Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Inner Life of Teachers

"Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. 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."

That's just one of many quotes I find inspirational in Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (1998). The mood of the book is calm and loving, and Palmer drops constant truth bombs in a gentle manner that helps teachers develop their own inner lives.

The book builds off the premise that good teaching cannot be reduced to technique. Rather, good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. According to Palmer, good teachers share one trait: "They are truly present in the classroom, deeply engaged with their students and their subject."

I couldn't agree more, and while I wouldn't throw technique to the wind, the integrity of a teacher and being present absolutely is more important than whatever awesome, creative lesson the teacher has concocted. (But who doesn't love awesome, creative lessons?)

While reading bell hooks, I stumbled across some Palmer quotes and thought, "Hey, I should read this guy." He delivered — and then some. Teachers truly have to cultivate their inner lives, or they risk burnout, misery and might say things like, "Only three days to Friday."

Sadly, it may be harder for new teachers to develop their inner lives and even stay in the profession nowadays. At last look, 44 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. It's a demanding job, a grind. Self-care is huge as is the ability to connect with kids, others and one's self.

I truly believe that Palmer's thesis about identity and integrity is right, and he also explores the culture of disconnection that occurs in schools and classrooms. He talks about an obsession of objective knowledge that needs to be replaced by subjective engagement. To correct the excessive regard for the powers of the intellect, we need the powers of emotion to free the mind.

Honestly, I see this 100 percent in our schools. There is such a stress on the intellect (or the pseudo-intellect) that the whole teacher and whole child is neglected. Palmer repeatedly makes important points, but at the same time, points out the paradoxes of teaching and learning. He writes that, yeah, he may have knowledge from 30 years of teaching, but that goes hand in hand with being a rank amateur at the start of each new class. So true.

Teaching takes place at the crossroads of the personal and public, and to teach well, you have to stand where those opposites interact. Whether teachers admit it, or like it, we project our souls and health onto our students.

By cultivating our inner lives — beyond our intellects — we provide a crucial service to our students and ourselves. We remind our students, and ourselves, that we are much more than a worker or human resource. We are human beings with depth, connectedness and souls.

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