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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 will finally have the opportunity to meet the author of those words tomorrow.  His name is Parker Palmer, and the occasion is 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 today I reread in preparation for this weekend.

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 teachers?  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 howeven 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 race 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 today, 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.


Originally posted to teacherken on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 07:14 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A brief explanation of why I wrote this (42+ / 0-)

    I write this in a small room, perhaps the size of an individual college dormitory room, which much that would be familiar to those in such a setting - a single bed, a wardrobe with drawers, the closet of which is covered only by a curtain, a desk and chair at which I right this, and one more comfortable chair with a lamp.  For me, being on sort of a retreat, it also reminds me of monastic cells in which I have stayed, in the United States and at Mount Athos in Greece.  

    I arrived here 7 hours ago.  Until 45 minutes ago I had stayed off my computer, winding myself down, putting myself in a more reflective place.  I also reread the Palmer book.  

    I thought some of what I read might be useful to others, and thus this diary.


    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 07:10:36 PM PST

    •  After I was fired (9+ / 0-)

      from the first teaching job I would be fired from (my 3rd school), my cousin, also an educator, paid for the two of us to go on a CTT retreat.  I went into the retreat done with teaching, convinced that I was a bad teacher and had to find something else to do.

      I'm now in my fifth school, having been non-renewed from my previous school.  After my first evaluation this year my principal said to me, roughly, "You have all the technique, but where are you?"

      Thank you for this little bit of synchronicity.

      Teach, preach, reach!

      by theal8r on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 07:24:24 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  psssst... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Shockwave, JanL, Larsstephens

      ... you might want to spell check... the typo in the first line does not juxtapose well with your title ;)

      Other than that, good diary.

      The inadequate is the enemy of the necessary.

      by JRandomPoster on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 07:31:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  thanks to those taking the time to read (8+ / 0-)

      not a huge amount of traffic, but also probably not a time when a lot of those interested in education are on line.

      I have been up since 5 this morning, and will be up no later than 6 tomorrow, so shortly I will leave this, then catch up on any additional comments when I get up.


      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 07:51:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I have been thinking about your path to teaching (4+ / 0-)

        And about my own as well.  I spent the last couple of days with a friend from college (she was a couple of years behind).  For a variety of reasons, we both had disillusionments with our chosen topic of graduate study.  I still hang out in it (and more these days); she does not. But as we were tracing our career and intellectual trajectories we realized that the things we liked about school adn college and grad school were things we still experience -- we have made those corners for our lives.  She picks up some small money here taking notes in a wide variety of classese for disabled students.  And she is loving the really interesting things she is learning.  I am learning as well, but evaluating it and teaching it to others.  In my case, it is something completely outside my undergrad or graduate specializations.  But the process of intellectually evaluating things, drawing students into both the process of learning (reading, practicing thinking, and evaluating and then re-examinng what they thought they knew) and the practice of communication (teaching writing and speaking I do as part of all my classes) has become in many ways as exciting to me as the "new knowledge" I develop as a specialist, the thing I went to college for in the first place.  I remember when I got the tenure track job I was asked if I thought I would ever describe myself primarily as a teacher, and I wasn't sure exactly what they were asking, but I could mimic the right words then.  Now I know what they were asking adn teh answer is yes.  I see myself as a teacher.  And it is a really exciting thing to be able to say that.  

        Of course this is only peripherally connected to the subject of your diary -- I hope you have a really wonderful experience today.  I just have been thinking about these self definitions and how they come about and what they actually mean.  

      •  will send this to teachers I know (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I am sure it is hard in the trenches and this brings up the core meaning of teaching. Enjoy your retreat. Thanks.

        by Chun Yang on Sat Nov 13, 2010 at 08:35:08 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Saturday Work? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      annetteboardman, joycemocha

      Work on Saturday? I thought all teachers sprint out of the building on Friday afternoon, hop in our chauffeured limos, and head off to our vacation homes for the weekend! I’m actually up early and trying to caffeinate for an AP Conference so I can keep improving my ability to instruct AP Gov and score some much needed (and not easy to afford otherwise) swag from the event.

  •  Parker Palmer's work is terrific. (10+ / 0-)

    I have gained a great deal from "The Courage To Teach."

    Freedom isn't "on the march." Freedom dances.

    by WarrenS on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 07:17:57 PM PST

  •  I've been thinking of reading (6+ / 0-)

    The Courage to Teach.  There are a number of folks at my university, particularly in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, who are really wild about this book.  I admit that looking it over, I felt like it might be too abstract for what I am interested, but reading your diary has made me want to take a second look.

    I guess I do find myself turning to books that advocate a certain approach or technique.  But I see his point about how technique only "diminishes" the conversation about teaching, subtracting the human side.

  •  My favorite teaching quote: (4+ / 0-)

    Colleges have their indispensable offices—to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth aflame.”

    - Emerson

    Purity over effectiveness is highly overrated

    by SpamNunn on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 07:54:32 PM PST

  •  You got me to go to Amazon (11+ / 0-)

    .... and I ordered a copy of this book, as I need the inspiration right now.

    I see the new teachers I work with becoming automatons, teaching to 'the standards' of the End of Course tests, without sharing the wonders of the subject.

    The 'Standards' in NC Biology do not require any lab work, any reflection on how things work, just being able to answer 50 out of 80 multiple choice answers correctly.

    So my AP Biology students come to me with no WORKING knowledge of Biology.  They know some trivia, they know some vocabulary, but I wonder if they have ever experienced learning before they got to my class.  They really struggle when I ask them to write about their lab results, to discuss what may happen if we tweak a variable.  They don't come to me with the knowledge that science is messy.  Data don't always agree with hypotheses, even in very predictable lab experiments.  They don't experience real science in high school.  Our physical science teachers don't even do ANY LABS, because they've dedicated 100% of their class time to learning how to take the test.

    The sad thing is that the robotic techniques are being rewarded because the students can fill in a bubble sheet.  Never mind that they don't how to use a pipette, or know how to load a gel for electrophoresis, or how to interpret data that may be ambiguous, and learn to sift through the data to find meaning.  They can fill the heck out of some bubble sheets and make the school look good with their test scores.  Whoo Hooo!!

    I usually don't see results until 3 or 4 years later, when a student comes back and thanks me for making college science classes easier.  The fact that they knew lab technique put them at the head of their class in Bio 101 at the university.  Or the fact that I showed them how to search online for real published data helped them to search a totally unrelated subject because I had taught them problem solving skills.

    Will the skills I taught these students, that weren't realized until years later, be on my evaluation when the People in Charge decide to go to merit pay?  Sadly, I don't think so.  The teachers who have students with great bubble-sheet skills will get the $$ before I do.  :(

    •  Bless you for doing it right (4+ / 0-)

      Have a child who has just switched to public school from private for more AP courses.  To my suprise she has found the teachers not as good, but it is, she says (in the non AP classes) that they can't teach how or what they want -- every class starts with a power point of the objectives for the day that will be covered in the end of course test, even the advanced college prep sections.  And this school is on several "best high schools in the US" lists.

      •  Yeah my school's on the Newsweek List (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        yella dawg

        Somewhere in the 500's of the top 1000.

        Don't get me wrong.  Our school has been focusing on student responsibility, and the students are responding well.  They are performing by knocking down all the targets.

        The question is, are we aiming at the right targets?

    •  what an inspiring story (2+ / 0-)

      I don't teach science at university but believe me I can tell when the students I have had a teacher like you.  You are right that good skills translate into all sorts of other classes (including the predictions don't line up with results thing, which is as important to know in the humanities as it is in science).  Thank you (from those os us who may get your students).

  •  As a layman concerned about the direction..... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, joycemocha, Mostel26

    ...of education, this has been enlightning. I will leave it to the pro's to handle this issue, though.

    However, I do see the problem as one of commitment of public will to funding access to quality education for everyone. To me that means more kinds of public schools;, technical, mechanical, schools dedicated to all the different sciences, etc. Available to all, regardless of means. We should begin routing kids who show apptitude towards certain subjects or fields towards such schools.

    My personal pipe-dream about education. Like I said, I'll leave it to the pro's....

    "Wealthy the Spirit which knows its own flight. Stealthy the Hunter who slays his own fright. Blessed is the Traveler who journeys the length of the Light."

    by CanisMaximus on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 08:54:37 PM PST

    •  Public Will (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      annetteboardman, joycemocha

      You pick a good pipe for a dream. Those of us who teach would love to have a system that will fund public access to quality education for everyone. Sadly you'll never see more valid kinds of public schools as long as garbage policies like NCLB and Race to the Top are pulling instrucion toward rote.

  •  Time of your post (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You might want to consider posting at this time more often.  The usual anti-educator troll patrol has yet to post anything on here.  It seems like bashing your views is a hobby for a few of our under the bridge, market based, "reform" oriented friends on here. This might be the first time I was actually able to read a full entry and set of comment on your entry without the need to help scold the "firing teachers = better schools" clique.

  •  One of the underlying issues here (4+ / 0-)

    is something like trust, or its absence, in the face of decided unevenness in teaching across the country.

    Because there are classrooms and districts across the country where the kids seem to learn well, test well, and do well in life, AND there are classrooms and districts where the opposite happens, and because we have a hard time isolating all of the causes of the successes and failures, we target the unevenness itself.

    Moving to a standarized high quality curriculum (Ravitch's seeming preference) will not really address the unevenness unless we also address the fact that some teachers and some students do "better" than other teachers and students; nor will it help districts that have more or less money.

    There is a compelling moment, though, in trying to identify those spaces in which "our children is learning" and, further, identifying which particular sets of children are actually learning something; NCLB has made it clear that subsets of kids do badly in "good" schools.

    This compelling moment is oversold, however, in the testing regime we've set up.

    What would be nice to see is some kind of Jon Stewart moment (I just watched the Maddow interview) in which people on both sides rethought who the "enemy" is, and in which both sides could engage in something like a well-informed discussion about what it means when 50% of urban students drop out, when something like 70% or more are not "college ready" (where that phrase means a pretty low ACT score that correlates well with the need to do remedial work).

    We have uneven problems, uneven successes, a democratic/equalizing rhetorical sensibility that we have to couple with a belief that extremes of privilege and poverty are justified.  In short, we're in an impossible rhetorical situation that is made worse by our canned responses.

    I finished Ravitch's book, and while there is much diagnosis that seems spot on to me, the prescription of something like E.D. Hirsch's list of thick and luscious references does not seem to be the best cure.

    Every education fad the US has encountered has come because whatever we were doing before was failing for one or more groups of kids.  Constructivist math comes out of the real fact that drill and kill really kills interest in math, and doesn't really inform kids such that they understand why they are doing what they do.  The phonics and whole language fight come because a bunch of kids struggle to learn to read, and it's really not interesting to do phonics drills.  The science and history curricula have content fights as well as methodological fights, and on and on.

    Algorithms are important, but going beyond them into the conceptual and abstract also matters.  Plato and Aristotle figured this out a very long time ago, and I have yet to figure out why we still argue the basic point that we start out thinking concretely (algorithmically) and then we slowly creep towards the abstract (conceptual thinking) and we need more or less support in this transition based on a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.  First habit and stories, then concepts and lessons learned.

    If we had uniformly amazing teachers, or uniform students, we could free everyone from a wide range of restraints and rest in the certain knowledge that the teachers would teach and the kids would learn, and there could be occasional nationally normed standardized exams as a safety check.

    But we have no uniformity anywhere, no trust in one another's good faith, and the stakes are literally our futures.

    The answer isn't going to be any one of the strategies we've come up with regarding content, method, organizational behavior, community involvement, the billionaire boys' clubs, more or less money, or anything else that anyone has dreamed up thus far.

    Education is a profoundly complex process, a highly individual relationship amongst huge numbers of factors, and so our policy prescriptions need to be far more carefully and complicatedly drawn than we really would like.

    Some teachers need to be trusted, some need far more guidance.  Some curricula need a federal push, some need to be local.  Some schools "work" and some fail, and these workings and failures do not fall in simple, predictable patterns.

    Policy does better when it's obvious what is going wrong, and the interventions are simple, blanket, uniform.  ALL food now comes with nutrition labels and once consumers can read the labels, all the information we need is there is a standardized format.  Easy to diagnose the problem, and easy to fix.

    Education isn't canned food, however.  The kids don't have labels, nor do the teachers.  The curricular and methodological suggestions that work for some don't work for others.

    Maybe we need to remove the whole sector of education from the political and policy process as it hasn't exactly given us great insight into how to guarantee that our children is learning.  And at the same time that we're depoliticizing, maybe we need to repoliticize in a different way with less emotion, more careful thinking, and more good faith efforts to explain what we trust and what we don't, and why we feel this way.

    Not a very specific policy suggestion for the day, I know.

    •  A lot going on (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      annetteboardman, Lissa Drake

      Lissa: You're core point of "one size does NOT fit all" is so true. Sadly NCLB and Race to the Top ed policy runs counter to the truth about education.

      •  The problem is that policy demands (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        "one size fits all" because we're an egalitarian democratic agglomeration of equal citizens -- or something!  And the law really is a generalized and blanket/uniform structure.  Were it not, it would be the height of injustice, and not at all the law.

        Aristotle's distinction between the equal and the equitable is one of those central concepts that we all need to deal with.  But our rhetoric of equality of opportunity gets in the way of this, as does the blanket nature of policy in general.

        One of the right wing complaints against federal gov't is that it is entirely too blanket, too far removed from the local people who must contend with its policy prescriptions.  At some level, there's an insight here that it might be nice to make use of.

        There are places where blanket policy gets in the way of good local information.  For education, "local" is the relationship between a student and a teacher, a particular grouping of students and a teacher, the weather on a particular day and the students and the teacher....  All the things that have been mentioned as having an effect on the consistency of value added scores, in fact, are actually localized bits of reality that the feds will not be open to seeing.

        Might be nice to use some of the right's energy on this one?  Politics always makes for strange bedfellows -- always!  and somewhere between Race to the Top and Bloomberg's new schools chief, I'm kind of upset right about now.

        What a shame there are ever so many disagreements with this same rightwing view of the world that I can't really quite see an alliance here!

        •  an extreme example (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Lissa Drake

          years ago there were some of us at our university who wanted to have themed dorms -- language ones, humanities ones, arts ones, science ones -- and let students chose if and which one they wanted to be in .  Perhaps one would be more English, with tutors and profs who would hang out there, and another would be for sports people (the only one we have like this is a sorority dorm because of the shocking rule that sororities cannot be housed off campus with all those single ladies).  But we couldn't do that because they have dorms that are all the same, with all the same services, etc., and they couldn't make themed distinctions.  Or something like that.  It was silly and made no sense.  Then or now.

  •  Thank you (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Chun Yang

    Thank you for writing this diary. It strikes me that both Palmer's words and yours arise from stillness--something that the harried, pressured lives of today's teachers too seldom permit. Parker's writing sees teaching, at its greatest depth, as a sacred activity. I think he's right. Yet teaching today takes place in a context so demanding of the teacher--often for trivial purposes--that s/he must scramble to meet its superficial requirements, let alone its depths.  What would it take to give teachers real & regular opportunities for stillness?

    "Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass." --Barry Goldwater

    by Leaves on the Current on Sat Nov 13, 2010 at 06:39:02 AM PST

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