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Two faces with the tops of their heads open face each other; in one open head, a man stands and pours from a watering can into the other, out of which grows a plant with a lightbulb on top

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The preparation of teachers in higher education is often built on two pillars: design and pedagogy. The first pillar, course design, covers the formulation of outcomes, the ways in which the outcomes can be assessed and how the material is presented to reach those outcomes. The second pillar, pedagogy, concerns the way teachers present course material. It includes active or passive learning, flipping the classroom (or not), and techniques to foster motivation.

Design and pedagogy are vital for delivering a course well, and it is for this reason that teacher preparation in higher education focuses on those two issues. But one important aspect is missing.

Although essential for high-quality teaching, design and pedagogy alone do not account for how each of us shows up in the classroom as an instructor. We can go through the class material either by showing a real interest in students, or we can present the class in a routine fashion. We can work with a student who struggles, or we can invest a minimum amount of time in the class. We can focus only on the top students in the class, or we can pay attention to the students for whom our teaching can potentially make the largest difference. Every classroom moment is a choice point, every encounter leaves a trace and the choices every teacher makes depend on their frame of mind.

That’s why teacher preparation in higher education needs to address the mind-set, or character, of instructors.

Our behavior and the choices that we make depend on our character, which in turn is shaped by the beliefs that we hold. For example, if we believe that life is about survival of the fittest, then we are likely to create a competitive classroom environment. In that case, we might focus on the best students, stress individual achievement and grade on the curve. By contrast, if we believe that life is about cooperation, then we are more likely to encourage group work and to invest our efforts in helping all students succeed.

In practice, design, pedagogy and character influence each other. A course that is designed to contain lots of material—sometimes, in fact, too much material—does not leave much room for a pedagogy that allows students to explore. Likewise, a pedagogy that involves a flipped classroom poses a challenge for a teacher who believes that students will only study when forced to do so. An instructor who believes that course material should be put in the context of societal or environmental use will not thrive in a course designed to deliver material in an abstract way outside of such a context.

Our project, Teaching With Heart, strives to bring character into the preparation of college and university teachers. Funded by the Templeton Foundation, the project aims to enrich higher education by growing a character of love in college instructors in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

We work with cohorts of teachers that go through a workshop series and share their experiences in developing and applying Teaching With Heart practices into their classroom. In the workshop series, we employ experiential and meditative techniques to help instructors develop an awareness of their beliefs—especially those that cultivate a character of love—and reframe their beliefs, and the expression of those beliefs in their teaching style, in a positive way. A prime tool for instructors to become aware of the character that they want to bring to the classroom is to write a Teaching With Heart statement and to share this statement with other teachers in the cohort.

For example, in their Teaching With Heart statements, instructors might articulate that they are invested in creating a learning environment where students feel safe. That intention may direct them away from a teaching style that focuses on creating busywork and a grading policy that instills the fear of failure in students. In a safe learning environment, students are more likely to ask questions, and research has shown that students learn better in an environment with positive emotions.

Working with the instructors, we discovered two concerns that teachers have for bringing a character of love to the classroom. One concern that some teachers feel is that bringing a character of love to the classroom will make others in their institution perceive them as weak. We heard this especially from tenure-track faculty members who were part of a minority group. Institutions can counter those concerns by explicitly stating that care for students is part of their values and by including care for students in expectations for faculty and the criteria for tenure. We encourage teaching and learning centers to include a module on character in their programs for teacher training, and we are happy to work with centers to give shape to such a module.

The other primary concern is that many teachers confuse bringing love to the classroom with being soft in the sense of being overly lenient and accommodating. We dispel this misconception by pointing out that, as with good parenting, a loving stance also involves setting boundaries and expectations.

In reflective exercises, we ask instructors in the program to call to mind a former teacher who had a positive impact on them. Not once has anyone in our program had trouble remembering such a positive role model. And when we ask, “Did this teacher pamper you?” the response usually is that the instructor posed challenges and was demanding but also very supportive. That helps participants in our program recognize that supporting students is completely different from pampering them.

Our thoughts and beliefs matter—and they show up in our classrooms. The character of instructors—and the evaluation and possibly reframing of the mind-set that regulates this character—should be part of teacher preparation.

Roel Snieder is a professor of professional development education at the Colorado School of Mines; Cortney Holles is a teaching professor in the humanities, arts and social sciences at the Colorado School of Mines; Cynthia James is a speaker, author and coach; and Qin Zhu is an associate professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech. They are the project team for Teaching With Heart.

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