Returning to the heart of teaching: What really matters?

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In an era of standards and accountability it is important that we, as teachers, are reminded of what is really important in education.  Yes!  It is important that we ensure and are held accountable for our students’ growth, development and learning.  As teachers, we need to make sure learning is occurring in our classrooms.  Thus, we should be skilled at constructing, supporting, and measuring learning in our classrooms on a day-to-day basis. However, we cannot lose sight of the things that are not necessarily measurable in our classrooms, yet will greatly influence learning and even more so, will shape the lives of those we teach, setting the tone, foundation, and path for our students’ learning journeys.

At the close of this semester, my mind is racing, my passion has been reignited, and most importantly, I am humbled.  It had been many years since I taught a foundations of education course and as I was preparing, I was reminded how important this first experience in teacher education is for these individuals.  My teaching experience this semester reinforced for me, my belief that teachers are the most powerful people on the planet! They have the power to make a profound difference in the lives of the students they teach.  As teachers, we learn so much from the experience of teaching itself and from our students. This particular teaching experience reinforced for me what is really important in teaching.

The Importance of Humility

What a fool I was to imagine that I had mastered this occult art—harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well! (Palmer, 2007, p. 1 )

Even after 23 years in education, I still maintain a deep sense of awe of the act of teaching.  With each teaching encounter, I am humbled.  On good days, when dialogue is rich, my students are engaged and responsive, and the dynamics of the classroom seem to play out like an orchestra and I am the conductor, I feel like, “Yes!  I can do this!” On other days, I think, “Wow!  That didn’t go like I planned.  I was definitely not at the top of my game. I could’ve done much better if I had…Next time, I will…”  It is common for teachers to take a brief moment to celebrate their successes, yet the process of critique can be a long and drawn out process–teachers can be their own most difficult critics.  However, it this self-critique that maintains a sense of humility, and for me, it is this humility that I believe is at the core of my drive to continuously evolve as a teacher.

From this humble perspective, I have come to understand teaching excellence as something we strive for but never really attain.  In other words, there really is no such thing as the consummate teacher.  In teaching, what really matters is the journey and intrinsic to this journey, is the authentic learning that occurs as a natural part of our individual journeys as teachers.  If we embrace this learning with an open mind and an open heart, powerful growth can occur.  This is why, I believe, the best teachers consider themselves lifelong learners.  They are humble in that they recognize the complexity of teaching, but they are incredibly driven to improve their performance and realize that the key improving is being open to what each teaching encounter has to teach them.

The Importance of Self-Awareness

Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher (Palmer, 2007, p. 10).

While standards and accreditation drive what we teach in an education classroom, as a teacher educator, I want to go beyond teaching knowledge, skills and competencies.  The experience I want to create is one in which they discover who they are as individuals and an understanding of how who they are will impact their teaching and in turn their students.  I want them to understand, at a very deep level, that we teach who we are (Palmer, 2007) and that who we are is our ongoing creation.  If we believe this, we realize that teaching is a lifelong endeavor and that self-discovery is an important part of our journey as teachers. Equipped with a keen sense of self, we are better positioned to serve our students with integrity and as a result we will teach with authenticity.

To become self-aware individuals, we have to practice the art of reflection.  Reflection does not come natural to everyone. Thus, I believe it is something that needs to be taught as a process that is integral to teaching and learning.  The type of reflection that leads to deep understanding of self must surpass the realm of the technical that focuses solely on practice.  In other words, we have to go beyond asking the question, “How can I improve my practice?” to asking the question, “How can I improve as a human being in all ways—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, creatively…” This means that our reflection must be critical in nature leading to a deep sense of self-awareness where biases, assumptions, stereotypes and pre-conceived notions we discover in ourselves about others and the world are unveiled, critiqued and dismantled if we find they are impacting our teaching in ways that do not serve our students well.  Freire (2007) refers to this as conscientização or critical consciousness. Critically conscious teachers are aware that schools are imperfect in their policies, practices and structures and that as ethical professionals and advocates for students and learning, teachers have a responsibility for identifying and challenging those policies, practices and structures that do not support learning and working to replace them with more equitable and just ones.

Also of critical importance to self-awareness is discerning between our identity and our practices.  If we tie who we are to our practices, we will not easily let go of practices that are undermining the learning of our students.  Critically conscious teachers realize that they are not their practices and that it is their professional and ethical responsibility to examine their practices and identify those that are not serving their students well.  Because they do not hold tight to their practices as part of their identity, they are able to let go of these practices and replace them with others that are more equitable and just.  Further, they are aware of their beliefs about teaching and learning that shape their practices and are open to critically examining these beliefs if they are not supporting effective practices.

The Power of Teachers

As a teacher educator, I have a deep respect and admiration for teachers and the work they do.  I often describe teaching as a sacred act, because we influence lives at such a deep level. Through our work we can reap discouragement, defeat, and humiliation or we can sow seeds of hope and sense of passion and wonder for learning.  The experience we create for our students influences not only their educational paths but their journeys as evolving human beings. Thus, as teachers, we do not have the luxury of approaching our work lightly. The power we hold in the palm of our hands to shape individuals and in turn, society as a whole, must be recognized, embraced and handled with great care, commitment, and respect.

In the introductory education class I recently taught, we also discussed the role of teacher as that of a servant leader.  Teaching, as a service profession requires that we be able to set our own needs aside as we focus on promoting the growth, development and learning of others—our  students.  We discussed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need and how as teachers, we must operate in self-actualization mode and ensure that our students can operate in the cognitive mode where learning can occur.  For teachers, this means creating a learning culture in which our students feel a sense of safety and belonging, ownership of their classroom environment and empowerment over their own learning. While we cannot control what our students experience outside of the classroom, we must realize there is tremendous potential in the time that we have our students in our classrooms. Resiliency research indicates that five minutes and one person can make the difference in the life of a child (Wolin & Wolin, 1993).

Where we focus our energy then, is important.  We can get caught up in all of the reasons why we can’t teach our students, including all of the things that are wrong with our society that inhibit our students’ learning (i.e., poverty, violence, divorce, single parent households, language barriers, drugs, etc.) or, we can choose to focus our energy on the difference we can make when our students are with us.  In reality, when you add up the classroom hours over the period of a year, you will find that the time that we have with our students is significant and whether we acknowledge it or not, we will have a profound influence on our students.  While our students may not always remember what it is specifically that we taught them (academics), they will remember how it felt to be in our classrooms and to interact with us.  How this translates for us as teachers is that our charge becomes much more than teaching academics.  In addition to helping our students meet required standards, we also teach our students to believe in themselves and their capabilities.  We teach them that they are unique individuals who have an important contribution to make in this world.  We teach them that they have a voice and that their voice must be heard.  These are some of the powerful teachings that cannot necessarily be found in standards and curriculum and cannot be measured.

So, what really matters?

As a teacher educator, it is of course my hope that my students have mastered the learning outcomes for the course and are developing the knowledge, skills and competencies that will contribute to their efficacy as teachers.  However, I sometimes question whether I impacted my students at a deeper level and in ways that I hope they will reach their own students.  Most importantly, did they grasp the importance of teacher identity, power and influence?  Did they really grasp those things that transcend knowledge and skills that truly capture the essence and the power of teaching? These reflections prompted me to identify what I will refer to as “soft skills” or dispositions that I believe truly make teaching an act of transformation.  In my mind, teachers are transformative leaders and as such these dispositions materialized as wishes I had for my students who are future teachers.  They are:

Authenticity:  May you evolve as a teacher in ways that truly represent who you are as a person and what you believe in.  May you be real and comfortable in your work as a teacher.

Responsiveness:  May you develop a keen awareness of your students, the dynamics in your classroom, and the rich diversity each student brings to the learning environment.  May you always respond with respect and strive to be flexible and adaptable to the varying needs of your students.

Lifelong Learning: May you always strive to learn and grow.  May you sense when you have become stagnant and let that be your trigger to seek out new learning and growth opportunities so that you may better serve your students.

Humility: May you be humbled just enough to realize that you are on a journey that offers many lessons and in your openness to these lessons, you will evolve as a professional and as a human being.

Self-Actualization: May you be able to let go of ego so that you can operate as a self-actualized individual that is able to focus on the needs of others as a servant leader.

Reflection: May you always have the courage to look within yourself to identify your biases, assumptions, and pre-conceived notions that have the potential to interfere with your ability to teach students well.

Innovation: May you always be searching for better ways to engage, motivate, and inspire your students.  May your creative spirit remain kindled so that you may continue to spark the creativity and genius in your students.

Door Opener: May you be a ground breaker, never afraid to take risks and charting new territory in the field of education opening doors to equity, access and opportunity for your students.

Advocacy: May you always have the courage to realize your role as advocate for your students and their families.  May your students always be at the center of your work guiding the decisions you make and actions you take as a teacher.   May you have the strength and courage to consistently do the right thing for those that you serve and maintain faith that all will fall in place as it is supposed to as a result.

Art: May your classroom be your canvas and may you always take pride in the art of teaching.  May you never lose sight of the “heart” of teaching and may you always find ways to preserve your passion and joy for learning as well as your students.

Preserving Learning in the Classroom

Teaching is much more than transferring knowledge and skills. When our students leave our classrooms, our hope is that we have empowered them to be the architects of their own learning.  Teaching is about bringing out the best in others, inspiring others to be who they are and igniting their passion and desire for learning.  As one teacher hands a student off to the next teacher in the next grade level, that teacher must carry the torch and keep the flame of learning ignited.

As teachers in technocratic educational system, our biggest challenge is to preserve learning in our classrooms and protect the spirits of our students so that they can maintain the wonder, joy, and creativity that come natural to them as learners.  As teachers, we make our mark on the world, whether we recognize it or not. The children we are privileged to work with each year are a gift to us and we have been chosen to guide them, inspire them, and help them carve their own path in this world. The difference teachers make in the lives of the children they teach will be manifested in the interactions that these children have with others and the world. As such, the influence of the teacher is infinite.  As a teacher, you will be remembered.  Whether the memories are positive and inspiring is up to you.

In closing, I leave you with this quote,

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized (Ginott, H., 1993, p.


Friere, P. (2007).  Education for critical consciousness.  New York: Continuum.

Ginott, H.G. (1975). Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers. New York: MacMillan.

Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wolin, S.J. and Wolin, S. (1993). The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity, New York: Villard Books.


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