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Date Author Title
2011-05-09 Steve Gardiner Book Review: The Courage to Teach

Sometimes books about teaching seem too clinical. They give techniques about what will change this or improve that. One book, however, is very personal. It hits at the heart of what it feels like to be a teacher, what drives us to teach day after day, year after year. That book is Parker J. Palmer's Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life.

Palmer, an experienced teacher, understands clearly what it means to stand in front of a class and care about what happens with the students. It's an exposed place. A place that can be fearful, exciting, passionate.


He explained, “Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life. A good therapist must work in a personal way, but never publicly: the therapist who reveals as much as a client's name is derelict. A good trial lawyer must work in a public forum but remain unswayed by personal opinion: the lawyer who allows private feelings about a client's guilt to weaken the client's defense is guilty of malpractice.


“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, judgment, ridicule” (p. 17).


The public nature of the profession may be fearful, but it keeps the excitement and passion involved in teaching alive and well. It is a powerful incentive to continually improve and seek for more. “Crossing a freeway on foot” is no place for complacency. It demands our full attention, and our students deserve no less.


Teaching is a complex business, Palmer noted. It requires a variety of talents and interests. It requires personal examination and social awareness. It requires subject knowledge and pedagogical skills.


“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness,” Palmer wrote. “They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts—meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self” (p. 11).


This is not a how-to-teach book, but is a how-to-be-a-teacher book. Taking a look at the teacher's inner landscape is a worthwhile process and brings out many important thoughts about the profession.


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