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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 323-330
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Teaching by the Book:
Authors Who Mentor My Teaching
To recast a well-known verse, in the beginning was the word, and the word was vital to civilization. But as most teachers of literature, composition, and language know, we have trouble getting the word to our students, and even more trouble getting words from them. Where do we turn for suggestions? Most of us probably have authors who help, or even inspire, our teaching. Feel stuck in a rut? We turn to Wilbert J. McKeachie's Teaching Tips (2002) for ideas. Need to feel more caring? We turn to Nel Noddings's Caring (1984). Want to judge our students' intellectual progress? We turn to William Perry's (1999) scheme of intellectual development. Of the many authors who have written about teaching, two, Parker Palmer and Stephen Brookfield, feel like mentoring colleagues to me. I never pick up one of their books without gaining ideas for the classroom and sustenance for my professional spirit. When I am feeling down about my work in the classroom, they cheer me on. When I feel stuck in a rut, they offer me new ideas to help my students achieve a higher level of learning. [End Page 323]
I first encountered Brookfield shortly after his Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting came out in 1987. At the time I was looking for ways to increase critical thinking in my classes, and Brookfield gave me exciting ideas. He showed me how to help my students connect critical thinking with work, politics, mass media, and personal relationships, or in other words, how to be lifelong learners. Then when my teaching began to seem a little stale, I encountered Palmer's The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (1998) and renewed my passion for teaching. I was moved by his advice on connecting with inner resources. Obviously both books filled a specific niche at the time I encountered them, but I also found myself returning to these authors' books again and again.
These authors appeal to me in five ways. First, they are wise: they provide insights that lead me to new ideas about teaching. Second, they are ethical: they are concerned with the morality of what happens in, and as a result of, their classes. Third, they are honest: although both are outstanding teachers, they also share the times when they feel like failures in the classroom. Fourth, they are professionally skillful: they offer ideas that also work in my professional life. Fifth, and most important to me, they are passionate: they inspire me with their passion for teaching.
Both Palmer and Brookfield are full of insights into the vocation of teaching. For instance, although the notion of a learning community is much in vogue today, Palmer notes that some forms of community may be unhelpful. Communities based on intimacy may interfere with our ability to interact with people and ideas that are "alien" to us (1998: 91). Civic communities, especially ones that depend on democratic methods, may also interfere, because "truth is not determined by democratic means" (92). Palmer also decries communities based on marketing principles: "It can take many years for a student to feel grateful to a teacher who introduces a dissatisfying truth. A marketing model of educational community, however apt its ethic of accountability, serves the cause poorly when it assumes that the customer is always right" (94).
In the place of these communities, Palmer proposes the community of truth, where "truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline" (104). This community extends beyond individuals to what Palmer calls "great things," the core subjects of learning: "I mean the genes and ecosystems of biology, ... the archetypes of...