Teach from the heart: Heart based Education

Heart-Based Education

I was sitting in the busy office of an inspiring school principal’s de la Salle Primary School. “Carean, while you are young, I believe you have a lot of potential. I am aware that you are a substitute educator. However, are you prepared to go the distance?” I blinked, and that question lingered in the back of my mind for weeks following that meeting. As you can see, it is not common to find a substitute teacher (and I was replacing my friend who was supposed to be relieving the teacher of a primary two class). I was on vacation from my auditing job, and assisting a dear buddy who had decided against the relief stint was more out of curiosity for a position in teaching than genuine enthusiasm. However, that experience convinced me that I was fit for a completely different job – one that required more heart than numbers– which was recognized by the school leaders at de la Salle Primary, a missionary school.

What I later discovered was the critical nature of classroom connection. While teachers lugged worksheets and textbooks into the classroom, I divided my students into mini groups and engaged them in determining why they needed to learn to write. The result was an exchange of vibrant squarish paper with bold, uneven letters with the words that made the children prefer or despise writing. It illuminated a variety of issues: why children dislike writing, why they were forced to write about subjects they couldn’t relate to, and why they were required to memorize tiresome creative words when they had their own, if simple, metaphors. What I later discovered was the critical nature of classroom connection. While teachers lugged worksheets and textbooks into the classroom, I divided my students into mini groups and engaged them in determining why they needed to learn to write. The result was an exchange of vibrant squarish paper with bold, uneven letters with the words that made the children prefer or detest writing. It illuminated a variety of issues: why children dislike writing, why they were forced to write about subjects they couldn’t relate to, and why they were required to memorize tiresome creative words when they had their own, if simple, metaphors. I then immersed the class in activities with story character charts and a brief skit for the next hour. They could perform as their persona and write mini-stories. Though many were unable to satisfy the minimum word count requirements of the academic head’s official worksheets, they appreciated what creativity and writing were truly about. They looked forward to the subsequent lessons as a result of the experience. And they were fortunate. I had made a commitment to teach them for the remainder of the week. It must have taken a sharp-eyed vice principal to stumble upon the encounters, which irrevocably altered the course of my career. 

I’ve been teaching for two decades now. Year after year, I continue to feel fulfilled in delivering my service as a teacher, and now that I’ve spent enough time in the field, I advise teachers and parents as an education consultant. One of my friends, who assists me in managing my administrative responsibilities at the private school where I teach, stated, “Leave the job to me.” You are destined to teach. Never lose sight of this.

That encapsulates the most of my existence as a teacher. “Carean, teaching is a vocation,” Sam Wong, the headmaster of Canberra Primary School, said to me when he promoted me to Head of Department. And I see that you are going above and beyond the call of duty as a teacher.” Heart-Based Teaching equips instructors with the skills necessary to access and sustain their compassionate hearts in the classroom. I realized why Sam was determined to improve things during my first year at Kranji Primary School, an ordinary neighbourhood school. We altered the way children learned in just two years. Together, we created ICT corners, bought tablets for the children, renovated the Science garden and enabled students to learn music through the use of technology. Although it was challenging, it took courage to create the finest learning environment possible for a developing generation. Singapore was prospering in that time period, and these students would benefit tremendously from exposure to technology-based education.

Those were also the years during which I encountered a number of children with disabilities. I came from a family of very bright siblings – all of my siblings became successful doctors – and I was a top student in secondary school for four years in a row, continuing on to earn good grades in university. Not everyone, however, was born equal. As a new head of department, I had to combine school administration, consultation for students’ parents, and managing my own classes of children from diverse backgrounds in a standard school. I met Julie* and Say Cheng*, who profoundly influenced my approach to teaching. These children were desperate to make a difference in their lives. They desired to excel but were constrained by a life of learning issues. They were dyslexic and autistic as well. It took considerable research and months of training through professional development classes to really comprehend their struggles and teach these struggling students.

I discovered what it meant to teach from the heart. When teachers are invested in their pupils, students are invested in themselves, their peers, their teachers, and their education. Teachers and students collaborate in the Heart-Based Teaching (HBT) approach to not only achieve the cognitive goals of “school and performance readiness,” but also to create a classroom environment conducive to the development of the social emotional knowledge and skills associated with personal and career success. Julie and Say Cheng’s confidence grew significantly during the next few years, and they are now successful adults who still maintain contact with me.

More than being able to understand children is required for heart-centred teaching. It is motivated by an unwavering commitment to the educational mission. You do not need to be an experienced teacher to teach from the heart. A teacher’s purpose at a high-quality school is to foster an environment in which everyone in the system, particularly kids, has their needs fulfilled responsibly and respectfully. It is even more critical that in the coming decade, heart-centred education is recognised and practised. Strengthening our present-moment awareness, assisting us in regulating our own emotions and behaviours, and increasing our sensitivity to and compassion for students will go a long way toward developing compassionate students who will contribute to a better society.

- Carean Oh

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