Teaching From the Heart

by Lynn E. Nielsen in Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA

I am a teacher. In 1972, I began my career teaching 5th- and 6th-grade social studies in the Midwest where, exactly 20 years before, I had started kindergarten. I was part of the Boomer generation that hit the schools in crushing numbers just after the war. From 1941 to 1945, many of our fathers were occupied with fighting the war in Europe and Asia. When they returned, they became occupied with families-making them. Like a junior Invasion of Normandy, wave after wave of 5-year-olds like me descended on the schools armed with crayons, Big Red tablets, and kindergarten nap mats.

A lot has changed since I started school. Dwight Eisenhower was elected President in 1952. Television sets of that era looked like a large, hulking Cyclops with one small eye projecting images of Ozzie and Harriet, and Lucy. Princess Elizabeth of Britain became Queen Elizabeth and microwave ovens were first made available for domestic use.

Since 1952, political shifts, social changes, and technological advances have made teachers’ lives more complex, more convenient, and sometimes even more comfortable. Today, Powerpoint presentations, computer labs, and the Web have replaced the blackboard world of the 1950s. When I think of my best teachers, however, clearly the measure of their effectiveness was not defined by any instructional magic they performed with the latest gadget. Instead, the connections they made with the subject, the class, and me were all the difference. Despite the unprecedented technological changes of the last decades, the foundations of good teaching have not changed in the 50 years since I started school.

Parker Palmer (1998) identifies good teaching with something he calls connectedness:

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely; lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts. (p. 11)

To illuminate Palmer’s concept of connectedness, I want to tell the stories of two special teachers who entered my life in ways that permanently transformed me as a student and a teacher. In short, we connected.

First, let me tell you about Max. He is the reason I am a teacher today. The year was 1957 and Max was my 4th-grade teacher. Like countless other children, I liked him. Also, my hair was red like his. Simply put, he was a role model and I connected with him. I connected with his steadiness, his even temper, and his warmth and affection for children.

To this day, I vividly remember minute details about that class, what we did and what we learned. While I have retained in my mental scrapbook only vague images of other school years, the memories on the pages of my 4th-grade scrapbook are as clear as if they are being replayed on high-definition, wide-screen television.

We studied Australia and the other continents that year. When my classmates and I learned the names of all seven continents, we got to go into Max’s office and choose a National Geographic map-one we were allowed to actually keep. I chose Africa.

We learned about animal classification; about marsupials, reptiles, and amphibians. We not only read about reptiles, we also observed them firsthand-one of the classroom garter snakes we captured from a nearby creek was frequently loose in the classroom.

We also studied Switzerland and read stories about Heidi and her friend Peter. We learned about Swiss watches, mountains, goats, and caves. We took a field trip to a nearby cave, where I took my first pictures with my mom’s box camera. We learned to play chess and held a classroom tournament. We elected class officers and were introduced to parliamentary procedure.

Later, when I was around the age of 30 and a doctoral student, I reminisced about Max with my major professor. Much to my surprise, my professor and Max had briefly taught in the same building years before. I told my professor how Max had unknowingly shaped my ambition to become a teacher. I described my vivid memories of 4th grade, how much I learned, and how Max had connected with me.

I wasn’t prepared for the response. My professor nodded smugly, saying, “Oh yes-but his messy bulletin boards. . . .” Evidently they were not exemplary.

I have no memories of Max’s bulletin boards. Nor do I remember anything messy about our classroom, although it probably was. But good 4th-grade classrooms should not be made for analysis. They should be made for children, and I was one child who didn’t notice or care about the finer points of bulletin board design or classroom clutter. I did, however, notice the connection I had with Max, a connection that influenced my entire professional life.

If Max is the reason I became a teacher, Maureen is the reason I am still a teacher. She is the reason I didn’t run screaming from my first teaching job. I met Maureen in 1972 when I was hired to teach 5th- and 6th-grade social studies. As soon as the ink was dry on my teaching contract, the principal showed me my classroom and said something to the effect of “Here it is. Go to it.”

I didn’t tell him that while I possessed a valid teaching license, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. The knowledge gained as a student teacher had grown dim during the two years I spent in the Army. I had student taught in the middle of the year, when the students already had their books, desk assignments, and lockers. I had no idea how teachers went about preparing for the beginning of the school year. I was in trouble. It was Atigust, and my students were almost at the door.

Enter calm and reassuring Maureen. She taught 4th grade. Although there was no official mentoring program at that time, she became my volunteer mentor as I entered that first scary year of teaching. A veteran of many years of classroom experience, she took me around the school, made suggestions on what I might do with my room, pointed out curriculum decisions I needed to make, helped me organize my grade book, and showed me where classroom supplies were kept. Throughout those first two years of teaching, she was a supportive friend and mentor.

I went to her room after school and often asked questions about how to handle a troubled student, how to respond to parents’ requests, or how to organize my curriculum. Maureen was always accessible and always a role model, drawing upon the wisdom of accumulated experience and her genuine love for children. Her 4th-grade students evidently found her accessible as well, because they could often be found in her room after school, along with former students who frequently popped in. She was the kind of person who attracted students, colleagues, and young teachers like myself with her heart for teaching, her warmth, and her caring attitude. Over the two years I taught with Maureen, I learned the basics of teaching, and I didn’t just survive-I thrived. The caring connection Maureen built with me through kind words, positive suggestions, and personal warmth was critical to that success.

After two years, I took a job at a nearby university laboratory school, teaching the 4th and 5th grades. As a lab school teacher, I often worked with student teachers. Enter Maureen for the second time. Having received her first teaching license in a two-year program, over the years she had enrolled in more university classes and was ready to graduate with her B.A. in elementary education. There remained only one last requirement for licensure-student teaching. In the summer session, Maureen student taught under my supervision at the laboratory school. The part about “under my supervision” was in name only; we now worked as colleagues sharing mutual support under a common mission.

What can be gleaned from these stories of Max and Maureen?

First, connecting with students should be our highest priority. When education operates as it should, good teachers use the resources around them to develop the people around them. Not the reverse. As good teachers, Max and Maureen used the resources around them to connect with people-little people and big people. Remember Max’s bulletin boards? Remember the students who appeared in Maureen’s room after school? Students, not paper, were their priority.

Today, test scores, standards, and benchmarks-lots of them-are the measure of a teacher’s work. The measurable impact a teacher has on student learning is the focus of the accountability systems in which we work. But we cannot let a test score become more important than the students for whom the standards and benchmarks were written. When this happens, the heart of teaching dies.

If we follow our hearts, however, our teaching won’t become wooden and mechanical. The practices of good teaching are more resilient and enduring than standards and benchmarks. If we connect with students from our hearts, our students will not only reach the standards, they will exceed them.

Second, we will not always know the impact of the connections we build with our students and colleagues. For both Max and Maureen, the extraordinary impact they had on my life grew out of the ordinary routines of their everyday lives. The impact they had on me was not specifically calculated or intentional. They didn’t target me for any special purpose or treatment. They just did what good teachers always do. They opened their hearts to connect with those around them; for me, that connection made all the difference.

Third, connecting with students is not an activity; it is a disposition of the heart. I wasn’t a special student in Max’s classroom. My classmates and I all were special. My name never appeared on Maureen’s class roster, yet she unquestionably was one of my best teachers. Both Max and Maureen were constantly teaching and teaching very well. They were teachers-an identity that came from the heart.

This article is reprinted from: Nielsen, Lynn E “Teaching From the Heart . . . It’s About Max and Maureen: A Personal Narrative”. Childhood Education. Winter 2004/2005. 05 Feb. 2008.


Palmer, P.J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lynn E. Nielsen is Professor of Education, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.