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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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The Power of Visualization: Helping Emerging Teachers “See Success”

Athletes have been doing this for years: picturing themselves achieving optimal results as part of their mental preparation. Olympic competitors, guided by sports psychologists, will spend countless hours visualizing themselves performing at their personal best, mentally rehearsing the performance well before they actually compete.

Sports legends, such as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Muhammad Ali, have also been associated with the practice of visualization.  In this video, Michael Phelps, who dominated competitive swimming and won more Olympic gold medals than any other athlete, discusses the power of visualization and how he used in when competing.

Research on visualization reveals fascinating results about the power of the mind. For example, one study found that the brain patterns in weightlifters were similar when actually lifting weights as compared to doing strictly mental workouts. But visualizing has also shown to produce actual physical changes in the body. For instance, participants experienced a 35 percent increase in finger strength by merely using mental imagery, according to a Psychology Today article.

Visualization, or known as imagery, can also be a brain booster, as it impacts cognitive functions, including memory, planning, and control.

Lately, I have been wondering why we haven’t fully explored and encouraged visualization among educators. In my opinion, teaching is a performance. Teachers set learning goals and hope to achieve specific results. They want to be mentally prepared to teach lessons, to feel confident. They want things to go their way.

Teacher candidates, who are preparing to enter the profession, could certainly benefit from the use of imagery. While teacher candidates may not always have access to their own classrooms or students, they could begin to mentally rehearse lessons in their mind, practicing classroom management, instructional strategies, assessment, and other skills. By the time they teach in their own classroom, candidates could log hundreds or thousands of hours preparing to teach. Of course, the argument will be that this is the same thing as actual teaching, but visualization would provide them with a safe space to begin teaching and performing at higher levels, working their cognitive planning processes, and if the sports psychology research is any indication, teaching in the mind could produce a powerful impact on the actual teaching itself.

This semester, I started experimenting with visualization with teacher candidates in an instructional planning course. We begin with a brief meditation (which we use at the start of all my classes), which involves listening to a Tibetan Singing Bowl and doing a short breath meditation (observing the breath going in and out at the tip of the nostrils). From that foundation, I guided the students through various visualization that consists of using mental imagery to see themselves teaching various lessons, employing the knowledge and skills they are acquiring during the coursework. Below is a brief script to demonstrate what the students might be asked to visualize.

Begin to see your ideal classroom. You are standing in the middle of the classroom. Picture the desks of other seating and how it is arranged. See the posters, student work, and other items on the walls. Now, image students sitting in front of you, ready to learn. See their faces, their expressions. Imagine you being teaching a lesson to the students, introducing the learning objective by hooking the students into the learning. What does that look like? Bring in the other senses: what do you hear? What are you saying? What are students saying? What do you feel as you teach this lesson? See the lesson unfolding exactly the way you want it. What does that look like? Feel the emotions you would feel if the lesson unfolded successfully, and students were deeply engaged in the learning.

The visualization goes on like this for several more minutes, depending on how much time in class we set aside. When finishing, I ask students to imagine the entire scene disappearing and they are left there, feeling the positive emotions of successfully teaching the lesson. I then instruct them to slowly open their eyes. At that point, I invite students to share their experiences, though often they feel it’s a personal experience and doesn’t want to reveal their imagery—and that’s perfectly fine.

Even done a few minutes per class, the visualization exercise provides these teacher candidates with a protected, self-created space to rehearse their teaching. They don’t have to worry (yet) about test scores, or formal observations and evaluations, or classroom management problems. They can begin developing their mental attitude and confidence, preparing themselves for their actual teaching experience, like an Olympic athlete building up to the main event.