Working as an educator: Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach

If there was one book I could recommend to an educator at any level  — K-12, higher education, adult education — it would be Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (10th ann. ed., 2007).

A departed friend and pioneering adult educator, John Ohliger, once wrote that a classic is something you keep getting more out of every time you go back to it. That definition resonates with me when I think about The Courage to Teach.

Identity and integrity

Palmer won me over with this short statement of purpose in the first chapter:

This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

The rest of the book espouses upon that philosophy, while recognizing that contemporary education at all levels resists it. Palmer takes on a culture of teaching “that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”

Recharging the teaching batteries

Last week, with my 20th year of law teaching coming to a close, I wanted to read something that would help me reflect upon my role as an educator. So I looked to The Courage to Teach, revisiting a book I’d read parts of some time ago.

It has been the right decision. I have become dismayed that many educators (law professors included) are reducing “better teaching” to a bag of tips & tricks, the very thing that Parker warns against. In fact, it is downright demoralizing how the culture of legal education, to borrow from Parker, “glorif[ies] the method du jour, leaving people who teach differently feeling devalued, forcing them to measure up to norms not their own.”

In law schools today, the current methods du jour include inserting more “skill development” and “assessment” into our courses, seemingly without any integration of personal values and qualities of emotional intelligence, not to mention the lack of active questioning of what the law should be and whose interests it should serve. It’s a cut-and-paste approach to legal education, and neither lawyers-in-training nor their future clients are likely to benefit.

So I return to Parker’s book at a good time. As I slowly make my way through it, truly savoring his ideas about education, I find the inspiration to continue trusting my instincts about what makes for effective, quality teaching.

One response

  1. Pingback: On Teaching « Minding the Workplace

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