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Leading with our own hearts and minds

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

“The truth knocks on your door and you say, ‘Go away, I am looking for the truth,’ and it goes away.” — Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This quote has always been a reminder to me to open my heart and mind to the people and situations I encounter as an educator. I needed this reminder because the pressure to implement a new policy, program or initiative often filtered or blocked what I needed to see right in front of me: Human beings engaged with other human beings trying to do their best. I wanted to make sure that the human element of education stayed at the center what I did and guided my thinking, speaking and acting. Today, however, it seems even harder for educators to stay centered on what education is really all about. Sometimes we are so busy that we don’t even hear the knocking at our door.

Although this quote reminded me to keep my door open, I never thought about what the “truth” was actually trying to tell me, but now I have a pretty good hunch. As I reflect about school improvement efforts, I see more clearly their hidden messages: That “the answers” to what education needs is not with the people who are involved with the actual practice of teaching and learning. The “truth” is telling us to be cautious about these “answers.”

In addition, the “truth” is telling us that we are right to keep looking for it, but that we need to look for it and find it with our own hearts and minds. It is telling us to take off the lenses of others, the experts who have supposedly figured out what we haven’t figured out. It is telling us to believe in our own ability to feel and think about what our fellow human beings think, feel and need. This “truth” is pretty simple (deceptively so): We need to trust ourselves, our colleagues and our students as we learn together.

This believing in ourselves, however, doesn’t mean that educators need to reject anything that comes from above or from the “experts.” What it does mean is that educators must think deeply about and critically examine anything they are told to do and not automatically assume that their job is just to follow. It is just the opposite; their job is to lead.

Take for example the Common Core State Standards, which have divided so many into two distinct camps: those who embrace the standards and those who reject them. Regardless of the content, success in improving learning ultimately rests in the hands of educators and their students. No curriculum or program of instruction can “work” without a teacher who thinks deeply about what students need to learn and determines the best ways of facilitating that learning. Teachers discover those best ways when they are empowered to believe in their ability to learn about their students and the content that they both must engage. For students to be empowered learners, empowered teachers must teach them. They both need the right conditions for optimal learning.

What are these conditions and where can they be found? Not in the policies and programs of experts but rather in our common experiences of learning-what we know in our hearts and minds.

I offer the following activity to help discover these optimal conditions:

  • Find a way to put the group members in random small groups of four or five people.
  • Give them time to individually reflect and recollect on a very positive learning experience.
  • Ask them to write down what made that experience so positive.
  • After this individual reflection ask them to take turns sharing the story of their positive learning.
  • After sharing the stories ask them to summarize the common elements of the story into a brief word or phrase and then to write it down on a sticky note.
  • Have the group stick their sticky notes on a piece of chart paper.
  • After all the sticky notes been placed, the group can move them around and sort them into categories and decide on what to call each category.
  • Each group can create a visualization or graphic representation of their common elements of positive learning.
  • The groups can then share their “visions” with each other

I have done this activity with many groups and although the exact wording varies, certain essential conditions (consistent with the empirical research on how people learn and grow) for positive learning always emerge:

  • People feel connected to and accepted by the people around them and especially by their teachers.
  • People value whatever it is they are learning and see the meaning and purpose of it in connection to their lives.
  • People feel safe as they learn without fear of judgment, as they take their beginning steps toward mastery.
  • People feel respected as learners and sense that their teacher assumes that they want to learn.
  • People feel like they have some control or say in what and how they learn.
  • People eventually come to enjoy the challenge of even difficult tasks, if the above conditions are in place for them.

Putting these conditions into place is not an easy task but it is well within the grasp of every educator and every student. Teachers and students can do so by talking about these conditions and sharing the responsibility for designing a learning environment that makes sure they are in place. When teachers and students put their collective hearts and minds together everyone learns more!

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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