Teaching with Heart

Parker Palmer’s quote, “The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open 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,” inspires many thoughts for me.  The best teachers I have known have had heart and guts, shown their vulnerability and sincerity openly, have been confident and rooted in their inner selves, have displayed passion and unbridled enthusiasm for their subject and their teaching, and have lived and breathed their craft.  They have given so much of their hearts to the craft and the students that it seems they could give no more, that they seemed to be superhuman, and yet it was because they were so deeply human.  I think that Parker Palmer’s quote reveals how much heart and humanity go into teaching.  We don’t just convey information about our subjects when we teach.  Compassion, fierce determination and dedication, and building deep connections have been integral parts of my best teachers’ personas.

As a high school student, a music teacher I had never met before reached out to me during an audition and offered me free viola lessons, taking me under his wing even though he had no need or obligation to do so.  What was it about my playing that caught his attention?  Why did he choose me?  “I’d like you to be my student,” he requested after I had finished playing.  It usually works the other way around.  The student asks the teacher to teach them.  The teacher checks their schedule, sees if they have enough space in their studio, then asks to see the money after you register for your first lesson.  The second thing Mr. B said to me after I agreed to be his student was, “Don’t even think about taking out your checkbook.  These lessons are free.  Your first lesson will be on October 6th.”  I knew that this was something rare, special, incredibly uncommon.  The busiest orchestral player, Hollywood studio musician, college professor, and private teacher in town was asking me to be his student.  He had no time in his schedule and no space in his studio, but he asked to teach me anyway.  Eventually, because of his inspiration and generosity, I became a music major and his full-time music student at the university.  If I had never met him, I never would have considered it.  Sometimes the people we meet change the course of our lives.  I know it’s true for me.  When I asked Mr. B years later why he decided to offer me the gift of lessons, he replied, “You had such talent, such a strong musical voice.  A voice that was fighting to be heard no matter what.  You had things you needed to say with music.  But limitations, lack of technical tools, and lack of resources were holding you back.  You were so determined and so musical.  I knew I had to help you set your artistry free and help you gain the technique to fortify your musical voice.  I knew I had to be your teacher.”  That’s compassion enacted through teaching.  No doubt.  My teacher saw the musical voice I already had and helped me to build on it and strengthen it.  Make it strong enough that it could be heard clearly every time I spoke it.  Make it reliable enough that it would never fail me in performance.  A great teacher acknowledges the creative voice you already have inside you and helps you harness it and make it stronger, helps you transition from novice to artist through trust, belief, and apprenticeship.  That’s powerful teaching.  That’s what helped me become who I am today.

A heart stretched too thin

I had a teacher in high school who worked so hard to engage us, who poured his heart so thoroughly into his teaching, that one day it all became too much for him. He came to school one morning exhausted and deflated, and he didn’t recover for the rest of the year. He went from leading us through daily engaging discussions and energetic lesson plans to summarizing dry power point presentations every day. It was so sad to see. Fortunately he came back the next year more or less fully recovered. He figured something out; I’m not sure what it was. But thinking back on this, I’m convinced of the importance of self care. We might feel like we need to pour everything we have into our jobs, but we really can’t drain ourselves completely. We need to sleep and eat. We need to have social lives. This is all crucial if we’re going to maintain a consistent, kind, encouraging presence in our classrooms. Students deserve that.


Good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self; they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a ‘capacity for connectedness.’

Parker Palmer

Yesterday was a deep and heavy day.  I listened in awe of my fellow classmates stories.  Their, rather your, insight was honest and emotional.  By the time I got home, I was spent mentally and emotionally.  Parker Palmer would have been satisfied with the level of vulnerability many showed as pre-service teachers.

Our task is to create enough safe spaces and trusting relationships within the academic workplace – …-that more of us will be able to tell the truth about our own struggles and joys as teachers in ways that befriend the soul and give it room to grow.

Parker Palmer

Palmer’s writings remind me of another philosopher that I grew up reading, Jiddu Krishnamurti.  He wrote about many things in India that transcend place and speak to all of us.  His treatise “On Education” evoked many parallel thoughts that Palmer’s writing did, and similarly David Katzeek’s words as well.

Everything is inside of us.

This is true for everyone and especially our future students.  The teacher’s job is to facilitate learning so that each person can realize the knowledge that already lives within them.  As teacher’s we must do this as well for ourselves.  We must reflect and become our own teacher as J. Krishnamurti suggests in the photo above.  Through reflection we can attain self-knowledge, and through self-knowledge we can learn to be better teachers as Palmer shared.  Without self-knowledge we cannot know how to connect with our students and our subject.  For me personally I really enjoy discussing reflections with others that I trust because it often leads to new insights.

Reflecting and sharing vulnerability with one another helped me to realize many similar feelings that I had, but not yet thought of.  I appreciated and will continue to ponder yesterday’s events throughout the next few weeks and beyond.

Parker Palmer

Mrs. Sanders, my senior year British Literature teacher, embodied what I believe to be a compassionate teacher both within the classroom and outside of it. She was a tiny ball of energy who began each class with “The Word De Jour”–something so simple, but we all looked forward to it every day. She connected with us on our love for Chick-fil-a (The most crave-worthy fast food place. Yes, tis better than In-N-Out hehe) and invited us to bring her a chicken biscuit and large lemonade whenever we did so please. She taught so energetically and so personally that I can still remember her explaining and drawing on the white board how the English language took shape with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Somehow learning the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English is still burned in my memory. I recite it from time to time just because. She encouraged me in the classroom with the smallest gestures such as simply telling me “Good job!” or “Study harder next time, LB”. The most impactful characteristic for me was the fact that she took interest in us outside of the classroom. She and her husband were present at mostly all of our basketball games, home and away games. By doing so, without having to say anything, she let us know that she cared about us as people. We weren’t just students in her classroom, we were young people with differing interests and an array of talents that she celebrated along side of us. And this isn’t something that ended when graduating from high school. She has encouraged me even to this day not only with her comments on my Facebook page about working toward a MAT, but also in her devotion to her students and love for teaching she displays in her everyday life. I hope to be half as influential to my students as she was to me and I’m sure countless others.

The essence of a good teacher

We need to open a new frontier in our exploration of good teaching: the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. To chart that landscape fully, three important paths must be taken- intellectual, emotional, and spiritual- and none can be ignored. Reduce teaching to intellect and it becomes a cold abstraction; reduce it to emotions and it becomes narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual and it loses the anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion, and spirit depend on each other for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best, and we need to interweave them in our pedagogical discourse as well.( Parker Palmer)


Here is a secret hidden in plain sight: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. (Parker Palmer)


I had several good teachers that come to my mind and that incorporate the qualities that Parker Palmer talks about. My middle school science teacher was there for me in a difficult time. She came out from the “teacher role” and showed me she cared in the most simple way, by giving me a hug, when my mom passed away. My high school science teacher was a sensitive and caring person that manage to create a community within our class. She would tell us stories about her life, and then those stories would be connected by miracle with the unit she was teaching. Who does that? During our chemistry class, she would know to combine a good dose of humor with precise lab techniques that we would follow under her close guidance.

She was a teacher inside and outside the school. We would go on hikes with her and she would share important knowledge with us. As we went on a trail she would spot a plant, tell us the scientific name, what it is used for, and then it was our turn to describe something that caught our eye. She managed to unite her identity, her students, and the subject that she was teaching. She passed on that passion for learning to us, and the inquiry based activities. It was ok to come up with a different answer if you had the evidence to back it up. Her classroom doors were always open for us. I learned from her that asking questions is not a weakness,and that in time can improve your learning, and comprehension.

Loosing Heart…

I read in a biography of Einstein’s that he had trouble learning from the Germanic style of instruction that were(/are?) commonplace throughout Germany where he grew up and that we have in our public schools today. After several years of poor performance he moved to a Montessoriesque school in Switzerland where he flourished.

This is one in a million stories of hardship in this instructor/students relationship. In a species that spent most of its evolution 150,000+ years in roving lifelong clans of 100-200 people I can understand why teachers have a hard time connecting. Trust is earned; that takes time. Nine months is understandably not long enough to make such connections for people who are programmed to know everyone around them for their entire lives. I think it also can create anxiety in the fact that we live in a society where those conditions are rarely found. People strive to connect. David K. agrees we are all staved for love, which is the mother of connection. Furthermore, connection is accomplished much easier if people already have the same cultural background. This amongst all the other variables that act as barriers we have been learning about when working in classrooms of 30+ kids can and do make student/teacher relationships void of the kind of connections humans need to flourish.  So, I can see why so many teachers end up loosing heart or burning out. Perhaps the real solution is more than just a pep talk.

I could go on an restate the reasons I hold Mr. Gates in high regard but I think stop here.

service project

Honestly, it has been a really long time since I have been in school. When I think back to k-12, there aren’t too many teachers that stand out that resonate with this particular passage. I have to dip into my undergrad experience to find a teacher that evoked a passion for learning that went beyond the classroom.
To finish my requirements to minor in Native American Studies, I needed to complete Federal Indian Law and Policy. It was a weighty subject. The professor running the class was Dr. Andra New Holy.  I had taken a few courses from her before and found the classes engaging and insightful.  The Federal Indian Law and Policy course differed in that we were required to undertake a service project while studying the laws and policies that shaped lives of countless indigenous people of all tribes, clans and nations.
I learned of the ward relationship Native Americans have with the US government.  The various tribes status as Domestic Dependent Nations. Studying the law that has made up the policies, greatly affected my psyche and motivated me to complete a service project that gave something back.  It was probably extremely naive, but we made an attempt in the Montana state government to pass legislation to ban the use of pepper spray in youth correctional facilities because of the disproportionate number of incidents involving Native American youth.  We traveled across the state to interview a juvenile parolee. He still bore the scars on his face from the repeated pepper spray incidents when we videotaped his interview which we later played as testimony at a Judiciary committee.  We contacted the media and wrote the editors of papers.
Through all this, Dr. New Holy cheered us on and provided support. The project went far beyond school.  We had been learning of all the injustices that our own government had been doling out since before it was a government.  She brought us to a place where the struggles of over 500 years continued to manifest themselves.  It should have been no surprise when the committee tabled the bill to ban the use of pepper spray in Montana youth correctional facilities. I choose Andra New Holy because she gave me the tools to push myself beyond the sphere of academia and into the harsh realities of a racist system where we made our heartfelt albeit feeble attempt to make a change for the better.  I believe that is powerful teaching.