Teaching With Heart

I had planned to write about my 19-month (and counting) struggle to pry loose documents from Washington, DC, and the coverup of the cheating that went on there.

But then I began reading the galleys of Teaching with Heart.  It’s a collection of poems that inspire, motivate (or shore up) teachers as they go about their work.  Accompanying each poem is a paragraph or two by the teacher who submitted it.

I had agreed to write a blurb for the book but put off the reading until the last moment.  Up against the deadline, I began reading early this morning.  Hours–and a few tears–later, I emerged, feeling stronger personally–and more optimistic about education’s future.

Dozens of poems spoke to me, but none so much as “Purple,” by Alexis Rotella.


In first grade Mrs. Lohr
said my purple teepee
wasn’t realistic enough,
that purple was no color
for a tent,
that purple was a color
for people who died,
that my drawing wasn’t
good enough
to hang with the others.
I walked back to my seat
counting the swish swish swishes
of my baggy corduroy trousers.
With a black crayon
nightfall came
to my purple tent
in the middle
of an afternoon.

In second grade Mr. Barta
said draw anything;
he didn’t care what.
I left my paper blank
and when he came around
to my desk
my heart beat like a tom tom.
He touched my head
with his big hand
and in a soft voice said
the snowfall
how clean
and white
and beautiful.

—Alexis Rotella

“Purple” was suggested to the editors by Leatha Fields-Carey, a high school English teacher in Smithfield, North Carolina (a state that is going out of its way to be unkind to its public school teachers).

Here’s what Ms. Fields-Carey wrote about the poem: “I first ran across this poem when my enthusiasm for teaching was waning. The passion and excitement that I had initially felt for teaching and reaching individual students was melting away, being replaced by the sensation that daily I was facing a formless, nameless mass of humanity.
Teachers have incredible power to hurt and to heal. But often we get overwhelmed by the monotony of the day-to-day life of the teacher—the paperwork, the grading, the endless forms to fill, the reports to file, the lunchroom duties, the bus duties, the report cards to send home.  We forget that the most important part of what we do is building and healing human beings, one at a time.
When I read this poem, I cried. It brought back into sharp relief what I had been forgetting: that teaching is an expression of love. Period.
So many times students come to us wounded—by parents, by former teachers, by peers, by the system, by life. Some wounds are visible and some are not, but all of them could use a tender touch of understanding and compassion.
Much as Michelangelo saw the angel in the marble and carved until he set it free, Mr. Barta discerned the snowfall hidden in the paper left blank in an expression of resentment and frustration. I have a sign on my desk that reads ‘See the snowfall.’ It serves as a reminder of my most important job as a teacher—and as a human being.

Teaching with Heart
won’t be available (from Jossey-Bass) until mid-May, but you might want to reach out to your local bookstore now to make sure it puts aside a copy for you.

12 thoughts on “Teaching With Heart

  1. As someone who has been “teaching” art for …well, many years, from first grade through high school long ago and at LIU in Brooklyn for even many more…. I responded with understanding to that charming purple poem.

    I remember once, looking at her son’s drawing of a lion ( maybe a first grader), a mother criticizing it and saying, “Where are his eyes?”, and the boy answering, “He’s biting, not looking!”

    Thanks, once again, for brightening my day.


  2. Thanks so much, John, for letting your readers know about “Teaching with Heart.” I had the privilege of writing the Foreword for this beautiful book—assembled and edited with skill and care by my friends and colleagues Megan Scribner and Sam Intrator, and sponsored by the Center for Courage & Renewal http://www.CourageRenewal.org.

    Our little band has always thought of you as a fellow traveler because your journalism emerges from the same blend of mind and heart from which we aspire to work. “Teaching with Heart” is full of poems and brief commentaries and stories sent in by teachers who are as passionate about the children they serve as Alexis Rotella clearly is.

    Folks who can’t wait until mid-May to see what such a book might look like can check out our earlier volume, “Teaching with FIre,” at http://tinyurl.com/2x6agf.

    Thanks again, John, and power to you in that “prying loose” you wrote about—the kind of prying that’s in the best tradition of investigative journalism!


  3. I was his music teacher… 5-year-old Miles loved his music class, but struggled in other settings. I passed by his after-school “holding” area (cafeteria) and saw him alone in a corner crying. I sat down beside him and asked, ‘what’s wrong?” He told me, “I’m trying to control my anger, but see… HE hit me.” Instead of getting to the source of the problem, analyzing, solving… I said, “Miles, I know you’re a good guy.” Just then, he noticed a tiny lizard crossing the floor; and gently picking it up, Miles said, “He’s sad, you know… he wants his parents.” Together, we took it to the door and let it go…


  4. This is the magic of children. It is what draws many to teaching, because it reaffirms for adults their belief in the beauty of humankind. The poem makes clear the importance of kindness, and how inspiring a simple kindness is to the very young. And how a notion, the beginning of a dream to be an artist, can be encouraged in the smallest of encounters.


    • What a wonderfully provocative and evocative way to pose the central question of our time at least insofar as education is concerned!


    • A whole lot of Mrs. Lohrs, who have never actually taught children in classrooms, have been writing education policy, and national standards, and they omitted anything even remotely related to the development of creativity and non-cognitive skills.


  5. When I taught Kindergarten, I worked for a principal like Mrs. Lohr, who had been trained in secondary and didn’t really have a good grasp of young children. She would come in my classroom, look at the children’s pictures hanging on the walls and if the something was not perfect, like if the eyes of a lady bug were on the bugs’ back instead of on its face, she’d criticize the child and say things like, “Have you lost your mind?”

    Ugh. I tried to explain developmental appropriateness but I couldn’t get through to her. So, after the second time it happened, I started fixing the kids pictures when they weren’t looking, so no more children would be subjected to that.

    I knew that wasn’t the answer though and soon it dawned on me that the principal was really looking for uniformity, so I stopped having projects like that and focused instead on process art. Then, when the principal looked at the children’s pictures, I would tell her the goal was creativity and pointed out how each picture was different from the next. She never criticized my kids for their art work again!


  6. Thanks for sharing the poem. In my 44 year public school experience, I’ve seen some of both kinds of teachers.
    To respond to the question raised by John & Clyde, I’d say that ed policy has elements of both teachers – some policies aim to encourage and promote creativity; some aim to restrict what policy makers see as problems with teachers. There are challenges with both approaches.


  7. Mrs. Lohr was wrong, but if I was Mr. Barta, I might have chosen a different approach — not one that ratified a blank page but that pulled the child aside, talked to him without judgement or criticism, and helped him fashion a response that fulfilled the assignment. Somehow, there must be a way to deal with the hurt without forgoing the assignment. A blank page, no matter how it is described, is not completing an assignment. And a second grader is old enough to understand that.

    John Gillespie


    • Sometimes assignments are irrelevant in the face of hurt/woundedness. I’d far rather that a teacher respond whole-heartedly and with kindness to a child in such circumstances, to show they care about her/him. It’s hard to understand anything when you’re hurting, regardless of your age.


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