Growing up in a Marine Corps family during the ’50s and the ’60s, I attended six different elementary schools and three different high schools. By the time I graduated from Stuttgart American High School in Ludwigsburg, Germany, I was a disgruntled student, not very connected to the educational process, and certainly, not very connected to my teachers. The young “me” never could have imagined myself as a future teacher. And so, what a surprise, when I first left the practice of law and walked into a classroom filled with Cardinal Newman students. I felt as though my true self emerged. All those years after completing my secondary education, I’d never seriously entertained the thought of teaching.
I’m not one to stand on the edge of a pool, contemplating whether or not it will be cold. I dive in. I approached teaching the same way, and fortunately, I had an excellent mentor, Dr. Maryanne Berry, my department chair. Although I knew little formal pedagogical theory, like many of us, I’d been a student much of my life and had a vague sense of what I ought to do. Memories of past teachers, coaches, and professors surfaced and took shape, as I encountered new circumstances and challenges on a daily basis. Books that had stayed with me over the years, for instance, Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno, as well as thinkers like Plato, Emerson, or Merton, whose ideas deeply influenced my sense of self and meaning, became the materials that informed and gave substance to my curriculum. Most importantly, I quickly discovered that effective teaching is not only about implementing good technique and improved technology, but communicating in an authentic and sincere manner. When a class comes alive, vibrant in the sense of connection, real growth, intellectual development, and spiritual awakening can occur. Effective teaching, I soon realized, is a matter of the heart.
By heart, I mean the deepest center of our being. Mystics, theologians, and Zen masters, often refer to the heart as the ground of our being, our original mind, or our true self. What is universal, is the recognition that from these depths spring our capacities for empathy, unselfish love, and compassion. Teaching, like all meaningful human endeavors, is relational. Students feel the quality of heart the teacher brings to bear on their relationship. Immersed in a particular subject matter, in a close environment for hour after hour, day after day, students gain real expertise at reading their teachers, and know whether they’re having good or bad days, or if they’re distracted and irritable. Students come to know whether or not teachers are happy in their job, whether the teacher is comfortable in his or her own skin and over time, whether their teacher is truly investing in them. Students feel the quality of heart the teacher brings to bear on their relationship.
Over the years, in talking shop with my colleagues, I would sometimes walk away from discussions feeling vaguely unsettled, as if we habitually glossed over what we really needed to address. Professional conversations often revolve around classroom management techniques, technology and its implementation, or the latest directives from administration—all subject matter important to the teaching profession. Nonetheless, this, the techne of teaching, is by its very nature, external and accidental. On the contrary, what is truly essential to the relational endeavor of teaching, is internal, and has always been a difficult subject to raise and discuss, as it implicates our most personal selves and concerns. As with all matters of the heart, we need to be aware of exactly what heart we bring to bear.
Thus, a significant aspect of our lesson planning should be one which, in my experience, few professional development classes touch upon: before taking our place in the classroom, we ought to examine our own state of well being and center ourselves. Just as what we convey in all of our personal relationships can be sensed as authentic or inauthentic, sincere or insincere, students will be attuned, consciously or unconsciously, to the internal character of our teaching. Have those recent contract negotiations with the administration undercut your capacity for joy in the classroom? Are there difficulties at home with a spouse or child that you carry inside as you teach? Are you just having a bad day?
Over the years, I’ve learned that a little quiet reflection before meeting with students makes a world of difference as you engage with them. We ought never to forget that the quality of our teaching is determined by the quality of our heart.
Jeff Scharfen recently retired from teaching at Cardinal Newman High School, but remains involved in Newman’s service learning programs, bringing students to volunteer in Vietnam and Zimbabwe, or raising Guide Dogs for the Blind. When not otherwise occupied, he can be found swimming, hiking, or happily reading. Jeff can be reached at email@example.com.
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