The Courage to Teach

by Parker J Palmer

Review by John Shortt

'This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life.’ So writes Parker Palmer in the introduction to this book (p. 1). Does this describe you? If so, this is a book for you!

What you will not find

However, if what you are looking for is a set of methods and techniques, you will not find it here. What you will find is, I believe, something more important. 'As important as methods may be', Palmer tells us, 'the most practical thing we can achieve in any kind of work is insight into what is happening inside us as we do it'. 'Knowing myself', he says, 'is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject' (p. 2).

If you are looking for a book that is explicitly Christian on every page, you will not find it here either. Palmer has written this for a wide audience and only occasionally does his Quaker Christian faith come right through to the surface. But although it may not be often on the surface, it is evident everywhere that what he says is deeply influenced by his faith.

What you will find
If what you are looking for is a book by a teacher who loves teaching and whose love of teaching is apparent throughout, I think you will like this book. It is a very honest book. The author admits his failures and disappointments. He writes about how ‘as summer took a slow turn toward fall’ he walked into a college classroom and into his third decade of teaching. He writes: ‘I went to class that day grateful for another chance to teach; teaching engages my soul as much as any work I know. But I came home that evening convinced once again that I will never master this baffling vocation. Annoyed with some of my students and embarrassed by my own blunders, I pondered a recurring question: Might it be possible, at my age, to find a new line of work, maybe even something I know how to do?’ (p. 9)

Palmer’s descriptions of students and teachers he has known and of experiences he has had in the classroom are very vivid and true to life. There is, for example, his description of the silent and seemingly sullen ‘Student from Hell’ with whose indifference he became obsessed throughout a lesson, even to the extent that he became oblivious to the needs of the other twenty-nine students in the classroom. A talk with this student afterwards and ongoing correspondence helped Palmer to see that he was actually heaven-sent!

The central focus 

'Good teaching', Palmer begins, 'cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher' (p. 10). Palmer develops this theme through chapters with the following titles: A Culture of Fear: Education and the Disconnected Life; The Hidden Wholeness: Paradox in Teaching and Learning; Knowing in Community: Joined by the Grace of Greater Things; Teaching in Community: A Subject-Centered Education; Learning in Community: The Conversation of Colleagues; and Divided No More: Teaching from a Heart of Hope.

There is an emphasis throughout on wholeness. On being asked to talk about their good teachers, one student said she could not describe her good teachers because they were all so different. But she could describe her bad teachers because they were all the same; she said: ‘Their words float somewhere in front of their faces, like the balloon speech in cartoons’. Palmer continues: ‘With one remarkable image she said it all. Bad teachers distance themselves from the subjects they are teaching – and in the process, from their students. Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.’ (p. 11)

This book has its lacks – what book on teaching doesn’t?! In particular, I would like to have seen something of John Calvin’s emphasis on the link between knowledge of self and knowledge of God. We truly know ourselves better as we come to know Him better. But having said that, I would recommend this book to all Christian teachers, indeed to all teachers everywhere. Reading it will, I believe, enrich the life of any teacher who loves teaching.

John Shortt