History of Engaged Teaching

The pressure of current educational mandates has challenged teachers to find creative solutions to complex problems and to reexamine the conditions that impact student learning. This inquiry has led to practices, initiatives and approaches that focus not only on instruction, but also on how we can engage students in new ways so they are ready and able to learn. As individual teachers and schools have implemented these approaches and seen powerful results, a new movement in education has begun to take shape. This movement, in which we can all take part, invites us each to participate in transforming education from the inside out—through our own individual teaching practice, classroom methodologies and professional relationships with colleagues.

From our perspective, this emerging movement acknowledges:

  1. the powerful impact of a teacher’s presence in the classroom;
  2. the importance of student engagement and participation in learning;
  3. the critical role of relationships and cultural contexts within a classroom and school;
  4. the ways social, emotional and academic learning are inextricably connected.


We wrote this book because we wanted to find a way to offer immediate and practical support to teachers—the kind of support that is empowering and useful because it acknowledges and builds on the wisdom and experience of educators themselves. In 2010, we gathered a writing and development team to bring vision to life. We spent three years gathering the contributions of this team and listening to educators and colleagues across the country. This process led to the refinement of the five dimensions of the engaged teaching approach and the practices and principles associated with each of the five dimensions.

History of the Five Dimensions:

The Engaged Teaching Approach includes the wisdom, knowledge and experience of many educators and field experts. The seed of this approach first originated with the collaborative work of Rachael Kessler (1946-2010) —a visionary educator, author, and founder of the PassageWorks Institute. Over the course of twenty-five years, Kessler worked with colleagues and K–12 educators across the United States over the course of twenty-five years to develop an approach that welcomed the inner life* of students and teachers into schools. Kessler’s groundbreaking book The Soul of Education: Connection, Compassion and Character in Schools (published in 2000 by ASCD) offered a unique and powerful perspective and has been used as a text in universities throughout the United States since its publication.

As Kessler and her colleagues worked in schools across the nation, they saw a marked difference in the quality of different classroom environments. As they observed these differences, they wondered why the same lesson plan could engage students, build trust, and encourage academic rigor in one class, while creating a sense of chaos, disconnection, and lack of productivity in another. Of course, they understood that each class of students has its own unique chemistry and conditions. However, they also saw that who the teacher was and how he or she expressed this unique presence in the classroom had a profound impact on students’ learning and engagement. They termed this aspect of teaching “teaching presence.”

Kessler and colleagues used the term teaching presence to describe the aspects of teaching that go beyond curriculum, strategy, and technique and emphasize the importance of who we are, how we express ourselves, and how we connect with our students (see also Palmer, 1998). The five dimensions of engaged teaching are based on this original concept of teaching presence, but have been expanded and developed to support students in the classroom and our professional relationships with colleagues.

*By “inner life” we refer to that essential aspect of human nature that yearns for deep connection, grapples with questions about meaning, and seeks a sense of purpose and genuine self-expression.   The inner life includes our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, questions, intuition, hopes, dreams, visions, creative impulses, ethical and moral leanings, and deepest longings for connection.