Real Teaching is Risky Business

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Recently, I had a minimalist-inspired moment and decided to simplify my life, starting with my living room. I had no problem removing excess decor, but when it came to my beloved bookshelves full of my precious books, I winced. Could I, should I, part with my books? Why had I kept so many all these years? What was I hanging on to? The truth is that the books made me feel good, safe, kinda smart, and accomplished. I realized that they fed my ego and my need to feel knowledgeable. I mean, aren’t teachers supposed to become knowledgeable and impart that knowledge to others? My books reminded me that I am well-read, educated—but what the hell does that really mean? And is that all there is to teaching?

My mind flashed to the scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character, Will, tries to assert his intellectual prowess over Robin Williams’ character, the psychologist, bragging that he had already read all the books in the doctor’s office. But then Williams’ character responds to Damon’s character, questioning him about why he thinks he knows how life works because he’s read all “the books.” And here is the trope: Will sucked at life, even though he was “book-smart.” He struggled with affairs of the heart.

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Pondering the Good Will Hunting scene, I revisited an old question: Is amassing knowledge the same thing as learning? Is becoming educated the key to a meaningful life? Is knowing, in the strictly rational sense, the key to good teaching? In that movie, Damon’s genius character learned that having all the answers doesn’t mean you have all the answers, no matter how many books you read or math equations you solve. He got the girl but didn’t quite know how to connect with her or how to keep her. How about them apples?

themapples

Flash back to my minimalist moment. Off to the donation bin I went, with about 30 boxes of books, an outgrown belief, and a small piece of my identity; however, I kept a few token titles: a set of hardcover American literary classics; the Harry Potter series, of course; one Shakespeare anthology; and a bunch of paperbacks of my favorite authors: Tolstoy, Thich Naht Hahn, Mary Oliver. I also kept the The Tao Te Ching and some books about yoga. And there was one other random title I kept, and I am surprised I did, called The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1998) by Parker Palmer. I am not sure why I didn’t just chuck it out with the rest, but now I know.  It’s crazy how specific aspects of the world come into focus exactly when you’re ready and able to see. Timing is everything.

Some grad professor probably recommended Palmer’s book to me when I was a soon-to-be teacher or newbie, circa 2003. Re-reading it, some fourteen years later, I laughed a little as I thought about how my former self must have read and understood this before actually teaching in a classroom. I probably felt like I belonged to this profession somehow, because I had been learning so much about how to teach, what to teach, and why to teach. Ironically, though, this book is not about instructional technique or any sort of “how-to” of teaching, nor does it include inspirational advice or stories from the classroom. It turns out that Palmer reflects on his spiritual journey as a teacher; it’s about the “who” of teaching; it’s a story of continual learning, of becoming, and what it means to be a teacher. It’s existential; it’s epistemological; it’s ontological. It’s about embracing and celebrating mystery, the sacred, the unknown, and it’s about living in ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s about being human in the classroom rather than maintaining the typical, dogmatic duality of subject and object which almost always results in the disconnection so sadly commonplace in all levels of academia today.

NETHERLANDS EXAMS

What a pleasant surprise to read a book about teaching that avoids the cliches of “what to do” or “how to do,” and instead promotes the humanity of teaching and learning! For once, I thought, professional development that is personal, human, and meaningful, as opposed to a litany of new strategies or reforms that only work within, and serve to reinforce, the status quo of institutionalized schooling. This book is about exploring inner landscapes– identity and integrity and the human heart. It’s real.

My recognition that the books on my bookshelf represented a piece of my identity as “educated” or “knowledgeable,” along with my subsequent desire to free myself from old habits of mind and limiting beliefs, aligns with Palmer’s criticism of the predominant Western scientific definition of knowing and truth which essentially minimizes teaching and learning to acquisition of knowledge, when the process is so much more than facts, figures, and concrete skills. Palmer reminded me of the intimacy and personal connection that is necessary for teachers and students to explore the world together, as they engage in a dynamic process, or what Palmer calls a “community of truth.” This reminded me why I love teaching so much and why I am “a good tired” after work everyday.  He writes, “Community, or connectedness, is the principle behind good teaching” (115), but what makes Palmer’s work different from (and better than) other professional development is that he doesn’t sell you a bunch of gimmicks to create that community. Instead, he encourages teachers simply to know themselves in order to create a uniquely suited environment for good teaching and learning to happen. He claims that most teachers avoid talking about who they are by talking about what they do. In my opinion, safety and conformity are the enemies of authentic teaching, and good teaching is, sadly, subversive. 

risky business

I agree with Palmer’s conclusion that the identity and the integrity of the teacher is absolutely everything. Good teaching is deeply personal. He writes in his introduction:

…good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. The premise is simple, but its implications are not…in every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and I am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning. (p.10)

Ah, yes, vulnerability! And this is where the courage to teach comes in. Courage is the mental or moral strength to withstand difficulty and danger, to persevere despite fear. Being vulnerable is the last thing most teachers want to feel or talk about. It’s threatening. After all, they are, in their own minds and in the minds of others, the perceived authority in the room— in control; carefully organized and planned; the person with the answers. A typical teacher’s worst nightmare? Not knowing. But how teachers deal with fear (their own and their students’) is rarely measured or mentored. It’s barely discussed, perhaps because sharing that type of experience and information requires additional vulnerability, something most teachers are taught to distance themselves from. We are trained to stick to the business of the mind, the standards, assessment, methodologies, technique, leaving no room (or time!) for intimate exploration of the inner landscape; that is, the heart and souls of students and teachers.

If teachers (and students) approach the classroom embodying an identity of  “objective” rationality, with the preconceived notion about teaching and learning as a business transaction, and with suppressed inner fear of being vulnerable to students, that environment will be cold, disconnected, and uninviting. Sure, grades will be earned and credits accrued, acquisition of knowledge will occur, but all devoid of humanity, risk, personality, and warmth.  

aristotle

Palmer writes, “Good teachers [have] a strong sense of personal identity [that] infuses their work,” and they are “there” when teaching; teaching and the subject is their life (p.10). Ah, to be fully present! What a gift! What bravery is required! Imagine what real presence might do toward developing authentic listening, attention, love, and connection, the many qualities and behaviors our world sorely needs.

“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 varies…As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, their heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart– and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (Palmer, p.11)

Indeed, as Palmer extolls: the human heart…is the source of good teaching (p.3)

An exploration of one’s inner landscape should be foundational to teaching, prior to learning methodology or technique. Palmer proposes that, “As important as methods may be, the most practical thing we can achieve in any kind of work is insight into what is happening inside us as we do it. The more familiar we are with our inner terrain, the more surefooted our teaching—and living—becomes” (p.5). And “Face to face with my students,” he says, “only one resource is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches—- without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns” (p.10).know thyselfIf you don’t know yourself or understand your own humanity, then how can you, teachers, possibly connect with other human beings and nurture a community of learning?

Rather mysteriously, Palmer’s book showed up for me just as I am preparing to embark on a leave of absence from my position as a high school teacher.  Something urged me to clean out my bookshelves, which serendipitously led to the discovery of Palmer’s book, which added to the ongoing exploration of my identity as a teacher.  As I step away from the formal institution of school, I plan to open further to the mysteries of life outside the classroom and in uncertain territory. I hope to discover all kinds of communities of truth. I want to dig deeper into the definition of teaching and learning, going far beyond rational thinking and objective truth, as I travel across the landscapes— inside and out. 

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