The Heart of Teaching

What makes a great teacher? This is an aspect of education I have long wrestled with, and my recent teaching sabbatical has helped to create the space for the world to teach me a little about this (see ‘Leaving space for the world to teach us’). It is not so much about what separates poor teaching from good teaching, that has always been easier to define. If you don’t know your content, or your learners, or what truth about the world you are looking to explore, then this can be viewed as poor practice. However, what if you do know your content, your students, and what you are trying to teach? Does that automatically make you a great teacher rather than a competent one? My experience has shown me that it doesn’t, but I have previously found it difficult to explain why. What do you say to the competent teacher who is planned, prepared for lessons with sufficient content, ideas and resources, and supports students to progress in their learning, but as yet lacks that ‘special something’ that really engages or transforms students? How do you define this or talk about it with teachers?

Palmer (1998) said that good teaching requires self knowledge. He argued that good teaching emerges from the inner self, and that there is more to teaching than just learning strategies and methods of imparting knowledge, although these aspects are important: “Technique is what you use until the teacher arrives” (Chapter 1: The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching). Palmer argued that teaching cannot be reduced to technique; teaching is about the integrity and identity of the teacher. This is not just about the good aspects of ourselves, the ‘light’. It is also about the shadows in ourselves, our limits, wounds and fears. Good teachers weave the light and shadows in themselves together with their content and their knowledge of their students, so that “students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (Chapter 1).

In ‘Healing the Heart of Democracy’ (2011), Palmer points to the heart, not just as a place of emotions but as the core of the self, where all of our ways of knowing merge. He claimed the heart is “the place where our knowledge can become more fully human” (p.6). When all that we know about the self and world come together and we teach from the heart, we are “more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know”(p.6). The courage to teach is, according to Palmer, “the courage to keep one’s heart open in the very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able” (Palmer, 1998. Chapter 1: The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching).

The idea of talking about the heart in teaching may well seem to many as very fluffy and woolly, with not much rigour or robustness involved. How do you talk with other teachers about their heart? Palmer argues that this is exactly what we need to do. If good teaching is about integrity and identity, then if we want to keep growing as teachers, we need to open up and talk about who we are, our fears, limits, strengths and potentials. We need to talk about our inner lives, “risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract” (Palmer, 1997, p.12).

Biesta (2013) posited that an issue in modern education is that in trying to make education risk-free, a very functionalist approach to teaching is being used, one where, if you follow a prescribed set of processes, you will indeed become a competent teacher. This drive to uniformity is, Biesta claims, worrying  (Chapter 7: Virtuosity). Instead of looking for a risk-free approach to teaching, Biesta points to the multi-dimensional nature of teaching, with education functioning in three main domains: qualification (equipping students with skills, knowledge and dispositions); socialisation (initiating students in existing social, cultural and political practices); and subjectification (impacting the unique individual each student is, so they can exist outside of social orders). These three domains overlap and intertwine, with teachers constantly needing to make judgements about how to balance the different domains. These judgements lie in what Palmer points to as the heart of teaching, the heart of every teacher. They cannot be prescribed.

When we only look at teaching as a set of competencies, as a job or a task, it is possible to miss the core aspect of teaching, the gift that teachers can bring when they bring their whole selves. I recently witnessed an interaction between a teacher and a student that was what I consider to be a good, seemingly simple act of teaching. It did not appear to be planned or choreographed, and at the time I was unsure as to whether it had simply been happenstance or a deliberate, educationally wise approach. Talking with teachers afterwards helped to clarify it as the latter. As I observed a group of teenage students working on an inquiry task with several teachers, one boy strode up and down the corridor next to the space looking sullen and unhappy. He dragged his bag along the floor and periodically banged or kicked against lockers. No-one attended to him or seemed to pay him any attention; I wondered if they had even noticed him. At the time I had to resist the temptation to intervene and try to help him, though as a visitor in the learning space I knew it was not my place to do so. After a short while he paced closer to the group, until eventually he stood on the outskirts of it, close to one of the teachers. The teacher casually and brightly said hello to him and asked him how his weekend had been. A brief, positive exchange happened between the two, and the teacher then told the boy what the students were doing as they engaged in making a learning resource. He pointed to several boys close by and explained what they were doing. The teacher then moved off, over to several other boys to engage with them. At no point was it suggested that the student in question join in. The student stayed on the outskirts for another minute or so, observing, and then he skirted close to another teacher who also cheerfully greeted him and casually told him where the different resources that the other students were using could be found. That teacher also then moved away. I observed the teachers engaging with other students for a couple of minutes, and when I looked back at the first student, he had joined the group, put down his bag and was beginning to engage with the task, talking with several other students as he did so.

When I talked with several teachers afterwards, I found out that this student could be extremely confrontational, and direct attempts in the past to get him to engage with learning had often been unsuccessful, violently so at times. However, the teachers had still offered him an invitation to engage, albeit a tentative one to be taken up on his terms. Despite his antisocial behaviours in the past, they had been obviously happy to see him and had gently and carefully shown him the picture of what it looked like to be part of the group. They hadn’t demanded or requested that he be part, they had simply left it open for him to do so, giving him enough information to make it possible for him to join in, just in case he decided he would.

How did those teachers know that this is what the student needed at that very point? How did they know not to intervene sooner, as I think I would have done? How did they know not to worry about the banging of the lockers or the potential wasting of his learning time? They used practical wisdom.  Biesta (2011) talks about practical wisdom as making “wise educational judgements” (Chapter 7: Virtuosity). It is not simply about having a set of competencies, but also about knowing when to use which competence in any given situation. It is about continually weighing up the balance of those three educational domains, knowing that it may look different in each situation. The place where this “weighing up” is done, is not the head but the heart - the place where all ways of knowing come together.

In ‘The Rediscovery of Teaching’ (2017) Biesta talked about the task of education as “making the grown-up existence of another human being in and with the world possible” (Chapter 1: The Educational Task). By being ‘grown-up’ Biesta was not talking about a developmental stage, but rather a way of being in the world that means you can be in and with the world, but not need to be the centre of it. When you show grown-up-ness, you are acknowledging that the world is not entirely of your making nor entirely at your disposal. Biesta went on to place teaching as a responsibility, as “a tension between ‘what-is’ and ‘what-is-not-yet’” (Chapter 6: Teaching as Dissensus). As such, teachers need to choose to hold something in their heart as they teach, if they are to help the ‘what-is-not-yet’ come to fruition. They need to see the promise that lies in the future for each student, no matter how unlikely it seems in the present. They then need to teach towards the promise of grown-up-ness, as teaching to that promise opens the possibility for it to occur, even if it does not do so. This is what those teachers had done with the confrontational student. They had worked towards the promise that this student had gifts to offer, and that he wanted to be part of positive social situations with others despite all the evidence to the contrary. This responsibility that teachers can choose to take up is more than a set of competencies or techniques. It is also not something all teachers may do all of the time. But it is our task, our responsibility, if we choose to embrace it.

I now have a little more understanding about what teaching entails, and about what separates the competent from the great. The presence of the heart; the weaving together of the self, the student and the subject; the acceptance of the responsibility to grown-up-ness and the ‘what-is-not-yet’. This may sound nebulous and lacking in rigour, but it is in its risk and ‘weakness’ that the power lies: it lies not only with a set of prescribed techniques or learning intentions that we can follow faithfully and tick off as we achieve them, but also in judgements made from the heart, balancing the inner self with the student and the world, to take a leap of faith in and with our students.


The world of education today is an increasingly chaotic and complex one. In the words of Bolstad and Gilbert (2012) it is a world with “an unprecedented degree of complexity, fluidity and uncertainty” (p.11). There are constant calls for educators to evolve and modernise teaching practice to fit with 21st century needs. In doing so, we need to embrace all possibilities using both-and thinking; in a complex world we need to embrace complex answers, not ones that are binary or risk-free.

Teaching from the heart is a risky proposition. It exposes your vulnerabilities, as good teachers “must stand where personal and public meet” (Palmer, 1998. Chapter 1: The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching). It is hard to quantify and understand, and harder still to evaluate and assess.  How do you bring your whole self to the classroom? How do you talk with other teachers about your heart, your inner life? I am not yet sure, but I recognise it when I see or feel it, and I know when it feels ‘right’. This is not to say that teacher competencies, techniques and standards should not be valued and used, they are just not the whole picture. Good teachers hear their students, can “listen to those voices even before they are spoken - so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence” (Palmer 1998. Chapter 2: A Culture of Fear: Education and the Disconnected Life). They make space for them, are aware of them and honour them, even if the students do not appear to care or are not yet talking. They teach to the promise of ‘what-is-not-yet’. This is what we should be constantly striving for.

My own thinking has developed markedly as I head back into teaching after my sabbatical. My view of what education and teaching involve has grown and deepened, and I now have a little more insight into my own teaching and that of the colleagues I work with and lead. I have more questions to ask and answer, and more hope in my heart about the future of education and the future of the students I work with.


Biesta, G. (2013). The Beautiful Risk of Education. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

Biesta, G. (2017). The Rediscovery of Teaching. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

Bolstad, R and Gilbert, J. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching - a New Zealand perspective. NZCER

Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

Palmer, P. (2011). Healing the Heart of Democracy. San Francisco, United States: Jossey-Bass.


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