Teaching With Heart Practices

The teaching with heart practices listed are divided into three categories:

  1. Practices that are easy to implement and that take little time.
  2. Practices that require reflection and a change of habits.
  3. Practices that require a sustained effort.

Please send us your suggestions for additional Teaching with Heart practices.

Practices that are easy to implement and that take little time

The practices below are easy to implement and take little class time or preparation time, and take little new skills of teachers. We just need to remind ourselves to pay attention to these practices.

Use name tents and ask for preferred pronouns

We all have a deep desire to be heard and seen, and our students yearn to be known as individuals. Hence, it is important for teachers to use students’ names. Handing out name tents is an easy way to use names immediately and learn them more quickly. Going over the name tents during a lull in the class activities is an easy way to memorize names. Asking students to indicate preferred pronouns on the name tent helps teachers recognize and honor the identity of students. Do not force students to share pronouns, simply inviting students to identify as they wish creates a supportive and inclusive learning environment.

ask students how you can best support them

Many students have specific needs, challenges, or insecurities, and it helps us as teachers to be aware of this. An easy way to learn about these needs is to ask students through an optional questionnaire that students can complete using Learning Management Software. Open-ended questions, such as “how can I best support you?” or “is there anything I need to know about you?” give the most revealing answers. Just asking such questions is very much appreciated by students. When discussing the syllabus at the start of a course, you can ask students “what are your expectations for me?”

Be available, come to class early, and reach out to students

A spontaneous in-person conversation is one of the best ways to connect with students. As teachers we can easily create moments for such conversation by coming to class 5 minutes earlier, not to tinker with projection equipment, but to strike up conversations with students. We can send a quick email to a student who has missed classes to remind them of support options. A walk from one building to the next after class is another opportunity to connect with students. You could end every group email with a statement such as “I love to see you during office hours.”

Put a few items that a student may need in your bag

Sometimes students need our help. They may be hungry, they may be in pain, or they may have hurt themselves. It means much to students if we can help them in such moments. We can do this  putting the following items in our bag:
  • a snack, such as a granola bar,
  • a painkiller, for example Tylenol, and
  • a few Band-Aids.

Bringing these items is easy and cheap, and students appreciate it enormously if we can help them with these items in a difficult moments. And the benefits go beyond the student in need; all students feel cared for by a simple gesture of support. We all need somebody who acts like a parent at times!

Be grateful and thank your students

It is striking that in academia we consistently speak about teaching load, and never use the words research load. Words matter, and the use of the phrase teaching load communicates that many of us see teaching as a burden. Don’t think that students won’t notice if this is how we see teaching, emotional contagion is real. Instead of seeing teaching a load, see it as part of your job that can be meaningful and fulfilling. Be grateful for the students that take your classes, and express your gratitude by thanking your students for being in your class. Or even better, have a celebration for being in class together and bring a snack for your students!

Mix with students outside the classroom

Students love to get to know their teachers outside the classroom. Spending time with students outside the classroom gives the opportunity to get to know each other better and in different ways. It also creates the opportunity to step out of the hierarchy that might exist in a classroom environment. How could you mix with students outside the classroom? Perhaps you can attend sport events, be faculty advisor to a student club, attend a play or other event organized by students, or simply go to one of the dining places on campus and sit down with students. The photo shows Chuck Stone, who champions building connections with students at Mines. He stands behind the pumpkin wearing an orange shirt on a day when students decided to dress as Chuck wearing shorts in Colorado winter weather.

Chuck Stone with students

Have fun 

As teachers we often are very serious, focusing on the class material and leaving little space for fun and enjoyment. Bringing some levity to class helps lighten the atmosphere. For holidays, such as Halloween, invite students to come to class dressed up, and if you are adventurous you can dress up yourself too. Bring treats to class. Celebrate birthdays by leading the class in song, or bring cake once a semester for all the students who had their birthday in that semester.

Help students navigate the system 

It can be daunting for students to navigate the university system. Challenges that can raise the stress levels of students include the institutional bureacracy, regristration for classes, and the conflicting requirements of different classes. Discussing such challengs help students navigate the system, but it also shows that as a teacher you aware of what’s going on in student’s  lives beyond your course, and that you feel for them. You may be able to share your insights into the system, which can be particularly useful for first-generation students and transfer students.

Practices that require practice and a change of habits

The practices below may require some practice because they involve a change of behavior and and/or a different way of looking at your students and yourself. Some of these practices may get you out of your comfort zone.

Be aware of privileges

The wheel of privilege and power offers a graphic way to review factors such as gender, skin color, and sexual orientation that helps us be aware of factors that determine privileges and access or barriers to opportunities. Being aware that our students may face challenges related to their backgrounds that we may not have experienced develops compassion for our students and empowers underprivileged students through visibility.

Show up as a whole person and be willing to be vulnerable

As teachers, we cannot educate the “whole person” if we do not show as whole persons in class. Students appreciate it when we share our passions, our insecurities, and other drivers of our behavior in class. When intellectual humility becomes part of our teaching, we come off our pedestal as teachers, which helps students connect with us as humans who are also learning. As the saying goes “guide on the side, not like a sage on the stage.” 
Susan Reynolds shares the figure on the right with student early on in courses that she teaches. The strengths that she lists communicate how she thinks, but also that student care is on her mind. The weaknesses that she lists communicate that, just like her students, she is not perfect. Sharing her challenges also may help students understand why she behaves and reacts in the way that she does. This is a wonderful way to put on a human face for our students!

Be intentional in building the container for your class

It helps in every course to set the tone for a course in the first class(es), this is like building the container in which the teaching and learning takes place. It is tempting to focus on outcomes, assessment, and grading. These are important topics, but limiting the conversation to these topics communicates to students that as a teacher we there to evaluate and judge. Why not extend the conversation to more inspiring topics? As a teacher you could communicate a sense of joy for the topic, you could be inspirational, you could communicate that you want the class to be a safe environment where students are heard and seen, and that you care about students. The course syllabus is, of course, another opportunity to communicate this to students.

Encourage students to be fearless

Many students live in fear of being “wrong” because being “right” is important for passing tests and for being rewarded in many classes. Learning is, however, an activity of trial and error, and being “wrong” is part of the creative process. We can encourage our students to think boldly, to experiment with different ideas, to express fearlessly, and, yes, to be “wrong” at times without being judged negatively.

Develop students’ analytical and intuitive thinking

Teaching in technical fields leans heavily on analytical thinking, which is important in science and engineering. But progress in these fields often relies on creative sparks, courage, mistakes, play, and free-flowing conversations. Bringing intuitive thinking into the classroom not only helps progress in science and engineering, it also fosters the development of balanced young professionals.

Promote students’ wellbeing

In the rush to get through class material, we may forget to address the wellbeing of students. We can show we value student wellbeing by spending some class time on a conversation about wellness and campus resources, by not giving assignments over breaks, and by embodying healthy wellness practices ourselves. But most importantly, we should avoid reinforcing the common perception that higher education is only about grit and competition. Meaningful education cares about growth and fulfillment.

Take good care of yourself

How do you think your teaching is going when you are sleep deprived, loaded with caffeine, irritable because of stress, or stuffy and stiff because of lack of exercise? As Sarah Cavenaugh points out in her piece They Need us to be Well, it is hard to teach well if we don’t take care of ourselves. This involves sufficient sleep, balanced nutrition, mental hygiene, and physical exercise. It is difficult to reconcile this with the fast-paced life of academia. The book  The Joy of Science, Seven Principles for Scientists Seeking Happiness, Harmony, and Success contains much useful advice. And remember: you are not selfish if you take care of yourself!

Prioritize important issues over the class schedule

Sometimes traumatic events occur that preoccupy students’ minds. An example is a suicide on campus. Students appreciate it very much to have a class conversation when such events happen. By doing this we not only create a platform where students can discuss unsettling events, but also emphasize the importance of coming together in community in times of crisis. A 20-minute class conversation can make a huge difference!

Teach with a humble heart

Being the expert in front of students and holding power over their grades can be an ego-gratifying experience, which might lead us to teach with a mindset of superiority. But if we bring a humble heart to the classroom, students feel much safer, and we better serve their needs. Teaching with humility may help us be aware that our explanations might not be perfect for every student, and we could offer alternative explanations or resources. It stops us from pretending to be perfect and all-knowing, and instead we may show our doubts or gaps in what we know. Humility may help us remember what it was like to be a student and the challenges that we faced. And perhaps most importantly, a humble mindset helps us be aware that teaching is not about us as teacher; it is about students’ growth and learning.

Focus on the potential of students instead of their current level

Some teachers get their satisfaction from teaching students performing at the highest level. It is natural that we like to teach to our star-students, but, by definition, not all students are “the best.” Our perspective and satisfaction as teachers can shift dramatically when we focus not on the current academic achievement of students, but on their growth rate. When we make that mental shift, student growth drives our teaching, not metrics and rankings.

Be patient

Good teaching requires patience. We cannot control the learning-rate of students, and we may have to go over difficult points several times. And when we are teaching the same class year after year, we go over the same material time and time again simply because we are teaching to a new group of students who may face the same difficulties as students in previous years. Often students have forgotten topics that they learned earlier–forgetting  is normal in a healthy brain–and as a result we may have to go over topics several times before students get it. Patience allows us to deal with this unavoidable part of learning without feeling irritated. The figure is from Murre and Dros (2015). After a day we loose about 40% of what we had learned unless it is reinforced. That is a good thing to remember when we teach!

Adapt to the learning needs of students

As teachers we may be inclined to think that students learn in the same way as we do. For some students that may be case, but we may have students in our classes that have learning needs that are different from our own. Their hearing or vision may be impaired, or they face other physical challenges. Other students may be neurodivergent, for example in the form of dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, or being on the autistic spectrum. Some students may need special accommodations, for example, we might help a hearing-impaired student by using a microphone. Students who have a hard time focusing can benefit from the ability to draw or doodle during class. Some students may feel so much stress and anxiety by being in a classroom environment, that they learn better from material provided outside the classroom. How do we know what assistance students need? Asking them and giving them the option of responding in-person or online may be the best way to get the feedback that we need as teachers to create a productive and safe learning environment for all students.

Practices that require a sustained effort

The habits below are most difficult to incorporate because they involve looking at students in a new way. To do so  requires a sustained practice, and it may take years to make these practices habitual. These practices may also have the largest positive impact on students.

See the inner person beyond the outer person

We all have outer lives (e.g. our body and our verbal expression), and inner lives (e.g. emotions or dreams). It is easy to exclusively focus on the outer lives of students, but we may miss perceiving their inner lives. Through careful observations and compassionate listening, we get glimpses of students’ inner lives. This helps us to connect better with students and support them more meaningfully.

Listen deeply

To see the inner person in students, we need to listen deeply. In fact we all want to be heard and seen, and our students are no different. But deep listening is not easy and it takes much practice. It involves avoiding distractions–put away your phone and laptop, it involves careful observation by listening well and by picking up subtle cues from body language, and it entails listening for the “story behind the story.” Deep listening requires that we let go of preconceptions and stop telling ourselves a story; we simply are to take in what the other shares. But most importantly, deep listening means that we are quiet. In doing so, we resist the temptation to jump in and correct or give advice, no matter how good our intentions are.

Always love your students, even if you don’t feel like it

If only we would always be a loving presence! The reality is that we sometimes are stressed or irritated and find it difficult to teach with a loving mindset. Cultivating our own well-being and approaching student interactions compassionately helps us consistently create a classroom environment in which students feel safe and cared for. Professor Alex Kauffman phrased it well when  he said “you can only teach well when you love every student in your class, without exception.” This can be challenge, especially with students that push our buttons or when we are tired or stressed, but it is worth it to aim for such a loving stance!

Be mindful and encourage students to be mindful

Sometimes we don’t show up in different ways that we want to show up. We may be stressed or distracted and are not really present for students. Or we simply may not aware of how we show up in class. Being mindful helps us be aware of what goes on in the classroom as well as in ourselves. This awareness can reorient our behavior towards the way in which we seek to show up. Taking time for reflection or participating in a mindulness curriculum helps grow mindfulness. Even a brief centering on the way to class can help is be aware of our emotional state and to set an intention of how we show up in class. Students may, for the same reasons, also benefit from being mindful. You can have conversation about mindfulness in class and provide students with resources for being mindful. You can even start class with a meditation, as Karen Gipson does in some of her physics classes.