JoEtta Gonzales

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.

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8 Responses to “Why Teaching for Equity is About Having Heart by JoEtta Gonzales”

  1. Elaine Mulligan on 10/19/11 2:21 PM US/Eastern

    Well said, JoEtta! And might I add that having a school principal with heart is even more powerful. When I spent time in your school several years ago, the impact of your leadership was noticeable throughout the building. A principal with heart can bring out teachers’ values and dedication that might have been suppressed under less supportive leadership. In these times of rigid accountability and competition, all of us who work in education need to stay true to the ideals and caring that brought us to this profession. Thanks for describing this so eloquently.

  2. Denise Scheppe on 10/19/11 8:15 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you JoEtta for your excellent article! Here in Florida, School Districts are using the Race To The Top funding to set up elaborate evaluation systems of teachers based on the “evidence based” strategies that you mention. Our district is purchasing iPADs to use for evaluations with Robert Marzano’s iObservation software and his “system of improvement.” While I agree that teachers need to be using the kinds of strategies that you taught me when I was an intern at MUSD20, I am discouraged by the general climate of fear and intimidation. I am reminded of a saying we used to have in business, “the beatings will continue while morale improves.” The school climate is suffering because there is no acknowledgment of the value of teachers who care, have “heart”, and are doing the best that they can for students. Thank you for raising this issue!

  3. Jon Harding on 10/21/11 6:49 AM US/Eastern

    Thank you for speaking passionately about the importance of teacher characteristics that are not so easily measured. Well said!

  4. JoEtta Gonzales on 10/24/11 7:47 PM US/Eastern

    Elaine, Denise, and Jon,
    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. One of my favorite quotes about “heart” comes from Parker Palmer. He asserts, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher”. This quote is important to me, as it speaks to the importance I place on teacher identity and integrity.

    At the Equity Alliance, the professional learning we facilitate always starts with an examination of identity. We believe it’s the cornerstone of understanding how teaching and learning is culturally mediated. By understanding how our own cultural identities influence our interactions and decisions, then we can better understand how identity impacts teaching and learning. Our identities are directly related to the “heart” of teaching we share with our students and their families.

  5. Gladys Corretjer on 1/21/12 4:50 PM US/Eastern

    Ms. Gonzalez,
    What a powerful message! Thank you! Like I have experienced the power of a teacher with a heart. That teacher is feared and respected because he/she knows and acts on something that is not visible to others. Teachers with a “heart” in my opinion, get the results in standardrized testing, using unconventional methods. Why? Because they have established relationships with their students and their families. They are strong and courageous, blessed are the children under their care.

  6. Lorraine Smith-Collins on 1/25/12 2:09 PM US/Eastern

    Wela’lin (thank you in Mi’kmaw). I come to this site when I need inspiration and a voice for equity and balance. Actually, I have been drawn to this same article, twice!
    Interesting in itself. Your title rings true for me. Yes, as teachers we must keep up to date with current research but as you have shared so beautifully, one needs to have ‘heart’. That truly is what makes a great teacher. Someone who is willing to go the extra mile for you because it is simply the right thing to do.

    I am also drawn to your article as authors of lived ‘non-priviledged’ experiences have a certain connect when speaking of social justice work. Thank you for initiating ‘Inspiration’!!

  7. Elizabeth Zinda on 2/4/12 3:11 PM US/Eastern

    Dear JoEtta,

    I am so thankful that I have come across this article, I have a dear friend whom I used to work closely with who is struggling dearly right now with her identity as a teacher. She truly is a teacher with HEART, and she has always achieved significant results with her students, often outperforming all other teachers in her grade level in the entire district. What is amazing is that she never gets the smartest students on her roster, in fact her classes are always filled with academically and behaviorally struggling students. Her passion for their learning and her devotion to their needs as growing children who need kindness, direction, hugs, and love has enabled her to form bonds with her families beyond the classroom. I often reflected that the bonds she shared with her students and families is what really pushes her students to rise to expectations and goals she helps them set. However, recent top down decisions are forcing her to change the methodologies and practices in her classroom (which has yeilded consistently strong results for the past 5 years) to a one size fits all approach to curriculum and instruction, and her ability to be in more direct control of her instruction and student interaction has been extremely limited by these new practices in place. This saddens me and has created a situation for her in which she no longer enjoys her job. She still loves the children dearly, but feels she is doing them a disservice and has no control over it. I am going to refer her to your article because I think it will inspire her to hang in there and persevere. Thank you for bringing this topic to life, your words will make a definite difference for my friend!

  8. Elizabeth Mihocka on 4/5/12 12:51 AM US/Eastern

    JoEtta,
    What a beautiful article. Anyone who reads it cannot leave without being inspired. You have left your piece of the world a better place for having touched it and those around you. After teaching adults, I am entering the world of special education. There is something I consider to be equally as important as knowledge and experience, the children must recognize the belief that as their teacher, I believe in them, I encourage them to be the best they can be, I have the desire for them to discover who they are, the compassion to understand their frustration and to provide fun and enjoyment in their world of learning. Thank you for your sharing. I’ll keep the article for inspiration.

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