Part 1: The Teacher’s Heart

Part 1: The Road Less Traveled

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!”, “Sentimental”, “Letting students get away with stuff!”, “Bleeding heart”, “Soft heart”, “Lack of discipline”, “Lower standards”, “Being friends with them.” “More attention to self-esteem and less to learning.”, “Grade inflation!” “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. (ie. 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?” Courage. Lifelong learning? Wow! Real courage! Especially if it’s transformative learning and not just stuffing our 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.


Traumatized Students

The odds are that during our career we’ll encounter students who are the children of alcoholic or drug addicted parents, students who have been physically or mentally abused, or bullied cruelly. They may have been victims of incessant and violent spousal clashes or angry divorce and custody disputes. They may experience the loss of a family member, a debilitating illness, or a variety of physical challenges.

Students who have experienced these types of trauma may have a diminished sense of self. They may feel so fragile that they build and hide behind psychological walls to survive. They may be uncomfortable with intimacy, find it difficult to form relationships, and hide their feelings of inadequacy behind a mask of indifference. Some students may be angry and set out to punish others by hurting themselves. “See what you’ve done to me! You caused this. Aren’t you sorry!”  Others who’ve lost their sense of worth may engage in destructive behavior, “I’m no good, and I’ll prove it to you.” or “What’s the use of trying,?” Those that feel powerless may assert their power where they feel they can, “You can’t make me do it!”. Some will try to gain what they feel they lack by becoming the center of attention, “Pay attention to me! I need your approval!” Others may simply perpetuate the cycle of abuse in which they are caught by abusing others.

Teaching is difficult under the best of conditions, teaching students who are suffering such inner pain is perhaps our greatest challenge. Let me begin the discussion by being clear that whenever we encounter a student in distress it’s our obligation as educators to make sure that we report it to the appropriate professionals whether that be a school psychologist, guidance counselor, social worker, school nurse, principal, or whoever makes sense in our particular situation. Doing this should be our number one priority.

But how do we teach the wounded ones? No matter how much we care, how much we love our students, those that have had their spirits broken present a special challenge. Can we find a way through the walls a wounded student has created? Is it possible to build a sense of trust, a simple relationship that might help the student cultivate a sense that “I’m not bad. I’m likable, maybe even lovable.”

Can we find a better way, a more positive way, for the student who feels powerless to assert their power?  Are we centered and present enough to avoid directly confronting their negative assertions?

What about the “attention grabber’? How can we work with the ‘self’ that says I need others to validate me?

And the abused who becomes the abuser?

The self-destructive student?

We aren’t psychologists or social workers but we’re teachers tasked with teaching every student in our classrooms. In order to do that there is some element of the healer that is part of our work. A true healer takes time to gain a deep understanding of the person in distress. They look beneath the outward manifestations of the distress…the destructive behaviors. They see the wound. They remain aware of the wound when interacting with the person. This leads to less enabling and more healing.

Is it possible to teach children with bruised and wounded souls in our classrooms without embracing, at least partially, the role of healer?

It’s a difficult question and I can’t say there are any easy answers. I’d be interested in hearing your approach to the traumatized student(s) you’ve met along the way.


Doing the Dishes…the Secret to Higher Test Scores

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 10.38.40 AMHousehold chores such as doing the dishes, vacuuming, or washing the floors can hold the key to better academic, social, and emotional outcomes for our students. I know this sounds crazy but the connection is real, especially as more and more teachers and in some cases entire school communities turn to  “mindfulness”  (a secular meditation practice) to help cultivate a more centered and self-regulated presence in the classroom.

Recent studies have shown that teachers who engage in regular mindfulness practice develop an increased ability to stay present and open in the classroom, and exhibit a more grounded and authentic presence, one that students find easier to connect with and trust. And there is plenty of research that indicates the more trust present in a classroom, the better the outcomes for students. It turns out that mindfulness is a great way to build a ‘self’ that our students trust.

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The most simple mindfulness practice is to sit quietly and bring our full attention to the breath flowing in and out of our bodies. When our attention wanders and we begin thinking about something we gently note it and bring our focus back to our breath. We do this without judgment and as often as we need to. It seems so simple but staying in the present moment focused on our breath can be very challenging. After all, our mind is like an untrained puppy that likes to wander playfully, and after a few breaths it’s likely we’ll find ourselves thinking about the past, the future, or just daydreaming.

But the question still looms, “What does mindfulness practice have to do with doing the dishes?”

It turns out one of the greatest obstacles for teachers who would like to try mindfulness is finding the time to practice. We have students to see before and after school, parents to call, meetings to attend, daily lessons to plan, professional development programs, and of course, there is the actual teaching itself. For overwhelmed educators, finding 15-30 minutes where we can be alone in a quiet space to meditate seems impossible. Our home lives are just as busy. So where does a busy educator find time to center themselves and meditate?

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This is where household chores come in. It turns out we can practice being centered and present in the moment anytime. We can be present while we wash or dry the dishes, while we vacuum, or while we mop the floor. Sitting alone in a quiet room and concentrating on our breathing is extremely important and valuable and I would never advocate abandoning that practice, but it’s not the only way to be mindful.

In fact, I’d argue that practicing being centered and present in the moment as we do housework is similar to staying centered and present in our classrooms. When we practice being present while vacuuming we’re practicing in the midst of action. When our mind wanders we bring it back and reset ourselves. In the classroom it’s similar. A student disrupts the class and we get knocked off-center, we pause, notice what we’re feeling, and re-center ourselves. We stay present in the moment. We don’t let the disruption completely hijack us because when we’re off-center we simply react automatically, often defaulting, without thinking, to actions that  may make a bigger mess of things.

So, the key to building trusting relationships with our students…relationships that lead to increased academic, social, and emotional outcomes…is to stay present with what we’re doing at all times…to really BE with our students, BE with our task. Multitasking is overrated. It takes away from being present.

There’s an old Zen saying, “Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.”

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Perhaps for those of us on the road to teaching mastery an update is in order, “Before teaching mastery do the dishes, vacuum the floor. After teaching mastery, do the dishes, vacuum the floor.”

Remember, it’s about being present in the moment…when vacuuming…and teaching.


Teaching as a Spiritual Endeavor

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 11.27.02 AMI’ve been thinking lately about how work in general, but especially teaching, is a spiritual endeavor. Not spiritual in a religious sense but in the context of satisfying the human desire to connect to something larger than ourselves, to live lives that mean something, and to do work that reflects our dreams, values and beliefs.

No doubt, that for some, work is just that, ‘work’. It’s simply a way to make living and pay the bills. But for many of us who spend the most productive part of our day and the most productive part of our lives at work, our profession is a crucible in which ‘who we are’ and ‘what we believe in’ is made public and tested. It’s through our work that we encounter challenges that bring us to the frontiers of our knowledge, experience, values and beliefs. It’s in the workplace that we face a variety of difficult choices and must take action, or refrain from it, having only our own ‘soma’, (mind, body, and spirit) to guide us. It’s in this unfamiliar place, in the midst of an unfamiliar crisis or challenge, an unscripted moment of truth, and left without a roadmap, that we find out who we really are, not who we think we are. Spiritual, no?

If we’re open to viewing work both  as a professional and spiritual experience we can use it as a mirror that reflects back to us what the external world, in our case our students, experience when they interact with us. They reflect back to us our best qualities and our gifts, as well as the places where we don’t quite live up to our own values and beliefs.

An example that’s seared into my memory from the early part of my own career is an incident with Kelly, a quiet and earnest young seventh grader. I had corrected 125 essays over the weekend and after handing them back to my students was stopping at each desk to point out an item or two that I thought stood out in their essay. I arrived at Kelly’s desk and quickly began pointing out her tendency to write in sentence fragments and run-ons. My finger was on her paper pointing to one of her errors when suddenly a teardrop splattered on the page near my finger smearing the blue ink. Before I realized what was going on another fell, and then another. I stood up and though Kelly’s head was down her entire body was heaving in silent sobs.

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It struck me like a thunderbolt that Kelly had written about the death of her pet dog. Obviously it was very emotional for her and yet I hadn’t stopped to acknowledge it. I was too concerned with my own agenda and my own focus on sentence mechanics to even give her a pat on the back. Any show of humanity or connection would have done the trick, but I was rushing. I wasn’t thinking of her as a real human being with real feelings, but simply dealing with her role...student. I use this example because I had a belief at the time that every student had a unique gift within them, and that every child had great value and should be treated that way. It was crystal clear to me that there was a huge gulf between what I believed and how I had been acting. Kelly’s tears mirrored back to me my own hypocrisy.

Yes, this was certainly a professional issue, but it was also a spiritual one. I vowed never to have something like this happen again. But how would I go about opening my heart in such a way that I would begin seeing my students as people, not just extras in the movie of my life? How would I learn to slow down, be present in the moment, and stay connected to my values and beliefs? The answers to these questions lay in my spiritual growth not in any textbook.

Over the years, as my new narrative, “work as a spiritual endeavor”, took hold within me; I profited professionally as well as personally. The better person I became, the better teacher I became…and it worked the other way too…the better teacher, the better person.

So, it may be that our definition of what it is to be a professional is in need of a major upgrade and that professional development and personal development are often two sides of the same coin. We can try to compartmentalize our ‘real self’ from our ‘teaching self’, but the truth is we have only one self. It can’t help but show up in our teaching.

If we’re open to it our students can be important partners in our personal and professional growth, and since we teach who we are, they also reap the benefits of our inner journey. It seems like heresy to say it, but the teaching profession is a great place to perfect our spirit.


Preparation for the New School Year

Summer is almost over. The excitement and anticipation of a new school year is upon us. Many of us will head into school before the first day to spend time prepping our classrooms, bulletin boards, as well as meeting and planning with colleagues. But it’s also a great time for preparing our ‘self’ for the coming year by investing a little time in self-reflection before we’re inundated with students and the day to day responsibilities of the new year.

Just take a moment and a few conscious breaths to get out of the busy-ness of your mind, and when your heart opens ask yourself these questions: Continue reading

A Reminder for the New School Year

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As we prepare for a new school year it’s good to remind ourselves of the tremendous power that is imbued in us and our role as ‘teacher’. We should never take what we do for granted.

I’m reposting the concluding paragraph from the story “The Power of the Spider” which is included in my book, “A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery.” 

As educators we take so much of our power for granted. For the most part, our influence ripples through the world and over the generations silently, unnoticed. Our lessons are seeds. They are blown on breezes far and wide. They are carried by lively streams to rivers and oceans where currents move them to lands we may never see. Whether these seeds germinate in distant lands or close to home, whether they grow immediately or wait for decades, our gift is nestled in the hearts of our students.

Remember the power of the spider. From lips to lips, from heart to heart; the gifts we bestow, the lessons we teach, ripple through time and place.

Secret Conversations

images-8Our classrooms are full of secrets. We have ours and our students have theirs. In each of our hearts there are dreams, quiet yearnings, silent fears…and always there are whispered doubts. Great teachers cultivate hearts warm and strong enough to hear these secret conversations, both our students and our own.

Eduardo is pulled out of class by his teacher, Rebecca, because he’s disrupting the class. In the hallway he breaks down crying and says through his tears, “I hate people making fun of me! People are always making fun of me. They say I’m fat, and maybe I am but that doesn’t give them the right to tease me all the time!”

Rebecca hadn’t noticed the teasing and felt awful. Eduardo had hidden his suffering well, for he always seemed confident and fun loving. The fact that he trusted Rebecca enough to let her know what was really going on and how much pain he was in was startling to her.

If it weren’t for Eduardo’s breakdown in the hallway Rebecca might have gone on disciplining him without ever understanding what was underlying his behavior. Because Eduardo trusted her enough to confide in her, Rebecca discovered that he was sensitive about his weight and had become the target of bullies. No matter how brave a face he put on, school had become unbearable for him. Armed with this new information she was able to take steps to curtail the bullying and make her classroom a more safe environment for all her students.

When you take the time to actually listen, with humility to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.” – Greg Mortensen

If we ignore the unspoken conversations that are taking place in our classrooms they will fester and stand as impediments to trust, relationships, and learning. As we work to build trust, and our relationship with the class grows, we’ll find more opportunities to bring these unspoken issues to the surface, for we know that they won’t go away on their own.


Students yearn to be heard and understood, even those that are too shy or disengaged to speak. Listening to what is being communicated by their words, their tone, even their silence, is an important element of understanding the “person”.

The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.  – Nichols and Stevens