Book Review - Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, Fall 2000

Accessible Version

Number 44, November 2000

Do any of us have the coeur-age to teach? Always a science, much more than an art, teaching is, obviously, an essential component of the academic lifestyle. We asked one of Western's 3M Teaching Award winners, Tom Haffie, to reflect on an exciting and challenging and recently-published book on pedagogy, Palmer's The Courage to Teach. Palmer bills himself as a writer and travelling teacher "who works independently on issues in education, community, spirituality, and social change". Professor Haffie achieved his national teaching award relatively early in his career, during his mid-thirties. Now a veteran, "rounding the turn" at 40 years of age, Haffie provides an analysis of the book as he perceives its impact on his own teaching and teaching within academe, specifically at Western. We would encourage your thoughts and comments on Haffie's thought-provoking reflections.

Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.

As I rounded the turn at 40, I found a copy of Palmer's The Courage to Teachoutside my office door. It may save my teaching life. I say "may" because I'm not certain just what ails me. Over 200 students shared the learning environment that I oversee in the fall term and, as I write, I can't recall more than a handful of their faces and fewer of their names. I smile when responding to knocks on my door but it's a marionette smile requiring conscious effort to pull the right strings at the right time. In trying to capture the essence of this piece of writing, I feel more like a novice border collie than any sort of smith. It is such a victory to badger the words into single file that I'm then reluctant to question their chosen order.

It wasn't always like this. I have memories of classes in which we were all so enraptured with what Palmer calls the "Grace of a Great Thing" that we were all lifted heavenward to a chorus of angels. I can recall having so much fun in a puddle of words that I ended up with them splashed all over my regalia. My smile used to race me to the door.

I've been noticing the Bitter Old Professors on campus. I am told that these people were once vibrant, sought-after teachers through whom many students grew into knowing. Now, muttery and grey, they haunt those same halls in which they once lived in eloquence and style. I wonder what happened to them. I wonder if it is happening to me.

Palmer's book is subtitled Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. His cartography helps to situate many swampy areas in which the spirit of teaching can be lost and stagnate. "We lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability. . . . Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life. . . . As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment and ridicule." I recall the first time a fat stack of the written comments, collected from students as part of the latest version of course evaluations, appeared in my mailbox. I guess I understood at some level that, in a class of 700, there would always be students who didn't like me. I just wasn't ready for the written documentation. "Arrogant" "Cocky" "Racist" "Unapproachable" "Totally incompetent, get rid of him." These anonymous, after-the-fact arrows stung like hell and I wondered at the wisdom of giving such people a clear shot at me twice a week. Maybe Bitter Old Professors are wounded.

I didn't need Palmer to tell me that universities can be fearful places. Of course I am afraid of the judgement of peers and colleagues, of being unappreciated, of losing support for my visions, of spiraling demands on my time, of double cohorts, of diverse ways of knowing, of conflict, of the judgement of the young. Of course my students are afraid of failing, of letting their families down, of not understanding, of having their ignorance exposed or prejudices challenged, of having chosen the wrong program, of my power over them. Palmer points out that "the behaviours generated by fear--silence, withdrawal, cynicism--often mimic those that come with ignorance" and that faculty are too quick to attribute an unresponsive class to lack of understanding. "As I have come to understand my students' fears, I have been able to aim my teaching in a new direction. I no longer teach to their imputed ignorance. Instead, I try to teach to their fearful hearts, and when I am able to do so, their minds often come along as well." As a remedy for the fearful heart of the teacher, Palmer invokes the spiritual injunction "Be not afraid." That is, do not become your fears. Get to know the fearful places in your inner landscape but don't stand knee deep in them while trying to teach. Maybe Bitter Old Professors are afraid.

Palmer speaks to teachers about reclaiming lost hearts through challenging the assumption that meaningful change comes about as a result of budgets, buildings, curricula, labour relations, institutional restructuring and discussion papers. ". . . we can reclaim our belief in the power of inwardness to transform our work and our lives. We became teachers because we once believed that ideas and insight are at least as real and powerful as the world that surrounds us. Now we must remind ourselves that inner reality can give us leverage in the realm of objects and events." Through good days and bad, I am struck by how little anything important changes in the outside world. The most significant variable determining the quality of my teaching is the weather inside me. Maybe Bitter Old Professors believe that the outer is more powerful than the inner.

A fascinating chapter of The Courage to Teach is devoted to the role of paradox in teaching and learning. "In certain circumstances, truth is found not by splitting the world into either-ors but by embracing it as both-and. In certain circumstances, truth is a paradoxical joining of apparent opposites, and if we want to know that truth, we must learn to embrace those opposites as one." He describes classroom spaces that hold such paradoxical tensions as being bounded and open, inviting the voice of the individual and the voice of the group, honoring the "little" stories of the students and the "big" stories of the discipline, welcoming silence and speech. Pathology arises with the cherishing of one part of paradox over another in a way that disconnects heads from hearts, facts from feelings, theory from practice. In my classes we try to understand powerful new tools for breast cancer screening; we don't acknowledge the mothers that die during the term. We look at mutation from every angle except what it is like to be a student living with chronic pain. Such "broken paradoxes" that acknowledge only one perspective or one way of knowing accumulate in me in an overstuffed file of unfinished business. Maybe Bitter Old Professors are either-ors.

Teaching and learning are inherently communal activities and Palmer argues that subject-centered curricula are most conducive to community building. "If we want a community of truth in the classroom, a community that can keep us honest, we must put a third thing, a great thing, at the center of the pedagogical circle.

. . . A learning community that embodies both rigour and involvement will elude us until we establish a plumb line that measures teacher and students alike--as great things can do." Palmer warns that objectivism, although superficially placing the thing to be known at the center of attention, actually fosters a stifling teacher-centered, monological learning environment. "Objectivism is so obsessed with protecting the purity of knowledge that students are forbidden direct access to the object of study, lest their subjectivity defile it. Whatever they know about it must be mediated through the teacher, who stands in for the object, serves as its mouthpiece, and is the sole focus of the student's attention." I try not to block the direct experience of my discipline from my students. During lecture time and office hours I try to stand shoulder to shoulder with students, literally as well as metaphorically, to encourage their digging, warn them of quicksand and admire the uncovered gems. But the structure of the room, the culture of the institution, the Registrar's appetite for numbers and my students' fear of taking up opportunities all conspire to keep at least some caricature of me blocking all of the sightlines. Maybe Bitter Old Professors are trapped between their subject and their students.

In addition to knowledge of the "inner ground" from which good teaching comes, a supportive community of fellow teachers who share practice and dialogue is an important element of the teaching life. We have hobbled ourselves in this area by supporting a culture that makes us, in Palmer's words, "one of the most privatized of all public professions." Respected colleagues have watched me brush my teeth more frequently than they have watched me teach. This isolationism is coated in the apparent virtue of academic freedom but the cost is high. How can we know one another as teachers if we all insist on going it alone? I have been blessed with mentors and kindred spirits in my career that evoked my skills and sheltered me as I honed them. They are now mostly gone--some to Heaven, some to warmer winters, some to tend their rhododendrons. Maybe the Bitter Old Professors are lonely.

Often approached after his faculty workshops by participants who resonate with his message but feel as if they are the only ones in their respective institutions who do, Palmer advises them to send up a signal flare. This is mine.