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Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life

"We become teachers for reasons of the heart. But many of us lose heart as time goes by. How can we take heart, alone and together, so we can give heart to our students and our world—which is what good teachers do."
—Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer is a writer, teacher, and activist who is a senior associate of the American Association for Higher Education and senior advisor to the Fetzer Institute, for whom he designed the Teacher Formation Program for K-12 teachers. See many Parker Palmer articles in Related Writings on The Center for Teacher Formation website. His books include The Active Life, To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, and recently Let Your Life Speak: Listening For the Voice of Vocation.

Review and Reflections by Pat Hoertdoerfer

Palmer writes, "we teach who we are" and invites us into a deeper inquiry about education—teaching and learning—that is often overlooked. It is not the "what" question (what subjects shall we teach?) nor the "how" question (what methods and techniques are required?) nor the "why" question (for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?). It is the "who" question: who is the self that teaches? Parker Palmer explores the inner landscape of the teacher's life along three related pathways—intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.

At the heart of The Courage to Teach is Palmer's image of teaching: "To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced." He defines "truth" as "an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline." The purpose of leadership in community is to create a teaching and learning space centered on the "great things" that evoke the virtues we cherish in education: inviting diversity, embracing ambiguity, welcoming creative conflict, practicing honesty, experiencing humility, becoming free.

These are a few key themes from each chapter:

Heart of the Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching

  • If we want to grow as teachers, we must learn to talk to each other about our inner lives, our own identity and integrity.
  • Identity lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that make up a life, while integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring us wholeness and life.
  • Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique.
  • The best gift we receive from great mentors is not their knowledge or their approach to teaching but the sense of self they evoke within us.

A Culture of Fear: Education and the Disconnected Life

  • Fear is a powerful feature of both educational culture and our inner landscape. The sequence of fears begins in the fear of diversity, leads to the fear of conflict, then the fear of losing identity, and the final fear of the challenge to change our lives.
  • Knowing is always communal. Knowing is a human way to seek relationship, to have encounters and exchanges that will alter us.

The Hidden Wholeness: Paradox in Teaching and Learning

  • The nature of the human self is paradoxical: for every gift or strength we possess, there is a corresponding weakness or liability.
  • We need to embrace opposites and appreciate paradoxes.
  • Six paradoxes to build into the teaching and learning space
  • The space should be bounded and open
  • The space should be hospitable and "charged"
  • The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group
  • The space should honor the "little" stories of participants and the "big" stories of the disciplines and traditions
  • The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community
  • The space should welcome both silence and speech

Knowing in Community: Joined By the Grace of Great Things

  • To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.
  • Truth is the eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.
  • The community of truth includes a transcendent dimension of truth-knowing and truth-telling that takes us beyond relativism and absolutism alike.

Teaching in Community: A Subject-Centered Education

  • The best classroom is neither teacher-centered nor participant-centered but subject- centered.
  • To move us closer to the community of truth in the classroom, we must make ourselves as dependent on the participants as they are on us.

Learning in Community: The Conversation of Colleagues

  • We need to create a collegial community of discourse that promote "good talk about good teaching."

Divided No More: Teaching from a Heart of Hope

  • The decision to resist feeling divided, to teach from the heart, can result in change.
  • To teach from the heart is to heed the calling of the soul, for connection and community.

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

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Last updated on Friday, October 26, 2012.

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