What is Heart and How Does it Live at Teaching Lab?
While facilitating Teaching Lab's last state-wide professional learning session for Louisiana teachers, I observed over 300 teachers develop a roadmap for building “heart” in their schools and districts. For an entire day, they worked together to define what “heart” truly meant for them and how to create the conditions that would allow it to properly manifest in teacher professional learning. Specifically, we discussed the importance of building relationships and community amongst teachers, ensuring professional learning is relevant and meaningful, and using professional learning to enhance teacher buy-in and leadership. Leaders and educators know from research that “heart” is essential to effective professional learning; for this reason, it is one of the three core principles of Teaching Lab’s model. Yet, even though we have this knowledge, many of us continue to struggle with articulating what it actually looks and feels like in practice while ensuring that our organizations, team members, partners, teachers, and students all see and feel it for themselves.
Carrie Leana’s research article, The Missing Link in School Reform, served as a strong anchor point for our effort to define “heart” as a group. In the article, Leana exposes a critical gap in the way that school system leaders and policymakers approach solving the various points of failure within public education. She points out that leaders place too much emphasis on teacher human capital, which she defines as “teachers’ cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience”. The dominant belief in education has been that human capital is strengthened through investing in formal education and certification as well as investing in teachers’ development throughout their career, but Leana declares this is simply not enough. Attempting to develop teachers in isolation, whether that be through formal education programs or one-off professional learning experiences, hasn’t produced the impact on student performance we desire for a reason.
We’re looking at it all wrong.
When it comes to improving student outcomes, Leana’s research shows that school system leaders and policymakers should shift their emphasis from human capital alone to what she calls social capital. This means strengthening teacher relationships and their capacity to collaborate with one another in schools to improve performance and culture. We can make much more of an impact on student learning by combining investment in human capital with an increased investment in building spaces and opportunities for teachers to leverage and learn from one another.
Personally, my relationships with others have helped me grow more than any formal or one-off educational experiences. My first experience with Teaching Lab reinforces this belief. When I joined Teaching Lab, I was in the midst of redefining my career in education. A series of events had unfolded in my life that left me questioning my value as a professional within the education space. At a point where I didn't feel I was maximizing my fullest potential, I had the opportunity to join a team at Teaching Lab to help transform professional learning for other educators. My relationships with my new team members during this time of transition in my life helped me to see my own power to make a difference. When I was unsure if the impact of my efforts would be felt, my teammates reassured me that it would with time and effort. I was able to lean on them as I sharpened my skills and grew confidence until I felt assured in my abilities. For me, that revealed the true power of collaboration and leveraging relationships to improve the overall performance of a team.
Fast-forwarding to our meeting with Louisiana content leaders in December 2018, I witnessed a similar “relationship effect” taking place among participants. As we dove deeper into the meaning of heart, I saw teachers lean on each other as resources and I realized that this was what Leana meant when she stated that “trust and meaningful communication among teachers are the bases of true reform efforts”. This is what “heart” is all about—cultivating authentic relationships with each other and with stakeholders while building a culture of collaboration and care. That means we work together to help, encourage, and challenge one another, as well as help each other see our gaps or blind spots, when necessary.
As a team, we define heart as “teacher-led community that builds both social capital and buy-in from teachers”. Teachers deserve to feel a motivation to learn and a sense of community with their peers. With these components, educators are more likely to buy in to their own development and work collaboratively with their peers to improve instruction.
By the end of the day with teachers, we’d made progress toward defining “heart” but acknowledged that we weren’t finished just yet. We all felt “heart”. We all knew its value, its importance, and its weight. But we also knew that it would take time to develop it in practice. For now, we’ve got a working definition that resonates with our team, which we will use to guide and propel our work as we continue to refine our practice and build community and culture within and outside of our organization. As we build “heart” amongst ourselves, we look forward to working with even more leaders and teachers to help them find the “heart” in their work too.
Addie Kelley is a fellow at Teaching Lab where she works to enhance the professional learning experiences of teachers in Louisiana.