Reflections upon reading #2, “Heart of a Teacher”, Chapter One, from The Courage to Teach, by Parker J. Palmer
Not a boring reading, I am glad to report. Beginning with a bad day of teaching (students “silent as monks”) and referring to 30 years of learning the craft of teaching, Palmer finds that the “techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do they suffice.” Terrific turn of phrase and analysis, and further “good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (p. 10)
Infusing one’s teaching with one’s personal identity and “being there” with and for students in the service of learning, teaching is not reducible to technique, but comes from the heart (“good teaching comes from good people.” p.13). Further, student have had objectivity drummed into them, leading to their being out of touch with themselves, stilted in their speech and writing, deluded “into thinking that bad prose can turn opinions into facts” p. 18. This is one of the most adept descriptions of stiff scholarship I have ever read.
Saddest, and perhaps truest of all, Palmer gives us “we train doctors to repair the body but hot to honor the spirit; clergy to be CEOs but not spiritual guides; teachers to master techniques but not to engage their students’ souls.” p.19 In the name of objectivity, we have lost heart and denied the value of subjective thought. Palmer goes on to advocate for not only mentors, but explores the qualities of mentees that will/did allow them to absorb what the mentors had to offer.
This is a very person and subjective journey that Palmer guides us on, exploring the joy and pain of teaching. Working for money and not meaning (p.30) is a common plight these days where holding the job or honoring your soul (p.30) is the real question. Listening to your inner voice, your inner teacher is the path to identity and integrity as a teacher—and one must author their own authority as a teacher. (p.33) The truth within your students will respond to you, and respond in kind (p.33).
This is so personal and so deep that while I appreciate Palmer’s sharing the inner workings of the inner teacher, I wonder how many readers will or can attain this depth of understanding. Great benchmark, but quite a distant or demanding target. Inspiring to read, perhaps impossible to reach, but there is nothing wrong with aiming high. I think perhaps Palmer was writing for teachers in similar situations: 30 years of experience, bouts of depression, wondering if it is worth it all, sounds like burnout to me. At the same time, Palmer rejects pursuing other vocations—the inner teacher loves the inner students. I think THAT is what has distinguished the exceptional teachers I have known. Not only “being there” but with love and caring for the students, and also for the disciplines they taught so well.