The Courage to Teach – Part 1: The Teacher Metaphor

I’ve been linking to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach in almost every post, so I thought I would start my first serial post on some of the subjects and ideas found within that book.  I won’t be looking at the book chronologically, or even comprehensively.  Instead, I am just going to pick out what I like, talk about it and leave the rest; because I’m lazy.

In chapter 6, Palmer leaves the teacher-student relationship (in part) and moves to the relationship created by academic institutions.  How teachers work together (or, as I find common don’t work together) is a problem that Palmer feels needs as much correction as the teacher’s personal identity or the student-teacher relationship.  Academic institutions create an interesting paradox in which learning, which necessitates community and conversation, is combined with competition.  The result, as Palmer puts it, is:

“The mix is obviously a recipe for confusion.  The conventional norm of “making nice” with each other, folded into the professional norm of competition, creates an ethos in which it feels dangerous to speak or to listen.  Then we proceed to multiply that confusion, and the sense of danger that goes with it, by interleaving a third set of norms implicit in conventional and academic culture alike: we were put on earth to advise, fix, and save each other, and whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself, we should seize it!”

What happens is something we are all familiar with.  When we feel unsafe in a conversation, we don’t  engage if we don’t have to.  We become quiet, defensive and view the other speakers as the enemy.  Opportunity for authentic learning and building community are hard-pressed to emerge in situations like this.  Teacher’s deal with this problem not only in the classroom, but in the professional development of their trade.  As Palmer notes, Education is the most privatized of the public sector careers.  By that, we don’t mean economically.  Our teaching tradition has led us to put one teacher with multiple students.  Teachers rarely observe each other teach and so the opportunity for authentic learning and teaching in education is hampered.  Palmer draws the comparison to lawyers and doctors, who constantly present their skills in public view of their colleagues.  A lawyer with mediocre skills will be made well aware of it by a superior colleague in the courtroom.

This specific problem is actually softened in my setting.  As a co-teacher, my superior is almost always in the classroom with me, much to my annoyance at times!  My co-teacher and I are different in many ways, not the least of which is our teaching styles, and when you are trying to teach a single classroom with two different teachers, conflict can emerge.  But I have found these conflicts to be helpful in many ways.  In preparing for an “open” class (i.e. parents or district officials come watch our class), my co-teacher and I really came to terms with how each of us envision the classroom to flow and we were able to come to some sort of agreement, even though there is still some conflict to be resolved.  In general, it is a difficult, but productive tool to have a colleague constantly evaluate you.

The problems arise when we don’t take into account the how’s and why’s of our differences.  I am a new teacher, from Utah, schooled mostly in linguistics (not education) and taught more student-centered, content-based instruction.  My co-teacher is an education-major, he was educated here in Korea and is quite a bit older than I am.  This might seem like enough information to tell that there will be some conflicts, and maybe even what those conflicts might be.  But I think it goes even further, or deeper, into who we are as individuals.  And how, at even the subconscious level, we view ourselves as teachers.  Insight into these aspects of our teacher-identity might be worth discovering.

Palmer agrees.  And borrowing from experiments done in psychology to produce insight from the subconscious, he developed a way to get teachers to evaluate themselves on a deeper and perhaps sillier level.

The idea is to answer a specific question with the first thing that comes to mind.  I can see the eye-rolling going on in audience.  This kind of experiment is often ridiculed (and maybe for good reason) by the population at large, but I’ve found this particular activity to be a fount of insight.  The question asked is, “When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like _________.”  The first time I did this was in my Second Language Methodology class.  The teacher asked us all to do it, and then report the next day with the answer, and whatever insight you think you got from it.  When I did the activity myself, I came up with this:

“When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like a cold winter’s night.”

My first instinct was to keep thinking of something more interesting, or even relevant to the question. (what does a “winter’s night” have to do with good teaching?)  How would I get any insight from that?  I kept trying to think of other things, but eventually just gave up.  No other insights came  and when I presented in class the next day, I said, “I am like a cold winter’s night.  And I have no idea what that means or what I am suppose to learn from it.”  My teacher said, “that’s ok.”

For a long time, I just put this idea away.  It bothered me that I would say something so gushingly romantic or silly as an answer.  It is typically me, and something I fight against, that I would want to romanticize this activity.  But, as Palmer notes,

“The point of the exercise is to allow one’s unconscious to surface a metaphor, no matter how silly or strange, that contains an insight that the rational mind would never allow.  Not all groups have enough access to their imagination or are sufficiently at home with themselves to take this kind of risk.  But when people are willing to feel a bit foolish among colleagues, the payoff in self-understanding can be considerable.”

Eventually, I opened myself up to examine what this means.  As it would happen, I was outside on a cold winter’s night and I noticed some very interesting things that I felt paralleled myself as a person and teacher.  And even more recently, I have reconsidered the metaphor again and I wrote out more formally my response to the question: When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like ___.

–When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like a cold winter’s night.  The distractions of summer: like birds, bugs, other animals, cars or even people are either absent or greatly decreased.  In the silence, the sounds of nature are clearer, more discernible   The snow that falls from the trees is easily discernible   On a cold winter’s night, silence rules.  Along with the stillness, the quiet beauty of trees covered delicately, completely and intricately with snow and ice reveals details of the tree that can be lost with summer leaves.  Each blade of grass can be elegantly magnified in the frost.

As a teacher I am at my best when I don’t allow small distractions into my community of learning.  These distractions that cause me to loose focus on the moment of teaching.  It could be students not participating, being obnoxious or something from my life outside the classroom.  In my cold winter’s night, I focus the distractions of my students, silencing them, so that we can all appreciate the beauty of the trees, snow and ice.

I am at my worst as a teacher when I loose sight of those observing the night with me.  When I silence them in the name of the silent night.  I interpret the co-observers as distractions of the thing itself.  Because my cold winter’s night is serene and silent, I can loose sight of the fun or loud or exciting aspects of a winter’s night. At worst, I view them as disruptive and wrong.—

How I translate this metaphor into practical teaching can have a big impact into how I understand my own successes and failures.  Particularly, it can help me understand my relationship with my co-teacher, who I am fairly certain does not teach as if he were a cold winter’s night!  In fact, he may teach as if he is an amusement park (though I won’t speculate too much or speak for him).

It also gives me insight into the struggles I will face within the community of educators, specifically my current role as a Native English Teacher.  One of the ‘roles’ I am suppose to fulfill is “make English fun!”  That’s a vague statement to say the least, but I think I know how most people interpret it.  I should be silly, I should have fun with the students, I should make them laugh, make them feel good about learning English.  And while I agree with those things, and I hope I can inspire confidence in my students abilities to speak English; I think we can all recognize the difficulties inherent in somebody who envisions their own teaching as a “cold winter’s night” to fulfill those roles.

But knowing thyself, that’s a big part of the battle already won.

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