A teacher’s heart

I’m sitting here, about two weeks away from the next long coaching seminar weekend and about two weeks away from the start of summer school. With coaching, I’ve been following the program’s Facebook community where people ask questions of each other and offer advice. Two questions I’ve seen come up recently have involved PhD students and teachers. The community agreed that these are two groups of people who could benefit so much from coaching, and I agreed wholeheartedly because I am and have been both, and I recognize what a boost that kind of self-exploration and motivation could give me.

I’ve also been thinking about myself as a teacher. Every year, I try to revamp my course materials. When I started as a first-year high school teacher and as a first-year freshman composition teacher, I borrowed materials from my colleagues. That’s just sort of what you do. It’s too much to reinvent the wheel and adjust to being in front of a classroom and meet the needs of students and administrators and take care of yourself. So you borrow.

What I was incredibly slow to realize was that teaching borrowed material distanced me from my true self, from the part of me that felt compelled to be a teacher in the first place.

Each time that I revised my unit plans and lesson plans, I was trying, unconsciously, to make it align more with my personality and my values and my philosophy.

I didn’t become wholly aware of that until a few weeks ago. I have a hard time starting projects until threat level midnight, so of course rather than planning the class that starts in two weeks back in May, I started two days ago. And I decided it would be wise to do a complete overhaul. C’est la vie. It’s because I’m reading The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by (you guessed it) Parker Palmer, and like any great teacher, he is showing me the way to myself.

The teacher who inspired me to be a teacher and also to study English was my 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Cooney. I don’t know what it was about her class, but it was my favorite. One thing Palmer says of our mentors is that their power isn’t necessarily in the models they give us because these models may turn out to have little to do with who we are in the profession. And it’s true. I’m not sarcastic and quick-witted like Ms. Cooney. But now I recognize that her power came from her “capacity to awaken a truth” within me.

For some reason, my truth became most clear through studying literature. It was my subject because it revealed things to me about the world that I hadn’t been able to consider before because I didn’t have the language for them. But literature gave me the language. It spoke to me about my fears and gave me a lens to understand and articulate my beliefs and my values and my fears.

For some people, this awakening happens through biology, or chemistry, or physics, or history, or anthropology, or sociology, or a combination of subjects. I don’t know how our subjects choose us. But once they do, it is almost futile to deny it.

Still, even though I had this sense that literature had chosen me, when I stood in front of a classroom, I was afraid.

I have always been fearful of being in the spotlight. It’s why people are so surprised to hear that I teach and that I used to do theater. And I’m really starting to understand why I have been afraid.

I’ve lived a kind of divided life where I tamped down the parts of me I found most vulnerable and distasteful. But that division creates an impossible barrier in teaching. Because if you remember your best teachers, they were all in. They taught with their hearts. Not from pedagogy or mandate. But when you’re afraid, you guard your heart.

I wasn’t really letting my identity infuse my work. And I didn’t realize how fully teaching is a “daily exercise in vulnerability.” To admit that I care deeply about the things I teach, that these things have helped to define my selfhood, makes me totally vulnerable to the sea of young faces in front of me in a classroom. I become vulnerable to their indifference, their judgment, and their ridicule. And I cared. I wanted to be liked.

So I sort of distanced myself from my material in effort to self-preserve. But this is precisely why teaching borrowed material feels disjointed. The material alone not why I became a teacher. I became a teacher because I saw another teacher’s heart through the material.

Palmer writes, “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.” 

I’ve been projecting a slightly divided soul. But this summer, I want to project the integrated me.

I want to remember my own inner multiplicity and my long, ongoing journey toward selfhood and use that to make expectations of my students, academically and interpersonally, less excessive and unreal. In Palmer’s words: “If I can remember the inner pluralism of my own soul and the slow pace of my own self-emergence, I will be better able to serve the pluralism among my students at the pace of their young lives.”

I want to remember the life-giving force of generational encounter, in which I empower those younger than me with what I have experienced and they give me new life with their experience.

I want to stop separating myself from the content I teach in order to self-protect because I am experiencing “one of the deepest fears at the heart of being human”: the fear of having a “live encounter” with an other. Palmer reminds me that we often want encounters with others to be on our own terms so we can control the outcome and maintain our view of the world and of ourselves. This is why teaching is so scary. You have an outcome you want, but you don’t always have control over how you get there. Students are unpredictable because they are human. As a teacher, you have to let go a little bit.

And refusing to encounter otherness makes our world homogeneous, which makes it easy to maintain the illusion that we know the truth about ourselves and the truth about the world. But surrendering to the encounter reminds us that ours is not the only viewpoint or experience or way, and suddenly the house of cards we’ve built to shield ourselves becomes very fragile and that terrifies us.

I was afraid of conflict. I was afraid of losing identity. And mostly, I was afraid I might learn something that might force me to change something about my life. But I’m not afraid anymore. I see my fluidity, and I am okay with it.

And, you know, my students are just as afraid as I am. Palmer points out that our students are some of the most marginalized people in society and that’s why they stare at you in silence. It’s the silence of the marginalized. Not the indifferent or the lazy. They’re afraid, too, so they hide behind laptops and notebooks and feign indifference, just as I have hidden behind my podium or my content or my authority. I remember I was a fearful student. I didn’t want to be caught “not knowing.” So I put on my armor and it often looked like indifference, judgment, and ridicule. As a graduate student, sometimes it looks like posturing. Maybe you even see this with your coworkers around the office.

Marginalized students have learned, somewhere along the way, that they have reason to fear people with authority and it is safer to stay silent. And our culture is dismissive of students. They don’t know anything. They only know how to text. They come to college unable to write. They don’t have enough experience to speak truth yet. They have no significant role to play. The way I hear people talk about students is hurtful. I try to surround myself with compassionate, understanding, encouraging people. How can we be so dismissive of something we once were and still are a little bit?

But honestly? We’re afraid of the young. We’re afraid they think we’re outmoded. We’re afraid we’re becoming obsolete in the face of their maturation. We’re afraid they judge us.

But we need each other. We need each other’s insight and energy. We have to forge relationships and community. That’s why I got into teaching in the first place.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot that. I got lost. I started thinking of myself as a dispenser of content. I like to think my nurturing, caring side still showed. I think it did. But I lost sight of something important.

It’s that there’s no such thing as true objectivism. We objectify to keep ourselves safe and unchanged. Unthreatened. But subjects and content are always in relation. We are always impacting and being impacted.

Palmer writes:

…I do not understand truth to be lodged in the conclusions we reach about objects of knowledge. How could it be, since the conclusions keep changing? I understand truth as the passionate and disciplined process of inquiry and dialogue itself, as the dynamic conversation of a community that keeps testing old conclusions and coming into new ones.

We need to know the current conclusions in order to get in on the conversation. But it is not our knowledge of conclusions that keeps us in the truth. It is our commitment to the conversation itself, our willingness to put forward our observations and interpretations for testing by the community and to return the favor to others. To be in truth, we must know how to observe and reflect and speak and listen, with passion and with discipline, in the circle gathered around a given subject.

Isn’t that the whole freakin’ point of a research university? Of any college classroom? Any classroom, ever?

So I’m keeping all of this in mind as I plan my new course. I’m no longer a divided person. I no longer see reason to fear my students, and I’m going to talk to them not as people who seem indifferent and judgmental, but as people who desperately want someone to see them, to hear them, to show them a heart and guide them to their own truth.

I think I’ve always tried to do this, but I was fumbling in the dark, sort of unaware of my motivations. Now I’m aware. It took seven years in a classroom.

Does this kind of approach seem impossible? Kind of, in our current educational culture. But I don’t see why I shouldn’t try. It is, after all, why I got in the game. The communion of a classroom, the memory of a truth sparked in me almost fifteen years ago. Why shouldn’t I try to create communion and spark truth? Otherwise, what is the point?


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