JoEtta has a passion for equity that has been present all her life. As the Director of the Equity Alliance at ASU, she connects with educational leaders who want to engage change and transformation. With a blend of humor, sensitivity, and professional insight, she has helped hundreds of individuals develop the dispositions necessary to use an equity lens for decision-making related to student achievement. A talented speaker and workshop leader, she has worked with school systems across the United States in addressing issues of equity.
Most of the time when school administrators and professional developers get together to discuss the practice of teaching, the talk turns to technique. They’ll debate for hours on end regarding the best way to teach students to read and make meaning of text. They’ll talk about fluency, decoding skills and a lot of specific strategies and/or programs that teachers should use to facilitate this learning. At times, the conversations even extend to “evidence-based practice” – which by the way, may or may not mean there is evidence that pertains to the specific population of students in which they are referring.
One subject that rarely comes up, though, is heart. That’s a shame too, because while a teacher with a strong repertoire of skills is valuable to have on staff, it’s the teacher with heart that reaches more students and motivates them to achieve more than they ever thought they could. Indeed, teachers with heart are the best teachers in the school. Teaching for equity comes naturally to these teachers, as they possess the dispositions and mind-sets that actively enlist students to achieve at – or sometimes even beyond – their potential. As a former principal, I’ve seen this first hand.
Take the case of Rene. Rene has a magical way of involving students and their families in her classroom and in the school as a whole. As an active leader in the PTSA and school leadership team, she stirs a whirlwind of energy that is contagious. Her leadership is valued, helping to make the school both popular and successful.
Student achievement is of primary concern to Rene, as evidenced by assessment results. Students in her class out-perform all other students in the school on measures of academic performance. Yet her classroom offers a sanctuary for students struggling with hardship. If someone in the school were to be aware of an incident that prevented students from concentrating on doing their best socially and academically at school, it would be Rene. She works hard to ensure that all students feel a true sense of belonging. Children throughout the school both respect her and love her. Parents always have confidence in the extent that Rene values their children as individuals. Rene’s vision for community building has started something powerfully strong and good for her students; her classroom and school look and feel much more positive because of her contributions.
Rene is successful with her students because they see her passion and they sense her respect. She builds upon students’ backgrounds and experiences, and creates an environment that challenges students to be self-directed, yet interdependent learners. Heart is what keeps Rene going when others might give up. While Rene loves to teach reading as much as the next teacher, reading is not what ultimately drives her. Instead, she teaches for the love of her students, and thus the focus is on the students themselves rather than a specific strategy or program.
When there’s actual teaching and learning on the line, that’s when you really see who has heart. Some teachers will collapse the minute things don’t go their way. They will revert to teaching in ways they were taught. Others will dig down deep and do their best to overcome problems no matter what the odds. Those are the type of teachers you want in the classroom when the chips are down. Teachers with heart model self-efficacy for their students, and attend to issues of social justice for students because they truly care about their students and their success is of primary concern to them. They are the best teachers for diverse learners because they work hard to reject the status quo, offering up high expectations for all learners, regardless of difference, while simultaneously reinforcing effort by providing support, reassurance, and encouragement.
School administrators and professional developers can train a teacher to use various curricula, particular programs, and instructional strategies, but there are no trainings that teach teachers to have heart. Instead, school leaders need to cultivate heart, and they do so by engaging teachers in personal reflection and assessment. They help them explore their own personal histories and experiences, as well as the history and current experiences of their students and families. They arrange opportunities for discourse around many broad topics associated with teaching and learning, and they drive notions of collaborative practice by creating the time and space for group practice and collaboration to occur. Most importantly, school leaders interested in cultivating heart lead by example. They model risk-taking, reflection, collaboration and compassion, and they provide the support necessary for teachers to be responsive to the needs of all their students.
It’s no secret that teachers with heart surface as the best teachers in schools throughout our country. When talking school transformation for equity then, it would be smart for school districts to evaluate talent based on the proposition that who a prospective teacher is as a person counts for as much as what the prospective teacher knows at any point in time. It would be fitting for a district to subject prospective teachers to a battery of character tests before they join the school or district community. Identifying a school district’s star performers, understanding what makes them tick, and devising interviews, group exercises, and other techniques to probe for those same attributes in new employees should help districts recruit and hire for heart.
Heart is a topic that requires attention in today’s schools. If our goal is to create safe, inclusive and positive schools where all students feel comfortable, wanted, valued, accepted and secure in achieving equitable outcomes, then attending to heart is imperative.