Recapturing the Courage to Teach: An Interview with Parker J. Palmer
by Joy Jones
With piles and piles of papers to grade, a crop of students who could win the Olympics for bad behavior, and when comments by parents, administrators and the press all seem to regard the profession with no respect, it may be hard to remember why you ever chose to teach.
Not to despair. Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D., specializes in helping educators nurture their inner teacher. Palmer is a former university professor and the founder of the Center for Teacher Formation. "We have created a national program which is now at work in twenty-five cities," he explained. "Groups of twenty-five K-12 teachers meet for eight weekend workshops over a two year period. They work exclusively on the inner life of the teacher, in community," Palmer said. "That means that our focus is not on developing curriculum, changing the bureaucracy, or advocating for better pay." The program is designed to help teachers gain what Palmer calls vocational renewal - the rejuvenation of the spirit and the heart to teach. "These are people who went into the profession with a very deep sense of calling," said Palmer. "But over the years, the abusive conditions that teachers have to work under causes a lot of that passion to get lost. The participants in the Teacher Formation project go on a deep and searching journey to recover that passion."
"What's really important is that everything in the program is an invitation to go on that inner journey," said Palmer. "We do a lot of things to help create a community. People do that inner work with each other's support and encouragement. And they come out of it recommitted to teaching. The commitment of the participating teachers to each other is also thorough and long-lasting. I led the pilot group for this program in 94-96, and that group is still meeting with each other," he said.
Palmer has written extensively about ways educators can pursue and renew identity and integrity. Among his publications are "The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life" and "Let Your Life Speak: Listening for The Voice of Vocation". Experiences of teachers who have been in the Teacher Formation program or other similar programs are reflected in a new work, due out in April of 2002, "Stories of the Courage to Keep: Honoring the Teachers Heart," edited by Sam Intrator.
In all his work and his words, Palmer's respect - no reverence - for the teaching profession is evident. "Teachers are our culture heroes," he stated. "They're the people who are asked to solve all the problems that society can't solve and are beaten up for their supposed inadequacies." This teacher of teachers has always had a fascination with the teaching learning process and has helped guide the careers of hundreds of educators at every level from kindergarten through post-graduate study. He has also mentored others as part of his role as a teacher. "I think that mentoring is a very remarkable relationship which has two qualities to it," he said. "The first is unconditional love. This is a relationship where the student or mentee feels totally accepted as he is." Palmer goes on to describe the other quality, which could seem contradictory to the first: "There is a charged expectancy that the student will grow. This growth is not a demand that the student change, but an invitation to stretch. When you're in this space, when you're held this way by the mentor, you really want to grow," said Palmer. "You become more fully who you are."
If this sounds more like what you'd hear in a therapy session or a sermon, that's because Palmer does believe that many of the problems we face come from being out of alignment with our true nature. "So many of these issues are spiritual issues," he said. He directs those who are having an overdose of trials and tribulations to ask themselves, "In what ways am I running upstream to my own nature? When one can stop living his or her life against the grain then more harmony and satisfaction in life usually results."
I had to ask Palmer how he got so wise about these matters. His response? "I learned the hard way."
To learn more about the work of the Center for Teacher Formation, go to www.teacherformation.org.
by Joy Jones, Terry Widener (Illustrator)
$12.80 from Amazon.com
Private Lessons - A Book of Meditations for Teachers
by Joy Jones
$8.76 from Amazon.com
Between Black Women - Listening With the Third Ear
by Joy Jones
$7.95 from Amazon.com