Seven Virtues of Heart-Centered Teaching
My tagline for this blog is “Heart-Centered Education,” but what does it mean to be heart-centered and specifically a heart-centered educator? It’s quite simple. It means that at the center of educating students is heart. That’s it! It’s all about love.
Today there is so much fear, anger, and frustration within our education system. There is rarely a day that goes by that we don’t hear something awful that occurred in a school, about the “failing” school system in the United States, the failing policies, and children in the US are falling behind children from China, Denmark, and Latvia. As a result, well-meaning philanthropists, policy-makers and politician create policies and programs that attempt to “fix” the many problems that ail our school systems. These policies of course then impact school leaders, teachers, parents, and of course students. Sometimes these policies are effective and make positive changes, while other times the policies are ineffective and may actually create more harm than good. Nonetheless, the barrage of policy changes can leave school educators’ heads spinning, because there are simply too many school initiatives to focus on. This of course can lead to school leaders, educators, teachers and even students feeling overwhelmed by not only the very real concerns and problems a school may face, but also by the solutions that are focused on quick fixes and quantitative results.
As educators, we know that the education is more than just policies or a test score, but rather about real people and real lives. We entered the field of education, because we are passionate about young people and want to have a positive impact on their lives. We didn’t enter education due to fear, but because we have hope, love, passion, and compassion for young people. That’s what heart-centered education is about. It’s about having space in our heart to love ourselves as educators and our work with students. It is about having space in our heart to share the passion we hold for the subjects we teach. It is having compassion for our students who struggle in different ways. It is about the lasting impact we have as educators on these young people’s lives. It is hope that they not only learn the curriculum, but that they learn to also love, hope, have compassion and be passionate about life. In the end that is the essence of working with young people. So, what virtues or qualities do heart-centered teachers need in order to maintain and sustain heart-centered education? Heart-centered educators practice loving-kindness, are mindful, emotionally connected, are student centered, value contemplation and collaboration, are flexible, and want to make a difference. I will further describe each virtue below.
Loving-kindness, or metta (as it is called in Pali), is a term used to describe universal love. The Buddha taught metta as the antidote to fear. It is when we accept others unconditionally or without judgment. Yes, you read that correctly. Loving-kindness is loving non-judgmentally, which is super hard. We are so quick to judge, but it’s a really important aspect of being a heart-centered educator. Think about it, when you judge yourself or someone else do you have any loving sensation in your heart center? I know I don’t. Loving-kindness is not restricted to only family and friends, but extends out to all beings (including our four-legged friends and plant life). As Sharon Salzberg (1995) wrote, “Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.”
Loving-kindness starts with loving ourselves. We cannot extend loving-kindness to others unless we know what it is like to be truly loved and accepted. Then we expand loving-kindness to others through our listening, our words, and our actions because we have the capacity to do the same for ourselves. A heart-centered teacher practices loving-kindness for herself, loving-kindness for students, loving-kindness for coworkers, loving-kindness for the work she does, loving-kindness for students’ parents and guardians, loving-kindness for the school community and greater community. It sounds so simple, but we all know that sometimes we limit our own capacity to love unconditionally. Pema Chodron explained, “The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes. ”
A beautiful way to bring more loving-kindness into your life is by incorporating metta meditation into your practice. This meditation brings tenderness and warmth to the heart and enhances the sensation of being connected to others and nature. It really helps to break down those barriers that we’ve built through years of heartbreak and resentment. Metta meditation is a quick and easy meditation to include in your practice, but can have a profound impact on your life each time you practice it. If you want to learn more about how to practice metta meditation please click here for a free resource I created for you. By including loving-kindness into your teaching practice you’ll notice that you have more compassion for your students, coworkers, administrators, and parents. You may notice that you are not as judgmental, and when you do judge someone or yourself you are able to catch yourself quickly in the judgment and return to a state of non-judgment.
Loving-kindness is a foundational and essential quality for a heart-centered educator to have. Is metta always easy? No. And there will be difficult people (including students) that you may encounter which you may have a hard time practicing loving-kindness, but give it a chance and maybe you’ll notice a shift in your thinking or feeling about this person. Thich Nhat Hanh explained that loving-kindness is not only about holding love in your heart for all, “but the capacity to reduce suffering, and offer peace and happiness. The practice of love increases our forbearance, our capacity to be patient and embrace difficulties and pain.”
As I wrote about in a previous blog post, mindfulness is about becoming aware of our daily experiences. The goal is to be actively aware of what you’re doing and what you’re sensing by using your five senses. Kabat-Zinn (1994) wrote “Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.” As a teacher, you know that you have to be present and aware at all times. I’m sure you’ve heard at some point in your education or career the term "withitness,” which was coined by Kounin (1977) to describe the teacher's awareness of what is going on in all parts of the classroom at all times. This is idea of “withitness” is used to prevent or catch and immediately correct or redirect misbehavior in the classroom.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, goes beyond “withitness,” because mindfulness is not just about classroom management, but about being present with your students in the teaching and learning. It’s about being in the moment with them and knowing your students well enough that you know when your lesson objectives are being met or when they are not being met. It’s being observant and knowing what your students needs are. It’s about knowing when to stop talking and just listen to your students. It’s about being mindful of your words and actions in the classroom, because you know that every word and action carries weight, even when you don’t mean it to. It’s about responding to students instead of reacting to students, especially to students’ behaviours.
Just like loving-kindness, the act of being mindful is far more difficult than one would anticipate. It takes a lot of energy and attention, but you’ll notice that when you bring awareness to your teaching practice that you are able to attend to your students more effectively, that your directions are clear, that your management of the classroom is effortless, and that you are able to lead students in classroom discussions, because you are mindfully watching, listening and able to ask relevant higher order questions without skipping a beat. Think back to the last lesson you implemented in which you felt like you were totally on top of your game. What was different about your teaching that day? I bet it had something to do with awareness and being present with your students.
3. Emotionally Connected
I work closely with undergraduate and graduate students who are preparing to become teachers and are in the internship phase of their program of studies. In the beginning of the internship I ask teacher candidates to think about their past experiences in middle and high school and to describe their favorite teacher. Inevitably, teacher candidates recollect their respect and love for particular teachers who connected with their students at a personal and emotional level. My students joke about the fact that they do not remember a single lesson, unit, handout, or fact from the class their favorite teacher taught, but they do remember how the teacher made them feel, the relationship that they built with that teacher, and that deeper human connection. Yes, educators’ primary role is to teach reading, writing, math, critical thinking skills, etc. and students learn the material and skills in order to grow up to become productive, well-adjusted members of society, but we also know that educators play an important role in the development of students’ social and emotional skills.
It’s hard to learn when you’re not connected to the person who is teaching the material. Students have to feel safe in the learning environment. They have to feel safe enough to be themselves, to take intellectual risks, and make mistakes, because this is the place that they will grow and develop as individuals and members of a community. Additionally, students have to trust the teacher. Trust that the teacher is providing legitimate information and skill in their lessons, but also trust that the teacher will support students when they stumble by adjusting lessons and assignments for their students. Students also need a teacher who is empathetic and understands the daily struggles they may face. This includes having empathy for our students’ and even their families. What all this boils down to is really respect. That teachers have respect for their students, their individual needs, their struggles, dreams and aspirations. We are modeling for our students what respect looks like. In return our students respect us, respect each other, the school and the greater community.
Will there be stumbles along the path to emotionally connecting with students? Of course. This is why being emotionally connected doesn’t necessarily start and end with connecting with our students or even our colleagues, but it really starts with educators connecting to themselves. We cannot connect and love and respect our students until we connect with ourselves. Yes, I know that this sounds very “new agie” and “psychoanalysis babble,” but it really is difficult to truly connect with an open heart and open mind with our students if we are not comfortable sitting still with ourselves and connect with our heart and mind. By the way, metta meditation can really help with connecting to loving-kindness for ourselves and other. (For a free resource on how to practice loving-kindness, which includes two metta meditations, click here.)
Heart-centered educators tend to also create a learning environment that is student-centered. What does this look like? Student centered education simply means that your first consideration when designing unit and lesson plans are your students and their needs. Student-centered teaching also focuses on using methods of teaching and learning that suit students’ learning styles, it improves students engagement through activities that focus on analysis, evaluation, problem solving, and processing information, and are rigorous and relevant to the course content and standards (McKeachie, 1954; Ach, 1951; Albrecht & Gross, 1948). Yes, if you’re looking at the citations and thinking to yourself “Wow! Student-centered learning has been around for awhile. Why aren’t more teachers using it?!?” I know! In student-centered teaching students take more ownership in their learning, are more satisfied with with their learning experiences, and are able to deepen their understanding of the material, especially how it relates to their lives (Bills, 1952; Nilson, 2010; Weimer, 2013).
So, why is student-centered education a heart-centered approach to teaching? It’s a far more compassionate way of educating students, because a teacher meets his/her students where they are rather than where the teacher thinks students should be (Dewey, 1916). For some of us this is obvious, but even heart-centered educators can fall into the trap of rushing through material due to pressures beyond her classroom, such as district pacing guides, standards, and standardized exams. These pressures are a reality that all educators face (yes, even college professors) and can cause teachers to teach in a way that is not conducive to students’ needs. However, we must remind ourselves why we are teaching the material, who our students are, and what do they need the most from us.
5. Values Contemplation and Collaboration
Heart-centered educators value the need for both contemplation and collaboration. Like in most professions, the field of education can sometimes become obsessed about an element or a particular strategy in the profession. In the past five to seven years there has been a shift in education with the incorporation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) or Collaborative Learning Teams (CLTs), which encourages a team of teachers to work together in creating lessons, assessments, gathering and analyzing student data in order to improve teaching practices and student learning. Collaboration among teachers is amazing and so many creative ideas and solutions can arise from such professional environments. Good collaboration can also provides teachers a space to reflect on their teaching and to learn from other teachers. We also see similar results when students collaborate in their learning. Students can support each other in making connections and building skills across disciplines.
However, some schools have turned this wonderful method of collaboration for both teachers and students into a restrictive and uncreative environment that doesn’t always support best practices in teaching and learning. And quite frankly, even when the collaboration is productive and is supporting teachers and learners it doesn’t always provide the necessary time and space to just be silent, to tap into the reality of the class and students, and to contemplate, in order to then be more creative (Cain, 2012). This is especially true for people like myself who are introverts and need the time and space to just be alone, silently reflect and process through the course work, lessons, and student data.
That is why it is also important to to include silent contemplation alongside collaboration. This can give teachers and students an opportunity to process information and to learn the value of both silent contemplation. As mentioned above student-centered education provides students engaging activities, but many times professionals interpret that as constantly collaborating. Though student-centered teaching and learning does incorporate collaborative elements, it doesn’t mean that students must collaborate all the time. Sometimes it is appropriate and even necessary for students to work alone, the be silent and think through a problem. It gives introvert students an opportunity to learn within their comfort zone, and it teaches all students how to work in silence, with no distraction, no collaboration, and just be quiet with him/herself to solve a problem or write a reflection (Cain, 2012). Having a good balance between contemplation and collaboration is beneficial for both educators and students.
6. Flexible and Open to Change
All teachers, whether you ascribe to heart-centered teaching or not, have to be flexible and open to change in order to do be successful in this profession. Let’s face it, life is messy and so is teaching. As a result, we have to be flexible with our schedules and open to alternative possibilities and solutions. There is rarely a day when everything that I planned to do in class (or even in my life) that actually happens. It can be frustrating, especially for those of us (including myself) who like to control every aspect of our lives and live by our to-do lists. However, life is unpredictable and sometimes throws you an unexpected meeting, a tantrum from a student, or an unpleasant conversation with a student’s parent. We just have to roll with these unexpected events, emotions, and failures and learn to acknowledge the reality of the events and our emotions attached to it.
As a result, we must be flexible and open to change and in the face of change a heart-centered teacher must be like a deeply rooted trees. She must be rooted in her conviction and passion to teach, so when the the weather drastically changes from a sunny day to hurricane force winds she is stable, rooted deeply into the earth, and unmoved by the changing weather. The field of Education is constantly changing and shifting with new policies, curriculum, new students (even mid-year), new colleagues, assessments and so much more.
7. Making a Difference
Teaching is such a rewarding profession. There are few professions where a person can have such long lasting impact on another human’s life. That’s why it’s important for educators to understand the power they hold on each child’s life that they encounter. The power is in our actions and in our words. Everything we do and say has an impact and even unexpected consequences. A teacher’s advocacy and positive feedback to a student can lead to both small and large influences in our students’ lives. Rita Pierson (2013), in her powerful TED Talk stated, “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” Very often we never know how we impact our students. Sometimes we are lucky enough to encounter a former student and he express his appreciation for your love and work, but those are infrequent occasions. As educators we just have to know that we have the power to greatly influence our students and to be their advocate, and with such power we have to be careful with our actions and words.
Heart-centered educators are not perfect. Anyway, how boring would our lives be if it were perfect? The more we practice the virtues of heart-centered teaching the more open we are to all students, and we increase our ability to provide all students a safe, engaging, and rigorous learning environment. We are all on a journey of discovery with our students and for me the most joyful and effective way to engage with my students is through loving-kindness, mindfulness, emotional connection, student-centered learning, valuing the balance between contemplation and collaboration, flexibility, and being an advocate for my students. At the center of education is my heart and my students’ hearts all connected and beating to the rhythm of our collective classroom as we learn and teach with each other.
Albrecht, M. & Gross, L. (1948). Non-directive teaching. Sociology and Research, 32: 874-888.
Asch, M. J. (1951). Nondirective teaching in psychology: An experimental study. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 65(4).
Bills, R. E. (1952). An investigation of student-centered teaching. The Journal of Educational Research, 46(4), 313-319.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. New York, NY : Crown Publishers.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever you go, there you are :mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York : Hyperion.
Kounin, J. (1977). Discipline and group management in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
McKeachie, W. J. (1954). Student-centered versus instructor-centered instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 45(3), 143.
Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Wiley. com.
Salzberg, S. (1995). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.