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Finding the 'Courage to Teach'

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When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

I have played the role of student as well as teacher in this ancient Buddhist proverb. I had been teaching for several years when I first encountered my teacher, a man whose wisdom influenced my life and my teaching for almost a decade before I finally met him.

His name is Parker J. Palmer, and my first encounter was a remarkable book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. It is as profound a book about teaching and learning as I have encountered in several decades of reading about those subjects, beginning well before I decided to change my life’s work and take on the task of serving as a teacher of others.

I periodically return to this book, and others by Palmer that have also spoken to my condition, such as Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. It was—and is—The Courage to Teach that most influences me as person and as teacher. This is appropriate because, as Palmer makes clear, those of us who teach should not seek to separate our teaching from ourselves. Nor should we seek to separate ourselves from our students.

After his introduction, he titles the first chapter "The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching." A key to his approach—derived from his own work as a teacher and from his conversations with and study of many who teach—is the issue of vulnerability. We can understand part of his meaning from some words he wrote more than three decades ago in a pamphlet titled Meeting for Learning: Education in a Quaker Context, written when he was Dean of Studies at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center in Wallingford, Pa.—at a time when he himself was not yet a Quaker:

If we did not claim more than we know, students would learn that teachers are seekers too. And teachers would learn directly what students need to know rather than having to ferret it out from a thicket of words.

Authentic education is not necessarily quick in achieving results, nor are its results predictable in advance. And education suffers when we keep uprooting the plant to see how well it is growing. We must trust that growth is happening, and have patience to wait it out.

Reading, then pondering, then attempting to apply Palmer’s insights have had a huge influence on my teaching and my living. When I first encountered them, I was at a crossroads in my teaching, in danger of withdrawing myself and perhaps only going through the motions, wondering if I could fully commit myself in the way I had once imagined.

I was returning to a school at which I had taught for three years, but which I had left for a year. I was scheduled to teach a new subject, perhaps for that year only, and struggled with putting in the thought and preparation that was required. Then I encountered Palmer. I realized my doubt was less about teaching the subject for only one year, and more that it was taking me out of my comfort zone of teaching a subject I knew well. Once I understood that, I was able to make the emotional commitment necessary to be a good teacher: I became a vulnerable person. When, because of a retirement, I returned to my preferred curriculum mid-year, I was now ready to take it on anew, with fresh eyes and the understanding that each class and each year would be a risky experience.

The last of the four questions Palmer poses at the beginning of The Courage to Teach seemed of particular relevance. He writes that:

Seldom, if ever, do we ask the "who" question—who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form—or deform—the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

I may not be able to answer that question in the universal, but I know that merely by reflecting upon it, I become more aware of my students, more open to their uniqueness, and better able to meet them as the unique individuals they are. In essence, I become a better and more effective teacher.

The Vulnerable Master

This past weekend, the student was again ready for the teacher to appear. I attended the 80th anniversary celebration of Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center. The principal speaker was Parker Palmer. I was finally able to meet him, to talk with him about teaching and more. Sometimes those whom we admire through their writing do not reach us in the same way when we encounter them personally. Parker Palmer in person is even more inspiring than in his writing. In his informal interactions with others, in his prepared address, in the question and answer session that followed, we experienced the same insight, the same personal openness and vulnerability, the same willingness to learn along with us, that so inspired us in reading his words.

I say "us." Many in the crowd were or had been teachers. I was not alone in meeting someone who had been important in my life. As my wife noted in an online response to something I wrote about the event:

Knowing you as I do…I think it's safe to say that Parker Palmer has been your own most important teacher. I am so glad you are finally getting a chance to meet him.

My teacher has appeared. Perhaps now I too am prepared to appear for my students, when they are ready.

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