- The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life
Parker Palmer’s volume is intended for both traditional and nontraditional teachers, for those who experience both the joy and pain of being an educator. K–12 teachers, university faculty and college student affairs practitioners, physicians, and clergy represent some of the groups who have embraced Palmer’s ideas, as is evident in the work he has done with them and the honors he has received from them.
The core of this new edition is identical to the first; the introduction and seven chapters are reproduced verbatim. In the introduction, Palmer describes the highs and lows of the classroom experience and the need for teachers to know themselves. He regards technique as something teachers use until the real teacher arrives, and he views the book as a vehicle for “helping that teacher show up” (p. 6).
Chapter 1 contains a basic premise of the book: “Good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 10). Yet, according to Palmer, “the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be” (p. 11). Palmer believes teachers lose heart “because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability” (p. 17). Moreover, in an academic culture that honors the objective, talking with each other about such struggles, a focus on subjectivity, is discouraged.
Chapter 2 explores the role of fear in education. Palmer charges, “Fear is what distances us” (p. 36) from colleagues, students, subjects, and ourselves. Therefore, he considers exorcising fear to be a vital step toward revitalizing teaching and learning. This chapter includes Palmer’s classic story of “The Student from Hell.” As he learns more about the young man who seems disengaged in the classroom, Palmer realizes that the fear that shuts down the capacity for connectedness is often at work in students. He promotes the idea, attributed to Nelle Morton, that we need to “hear people to speech” (1985, pp. 55–56). Based on this anecdote, Palmer asks, “Why do we have so much trouble seeing students as they really are?”(p. 48). He concludes we must first be able to see the fear, such as being judged by the young, in ourselves.
In Chapter 3, Palmer introduces the concept of paradox as an important one in being able to “think the world together” (p. 65). He believes [End Page 426] that many paradoxes (for example, a professor can teach brilliantly one day and flop the next) characterize teaching. Palmer cautions against jumping too soon from the pain a teacher feels when not successful to fixes of technique. He believes the point is not for a teacher to get “fixed” but for the teacher to gain a deeper understanding and be heard.
In Chapter 4, Palmer shifts his focus to community. He believes that “to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced” (p. 92). Furthermore, the community of truth can’t take root in a divided life. Therefore, the capacity for connectedness is at the heart of authentic education.
Chapter 5 contains Palmer’s assertion that “good teaching is always and essentially communal” (p. 118). Palmer suggests making classrooms neither teacher-centered nor student-centered, which can lead to “mindless relativism” (p. 122), but subject-centered. In this chapter, Palmer also addresses the issue of teacher-student inequalities in regard to status and power and concludes that, when authentic community emerges, false differences disappear.
In Chapter 6, Palmer identifies the two primary places one can go to grow in the practice of teaching: to the “inner ground” (p. 146) or to the community of other teachers. Palmer discredits stereotypical evaluation practices surrounding teaching, as exemplified by standard evaluation forms. He charges that one must “be there” to evaluate and also spend time asking real questions such as “What kind of process does this person go through in designing a course?” (p. 148). Without such conversations, Palmer charges...