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the original version of this was posted in November 2010.  I have cleaned up some typos and modified the original so that it is not time sensitive.  I think the content is just as relevant now as it was almost two years ago

Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back.  We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever "solution" has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine; and in the process, we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who help us find our way.
I  finally had the opportunity to meet the author of those words the day after the original of this was posted in November, 2010.  His name is Parker Palmer, and the occasion was the 80th Anniversary of Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat and study center in Wallingford PA.  The words are from his book The Courage to Teach:  Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher;s Life, which has had a profound impact upon my own teaching practice, copies of which I have given to some of my student teachers, and which on the day I originally posted this I had just reread.

Let me offer a few more of his words, and a few thoughts of my own.

The first quote was from  page 3.  On the following page Palmer offers four bullet points which outline his approach:

  • The question we most commonly ask is the 'what question - what subjects shall we teach?
  • When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the "how" question - what methods and techniques are required to teach well?
  • Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the "why" question - for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?
  • But seldom, if ever, do we ask the "who" question - who is the self that teaches?  How does the quality of my selfhood form - or deform - the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?  How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?
I am, as regular readers of my writing about education know, a firm believer in being genuine with my students.  To that requires me to be genuine with my self.   That is in many ways a far more difficult task.   Palmer writes about how even after decades of teaching there is a certain amount of fear in the task, in part because one is constantly approaching a new task, because regardless of how well one thinks s/he knows the content, the students with whom one will explore learning are going to be new, different, unique, and what may have worked wonderfully with one group of students will fail miserably with another, precisely because of that difference.

Let me offer what I think is an important, even profound, observation from page 145:  

Our tendency to reduce teaching to questions of technique is one reason we lack a collegial conversation of much duration or depth.  Through technique-talk promises the "practical" solutions that we think we want and need, the conversation is stunted when technique is the only topic; the human issues in teaching get ignored, so the human beings who teach feel ignored as well.  When teaching is reduced to technique, we shrink teachers as well as their craft - and people do not willingly return to a conversation that diminishes them.
This passage does not mean that teaching technique is irrelevant.  Again, in order to reach the diversity of students one encounters it helps to have a broad toolkit into which one can reach.  But teaching is far more than merely applying the appropriate tool to the student(s) at hand.  That demeans and diminishes them as well as the learning process.  It may in fact require the teacher to learn from the student how to help her make connection with the material, perhaps in a way one had not previously considered.  

I have often noted that what happens in education may be serving as a canary in the coal mine for what is happening in our society at large.  Thus let me offer two selections that are far broader than schools in their impact, and which may strike readers as very relevant for the times in which we now find ourselves.

From page 164:  

Grant, for the moment, that institutions  are as powerful as resistant as the pessimists say they are.The question then becomes, "Has significant social change ever been achieved in the face of massive institutional opposition?"  The answer seems clear: only in the face of such opposition has significant social change been achieved.  If institutions had a capacity for constant evolution, there would never have been a crisis demanding transformation.
I do not argue that American public schools do not need to be changed, even radically.  I do contend that what is passing for "reform" is in fact something else, more of an approach that we have now been trying for several decades which has consistently failed to improve either education or society, although some of its proponents have found it increases the bottom lines of their corporations and foundations as well as gives the influence concomitant with their increasing wealth.  

The approach to teaching one finds advocated by Palmer would do far more to radically change public education.  

The last quotation I will offer, from p. 176, is something that struck me as I reread it, and as I thought how often the "reformers" actively work to devalue or suppress any position contrary to theirs.   Please read it in that light.

The leaders of authentic movements willingly go public and engage in give-and-take, knowing that this public dialogue is a path toward the authority that comes from understanding and persuasion.  But in a fascist "movement," the leaders have no interest in public exposure and critique.  Indeed, fascism depends upon shutting down the public realm so that fascist values cannot be challenged and countervailing power cannot be generated against them.
Peace???

Originally posted to teacherken on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 04:51 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives and Teachers Lounge.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (14+ / 0-)

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 04:51:51 AM PDT

  •  Reflection (4+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the excellent diary

    Reflection, I believe, is an essential tool of the craft.  I think the skill set of our craft is improving while the respect for what we do is declining.

    Why do I do what I do?  Because they need me, or someone like me.  I have the luxury of being near the end of my career and thus the luxury of concentrating on the practical.  Most of my 8th gradr U.S. History students readd below grade level.  My job is to find them where they are, and lift them up a notch, give them an opportunity to have a lightbulb moment.  That gives me pleasure and satisfaction.

    On the conversation with the public over the present and future of education, I'm a lot more pessismistic,  Everybody went to school, so everybody is an expert in education.  The ginned up anti-intellectualism of our time just may be an insurmountable hurdle in that needed national and local discourse.  

    Always grateful to wake up alive.

    by Subo03 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 06:04:52 AM PDT

  •  Great points Ken, however... (0+ / 0-)

    ...even with the distinctions between the two education platforms, educators can expect shit sandwiches from either President Obama or a Rmoney administration.

    The runaway train of psychometric testing has left the station.

    Does the President care about the damage he has done to his relationship with educators?

    Educational experience based on non-consensual behaviorism is authoritarian mind control.

    by semioticjim on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 07:34:32 AM PDT

    •  This bothers me also. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      semioticjim

      I am an avid supporter of Obama, but probably the area that disappoints me the most in his administration is that of education, and relates directly to what I do every day.

      How can he not see through the reformists that only want to privatize the system?  Why can't he see that we need Arne Duncan to be replaced with someone who has actually taught in an at-risk school and actually knows what the realities are?

      I guess the extreme push from the Rs about health care and the economy have taken so much of his time and energy that he hasn't really focused on schools.  I understand that, but wish he would listen to those who have a lot to say about his policies.

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