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Jan 11, 2019

Teaching from the Heart: Developing Deep Practices to Stay Inspired on the Job

Teaching from the Heart: Developing Deep Practices to Stay Inspired on the Job
Deep Practices: Making Choices from the Heart

While everyone has heard of “best practices,” which refer to the technical aspects of teaching, Dr. Paul Michalec and Dr. Kate Newburgh from the University of Denver created the concept of “deep practices,” (Michalec & Newburgh, 2018) to refer to actions and choices that come from the heart of a teacher. Developing deep practices helps educators stay in tune with their reasons for entering the profession even when challenges arise. It’s one powerful answer to the question of how to remain renewed and inspired while at school.

Teaching from the Heart

Teaching is a profession of the heart. The best teachers we can think of don’t fit into any one category of race, gender, age, pedagogy, subject matter, or ideology. What they do have in common, however, is their ability to bring their whole selves into the classroom every day. But that kind of giving takes attention, energy, and conscious development, and too often teachers feel they don’t have the support to sustain themselves day in and day out.
Teacher attrition and teacher shortages have been labeled a national crisis (Seidel, 2014). Nationally our schools lose eight percent of teachers every year (Westervelt, 2016), a number that climbs to 20% in high-poverty areas. If we follow teachers from the beginning of their preparation programs to their third year on the job, only 25% of them are still in the classroom (Zeichner, 2003).

Behind these cold numbers are untold stories of heartbreak. Far from attrition being a problem of pay or benefits (though an increase in these would certainly be justified) teachers cite a lack of emotional and even spiritual support as their primary reasons for leaving the profession (Headden, 2014; Valtierra, 2013).

So how can we as educators stay sustained, renewed, and supported in our jobs every day? There are all of the go-to answers (still good advice!): make time for yourself, prioritize doing things that you love when you’re off work, etc. But the teachers I’ve coached and researched often did these things and it still wasn’t enough to sustain them.

The question of how to take care of yourself outside of school is only one piece of the puzzle. I believe the bigger solution involves teaching every day in a way that resonates with your values and purpose as an educator. It’s the daily, on-the-job congruence between values and action that results in renewal and retention. This is where Deep Practices come in.

Developing Deep Practices will support teachers and school leaders in shaping every aspect of their experience to align with their authentic values and beliefs, which makes teaching and leading a daily exercise in sustainability, inspiration, and purpose.

How to Develop Deep Practices

Educators intrinsically understand the concept of deep practices, but the rigors of teaching and leading often make it difficult to intentionally develop them. Here are some tips for enhancing deep practices in your daily life on the job.

Notice What Lights you Up

When you’re teaching and leading you will notice specific moments or lessons where you feel alive, energized, and excited. When do these moments happen for you? I encourage you to spend one week jotting down the times you feel this way. Is it when your students are fully engaged in hands-on projects? Is it when your quiet student asks a courageous question? Is it when a struggling reader has an “aha!” moment and looks up at you like you’re her hero? Notice these moments and write them down. After awhile you’ll start to see trends in your notes. These trends point to the things that you value as an educator.


Create Conditions for those Moments

Once you know what lights you up as a teacher, intentionally create conditions that help you tap into those moments.

I worked with one teacher who seemed to shrink and fade away when giving whole-class lectures, but when his students were engaged in group work he was full of energy: bouncing around the room, asking questions, checking in on students, smiling. When we debriefed about it he said he loved having students work in groups because he could watch them learn from each other. When we dug a little further, he realized that one of his most cherished goals as a teacher was to help students develop autonomy and self-direction. After our debrief he started organizing his lessons to include more group work and hands-on projects. This helped him to show up excited, engaged, and inspired more consistently.

Creating conditions for inspiration doesn’t always involve a dramatic change. There are often simple things you can do in the classroom to enhance your genuine enjoyment and align the classroom experience with your goals as an educator.

Set a Vision

I worked with a teacher once who said his favorite days in the classroom were when his students were engaged in discovery, but his lessons left no room for it! He would spend most days lecturing, and, on days that students were to complete science labs, he would take them through the entire lab first before letting them try it! He truly was most inspired when his students were engaged, but he needed guidance on how to create a classroom that reflected these values.

One powerful way to do this is to set a vision for what you want your classroom to look like. That way the vision can act as a guide even when a coach or leader isn’t present. I worked with this teacher on setting a vision for discovery and engagement in his classroom, which helped him define the lessons and the practices he wanted to deploy. The vision helped him script critical moves and encouraged him to stay inspired when taking pedagogical risks. We worked through ways he could be comfortable letting go of control, developing trust, and scaffolding labs to push each student beyond their current abilities. The vision was important because it gave him an ongoing reason to develop his deep practices, a process that often asks you to step outside of your comfort zone.

Shift what isn’t Working for You

I encourage you to do the same exercise that you did in the beginning, but this time notice when you feel dispirited and discouraged. Sometimes you may feel something as strong as dread. I encourage you to listen to these feelings; they’re indications that the roles, responsibilities, practices, or activities related to those feelings are out of alignment with your goals and values as an educator.

For instance, maybe you get a sinking feeling every time you think about grading. This may be an indication that you’re not all that enthused about the assignment you gave, but it may be something deeper. If you truly value student autonomy, perhaps your inner teacher is rebelling at the thought of being the sole arbiter of deciding student progress. Perhaps introducing something like competency-based learning or student-led grading practices would help your students get the feedback they need while keeping your classroom in line with your goals and values as an educator.

When something isn’t working for you it doesn’t mean you automatically have to drop it. First, think creatively and honestly about the qualities of that role, responsibility, or practice and pick out the qualities that are anathema to you. Is there a way to minimize or eliminate those aspects of the practice without giving it up entirely? Is there a way to think outside the box to shape the practice so that it fits with your values and goals?

Draw Boundaries when Necessary

Sometimes you flat out have to say no to things. Drawing these types of boundaries requires self-advocacy, which can sometimes create pushback from others or, even more commonly, internal guilt in yourself. In my research I noticed that all of my participants described strong and persistent feelings of guilt when drawing boundaries in school and taking time for themselves. It’s important, therefore, to feel extremely grounded in yourself when defining what you will and won’t do. Knowing your goals and purpose as an educator will give you a solid, self-validated foundation from which to calmly say “yes” or “no.” Developing deep practices will get you in touch with the impact you want to make as an educator, which in turn will help guide your decision-making.

Drawing boundaries always takes courage. But the alternative is taking on roles or responsibilities that drain your energy and leave you feeling burned out.

Deep Practices: A Path for Inspiration

Too often in education we’re asked to focus on the technical aspects of the job. These are necessary elements of teaching, but over-focusing on them often means we neglect the realm of teaching that emerges from the heart (which is usually why we entered the profession in the first place).

Developing deep practices will help you comprehensively define your values and purpose as an educator. This will encourage you to shape your choices and actions so that they’re in alignment with those values. Ultimately this results in making the daily practice of teaching a more enjoyable, renewing, and sustainable experience.

Dr. Kate Newburgh is the founder of Deep Practices Consulting, L3C: a social enterprise dedicated to creating conditions for inspiration and renewal in the workplace. Kate began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow in the Bronx, NY. Since then she's held diverse roles

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