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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Restoring the Soul and Skill of Educators Through Engaged Teaching

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

In the aftermath of the testing regimen, or just the headlong rush to the end of school, educators are loosening their collars, breathing heavy sighs of relief (or resignation), and contemplating whether there is a little time in the remaining weeks to return to their first love: being an educator of young people.

For too much of the school year, education takes a back seat to instruction. Rachael Kessler, of blessed memory, described this process two decades ago as the loss of the soul of education and in a book of that name, spoke eloquently about how to restore it.

The needs she identified then are even stronger now, because not only is the soul of education threatened, so are the souls of educators.

Attempting to teach children as if they are instructional units, attending inadequately to their social-emotional and character development, focusing on a select few of the multiple intelligences: these are all actions that educators know in their hearts and souls are not right. Why? Because education involves the whole child and it is possible to have high-level pedagogy, competent instruction, deep learning, and nurturing of the curiosity, intellect, hearts and souls of children and educators, all at the same time. The name given to this holistic process, by Laura Weaver and Mark Wilding, is "Engaged Teaching" and they describe this process in their new book, The Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching (Solution Tree, 2013).

I asked Laura and Mark, who consider Rachael Kessler as their primary mentor and inspiration, to share their thoughts about Engaged Teaching:

Maurice Elias: What are the five dimensions of engaged teaching?

Laura Weaver and Mark Wilding: When we think of what's right with education, we think of teachers like ourselves and the need to support our capacity as educators to reflect on and develop our own teaching practice, build productive relationships with students and colleagues, and create engaging, inclusive, and meaningful classrooms. The five dimensions of Engaged Teaching are:

  1. Cultivating an open heart: supports teachers to express warmth, compassion, care, and to cultivate connection with students and to build trusting, inclusive learning communities.
  2. Establishing respectful boundaries: supports teachers and students to develop the capacity to set limits with themselves and others and to create a safe inclusive learning community.
  3. Being present: supports teachers and students to bring our attention to the present moment, manage distractions, focus at the task at hand, and meaningfully engage in the learning community.
  4. Developing emotional capacity: supports both teachers and students to not only understand and manage their emotions, but also to expand the range of emotions that they are able to work with -- both in themselves and in others.
  5. Engaging the self observer: supports teachers and students to cultivate the capacity to notice, observe, and then reflect on thoughts and behaviors in order to make more conscious choices.

These dimensions are not sequential, but are interrelated capacities that we cultivate simultaneously. Each of the five dimensions supports the development of the other, and together they create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

Can you give us an overview of these dimensions and why these are important for every educator, from preschool through high school?

The dimensions provide a framework for integrating academic, social and emotional learning and cultural responsiveness; it also helps students to connect deeply with their own sense of meaning and purpose and relevance and to connect with a diversity of peers. An Engaged Teaching framework is not an add-on program or curriculum, but rather an integrated approach to teaching and learning for any grade level or content area. It is really about capacity building: supporting educators in sustainably integrate social, emotional and academic learning in their classrooms and to build healthy and vibrant learning communities with their students and colleagues.

How are these dimensions essential for true academic learning?

Together, the five dimensions nourish and support the development of the whole student -- healthy heart, mind, and inner life -- that we feel is the foundation of academic learning. Each of the dimensions supports students to foster meaningful connections to themselves, each other, their schoolwork, and their world. The approach supports students to learn to honor difference, observe their own thoughts and behaviors, manage distractions and emotions, more effectively focus on schoolwork, think critically and creatively, and discover more about themselves and one another. When students are given these opportunities, they are more able and motivated to engage deeply in school, develop resilience, and act compassionately. When students feel safe and supported, when they feel valued and known, when they are given opportunities to express their authentic selves, and when they are given the skills to communicate effectively and focus well, they are truly ready and able to learn and to contribute in positive ways to the world around them.

The Big Picture

Laura and Mark use the analogy of a tree to show how engaged teaching is relevant to aspiring, new, and veteran educators, much as a forest needs healthy, growing seedlings, saplings, young, and mature trees. The roots of the tree, that nurture and inform the trunk of the tree (engaged teaching, the "action path" that generates growth), are addressing developmental stages; fostering connection, meaning, and purpose; responding to cultural contexts; investing in relationships and community; and social, emotional, and academic learning.

The resulting flourishing branches include proximal outcomes such as improved classroom climate, student attitudes toward learning, collaboration, and social-emotional skills. With continued nurturing, these branches eventually flower into improved student academic performance, school climate, and a restoration of the soul of educators and their pride and joy in their work.

In my next blog, I plan to continue my conversation with Laura and Mark, who are co-executive directors of the Passageworks Institute in Boulder, Colorado. It will focus on practical examples of how educators might "Do Now" some of their suggestions in classrooms at all grade levels.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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