The Teacher’s Identity: a review of Palmer’s “Courage to Teach”

My first “real” teaching experience was standing in front of a crowd of four year-old children, holding up cards of colors and numbers, and then dancing until my audience was giggling so hard that they forgot they were speaking a foreign language. While not all teachers may have had origin stories as kindergarten teachers, my journey into the teaching profession began quite unexpectedly. What you realize (even as a kindergarten teacher) is that teaching begins with relationship and only after a relationship has been established can learning take place. When the eyes of the teacher lock with the child and there is a spark of trust – then, only then – can learning begin.

As children grow older into adults, they fashion more poetic and artistic ways of learning, but in the end relationship continues to be the keystone, even in university and postgraduate studies. Parker Palmer recognizes this key fact, as the thesis to the book “The Courage To Teach” centers around the community that grows and is watered by the teacher. Even though I teach in a different country, culture, and sometimes language, the relationship between student and teacher is still tantamount, albeit interpreted and visualized differently. Even though expectations for what that relationship means may differ from culture to culture, the student and teacher can never be separated.

As a teacher, I have struggled with the concept of who I am as a teacher. Am I an instructor? Am I a friend? Am I a spiritual guide to help my students reach the next plateau in their lives? Am I the sage on the mountain, or the muse that whispers secrets into the hearts of learners while remaining at a distance to observe a transformed life? Palmer explains that the core of a teacher lies in his or her identity. “Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.” (p. 12) In other words, identity forms the central axis upon which teachers revolve around: how far they can grow, their possibilities of self-actualization, how they relate to their subject material, and the extent to which students can grow under their tutelage. However, teachers are not the impact mechanism which affects students, according to Palmer; rather, once the teacher identifies the work of teaching as a vocation where “deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet,” (p. 30) then the result is what Palmer describes as good teaching. Good teaching is the penultimate goal, because the beauty of education lies in the subject-based classroom, where ideas are met with passion from both teacher and student. While Palmer wouldn’t necessarily say that the content of the lesson is more important than the teacher, neither would he say that the teacher is deserving of authority because of privilege or status; rather, in the mashing of paradox and fulfillment, within that tempestuous storm lies the diligence of purity and true knowledge, keys to unlocking true learning.

Perhaps the most insidious barrier to true learning is the atmosphere of the classroom. Teachers often complain of toxic environments, where students are uncompromisingly stalwart in erecting and rebuilding barriers to learning the teacher attempts to pursue. Sometimes these barriers are as simple as a consistently snide attitude toward the material of the class, and sometimes these barriers are as poisonous as repeated attempts to derail other students through an elaborately orchestrated coup. However, such grand dreams of Hell are merely illusions from the teacher’s fear, transformed into monsters and shadows that if not countered lead to a true malformation of bad teaching, where the teacher loses all credibility in not only the students but in himself or herself as a bearer of knowledge. Palmer classifies this barrier as “the teacher’s fearful heart” (p. 47), and reflects that the only true counter to fear is a change in attitude. Rather than combating the toxicity of the environment, the teacher should treat good teaching not as benefiting the student, but rather as benefiting the teacher. “Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.” (p. 49) However, Palmer doesn’t say that the teacher shouldn’t attempt to care for the students, as “a good teacher is someone who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken – so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence” (p. 46). In other words, a teacher has priority, but if the teacher is at risk of falling to fear, confidence falters and only the strongest student survives, if survival can even be called a hope.

Wisdom is generally found in paradox. Many view this as the “wise man’s crutch,” with popular sentiments such as “during peace, prepare for war,” or “the wise man knows he is not wise.” Simplistic philosophical algorithms which propound great thoughts by abusing the existence of unspoken space are the sage’s artillery. As a teacher, I am held to account to the things I teach and often see myself on that distant high hill; what the wise man on the hill often fails to perceive however, is that while he chose solitude over community (as many scholars do), he stands out as he is the only one on that hill. According to Palmer, paradox is the key to good teaching; creating environments of tension in which learning can occur. He mentions six different kinds of environments of paradox: protected but open, inviting but dangerous, self-led in community, realistically archetypal, a community encouraging solitude, and a place of active discourse and quiet reflection (p. 76-78). Tension is the key to unlocking potential; tension for tension’s sake does not create potentials, but neither does tension for learning’s sake. Rather, exercising one’s abilities in the medium between light and dark, while aiming the mind at a goal allows one to critically assess the virtual environment, and through that assessment, self-knowledge is increased, which when utilized as a source of energy, helps create bridges over rivers of mystery and encourages us forward into the mist. In the end, the ability to learn can never come from any other but the self. However, the teacher must take full responsibility over the environmental design.

Palmer asserts strongly his Quaker identity, and perhaps nowhere stronger is his dedication to his faith in his preaching of the community of truth. As a teacher, I operate primarily in community but also outside of it – a class is a scheduled activity, required by the state, encouraged by the culture, and associated with shame and honor in the social spectrum. The student has no choice over the material studied, nor choice over the tasks assigned, and no choice over the time of the prescribed learning nor the length of that learning. In a true community the voice of the many act as one, but in a classroom, community cannot be understood in traditional terms; if purported as such, such definitions serve only to act as a rationalization for a more positive teacher and student relationship rather than a communal activity. For this reason, Palmer explores the concept of community not as a commune of individuals but rather as “the community of truth, the grace of great things, the transcendent subject, the ‘Secret that sits in the middle and knows,” and the sacredness of soil that Palmer believes community is rooted in not as physical and objective fact but as the numinous energy at the heart of reality, which binds all together, teacher and student alike. (p. 112) While this definition may seem obscure and philosophical, heis not claiming that community shouldn’t be held accountable as a collection of individuals working in harmony, but rather the spirit of community must be central to the reason why all parties are gathered. In other words – attitude. The classroom cannot be understood as a social requirement without the prescience of why and how that gathering of hearts and minds is necessary for personal growth. Even a person who hates learning must find an apple in a dry orchard if he seeks to become more than what he was; for this reason, community doesn’t spring out of the ground like a well of water; a teacher must, like a focusing iris pointing a laser of light at a spot on a wall, create an atmosphere of an “eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” (p. 105) For Palmer, that conversation deals with a particular subject, but I believe the teacher, as a leader, must also know how to wield the power of the iris wisely; a teacher does not exist in a vacuum.

In our modern society, we are inundated with data. Wikipedia boasts millions of pages of information, our liberal arts colleges offer hundreds of different majors, each major holding under its wings several different disciplines, even a field such as engineering must now be understood as mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, structural engineering, coastal engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and so on. The university has responded to this and does its best to offer as comprehensive an education as possible. Palmer asserts that what has happened in our society because of the rise of data collection is backward; rather than being more knowledgeable, we are less; rather than having more skill, we have trouble knowing how to actually process the data into action. Furthermore, in the university, classes often operate from one of two poles: where the teacher is a bastion of knowledge, or where the teacher workshops the students into pseudo-professors where every emotion or thought has value, regardless of the extrinsic value those ideas carry. Palmer’s solution then, is to offer less meaningless data, but data of value to the community. “The human brain works best with information presented not in the form of isolated data bits but in patterns of meaningful connection, in a community of data.” (p. 130) Hence, the responsibility lies on the teacher to carefully select information for a course that not only is aligned, but mindful that both the learners and the tutor are members of an intricate biological microcosm that grows and changes from the things touched, sensed, and experienced. Hence, the goal of education should neither be the holy hand grenade of knowledge from Heaven’s ambassador, nor should the goal of education be for students to play Battleship with their texts and hope to sink their opponent’s navy. In the center of everything lies the passionate subject, a bendable but intractable member of the learning society which is strategically selected by the teacher while at the same time open to interpretation. After all, the subject won’t go away if a student interprets it into oblivion, but that interpretation may reveal a deeper secret about the student previously unrealized, as long as the student is able to focus on the step-process of the latter obliviated idea.

Teaching is a personal art. Teachers draw from their lives stories, metaphors, experiences, emotions, and fears, in this complex interplay of personal elements a unique teaching methodology is practiced. Each teacher carries different variables into the classroom, and as such, rubrics, selection of curriculum, even priorities and time schedules differ from class to class. One teacher telling another teacher how to teach better can be explained by thinking of an image of a bird telling a beaver how to build a better home out of sticks. While both the bird and the beaver use the branches of a tree to build their homes, they are not the same creature and have different goals even though both are trying to provide for their families. Given these barriers to discussion, how can one teacher benefit from the experience of another teacher, without feeling the need to clone himself after that teacher? Palmer outlines a three-pronged process, which I will restate as preparedness, sacredness, and reflective paraphrasing. (p. 156-160). Preparedness concerns the full background of an issue, even data which might seem non-relevant. Sacredness is an attitude of pure exploration of situation and methodology. Reflective paraphrasing is the final step in the process where the listener tells the focus what she or he said, along with clarifying questions and non-confrontational observations. While these three methods may be useful in bridging the gap between teachers and allowing them a space in which to conceptualize themselves in a different environment, Palmer asserts the necessity for educational leaders to encourage dialogue. “Good talk about good teaching is unlikely to happen if presidents and principals, deans and department chairs, and others who have influence without position do not expect it and invite it into being.” (p. 160) Palmer’s premise, from the beginning of the book to the end, maintains a healthy accountability for those in power, whether those people are the teachers in charge of their classrooms or the leaders in charge of their teachers. As a person who has influence without position, I am encouraged by Palmer’s words.

The dread word for any teacher is invariably reform. It’s not that teachers are enemies of reform, but reform means change and forced systematic change is not a teacher’s bread and butter; much like the amputation of a limb, teachers view reform as a soldier might leer at a medic holding an axe in his hands. Teachers spend a lifetime developing strategies for use in the classrooms – elaborate rituals, choice texts, personal philosophies that others would find ludicrous outside of the tiny spec of wood, metal, and paper that comprises the classroom. Teachers spend countless hours pouring over evaluations, trying to come up with crazy theories in the sometimes haphazard goal of shaping lumps of teeny, naïve, and hormonal creatures into something their societies can be proud of on both an intellectual and a social level. So when words like “educational reform” get thrown around from other teachers (especially those outside the system) often the result is met with cold distance, apprehensiveness, or even outright rejection. Palmer recognizes the inherent weaknesses of reform, especially as reform tends more or less to be institutional rather than carrying intrinsic value. Hence, for Palmer the strategy is not to find ways of incorporating reform within the teacher’s life, but rather reforming the concept of the movement. To illustrate the reformed movement, Palmer uses four stages: institutional rejection in community, establishing support systems and a shared vision, opening goals and vision for public critique, and establishing a reward system outside of institutional values. (p. 172) Rather than working through the institution, Palmer asserts that a movement has value as “movements have the power to alter the logic of organizations because an organization is, at bottom, a system of social sanctions: do this and you will be punished; do that and you will be rewarded.” (p. 186) However, given the foundation of an institution lies in punishment and reward rather than passion and community, movements are to the institution what a shot of morphine is to a man bleeding on the battlefield: a second chance, a reawakening, and a re-purposing of “the power within each of us that in communion with powers beyond ourselves, co-creates the world, for better or worse.” (p. 189)

As a teacher in China, there are further challenges. I don’t have the space to talk in details, but there are five cardinal concepts of social intelligence of great importance in Chinese society: mianzi (face – impression management/self-presentation), wuxing/wulun (holism – social cognition/information identity), guanxi (relationship – attunement/interaction awareness), renqing (favor – influence/behavioral affectation), and yuan (fate – concern/interest management). Teaching in China affords me space; as a foreigner, I am not privy to the intrinsic culture, but I am aware that the culture where I live is far more attuned to social intelligence than my own and as a teacher I must train myself to be keenly aware or face the consequences. I bring this topic up because while Palmer’s model of teaching works well in a Judeo-Christian culture based in the sophistry of Plato, Aristotle, and Adam Smith, the Chinese worldview towards education is very different, founded in the entirely different philosophical petri dish of Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi. While Palmer identifies areas of improvement for the vocation of a teacher, most teachers would welcome his suggestions even though they might balk at their own responsibility to change; in China, I’m afraid many if not most teachers would find Palmer’s suggestions not only amazingly out-of-touch with the ideals of the teacher, but unusable except in particular situations where western ideas are more welcome and schools have been incentivized to test out alternate theories.

For myself as a scholar living in a foreign country, I have come to recognize that Palmer presents two significant challenges to me: firstly, that in order to function as a teacher in China, I must relearn basic concepts about human action. Not only does Palmer explain the inherent spirituality of the teaching profession, but he does so in a way that revitalizes old ideas in new colors. I must learn this language of human action, how to interpret what I see before me, and how to speak that language in such a way that I know who exactly I am, how my fears root me to inaction or backward thinking, how to approach the paradox of east and west and use that so that I can create a more positive learning environment. Concepts like mianzi and renqing are extraordinarily powerful as relationship modulators, while wuxing, guanxi, and yuan establish even the expectations of my own work. Mianzi and wulun alters/limits the extent to which I can affect change among my students, wuxing and yuan influences the amount of power I have as an influencer without position, and guanxi changes the nature of promotion, benefits, and even the concept of the movement.

Secondly, while I do believe that I have the spiritual gift of teaching, I don’t believe I am currently investing myself in it to the fullest extent.  While the culture is challenging, I am not naïve enough to believe the system would be any better in another place – so Palmer speaks directly to my attitude and the necessity for me to be a light to others, no matter how dark the island may be.