This Resource section offers works by Rachael Kessler, and other experts in the growing field of educating the inner life of children. Sample chapters are available for free downloads. Also provided are: pdfs, suggested readings, and links to a wealth of helpful information for educators and students.

Publications by Rachael Kessler

Sample Materials to Download

Guidelines for Safety in Welcoming Soul into the Classroom

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Publications by Rachael Kessler

  • Books

    The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion and Character at School, by Rachael Kessler
    (ASCD, 2000). $24.00 + shipping and handling*

    Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators Maurice Elias, et al. (Eds.) Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD, 1997).

    The Mysteries Sourcebook, (author/editor) teachers’ manual published by Crossroads School in 1990. A 300 page compendium of essays, curricula and lesson plans.

  • Chapters

    “ Education for Integrity: Connection, Compassion, and Character” in Riane Eisler and Ron Miller(Eds.), Educating for a Culture of Peace. Portsmith, New Hampshire: heinemann (2004).

    “ Nourishing the Soul of Students” in Mike Seymore (Ed.), Educating for Humanity. London: Paradigm Press (2004).

    “ Grief as a Gateway to Love in Teaching” in Dan Liston and Jim Garrison(Eds.), Teaching, Loving, and Learning. New York: Routledge (2003).

    “ The Heart of the Matter: Social and Emotional Learning as a Foundation for Conflict Resolution Education” in Tricia S. Jones and Randy Compton(Eds.), Kids Working It Out: Stories and Strategies for Making Peace in Our Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (2003).

    “ Adversity as Ally” in Sam Intrator (Ed.), Forward by Parker Palmer, Stories of the Courage to Teach: Honoring the Teacher’s Heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (2002).

    " Eros and the Erotic Shadow in Teaching and Learning" in Jack P. Miller and Yoshiharu Nakagawa (Eds.), Nurturing Our Wholeness: Perspectives on Spirituality in Education. Brandon, VT: The Foundation for Educational Renewal (2002).

    “ Soul of Students, Soul of Teacher: Welcoming the Inner Life
    to School”
    in Linda Lantieri (Ed.), Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the
    Inner Lives of Children and Teachers.
    Boston: Beacon Press

    The 'Senior Passage' Course” in Mahdi, Christopher & Meade (Eds.), Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage. Chicago Ill: Open Court Press (1996).

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  • Articles

    “ The Teaching Presence” unpublished manuscript, 2004.

    “ Fostering Connection, Compassion, and Character at School” in Independent School Journal, Winter 2002.

    “ Nurturing Deep Connections” in The School Administrator, September 2002, Number 8, Volume 59.

    “ Nourishing the Soul of Youth in Secular Society” in Community Youth Development (CDY) Journal, Spring 2002.

    “ Leadership with Soul: A Missing Piece in School Reform” in The School Administrator, 2002.

    “ Initiation - Saying Good-bye to Childhood” in Educational Leadership, December 1999/January 2000, Volume 57, Number 4.

    “ Nourishing Soul in Adolescents: Integrating Heart, Spirit, and
    Community in Youth Work”
    in Community Youth Development
    Journal, Spring 2000, Volume 1, Number 2.

    “ The Teaching Presence” in Virginia Journal of Education,
    November 2000, Volume 94, Number 2.

    “ Nourishing Young Souls in Secular Schools: An Awakening Tool Kit for All Parents” in Spirituality & Health, Summer 2000.

    “ Nourishing Students in Secular Schools” in Educational Leadership, December 1998/January 1999, Volume 56, Number 4.

    " The Teaching Presence" in The Forum (National Institute for Dispute Resolution), June 1998, Number 35.

    " Passages: Fostering Community, Heart and Spirit in Adolescent Education" in New Horizons for Learning's Virtual Building, March 1997;

    “ Social and Emotional Learning; An Emerging Field Builds a
    Foundation for Peace”
    in Holistic Education Review, Number 4.

    " The Teaching Presence" in Holistic Education Review, Winter,

    “The Mysteries Program: Educating Adolescents for Today’s
    in Holistic Education Review, Winter, 1990.

    “Exploring the Mysteries of Life” in Mind/Body/Health Digest,
    Vol. 4, No. 3, 1990.

    “Helping Students Confront a World of Change and Crisis”
    in Curriculum Quarterly, Spring, 1989, Crossroads School.

    “ Teens Talk about Sexuality, Sex and Television” in Television and Children, Fall, 1983.

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  • Video

    “Honoring Young Voices: A Vision for Education”; 50 minute video illustrating Rachael's work in the "Mysteries Program:" with students, parents, faculty. (1992) $30.00 + shipping and handling*

  • Audio

    “Honoring the Questions”; A New Dimensions Radio Production (1991) $13.00 + shipping and handling*

    *How to order: Copies of items with * are available for purchase
    through the PassageWays Institute at 303-247-0156 or


Sample Materials to Download

“The Teaching Presence” unpublished manuscript. 2004.
Increasing numbers of educators are taking on the challenge of
integrating "emotional intelligence" as a key aspect in the
classroom and throughout school life. Expressing feelings is central to this work. What are the skills and qualities that allow teachers to safely invite students to open their hearts in the classroom and to talk honestly about what matters most to them? Beyond curriculum, methods and theory, a more elusive quality profoundly affect the learning that is possible --the teacher's own way of being with students. Click here to download the PDF of this article.

“ Grief as a Gateway to Love in Teaching” in Dan Liston and Jim Garrison(eds), Teaching, Loving, and Learning. New York: Routledge (2003). Adults in traditional American culture have little preparation for dealing with grief. In this paper, I share what inspires me as an educator to strengthen my ability to deal with grief, and then present a model that has been useful in doing so. My primary emphasis throughout this essay is to describe a series of experiences that might enable educators to deal more adequately with this challenging emotion in ourselves and others, and move on to the terrain of love and hope. Click here to download the PDF of this article.

“ Nourishing the Soul of Youth in Secular Society” in
Community Youth Development (CDY) Journal, Spring 2002.
How do facilitators make a place for soul in group work? What does a classroom look like in which soul is vital to the enterprise of education or youth development? What are the experiences that nourish spiritual development of adolescents without violating the deeply held beliefs of youth, families, or facilitators? Click here to download the PDF of this article.

“ Leadership with Soul: A Missing Piece in School Reform” in The School Administrator, 2002. This article, included in the issue on “Spirituality in Leadership”, was sent to every school district superintendent in the country. The article describes five principles for welcoming soul into school leadership with an emphasis on deep connection to self and others and focuses on building a school community where learning can thrive and teaching can feel, once again, like a calling. Click here to download the PDF of this article.

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Guidelines for Safety in Welcoming Soul into the Classroom

  • Stages of Group Development
  • Guidelines for Personal Disclosure for Teachers
  • The Dilemma of Confidentiality
  • Sharing Circles and Council in the PassageWays Model

Stages of Group Development 1

It is in close, ongoing, meaningful groups that students are likely to feel spiritual connections to others. It is through such cooperation (working together in groups), companionship (coming together as friends), compassion (revealing sympathetic concern for others and a desire to help them), and communion (moments when we let go of preconceived ideas about each other and communicate as openly and authentically as we can) that spirituality is nurtured in the classroom. 2

As classrooms become a place where students can explore feelings and learn to resolve conflicts and problems together, the group can become a community. Pre-service education does not always include group facilitation skills. Many observers have described the phases or stages of becoming a community -- the developmental process in which the class moves from being strangers who test one another and maintain maximum distance, to a cohesive group of individuals who find emotional support and empowerment in their connection. Understanding some of the patterns that underlie these developmental phases can help a teacher design appropriate curriculum and have reasonable expectations for each stage.
There are many models -- here we’ll work with a simple framework of beginning, middle and end.

Beginning: Cooperation and Companionship

This is the time for building the skills and feelings that can lead to a strong sense of community in a classroom. Although some groups may reach stages that involve trust and self-disclosure, others may not progress beyond becoming respectful acquaintances. Even for groups that do not progress beyond this first stage, it can be a meaningful accomplishment for students to develop the skills for treating self and others with respect and basic caring.

Goal: Establish a climate of safety and trust

1. Clarify purpose and goals - The teacher can state and restate the purpose/goals many times during the early weeks, particularly when a new program is being introduced.

2. Set ground rules and expectations (agreements) - Having stated the purpose, the teacher has an opportunity to create a partnership with her students to establish the conditions of safety that will allow this purpose to unfold. I ask the group to share what conditions they would need in order to speak about what really matters to them. Together we make a list, which looks remarkably similar from class to class and from year to year:

• no interruptions
• no “putdowns” or “bagging”
• no judging --openness
• respect
• honesty
• the right to be silent
• honor the privacy of what is spoken

As much as possible, the teacher is listening and drawing out the students for ground rules and clarification. But if an important need is never mentioned, I will say something myself, like “I don’t know about you, but I really need fairness to feel safe -- I need to know that everyone will have an equal chance to speak or participate in whatever we do.”

I remind my students that only when each of us honors these “ground rules” or “agreements” can our classroom become a safe place. As their teacher, I can’t do this alone, but I will do all that I can do to protect the sanctity of these agreements.

There are two ground rules which I often add. One is “the right to pass.” Students will, most often, not even consider that it is OK not to speak – or pass- because participation is usually defined in the classroom as speaking. Yet, to create safety when we enter the territory of heart and soul, I believe the teacher must redefine participation as full presence and allow students to choose when they are ready to speak and when they are comfortable doing an exercise.

The second agreement I suggest is “the willingness to forgive ourselves and each other when, as normal human beings, we break one of these agreements.” I emphasize that this does not mean a promise of instantaneous forgiveness, that forgiveness is a process that takes time, and that we are agreeing only to begin that process and work toward that goal.

3. Establish the role of the teacher -- an authentic, empathic elder who will guide and protect this group and each individual in it -
Remember: kids look for congruence between our talk and our walk.

4. Establish respect for boundaries -- this is the key to safety for taking risks - Acknowledge (or just be aware of) the potential conflict between being “open and vulnerable” here with people with whom students may have other identities and alliances in other settings at school. This can be especially acute for middle school age students. (As a teacher, know this conflict can lead to swings in students’ moods and behaviors from full engagement to withdrawal and caution) as you work with emotions.

5. Appropriate activities and methods for this phase

a. Skirt/scout - In this initial phase, students want to learn as much as possible about others while revealing as little as possible about themselves. Caution is natural and practical and can be respected and validated by the teacher.

b. Allow and support distance - Create activities that do not require students to be vulnerable. This might be a good time to do cognitive activities related to conflict resolution, problem solving, etc. Concepts, frameworks, etc. can be achieved while students still feel distant.

c. Invite trust gently

d. Provide lots of structure and activities with quick satisfaction

e. Expect testing of boundaries as a healthy part of the process - Students are trying to discover what is safe and appropriate in this kind of work and what is not. When they repeatedly push up against your limits or the ground rules during the first phase, it is not a failure on your part, but an opportunity to remind them of boundaries. There is a natural ambiguity inherent in a class that encourages open expression, independent thinking and a highly interactive style of teaching. Restating the purpose and reviewing ground rules can be useful in clarifying what is appropriate and what is not.

f. Respond with firm, kind, consistent and appropriate limits,
but also validate differences - (including from your own opinions.)
Responding with respectful acknowledgement and openness to
suggestions about other ways of doing things, or even cynicism about the goals of the program can model a tone of respect early on and set a foundation for divergent thinking and learning styles, cultural differences, etc.

Suggested activities

Use students’ names -- first and last -- as part of spelling lists in first few weeks.

Circle themes
- Something you like to do and do well
- The nicest thing you’ve ever done for someone
- The nicest thing someone did for you
- If I were older
- My favorite place
- When I make a mistake
- I can’t understand why?

Middle: Intimacy and Empowerment

POWER AND CONTROL -- Once the students feel a genuine sense of safety, security and trust in the group and teacher, they may begin to bring their own creativity and desire for empowerment to the process. Students are now offering suggestions and alternatives with a different need than the earlier testing of boundaries. They are looking for opportunities to share control with the teacher and to try out their own ideas. This may or may not be appropriate.

a. Respond like a dance
• Permit and validate rebellion
• But also protect individuals and group
• Be responsive to what can be refined but firm about what is essential and unchangeable
• Restate the purpose of the program to clarify confusion

b. Provide opportunities for empowerment and collaboration with the design of the curriculum
• Create a process for students to anonymously write the questions on their mind that they want heard in this group and that might shape some themes for curriculum.
• Provide an evaluation process in the middle of the year for input that can be responded to in the remaining months. Let them evaluate contributions by themselves, others, teachers as well as curriculum and methods.

INTIMACY -- When groups reach this stage a new focus on building meaningful relationships develops. This allows for the sharing of issues and feelings that have real meaning for students.

a. Allow and invite a balance between intimacy and autonomy.

b. Honor the natural process of becoming close and then pulling back to integrate - After being very close people need some time and distance to evaluate and assimilate, and then decide how to move close again. When a group experiences a moment of communion, the individuals are often transformed. To achieve this level of intimacy, individuals may expand their boundaries to take in something new. Before they can feel safe opening again to this level of connection, they need time and support to integrate new dimensions into their own sense of self.

c. Help each student find his/her own balance - Respect and
support different styles. You may need to model respect for silent
ones — those who choose to pass — often during this phase.

d. Help keep the focus and the vision.

e. Increase openness to student ideas for activities or ways of doing things.

Toward the end of this phase or perhaps slightly earlier may be a good time to do an evaluation to help understand what is working well and what may not be, for both the teacher and the students. This is also a good opportunity to include students in the process of design.


Now is the opportunity for harvesting the trust and honesty that has been built in the group and for learning how to say good-bye. We live in a culture that tends to avoid good-byes. Good-byes remind us of the big good-bye: death. Small losses remind us of big losses. And because adults in this culture have had little support or education in dealing with the grief dimension of closure, they feel awkward about good-byes in general. Consequently, students have seen few models for constructive closure. I find it useful to begin by sharing with students some of these reflections and then I ask them to share some of the ways they have watched their families deal with good-byes.

I observe that when we leave or are left without constructive good-byes, we often feel the loss all the more. Ending an intimate relationship without closure can feel like you’ve had a hole ripped out of you. You don’t want to get hurt like that again. So you go into your other or new relationships with a hesitation to get close.

Constructive, conscious closure, on the other hand, brings a sense of completion. While there may still be feelings of loss or sadness, the person also feels the fullness and satisfaction of having been part of meaningful relationships. Then, when the time is right the person will be able to approach a new situation/relationship with an open heart and mind.

How then, can we close consciously and constructively? After sharing some of the reflections above, I present some of the features of negative good-byes and then a model for saying good-bye in ways that leave us whole.


Denial and Trivializing - “We’re not really saying goodbye. Just because this group is ending, we’ll all see each other in classes next year (or in high school, or at Christmas time, etc.) What’s the big deal.”

“ It’s bad luck to say good-bye.”

“ Gee, I’m sorry I forgot to come to our last meeting. I had this project I had to get done for another class and I forgot we didn’t have any more meetings.”

Withdrawal - The person pulls back from the group or individual as the ending is in sight. Consciously or unconsciously, they believe it will be easier to part if they have already shut down emotionally.

Spoiling - Teachers and students often unconsciously say or do something in the last few weeks or hours which sours the closeness and good feeling in the group. “It’ll be easier to part if we’re angry,” says the unconscious. Once “the spoiler” has acted, some people are relieved. “Thanks goodness we have only one more class. I can’t wait to get out of here.”

Because “spoilers” are often lurking unseen in the final moments of a relationship, they can easily distort a class evaluation if it’s done on the last day of class. The spoiler rewrites the history of the class or their experience in the class, putting everything down so it is easier (less sad) to leave.


1. Express the full range of emotions - Create opportunities to express and honor all the feelings that come up with endings: sadness, relief, disappointment, joy, excitement, anger.

2. Review and evaluate - (Raise awareness about the potential role of the spoiler long before doing this). Review can come through playful reminiscence:

“ I remember that...” is a game for this time. In a sharing circle format, each student is invited to share a strong memory from this group. These can include times that were particularly fun, embarrassing, moving or challenging. After each student speaks, the next person looks at them and says, “I remember that!” (whether they actually remember that moment or not).
This game creates a tapestry of group memories, even though some people may have missed those moments because they were absent or because they happened privately between students in a paired or microlab situation. Doing this exercise in the early stages of closure helps people remember and realize the thread of meaning and value in the group experience.

3. Create opportunities for individuals to receive positive feedback

“ What I have appreciated about your contribution to this group is...”

“ What I admire, (respect) (appreciate) in you is...”

The following exercises will be most effective if at least one teacher has worked with these students earlier in the year on developing a vocabulary of “strokes” -- affirmative comments. This can include a vocabulary exercises exercise in which the teacher provides the words and students learn the definitions. It can also be part of a character education process in which students explore the human virtues -- defining and discussing what they admire in heroes, role models, a favorite adult, or other students. Such an exercise can also be an opportunity to review the qualities students themselves mentioned during the collaborative ground rules process about what allows them to trust others: qualities such as respectfulness, honesty, good listening, a sense of humor, openness, empathy, compassion, etc.

Without practice using such a vocabulary of appreciation, students may feel embarrassed and inadequate when they are responsible for affirming another student. Or they may fall back on words like “nice”, “cool”, or “bad”, etc., which provide the recipient with little of the real information they are hungry for. Practice could be gained through more private journaling exercises or through descriptions of characters they admire in literature, history or popular culture.

Prior to the closure phase -- ideally in the middle stage of group development -- teaching students how to offer constructive feedback as well as appreciations will create a stronger community and support the growth of both the individuals and the group.

Feedback can be done in writing.

Each student receives a large sheet of paper and puts his/her name in the center in bold letters. The sheets are passed around until each student has written a message of appreciation on them. (This activity can also be done on Valentine's day with sheets that have a large heart drawn in the center, a place for the students name, and the phrase “I appreciate you because....” -- all written inside the heart.)

Students also love the opportunity to hear out loud from other students what they think of them. This public honoring of each student has a powerful galvanizing effect on the group as well as affirming the individuals.

-Write each students name on a piece of paper, fold them and put them in a bowl or hat.

-Introduce the exercise and perhaps invite the students to light a candle to create a ceremonial atmosphere (if no students are uncomfortable with candles for religious reasons).

-The first student pulls 3 names and calls them out loud, then returns the names to the hat. If they pull their own name, they put it back and pick another. Those 3 students then offer appreciation to that student. Using a timer may be necessary. The hat goes around to each student in turn who chooses 3 people to give them feedback. The teacher’s name can also be included. If you can take more time for this process, you can allow an extra minute for anyone not picked who wants to spontaneously offer their appreciation.

-If time is very limited, you can have each person choose one name, keep that slip of paper and pass the hat for each person to pick one name. The limitation of this is that the chances are greater that that one person will either not know enough about that person or have difficulty finding their words.

Once students have had the opportunity to give and receive feedback, the following group closure sequence is likely to be far more meaningful and moving. These themes can be explored as a sequence of rounds in a sharing circle. The last two may not be necessary in every class.

4. Articulate the gain - A sharing circle in which people describe the gift they feel they’ve received from being in this group and class, which they have integrated into themselves and will always have, even when the group ends. “What I’ve received from this group that I’ll always take with me is...”

5. Acknowledge the loss - Having experienced the feeling of strength and gratitude that comes with realizing that parts of the group (or individual relationships) will always be with them, students are now ready to feel and express the sadness that may come with closure.
“ What I will miss about our times together is...”

6. Establish personal power - Where else in my life do I have, or can I create, what has been meaningful and nourishing to me here?

7. Establish realistic continuity - (avoiding denial that this is an ending) “Even though you won’t be in my class, we’ll still all be at the same school. I want you to know that I would be happy to hear from you and see you. If you want to, feel free to check in with me sometimes during my free period.”

“ As you move on to high school, know that I would be delighted to hear from you if you choose to visit or call."

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Guidelines for Personal Disclosure for Teachers

Social and emotional learning differs from both academic teaching and traditional group therapy in that teachers are encouraged to share their own feelings and experience as part of the teaching process. Appropriate disclosure can enhance the classroom experience. Inappropriate disclosure can be dangerous to teacher and student alike.


Personal disclosure by teachers of social and emotional learning is designed to promote community, authenticity and appropriate role modeling. This approach comes from a belief that:

  • students need mentors;
  • it is crucial in these times to foster more meaningful community;
  • the school world is a primary community for its members both young and old; and
  • a caring, learning community is fostered when we begin to carefully—slowly and respectfully -- soften the boundaries between private and public life.

One goal of a caring learning community is to create environments in which teachers, as well as students, can be real and authentic in more and more spheres of their lives. This model reflects a shift in the greater society away from a pattern of people moving from role to role in which aspects of the self are hidden or distorted.

We also believe that young people benefit from personal relationships with adults other than their parents. Role models and mentors who are not primarily in an authority relationship to teenagers offer an important perspective. Many of us learn as much from personal stories -- the wisdom gained from mistakes and triumphs in a human life – as from formal discussions about ethics, psychology or sociology. Listening to stories of a teacher’s own trials from early life while witnessing the teacher’s present strength and joy, students can gain a sense of hope and courage as they learn the important lesson that people can and do survive and thrive from the many challenges and even suffering of a lifetime.

The PassageWays process is designed to foster a strong connection between the individual and the group rather than between the individual and the teacher. The teacher’s disclosure of feelings and ordinary life experience facilitates this process in that he becomes a real person, demystified of idealization. And because he is not a blank screen, she is far less likely to foster a student's projections.

Traditionally, one way that we have maintained a sense of professionalism is to separate the personal from the professional. In encouraging personal disclosure, we are not moving to the opposite pole of sharing anything and everything or trying to establish a peer relationship with students. If teachers have been used to holding back their feelings and experiences to be professional, there may be a danger in just opening the floodgates and letting too much spill out. For the safety of the students as well as the protection and integrity of the teacher, we must have some guidelines for appropriate and inappropriate disclosure.


Personal sharing by the leader in PassageWays is an important model in regulating the level of group discussion. Early in the semester, it is recommended that a teacher share first in a circle discussion. This lets the group know that he or she is willing to be vulnerable and not just asking them to put themselves on the line. If she wants to encourage a rather light tone to promote safety and ease in the beginning, or during a class after a particularly deep intimate discussion, she can set this tone indirectly by telling a story that is light while still being authentic and meaningful. If he wants to encourage greater depth, he can take a plunge himself and share something more intimate or speak with greater intensity of feeling.

One must be careful not to be arrogant or manipulative in this “regulatory” purpose of personal disclosure. If you try to manipulate the students by selecting a life story for this purpose, it can backfire. They may sense that your heart is not really open, that you are trying to control things, and as a result, the sense of safety will be undermined. Keep in mind that some students may be intimidated by the depth of your feeling or experience. They feel they have to match it somehow and they may not have the access to their feelings, the experience, or the articulateness that the teacher has. If they feel intimidated in this way, they may just give up. Despite a teacher’s verbal assurance that students need not speak eloquently or intimately, students will receive the message inherent in the teacher’s behavior. Words pale beside the message of the model.

Another form of arrogance comes from thinking that if you tell a happy story it will encourage a feeling of happiness or joy in the room. In fact, I have often found that when I am feeling particularly joyful or satisfied and share this with a group, it can magnetize any sadness or disappointment they are feeling. There is often a dialectical response -- hearing how happy one person is makes them realize they are not feeling so happy. They feel the contrast rather than being inspired to see what is good in their life. Other students may feel inspired to see the bright side of their life, so it is quite unpredictable and therefore arrogant for us to try to control the discussion by our disclosures.


As you choose your stories, your emphasis is not on taking care of yourself but on sharing what has value for your students and serves the group process. This doesn't mean you can never ask for their support. It can be a empowering for young people to respond effectively to a genuine call for help from an adult--if it is something they can offer with ease and if you are not terribly needy or vulnerable about the issue. When my own children first went through the video games addiction, I asked my students to help me understand what was going on and share their perspectives on video games so I could make better decisions as a parent. In helping me think more clearly about this situation, the students were able to experience making a real contribution, an important aspect of building self-esteem. The video games issue was important to me but did not make me feel vulnerable or burden my students with fear or responsibility. On the other hand, if I were to suspect my child of chemical addiction or other such serious concerns, I would never consult my students for help.


A teacher must have a safe place outside class and student relationships to share this category of experience. If your feelings are immediate and raw in a story, there is too great a likelihood that you are using your students for your own personal support. The burden of this on children is too great. Too many of our children are in family relationships in which they have been enrolled to “parent the parent.” Our culture is rife with single parents who are isolated and overwhelmed, narcissistic parents who themselves never had models for being close to children without using them as personal confidants, masseurs or support teams, or even addicted parents who require their children to become emotional or physical caretakers.

Sharing anything that is highly personal is also a big risk for a teacher. If you talk about an imminent break-up with your spouse, a betrayal, an addiction in the family, an unwanted pregnancy etc., the drama of your story may be too much for a student to contain. Feelings of fear, confusion or amazement may prompt them to spread your story to friends or family. When you tell such a story, which at times indeed you may feel is appropriate and useful to an issue or circumstance in your group, you must be prepared to hear it come back at you in the halls or from your supervisor.

In my second year of teaching, in a class discussion about death, I told a group of sophomores the story of the death of my first husband--a young doctor who died in the early seventies. There was a boy in the class who virtually never spoke and who had a life threatening illness. He was apparently so disturbed by my story that he went home and told his parents. His parents were furious with me for telling a personal story, which they felt from a “therapeutic” perspective was unprofessional. (They argued that our program was basically like therapy and that therapists follow a code of no self-disclosure.) They reported me to my supervisor and withdrew their child from my class.

At first I felt betrayed by this boy's violation of confidentiality. Yet, it became a great lesson for me in understanding that adolescents often cannot and often should not maintain confidentiality (ul). (See following section on confidentiality.) My supervisor was very sensitive and supportive in handling the case and because this death had occurred fifteen years earlier, I was not terribly vulnerable about having this information shared. I did not regret my decision to tell the story, and have told it many times since without repercussions. But I have looked carefully at how and why I told the story: I believe that in that instance I may have been using it manipulatively to encourage the students to share more deeply. And I learned that I must be fully prepared for leaks and gossip if I speak from a private place.


In the context of a school setting, a teacher cannot possibly know enough about each student’s personal history to know what seemingly benign comment may trigger something powerful for the student. This is true in all directions -- students’ stories may trigger powerful memories or feelings in other students or in the teacher and vice versa. If we took this too seriously, we could not ever speak from the heart. But if we are simply aware of this possibility, we can be discriminating and alert as well as humble and forgiving about the repercussions and reactions to our personal disclosure as teachers.


The Dilemma of Confidentiality

In the early years of developing programs for social and emotional learning, my colleagues and I assumed that absolute confidentiality was an essential ingredient of a class of this nature. When students did break confidentiality, the ensuring uproar and sense of betrayal could lead to long-term damage to the group. In one case where students perceived that a teacher had broken confidentiality, many students in that grade felt disillusioned with the whole program. Their feelings carried over into the beginning of the next year. With years of experience, I have gained a new perspective about the limits to confidentiality. These limits must be understood by the teacher, and communicated early to the students in order to avoid feelings of betrayal in the speaker or an undue burden on a troubled listener.

In the first or second class, we have a brainstorming session with the students in which we list all the ground rules needed to promote safety and trust. Confidentiality is usually mentioned. While I will write this word on the board when a student suggests it, I always flag this one as something we will need to come back to and discuss in greater depth.


As teachers, we must communicate the limits to our own confidentiality. Immediate reporting to an administrator followed by an appropriate referral is required for:

  • suicide threats or ideation
  • child abuse
  • drug/alcohol use on campus

This reporting is mandated by state law or school policy. In addition, we tell students that if we feel concerned for their health or well-being, we may feel compelled by our own personal caring to share our concerns with a dean. In both cases, we assure students that if at all possible, we would speak to them first and include them in the process of choosing the appropriate administrator and include them in the visit. However, if we cannot reach the student and there is immediate cause for concern, we must break confidentiality and make our report.

The procedure and policies regarding limits to teacher confidentiality have not changed in the PassageWays work. But what has changed over the years of experience is our approach to student confidentiality.


We realized that for adolescents it is often inappropriate to expect confidentiality. For younger children, it is certainly not an expectation. (Also, parents of children and young adolescents are often extremely opposed to a confidentiality rule at school.) It is often difficult at this age to contain emotionally loaded information. In the following paragraphs, I will describe a process for fostering respect for privacy, while establishing an understanding with the group that (ul) we are making no agreement to hold confidential what is spoken here.

I begin the process with my students by asking them why they think people tell other people’s private thoughts and feelings. We then engage in a dialogue, which helps them become conscious, and therefore less likely to indulge in some of the negative reasons for violating confidentiality. We also explore the legitimate reasons why people feel compelled to tell another's story.

One of the first things students mention is gossip. I ask them why they think people gossip. They acknowledge the power and popularity it can bring. I suggest that we could agree here not to use other people’s stories in this way and they nod their heads. What else? They talk about thoughtlessly blurting out something private because it is interesting or exciting to them. This too, an impulsive and unconscious violation of the privacy of others, we agree is something we will do our best to control.

Then we move into some of the more legitimate concerns that can lead any of us to tell the story of another. We may break confidentiality out of a genuine need to take care of ourselves -- someone else's private disclosure may stir a deep emotional response or concern in the listener, which cannot and should not be kept to oneself. At such times, there is a conflict between the need to take care of the other (maintain confidentiality to protect their privacy) and the need to take care of oneself (to share and get support or clarification for feelings that arise in response to another's sharing). This is an important part of being human and searching for integrity. We need to explain this to our students and brainstorm ways to resolve this conflict in ways that minimize hurt to both sides.

For the speaker

Since confidentiality can't be guaranteed, take care of yourself and only share what you are comfortable sharing. Once you put it out, you can't predict what will happen to it. So be conscious of that when you speak; be discriminating about what you share and when, knowing that it may get out beyond the group.

For the listener

If you feel the need to share something that was spoken by someone in class, ask yourself why you are doing so and how you can do it in a way that takes care of your need while not hurting your classmate. Be sure you don't just blurt it out without thinking or because it seems thrilling to you. If, on the other hand, it is really upsetting to you and you need to talk to someone about it, whom can you talk to?

We brainstorm on this dilemma. Students suggest people they could talk to who would be least likely to violate the privacy of their classmate. Suggestions include: talk to the person who actually spoke about it, talk to your teacher, bring it up in the next class if you can wait a week, talk to your parents, talk to a friend or relative who lives outside this community. As suggestions are made, we often ask students how they would feel about something they said being repeated to a person in the category suggested. I find that students continue to insist that they can be absolutely confidential and that they want others to “swear to secrecy,” but this discussion helps them to appreciate in a realistic and compassionate way that someone may need to break confidentiality. It helps them be more aware about what they share and hopefully, to be better able to forgive if there is a breech of confidentiality.

Parents’ concerns about confidentiality

Some individual parents, as well as organized parent groups today, are deeply suspicious of programs that encourage students to tell personal stories or share feelings. One such program was attacked precisely because confidentiality was encouraged. As teachers and trainers, we must be sensitive, and accountable to, parents’ needs and beliefs in this arena. It is always important to dialogue early with parents when programs that deal with emotions are initiated. We convey that we are not encouraging their children to tell their own or family secrets or probe into private matters. When we encourage students to honor the privacy of others, we are teaching children to respect boundaries -- their own and those of others. Boundaries are weak and unclear for many children and adolescents, especially during the middle school years, and strengthening boundaries is an essential part of developing a healthy identity. Giving parents a chance to express their concerns, questions and suggestions about the content and strategies of our work is an important part of the collaborative process of designing a social and emotional learning program that has integrity and consistency throughout the lives of the students who receive it.

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Sharing Circles and Council in the PassageWays Model

Sharing circles are a way to build community and allow students to know each other and be known in ways that lead to a sense of belonging and meaning in their everyday relationships. There are many models of sharing circles and class meetings. The model of sharing circle presented here is a preparation for the form of Council used in the PassageWays model and is essentially a less ritualized but otherwise identical form of Council.

These highly structured forms of communication require and develop listening skills, particularly the art of open and non-reactive listening. Speakers learn to articulate briefly the essence of what is important to them.

In a sharing circle, each person has the opportunity to speak without interruption about a theme or question that the teacher has set at the beginning. No one can speak a second time until each person has had the opportunity to speak once. We find that timing the speaker is essential in the early weeks (or months) to ensure that there will be time for everyone to speak. Limiting the time to 2- 3 minutes also ensures that speakers will not ramble or go into a self-absorbed trance that discourages connection with others rather than building caring relationship. With 5th and 6th grade students, 30 seconds is often enough. A volunteer timekeeper can ring a gentle bell 15 seconds before time is up so a speaker can come to completion.

Fairness can be assured by choosing one person (or volunteer) to speak first and then moving clockwise around the circle. In the early weeks, it is useful for the teacher to speak first, modeling a tone and level of sharing that is meaningful but not too vulnerable.

Anyone can pass if they’re not ready; the teacher invites those who passed to speak after the circle is complete. They may still pass and then the second round can begin. This sequential style -- “stringing beads” -- is often useful in the beginning to get things going and whenever you are pressed for time. Going in order tends to encourage listening and non-reactive speaking, particularly when participants are encouraged to speak as if they were the first person addressing the theme, rather than responding to what was just said in the first round.

Many teachers express concern that if they allow students to pass, everyone will pass. In working with students for over fifteen years, I found that the right to pass was essential to the safety and empowerment of students when asked to talk about the social and emotional realm. I strongly believe that if a majority of students are passing, it is an important sign that safety has not yet been established. It is an opportunity to name this with the group and explore what needs to be changed for students to feel safe enough to share.

An alternative form (“Popcorn”) involves people speaking up when they’re ready. “Popcorn” style can work well once groups have developed the patient listening that comes with the first style and will not all be jumping in at once, or all hesitating to speak. Students may need to be reminded not to react to what was just said, but remember to speak to the theme as if they were the first person speaking. This style can also lead to long silences between speakers as individuals work up the courage to speak. These silences can be beneficial later in the semester when everyone has become comfortable with silence and when there is plenty of time. For all these reasons, I suggest that this form be deferred until several months of the listening and speaking practice that comes with sequential sharing. With popcorn, it is also essential for the teacher to ensure that no one speaks twice before everyone has had a chance to speak.

Themes can be set according to the level of development in the group and in relationship to what is important in that classroom. So, in the early weeks, themes should not require students to be very open or vulnerable, but rather allow students to get to know each other in a gentle, slow and sometimes playful way. Themes can be tied to emotional and social issues raised in the academic material -- allowing students to relate those issues or feelings to experiences in their own lives.

The role of the teacher is to set the theme and in the early weeks, be the first speaker to set the tone, depth and length of the sharing (see Guidelines for Personal Disclosure for Teachers). The teacher does not interrupt or respond to students unless there is an urgent need to remind someone (gently) to be brief, to relate their remarks to the theme and for, listeners, not to interrupt. (I rarely ask students to relate their remarks to the theme because so often when I think they are “off theme,” they eventually come around to the theme and I see that I was unable to make the connection that the student is legitimately making.

I also trust that sometimes students will use the circle to talk about something urgent to them that must have a place to be shared.) If a student begins to share at a level of depth and emotion or about an issue that feels inappropriate for the classroom, the teacher may interrupt with a kind and gentle tone, advising the student that “what you are sharing is so important that it really deserves time that we don’t have during our group work. Please come to see me after class so we can talk more about this.” (Please see “Pandora’s Box” in Chapter Six and “Saboteurs” in the concluding chapter of The Soul of Education.)

The teacher models caring and attentive listening and can also encourage students by a soft “thank you” after each person speaks. It is useful to offer a minute of silence after you set the theme for people to think of what they might want to share. Remind them not to be preparing their remarks while someone else is speaking and to trust that when it is there turn, they will find what they need to say.

Ideally, there will be time after the first round for “connections.” (You may also have time for a second round, on the same theme or a related theme, before you lead “connections.”) This may be as brief as five or ten minutes or be an open dialogue period for a longer time. Connections is introduced by the teacher by saying: “In this next round, I encourage you to acknowledge people who have said something that was meaningful to you. Let people know if they moved you or provoked your thinking, or if you have had a similar experience. You can also use this round to clarify or go deeper in what you raised in the first round in the light of what you have now heard from others.” Usually this round is “popcorn” style. (In the PassageWays model, we use these personal connections to encourage students to continue to speak at the heart level, rather than a more traditional facilitation model which encourages participants to analyze common themes and patterns or begin to problem-solve.)

If you are working with a long period and students are patient, you may occasionally have a full second round in which each student has the opportunity to speak.


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Later in the semester, you may want to introduce another form of sharing circle, called “Council” which adds some ceremonial elements that make the experience more “special” for students. Council comes from an ancient form of communicating, decision-making, and community-building from many cultures around the world. Sitting in a circle, close to the ground, around a fire and passing some meaningful object from nature to designate the speaker -- this form has appeared in ancient Greece, Hawaii, Africa and many Native American tribes.

You may introduce one or more of these ceremonial elements, depending on your comfort level and the feelings of your students and their families. Make every effort to be sensitive to the families you are working with. Investigate respectfully the style and values of these families before you choose to add a ritual element.

1) Place a cloth in the center of the circle which represents the “hearth” of the community; (in secular schools, it is critical not to create an “altar.”)

2) Invite students to light a candle (or include several candles, which can each be lit by a different volunteer);

3) Invite students to make a “dedication” out loud or in silence as they light the candle;

Give students examples of how to make a dedication. A dedication may invite a quality such as honesty or friendship into the council, honor someone who is celebrating, or ailing, or someone who has died. (i.e. “I dedicate this council to our soccer team, that has just won state championship;” “I dedicate this council to all of us seniors as we deal with all this hard stuff about leaving and deciding and all that;” “I dedicate this council to my Aunt Ruth, who was just diagnosed with cancer;” etc.

4) If candle-lighting has a negative meaning in a religious tradition of your students (or violates the fire code), you can place a flower or some other object of beauty in the center for students to focus on. You can also place a bowl of water in the center with stones around it. Students who want to make a dedication pick up a stone and place it in the water as they say their dedication.

5) Provide a talking stick, or rock, or pine cone or something else that has meaning and beauty for the group. Some teachers create a talking piece together with their students, or invite students to bring in an object they would like to share as a talking piece one day.

Many students hunger for the special quality that a Council with ceremonial elements brings into the room. They are more likely to act respectfully to themselves and one another and to speak about what is important to them in this context. If you feel your students’ families may be concerned about this practice competing with or undermining their own religious beliefs, it is essential to dialogue with them before introducing Council and gain their understanding and permission. There are no religious beliefs or practices implicit in Council -- the ritual elements simply provide an atmosphere of profound respect and focused attention.

Council is usually introduced in a PassageWays program after about 6 weeks of building a safe community. There is a paradox we sometimes encounter: we can wait and wait to introduce Council until after respect is established, only to discover that introducing Council itself may be the vehicle for commanding respect in an unruly group.

If you do decide to introduce Council, Thanksgiving can be an apt time for a first Council. The theme can be: “for what are you grateful in your life at this time?” (It helps to precede this council with a “paired share” that allows students to vent about what it not working in their lives at this moment.)

If you want to introduce Council to parents, a useful theme is “What is it like to be parenting a 6th grade student at this moment in your life and in our culture? What is hard for you, and what is working well that you would like to share with other parents?”

Be prepared for the possibility that students will share something unrelated to the theme you set. This can happen in any safe sharing circle. It is not necessarily about flaunting or forgetting your instructions. Often when people feel they are in a genuinely safe and caring circle, they will feel an urgent need to talk about something that is pressing. For example, in a seventh grade Thanksgiving council one year, a little boy said, “I don’t really know what I’m grateful for this year. I just found out that my mother has AIDS.”

When something like this is shared, the teacher may want to respond by thanking the child for sharing something so difficult, suggesting they speak after class, and encouraging the remaining students to come back to the theme of that day. When students begin to speak about matters that are not appropriate for school (and deserve the privacy, care and skill of a therapist), teachers can gently interrupt before they expose themselves in ways that are unhealthy for themselves or frightening for the other children. “You are talking about something that is very important and really deserves time. We don’t have time here to do justice to your feelings and experience. Let’s talk after class about how you can get that kind of support.”

CLOSURE is particularly important after a sharing circle or Council. A teacher should plan at least ten minutes to transition after circle and before the class ends. Closure activities give students time to digest and integrate what has been shared. Sometimes this may be a quiet and serious time. Other times, a playful game is helpful to make the transition back into the faster, louder pace of ordinary discussions and everyday life.

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Select a timekeeper

Invite a participant to [light a candle] [choose a stone to place in the bowl of water] and offer a dedication

“ I dedicate this council to ...”

(a) invite a quality or principle into this circle, such as honesty a sense of community, etc.

(b) honor a person (someone who needs support, someone who has just accomplished something, someone who has recently died or been born, etc.)

Facilitator states the theme and reminds people to focus on listening and letting their own remarks come spontaneously, without preparation.

Moving clock-wise, each person speaks in turn, with the opportunity to pass if someone does not feel ready, or chooses silence. (In new groups, the Facilitator should go first to set the tone and model appropriate disclosure.)

Allow 30 seconds to three minutes for each speaker, and a 15-second “time’s-up” warning. (With younger students, you may not need the warning chime. Determine the length of sharing with consideration of leaving at least 10 minutes for a second round or “connections”, and 5 minutes for closure.)

Allow a brief pause after each speaker so their words can be digested before the next speaker.

If individuals choose to pass, the Facilitator gives them an opportunity at the end of the first round to speak before anyone else speaks for a second time.

After the “round,” the Facilitator invites “connections” – brief comments

  • to deepen remarks in light of what others have shared
  • to honor others
  • to note themes or experiences in others that have had particular meaning or resonance for them

Create (or invite the group to create) some kind of closing. For example:

  • a moment of silence
  • a moment when each person looks around the circle and into the eyes of others (much later in the school year)
  • an individual volunteering to make a statement that closes the council & extinguishes the candle
  • the group standing and blowing out the candle together

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