A Path with Heart:

The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery

A Path with Heart is an invitation to think about great teaching as a journey of personal and professional self-discovery. Master Teachers understand, and research confirms, that it’s not only what we “know” about our subject and pedagogy that determines our effectiveness; but also how well we know our students and ourselves. After all, "We teach who we are." and we are the 'living curriculum'.

The road to Teaching Mastery is a challenging path...truly a Hero's journey...one that takes dedication and courage to walk. One can look at it as a spiritual journey, for the classroom is a crucible where our values and beliefs...the essence of who we are, is put to the test on a daily basis.

I believe Teaching Mastery is possible for each of us, and that now more than ever, caring teachers and school leaders need to be inspired, nurtured, and supported as they navigate school environments that are particularly challenging and stressful. 

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When I ask adults what attributes they remember about the teachers that had the greatest positive impact on them, most often they cite highly personal characteristics like creativity, spontaneity, kindness, being a good listener, empathy, a sense of humor…the list of personal attributes they describe is endless. While we can’t train teachers to have a specific disposition, we can help them cultivate their own unique gifts and most effective 'self'.

Unfortunately, most professional development and teacher preparation programs double down on the same old content and pedagogy approach and completely overlook the impact of the personal qualities of the human beings in the classroom. There’s no question that good teachers know their subject matter, their pedagogy, and their students; but great teachers also know themselves.

"Sometimes the students that need us the most are the hardest to love."

The question that I get asked most often is, ‘Why focus on the “soft skills” of teachers? We’re under a lot of pressure to produce measurable results. We don’t have time for the “soft” stuff. We want concrete solutions and practical answers."

Interestingly, as I did my initial research for the book I kept finding studies that linked higher student academic performance to the positive personal attributes and classroom presence of their teachers.

“Calderhead (1996), Pianta (1999), and Watson (2003) have described teaching as an intensely psychological process and believe a teacher’s ability to maintain productive classroom environments, motivate students, and make decisions, depends on her personal qualities and the ability to create personal relationships with her students."

Mastery is not something you have to be born with. However, cultivating Teaching Mastery requires that we take a courageous look in the mirror to see our strengths and gifts, as well as the personal and professional habits that are hindering us from getting the most out of ourselves and our students. Once we become more self-aware we can begin to practice new and more effective classroom behaviors.

The focus on the soft skills and ‘self’ of the teacher has other important benefits. It’s no secret that schools are in the midst of unprecedented change. The challenge of higher standards, federal and state mandates, socially and economically distressed families, changing demographics, and a persistent lack of resources have put an enormous amount of pressure on educators at all levels. Teachers on the front lines of these monumental changes feel this stress most directly, and on a daily basis.

"There are no guarantees of success no matter how hard we try. Sometimes the best we can do is to maintain the dignity of the learner and 'do no harm'."

Something is wrong when forty to fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession sometime during their first five years in the classroom. “Churn and burn” is not good for students and it’s not good for public education.

We’d do well to add professional development opportunities for teachers to cultivate their soft skills and best ‘selves’, to explore how they, as human beings, fit into the classroom of the future; and how they can successfully meet the increasing demands for accountability, and still keep teaching “a path with heart”. Not only can we increase student achievement and positively impact their social and emotional growth, but we’d go a long way to raising the morale of our teaching corp and reducing stress related burnout.

© Pete Reilly 2018​

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