The Courage to Teach

September 14, 2009 at 5:59 pm | Posted in Teaching | Leave a comment

Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach:  “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness.” [1]   My challenge is to find a way to make my inner excitement known to my students.  Leo Tolstoy once said that writing is “infection.”  Teaching is also “infection.” 


Parker Palmer says, “As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.” [2]   In The Courage to Teach, Palmer teaches us how to love teaching.  In How to Read a Poem, Hirsch teaches us how to love poems.  Both Palmer and Hirsch bare their souls to the reader.   According to Hirsch, the soul has “a radical coherence and authority.” [3]  I like that:  a radical coherence.  That is what I want to have in the classroom.  I want coherence of speech so that I can make the material clear.  I want the subject to cohere, to come together into something of substance that students can take with them when they leave. 


Palmer says “Good teaching comes from identity, not technique.” [4]  But he also suggests that if I let my temperament guide me, I will find the right techniques to make the teaching happen.  I agree with Palmer that “intellect works in concert with feeling, so if I hope to open my students’ minds, I must open their emotions as well.” [5]  The trick, then, is to discover how to create a classroom where real learning can happen.   I am so happy to be teaching in the humanities.  I have long believed that literature helps us to do deep inner work.  All those characters and voices in literature have collective wisdom.  They teach us how to live, understand, triumph, and cope.  Students need to learn how to do their own inner work.  This is a skill that can be taught.  I cannot imagine a better task to be involved in.


Earlier in The Courage to Teach, Palmer mentions that he must feel himself at a crossroads before effective teaching can happen.   A cross has two pieces, a horizontal and a vertical bar.  A cross represents the reconciliation of opposites.  As William Blake famously said, “without contraries there is no progression.”  Palmer’s notion for how to create a classroom goes to the idea of contraries.  For instance, he says the classroom space should be “bounded and open.” [6]  A class session should be “bounded” or focused, and the teacher must continually steer the discussion back to the topic at hand.  However, the teacher must be open.   Students must feel free to speak, to voice the occasional relevant digression. 


The opposite of being “bounded” is being “open.”  Palmer says the classroom must be open to the many paths down which discovery may take us, to the surprises that always come with real learning.  If boundaries reminded us that our journey has a destination, openness reminds us that there are many ways to reach an end.  Deeper still, the openness of a learning space reminds us that the destination we plotted at the outset of the journey may not be the one we will reach, that we must stay alert for clues to our true destination as we travel together. [7]


Palmer touches on the theme of openness again when he says that the learning space should “welcome both silence and speech.” [8]  Silence in a classroom can be frightening.  Palmer points out that psychologists say that a “typical group can abide about fifteen seconds of silence before someone feels the need to break the tension by speaking.” [9]  Fifteen seconds!  There is a terrible fear at work here.  Palmer says we must open our classrooms to silence, for that is where the good inner work will be done.  I take this to mean that when I ask question, I do not have to get an immediate reply.  I also take it to mean that portion of a class period may be given to personal, written reflection. 


The last principle of Palmer’s pedagogical design that I will mention is this that a classroom space should be “hospitable and ‘charged.’” [10]  In other words, students must feel comfortable.  The classroom itself can feel like home.  I do not mean like the family home, but a spiritual-intellectual home.  The classroom can be a place where the student is free to contemplate and thoughtfully disagree.  But, as Palmer says, students must not feel too safe.   He points out that they “need to feel the risks inherent in pursuing the deep things of the world or of the soul.”[11]  This is achievable if we will “fence the space, fill it with topics of significance, and refuse to let anyone evade or trivialize them.” [12]


I have already mentioned Edward Hirsch, whose book How to Read a Poem is as enlightening about teaching as it is about the poems he discusses.  By showing his passion, he gives me a reason for delving deeper into what I read. 


Like Hirsch, Jay Parini is a poet.  His thoughts on teaching are very close to those of Hirsch and Palmer.  He loves literature and conveys this love to his students.  Parini says that one need not be a great orator to inspire students.  For instance, he mentions a professor he once had, Dr. Brown, who was not a gifted performer in the classroom.  He read from densely prepared lectures, rarely pausing to make a point stick, or changing the pitch of his voice.  He would cough—or clear his throat with a husky rumble—every two minutes or so.  This was wildly irritating.  But his erudition and passion for literature and ideas were obvious, and students admired him, even worshipped him. [13] 


Here, Parini echoes what Palmer has said about teaching from one’s “inwardness.”  Mr. Brown was respected because students know he cared about what he was teaching.  He did not have to stand on top of his desk.  His passion emanated, no matter how imperfect his technique may have been.  Parini also agrees with Palmer that a teaching style is “developed slowly but from within.” [14]  Parini’s own style is informal.  He enjoys telling anecdotes.   I feel a kinship with Parini’s methods, particularly when he writes: 


I like to be extremely open with students, telling them about my personal response to a text, talking about difficulties of reading the text that may be personal or may, of course, be part of the text itself.  I never fail to provide a few amusing or startling autobiographical details along the way:  students are trying to piece together a vision of their teacher, so you might as well help.  I like to make jokes—at my own expense, usually.  Once in a while I tease a student about his or her clothing or hairstyle or whatever:  this can be done in ways that do not humiliate them but actually make them feel closer to you.  I try to keep the class moving forward at a steady pace, and this involves speaking rather more quickly than I would normally do:  I find that it actually helps to keep them awake.


I vary my pace as well, sometimes pausing for what can seem like a very long time to students unused to silence in the classroom.  Use those silences.  Let tension build, then break it swiftly, calling on a student by name, or bringing your fist down on the desk. …  [15]


Parini admits that bringing one’s fist down on the desk may be theatrical, but he stresses that teaching is a performance.   Parini makes good sense when he says that all teaching is performance.  Like all teachers, I take time to don my “teacher’s mask.”   


I also agree with Parini that the personal anecdote is an effective technique for the classroom.  He is right when he says the students are trying to piece together who I am.  A personal story not only humanizes me, it humanizes the material I am trying to convey.  I can literally feel a difference in my classroom after I have revealed something about myself.  There is a collective release of tension.  


In conclusion, I want to give my students a reason to think deeply; I want them to be moved to learn.  I know I will achieve this if I can project the “condition of my soul” to my students in the classroom. 






[1] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 2. 

[2] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 2.

[3] Hirsch. How to Read a Poem, p. 246.

[4] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 63.

[5] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 63.

[6] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 74.

[7] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 75.

[8] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 77.

[9] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 77.

[10] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 75.

[11] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 75.

[12] Palmer.  The Courage to Teach, p. 75. 

[13] Parini.  The Art of Teaching, p. 23.

[14] Parini.  The Art of Teaching, p. 51.

[15] Parini.  The Art of Teaching, p. 112, 113.

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