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Cultivating an Open Heart

This is Part 2 of a six-part series on the Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching.

Part 1 –  A “Compass” for Our Times


“We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs.”
~Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom



We have a crisis of heart in education.

“1 out of 3 students in California cannot name a single caring adult at school”
( CLICK HERE for more information from the Relationship Centered Schools Campaign Brief) 

Too many students feel disconnected from each other, from school, from teachers. And too many teachers feel overwhelmed, disheartened, and burdened. It is natural for the human heart to shut down and numb in conditions of stress, anxiety and disconnection. But, living in a state of numbness is both dissatisfying and dangerous. When we are numb, we are not available to higher order thinking or to real relationships. When we are unable to feel, we cannot operate from a place of compassion or flexibility or joy. Instead we become more reactive, as our survival instinct and amygdala take over –and move from a place of fight, flight or freeze.

As Brene Brown says, “You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing all our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”  The dimension of cultivating an open heart offers practices and inquiry to address the state of our own heart.  On a daily basis, we can ask ourselves—is my heart open or closed?  If it is closed, what has happened to close it down? And what do I need to do to open up my heart again—to life, to a student, to a colleague or parent? 

The dimension of open heart also focuses on how we can create culturally responsive and inclusive classrooms and a meaningful web of relationships in schools—so that all students and teachers flourish. When students have positive relationships with teachers, they are willing to take intellectual risks. When we as educators can bring our full hearts into the classroom and schools, we feel more deeply connected to our profession, to our passion for our content, and to our vital role with young people.

Although it may seem like common sense to “invest” in community building, with the pressure to meet academic outcomes, we can often feel a tension between teaching our content and building relationships. But what if we could do both at the same time? What if building relationships became part of our teaching pedagogy itself?  What if we knew that fostering rigor in the classroom is at the core of relational learning and that social and emotional development and academic learning were completely interconnected? This might help us to include and engage all of our students and enhance their learning as well.

A powerful line of daily inquiry for ourselves can be—what am I doing (and embodying) today to build positive relationships with my students and colleagues? How am I including the students that might otherwise be excluded or overlooked?  What biases of mine might get in the way of creating relationships?  What shifts in my students’ learning do I see when I invest in relationships? 

Think back to a teacher or mentor who deeply influenced you. Often these were people who touched our hearts as well as our minds. We all create relationships differently—and we all express our care differently. What is your way— and how can you stretch into new places to meet your students where they are?

Some essential aspects of cultivating an open heart are:
  • intentionally and purposefully investing in community building (to create inclusive and effective learning communities of excellence)
  • cultivating relational trust amongst students and colleagues
  • doing our own deep work to cultivate our “cultural responsiveness” (see definition below)
  • inviting students to share about their heritage, background, and culture –and have this represented in your classroom
  • examining our own beliefs, worldview and biases—so that we are more conscious of times when we shut our heart’s down to certain students because of difference (As educator and writer Lisa Delpit says in her book Other People’s Children, “…We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs.”)
  • learning and using students’ names
  • showing you care—in whatever way is natural to you
  • modeling and encouraging authentic self expression and risk taking in learning
  • practicing gratitude and sharing appreciations—with each other and with life
  • engaging in personal storytelling—as is relevant to your context and content
  • creating relevance and making explicit connections to students’ lives
  • engaging in practices that help you to keep your heart open–for example: mindfulness and contemplative practices, self-care, connecting with your colleagues at school, finding time for what and who you love, deepening your sense of meaning and purpose in your own life

Please keep in touch and let us know how it goes!

**Note on cultural responsiveness:
Culturally responsive practice builds learning communities of “inclusive excellence.” The ongoing practice of cultural responsiveness includes conscientiously interacting with other people and with systems—with an awareness of our own histories, contexts, filters and habits of mind AND with curiosity and an open heart. We enter each encounter willing to be informed and changed by the interaction and each other’s cultural perspective.

Links to research on the effectiveness of integrating Social, Emotional and Academic Learning:

This is Part 2 of a six-part series on the Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching. To read Part 1, click here.

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