The Courage to Teach When You’re Losing Heart about Relationships

Here are more gems from Parker Palmer about heart-centered purposes for teaching in a subject-centered classroom:

"Many of us became teachers for reasons of the heart, animated by a passion for some subject and for helping people learn. But many of us lose heart as the years of teaching go by. How can we take heart in teaching once more so that we can, as good teachers always do, give heart to our students?"
"...But a good teacher must stand where personal and public meet, dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where 'weaving a web of connectedness' feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, difference, judgment, ridicule." --from Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (17)

Definitionally, Parker Palmer’s notion of integrity is partly about “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness,” but Palmer-esque integrity is much more about seeking “the state of being whole and undivided.” Integrity is about integrating disparate, conflicted, and paradoxical parts of our lives. So many forces challenge our attempts to develop and promote wholeness and integrity.

I’m grateful for my 1998, thoroughly marked-up copy of The Courage to Teach for serving as a first-aid manual for recovering from inner and outer disintegration forces.

Hanging out at hardware stores this summer and working through home improvement projects, I’ve sometimes felt the invitation to pursue “The Courage to Work at a Hardware Store.”

Approaching my 28th year, I feel called to go a bit longer, but potential mask mandates and various forms of mayhem tempt me to call it quits, especially before meetings and inservices start up for the new school year. (In a future post, drawing on the works of John Milton, Martin Buber, and Michael Heiser, I might attempt to argue with myself that meetings per se are not a product of Satan’s fall from heaven.)

I can imagine a few snarky colleagues and students who might bluntly tell me that working at the hardware store is a much better fit for me than teaching. It doesn’t take too many instances of conflict to make one feel discouraged and lose heart. Palmer’s right in sharing that “we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, difference, judgment, ridicule” as we teach.

Palmer’s own reflection on a course he taught helps me appreciate the courage to be vulnerable. He describes a college-level seminar course in which a “Gang of Three” was disruptive in and dismissive of his course. Eventually, he angrily confronted these students outside of class, and he got some compliance. But he felt awful about the whole experience.

Palmer identifies the priority issue as twofold: At root, it is about “understanding my identity,” and “nothing I do differently as a teacher will make any difference to anyone if it is not rooted in my nature” (71).

Indeed, Palmer’s perspective has served me well as I think about potentially negative criticism from colleagues and students. By nature and temperament, I tend to grab for methods and techniques to solve relational problems, but the root issue is often first about my character, soul, habits, attitudes, and heart. Conflict is often a gift that reveals the need for character change, best realized before delving too much into techniques.

Palmer wisely advises that before facing one’s failings or failed moments of teaching (and all relationships, I’d add), it’s good to think about the gifts that we possess for helping learning and relationships develop. Such gifts often involve vulnerability and a willingness to explore paradoxes, pain, and truth. (I may need to come back to those items in a future posting.)

“Eventually, the how-to question is worth asking,” notes Palmer, and I concur that good teaching isn’t anti-technique. Still, it’s first about developing a rich sense of personhood in the context of truth and community.

Such development is a good aim for students as well as teachers in order to promote the courage to learn and grow.

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