Saturday, June 8, 2019

We Teach Who We Are - a Review of Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach

"We teach who we are" - Parker J. Palmer opens the introduction with these words and then reminds us that we typically only ask what and how we teach. Sometimes we dig deeper and ask why we teach but Palmer points out that we almost never ask who is the self that teaches? He then gives us his reasoning for asking who: "this book is built on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher." The teachers and coaches whose memories we cherish most are those that taught us from the core of who they were. Who they were and what they taught were indivisible to us. It is the courage to know and express ourselves through teaching that lights the fire that we share.

Palmer introduces a phrase that beautifully sums up a phenomenon I have seen everywhere I turn in coaching and teaching, "technique is what teachers use until the real teacher arrives." It is cliché that clinicians are most commonly asked by coaches "what drill/game should I use to get better at X?" Earlier in my coaching career, I was intent on getting the technique of coaching right. If I used the right drills in the right order and I taught the right footwork then I could be a great coach. With one pithy sentence, Palmer crystallized for me what it took years of stumbling and fumbling to learn, "as we learn more about who we are, we can learn techniques that reveal rather than conceal the personhood from which good teaching comes." Being good at teaching is about knowing who I am and what I believe about those would learn from me.

In chapter two, Palmer discusses the role of fear in education. As educators we deal with many fears within ourselves, from the fear of silence in response to our questions to the fear of loss of control of the learning environment. We must also take into account the fears that our learners face every day as well. They fear looking ignorant or foolish, the power that they imagine we hold over them, as well as fearing failure. Palmer warns us that "when my students' fears mix with mine, fear multiplies geometrically - and education is paralyzed." Our fears lead to a separation of teaching from learning. "Result: teachers who talk but do not listen and students who listen but do not talk." When we think of moments when our lessons broke down, we start looking for "fixes" of technique and "practical solutions" and Palmer warns us against such methods. "Eventually, the how-to question is worth asking. But understanding my identity is the first and crucial step in finding new ways to teach: nothing I do differently as a teacher will make any difference to anyone if it is not rooted in my nature."

What, then, should actual teaching look like if it is not a series of formulaic moves and techniques? Palmer tells us that "to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced". The most important aspects of this for me are creating space and the structure of the community. As educators we tend to fill space rather than create it. We believe ourselves to be experts that are needed for our learners to make sense of our discipline. We say, in Palmer's words, "but my field is full of factual information that students must possess before they can continue". In the case of sport, this factual information is the way our sport is played, both technically and tactically. We must find a way to honor "both the stuff that must be learned and the space that learning requires." We must refuse to "merely send 'bites' down the intellectual food chain" and help our learners "understand where the information comes from and what it means. We honor both the discipline and our students by teaching them how to think like historians or biologists or literary critics rather than merely how to lip-sync the conclusions others have reached." In sport, we do this by creating settings where athletes are able to make and reflect on decisions and actions within the game. Palmer goes on to remind us that creating space requires more skill and more authority than filling space up and that we will sometimes fail in the effort but such failures should not prevent us from doing the work of being "more engaging than engorging".

Teaching should be less of this:
Teaching should be more of this:
How does this book change the way I teach and relate to my learners?
I want to honor who I am by recognizing what I believe about myself and about my learners. Using those beliefs as guides, I will find methods and techniques to use that reflect those beliefs. I want to honor the subject or sport that I teach by giving it, rather than me, the central role in our learning community. I want to honor the space required for learning and exploration because, by doing so, I honor the learners, their needs, and their efforts. When I know myself, I can see my place in relationships with my discipline and with my learners.

Both figures are taken from The Courage to Teach

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