Finding a Path with a Heart

Ancient Greek mosaic detail with heart shaped floral pattern. Archaeological site of Kerameikos northwest of the Acropolis.
Credit: iStock.com/GrigoriosMoraitis
“Learning Outcomes for Instructors, Not Just Students.” That was the title—and message—of an earlier article I wrote for The Teaching Professor. Writing it set me on an important path (or perhaps reminded me of the path I was already on): I am a learner alongside my students, albeit with different learning outcomes. Mine revolve around achieving a state of acceptance, enjoyment, or enthusiasm in my teaching experiences.

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“Learning Outcomes for Instructors, Not Just Students.” That was the title—and message—of an earlier article I wrote for The Teaching Professor. Writing it set me on an important path (or perhaps reminded me of the path I was already on): I am a learner alongside my students, albeit with different learning outcomes. Mine revolve around achieving a state of acceptance, enjoyment, or enthusiasm in my teaching experiences.

I suspect those outcomes apply to every reader of this publication. It’s a safe bet, after all, that every instructor wants to view each teaching experience through the lens of a positive emotional response.

But identifying these learning outcomes is just the first step. Figuring out how to forge a path toward them is the next challenge.

The literature on teaching and learning is of little help here. Filled with benchmarks, discussions, and analyses of student learning outcomes, it is notably silent on the matter from the instructor’s perspective. For guidance on how to achieve these learning outcomes, therefore, we need to explore beyond conventional pedagogical sources. For me, that exploration led back to my undergraduate days where I found a starting place in this question—and commentary—by Carlos Castaneda (1968): “Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good” (p. 45).

Since our learning outcomes are emotion based, it makes sense to start with the heart, which has long been regarded as the seat of our emotions. Why else would we instinctively rest a hand on our heart when we feel a strong emotion? A glimpse at ancient Egyptian beliefs provides further insight: the Egyptians honored the heart—not the intellect—as the source of wisdom as well as emotions (Carelli, 2011). Thus, both wisdom and emotion become linked through their shared source. Vestiges of this belief echo today in this popular advice, frequently given to educators: students may forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. Therefore, as instructors, we must pay close attention to our emotions. After all, if our goal is to be accepting, joyful, or enthusiastic teachers, we need to check in regularly with our feelings, determining what gap, if any, exists between how we want to feel and what we actually feel.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The postsecondary institutions where most of us teach typically foster a culture that elevates the intellect above all else, often at the expense of our emotions. Getting a teaching position or promotion in this culture means we devote inordinate amounts of time to acquiring advanced degrees and ongoing academic credentials, so we can prove to a hiring or tenure and promotion committee that we’re, well, smart. So much focus on left-brain pursuits leaves little left over for attending to our emotions. It might even convince us that emotions play no role, or a limited role at best, in our teaching lives—a mindset that sabotages our emotion-based learning outcomes right from the start.

In fact, this mindset might sabotage any efforts to become a good teacher. According to Parker Palmer, the best instructors connect fully with their subject matter and their students because they connect fully with their own “inner landscape”—a terrain that includes their emotions (Palmer, 1998).

I decided to follow both Castaneda and Palmer’s advice, and thus work toward my learning outcomes, by implementing a simple daily practice: an important part of my preparation for any teaching activity is to imagine how good I will feel about myself at the end of the activity. Every class, student consult, or grading session becomes an exercise to achieve that one goal: to feel good.

I know. My approach is starting to sound questionable, like a self-indulgent, “feel good” bromide. More to the point, it raises some serious questions. Can an instructor place their own feelings at the center of their teaching efforts and still claim a learner-centered approach? With so much emphasis on feelings, can they still retain their hard-won intellectual credibility?

The answer to both questions is yes.

I set my emotions at the forefront of my teaching activities not to replace but to reinforce all the intellectual effort that goes into those activities. After all, I’m not likely to meet my goal of feeling good about myself if the class content is uninspired, the student’s needs not met, or the assignments halfheartedly reviewed. The path to feeling good is forged through the hard work of logic, critical thinking and objectivity.

And this path leads directly to my learning outcomes, increasing the likelihood that I’ll meet my students with acceptance, joy and enthusiasm.

That’s a prospect that makes me feel incredibly good—and I wager it will make my students feel equally so.  

References

Carelli, F. (2011). The book of death: Weighing your heart. London Journal of Primary Care, 4(1), 86–87. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3960665

Castaneda, C. (1968). The teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui way of knowledge. University of California Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. John Wiley & Sons.


Joan Flaherty, MA, MSc, is an associate professor in the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph and the faculty adviser to Hornblower, the school’s annual student magazine. She is also the author of The Counterintuitive Writer: A Writing Guide for Students . . . and for Others (Rock’s Mills Press, 2018). You can reach her at jflahert@uoguelph.ca.