that helping adults kind of manage their own stress would play such a large role in how they were managing the stress of a classroom situation. But that seems to be what’s going on. I’ll also add for another column that we wrote I was looking into programs to help kids overcome trauma. And there’s actually some programs to help teachers overcome trauma and they incorporate many of these same kinds of principles into them. So giving the adults in the room the tools to deal with stressful situations, whether that be in their personal life or their work life can actually really help them better manage their interactions with kids.

– You know, as a former classroom teacher, myself, I’m remembering, you know, those one or two days a year you’d come in and something was really wrong outside of school and your students, they understood and they were little angels.

– Oh really?

– For those one day, oh yeah, they were the best that one day, right? At least for me, they were, they were paying me back all the kindness I’d given them other days. But when I’m hearing you talk about helping the teachers, that’s what’s really playing for me is that, you know, remembering that the students can read what’s going on internally within the teacher, it’s a human to human interaction. And so exciting to hear that that can have such a real impact on what’s happening inside the classrooms on a day-to-day basis.

– Yeah. Yeah. They’re very cool studies.

– Well, Heather, thank you so much for joining us. If you are finding this video shared somewhere out on the internet, make sure to head to for the rest of my conversations with Heather as well as other leading experts in education. Heather, appreciate you so much for being part of PLtogether.

– Great. Thanks Adam, this was fun.