Recently, I was privileged to lead a group of roughly twenty five teachers and “teachers to be” at regional conference. The title of the workshop was, “Taking a Road Less Traveled: Increasing Learning and Literacy”. The premise behind “The Road Less Traveled” was that student learning can be improved by diverging from the usual path of content and pedagogy-based PD. The road I wanted to explore with these educators was the rarely traveled “path of the heart”.
In my experience, it’s the power of the teacher’s heart that’s central in building relationships and developing trust with students, as well as being the wellspring of inspiration, support, and motivation. There’s ample research to support the fact that classrooms with the most positive teacher-student relationships and the deepest levels of trust yield the greatest academic results, and, as a by product, produce greater levels of student social and emotional growth.
The crucial role of relationships and trust, and the role the heart plays in their development, seems to be one of the best kept secrets in education these days. It is indeed, “The Road Less Traveled”.
I began my session by asking folks how they would describe the heart in education. The first hands that went up spoke of purpose, passion, caring, and kindness. It was clear to everyone in the group that each of these elements of the heart were fundamental to effective teaching. But what other important characteristics inhabited the realm of the teacher’s heart? There was silence.
“What would some of your more cynical colleagues have to say about the heart in education?” I asked. Suddenly, the group was alive with responses:
“Soft and fuzzy!”
“Letting students get away with stuff!”
“Lack of discipline”
“Being friends with them”
“More attention to self-esteem and less to learning”
“Feel good education!”
The list went on.
After they were done, I explained that the word courage derives from the French word “cour” or heart. When you have courage, you have heart. This element of the heart, courage, was the first territory on the road less traveled that I wanted to explore with them.
Having a courageous heart was in direct contradiction to the definitions of their cynical colleagues. I asked for examples and the responses were immediate:
“There’s courage in being our authentic self and not hiding behind masks or playing roles (like teacher).”
“It takes courage to live in integrity with our beliefs and values and not to compartmentalize them. (I.e., I’m one person when I’m in the classroom and another outside it.)”
“It takes courage to face our own accountability when things go wrong and not blame our students or the system.”
“It takes courage to examine our own frailties.”
I asked, “What about risk taking?” That's courage. What about lifelong learning? Wow! That's real courage! Especially if it’s transformative learning and not just stuffing the head with more content and pedagogy. Why? Because learning something new makes us beginners.
Learning something new is like walking into a railroad tunnel in the side of a mountain. As we enter we have the full light of day behind us. We can see where we’re going. As we get further and further into the tunnel the light behind us gets fainter and fainter until at some point it fades completely and we find ourselves standing in the dark, not able to see the light ahead of us or behind us. In the dark, unable to see where we are going, we courageously take a step forward, then another, and another. If we trust ourselves, if we keep our heart strong, eventually, off in the distance, we see a pinprick of light and walk toward it. When we exit the tunnel on the other side, we find that we aren’t the same person who entered it.
“So does walking the path with heart mean that we’re soft?” I asked. The answer from the class was a resounding, “No!”
The teacher’s heart is rock solid and truly courageous.
Whenever I hear cynics misrepresenting the power of the heart, I close my eyes and remember Dawn Hochsprung, Mary Sherlack, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D’Avino, Victoria Leigh Soto, and Ann Marie Murphy, the educators at Sandy Hook that gave their lives protecting their students from a deranged gunman.