Keep Your Heart Open

Tuesday (and sometimes Wednesday) is for Teachers

Habit of Balance

Habit of Balance:
Counting joys
Take care of yourself
Sense of humor
Keep your heart open

Habits of Heart for Teachers

How do you keep your heart open? Frankly, this is not an easy topic to write about. It hits too close to home.

My teaching career was about teaching content, skills, strategies, but primarily about teaching hearts. When I taught children with special needs, even those with the severest delays, my goal was to give them skills leading toward independence. They needed courage and perseverance to become independent. Encouraging their hearts was at the center of teaching every skill.

My last 15 years as an special educator of middle schoolers I trained students from the regular classes to be tutors and lunch buddies for my students. The goal was two-fold: the regular students were role-models for my students, and the tutors and lunch buddies developed compassion, patience, and responsibility.

When I felt like I was reaching burnout in Special Ed., I moved to the regular ed. program and taught eighth graders language arts. I loved the curriculum and still loved middle school, but my students clearly needed habits of hearts (compassion, courage, integrity, honesty, generosity, patience, and responsibility) to be successful. I felt most satisfied at the end of the day when I saw even little bits of growth in any of these areas.

But how can we teach and encourage the hearts of our students if our own heart is closed, shut down, even dead? Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach, was published in 1998 and yet remains current in today’s highly politicized atmosphere for improving education.

courage to teachDoes this ring true for you?

“. . . teacher-bashing has become a popular sport.

Teachers make an easy target.

In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.” (p. 3)

Have you hardened your heart or do you still love learners, learning, and the teaching life? If you’re wondering if perhaps you have burned out in teaching, ask yourself if you still love these three components.

I taught beyond the 25 year minimum, past my 60th birthday. When people asked me how long I planned to teach, my answer was, “as long as it’s fun.” You see, I love learning, and most days I loved the learners, but when I stopped loving the teaching life I knew it was time to retire.

I think Palmer identifies some important issues in his book that are seldom discussed in the quest for improving test scores or identifying the best teachers.

 Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.

. . .the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open [emphasis mine] in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require. (11)

Some days are just better than others.

Some days you can see a spark of connection for your students. Sometimes when you grade essays you find insights that surprise you and give you hope. Other days, nothing seems to work. Students enter first period with drama someone brought from home and it spread throughout the school bus. Drama cannot always be ignored. The daily life of teaching requires balancing the good days with the bad, or the good periods with the bad. Most middle and high school teachers will tell you that last period is the most difficult. But this is not always true. My last semester of teaching I had a very difficult 5th period and a great 6th period. Every class has its own personality and dynamics.

What can a teacher do about keeping a heart open?

First, recognize the signs. Do you dread going to school? Are you taking frequent sick days? Do you find yourself cynical about EVERYTHING – administrators, parents, students, other teachers? Do you find yourself being negative about most of your students?

Second, can you identify specific problems? Can you write a description of a problem? Writing can help you see some issues are not the problem; they may only be symptoms.  After writing down the problem, let it rest – I call it “simmering”. Then look at it with fresh eyes. Sometimes that’s all you need to do; a solution becomes clear.

Third, find support. Look for someone you trust, who will be honest with you, and can be  objective. This doesn’t have to be someone in your building, but it might be helpful if he or she can observe your class. If you are feeling cynical, don’t look for support from another cynical person!

When you ask for support, try this approach. Palmer describes it in Chapter 6 of his book. He calls it a “clearness committee”. Rather than offering advice, recommending a book or strategy, referring the problem to someone else, this small group of people ask questions.Palmer encourages us to be honest with our questions to help a person discover the wisdom within. If this idea is interesting to you, read Palmer’s book. I’ve only scratched the surface of this concept.

Fourth, look at the previous Habits of Balance. Perhaps there is something simple you can do.

My first paragraph indicates this is a tough topic — it requires a book to provide any real answers. I probably have not given anyone enough answers, but maybe I’ve helped you take a look at your own inner life of teaching. Another “Parkerism” comes to mind: . . . “teaching holds a mirror to the soul.” The reason this is so difficult to discuss is because  it requires looking is a way that is foreign to academic culture  — talking to each other about our inner lives.

May you have the courage you need to teach!

May you find support and wisdom around you each day.

May you keep your heart open for those children need you. Their hearts are often broken, or abandoned, or bleeding. Who will be there to guide their way?



2 thoughts on “Keep Your Heart Open

  1. Emalie

    This is exactly why it’s so important to connect with other teachers who have courage. I want to complain about students at the end of the day, but only with other teachers who love those children as much as I do. Others who will find hope and humor in the discouraging situation. Others who will suit up with me each and every day and teach ten days out of ten. Those teachers are my tribe.


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