Blog: Back to School

Taking Humane Education Back to School

Joanna Doerfer is a certified elementary special education teacher who has worked in the New York State public school system since 2007. She graduated magma cum laude from The State University of New York at New Paltz and received dual Master’s degrees in Childhood Education and Special Education from The College of New Rochelle. She is a certified yoga instructor and dedicated practitioner. Joanna attended IHE’s Summer Residency three years ago, and we invited her to share the ways she’s incorporated what she learned in leading humane education professional development for other teachers.

Joanna Doerfer

IHE: You’ve been leading a professional development class in humane education for teachers in your community. Can you tell us more about your goals for that class? Why did you offer it?

Joanna: I attended IHE’s Summer Residency in 2016. Not long after, I began to work with my school principal to develop a 15-hour professional development course with the goal of introducing humane education to other teachers in our district. With some of Mary Pat’s gracious guidance, we basically tried to fit the Institute’s graduate program into 15 hours. Needless to say, it’s an introductory course in which we expose teachers to the ideas of critical, creative, systems, and solutionary thinking.

The underlying thread through each of our courses is to of question the purpose of schooling, as we offer educators a space to think more deeply about their approach to classroom instruction. Ultimately, we want educators to come away from the class knowing they’re in a position to promote positive change in the world by helping to create generations of problem-solvers who understand what it means to do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the environment.

IHE: How have people responded to the class, and what specific outcomes have you noticed?

Joanna: Overall there’s been a very positive response to our class. We’ve had both primary and secondary teachers, teaching assistants, and school social workers complete our course. The teachers have come from a wide range of academic areas, ranging from music to technology, art to special education. Humane education was a new idea for the majority of them, but they’ve all responded with enthusiastic curiosity.

We offer an introduction to humane education, where we learn to think about the possibilities of shifting the purpose of schooling. We look at challenging global issues such as environmental ethics, social justice, and the potential for cultural change. We discuss how educators can make space to integrate these real-world issues into our classrooms. We do this through the lens of the essential elements of humane education: acquiring knowledge, thinking deeply, making compassionate and responsible choices, and focusing on solutions.

I think people naturally find these ideas and approaches interesting and extremely relevant in today’s world. For the most part, those who’ve taken our class have really embraced the opportunity to challenge themselves and their perspectives not just professionally, but personally as well. During class it often seems like a space creates itself where thinking is constantly shifting and expanding, where there’s always an opportunity to learn something new.

IHE: What are some of the ways teachers are incorporating humane education in their classrooms at different grade levels and through different subjects?

Joanna: Many of the teachers were exposed to humane education for the first time during this class. Along with a lot of new information, we tried to give them many supportive resources as well, thus leaving each educator equipped with the tools to further expand their knowledge and apply some of the theories, practices, and lessons in their own classrooms.

I think one of the most valuable resources that we’ve shared with teachers is the IHE website. The online resource center allows teachers to take a deeper dive into the aspects of humane education that sparks interest for them. They’ve been able to access lessons, book lists, and activities to try in their classrooms.

Most teachers have been excited to consider incorporating these ideas into their classrooms. One fifth grade teacher brought back a systems-thinking activity to her class and incorporated it into a unit on Martin Luther King. A high school art teacher incorporated humane education by developing a sustainable sculpture project. Another elementary teacher compiled and shared a list of IHE’s children’s books for others to consider using in future lesson planning. Each teacher is applying what they’ve learned in their own unique way—not only in their classrooms, but in their own lives as well.

IHE: What are your plans going forward?

Joanna: With each class we’ve offered there’s always been a request to develop a second session, where teachers can continue to deepen their understanding of humane education with a greater focus on the practical side of lesson-planning and curriculum. Because of this, along with the positive feedback we’ve received, my principal and I are currently developing a second session, which we hope to launch next year. This session will build on the information presented in the first course, with more emphasis on application. We want to create a space for teachers who took the first class to return and further explore the possibilities for integrating humane education and actively develop lessons and activities for their classrooms.

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