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The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacherís Life

reviewed by Vincent L. Cyboran - January 30, 2008

coverTitle: The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacherís Life
Author(s): Parker J. Palmer
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 0787996866, Pages: 272, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Parker Palmer is a courageous man. He has chosen to not only passionately live and explore what Freud termed an impossible profession, but to delve deeply and to then resurface to share his hard-won wisdom with the rest of us. In this 10th anniversary edition, Palmer revisits his original text and adds: a foreword, an afterword, and even a CD of interviews of himself conversing with two colleagues, all of which provide insights gained since the first release of the book.

Though some books can be read in any order, the chapters in this book are best read sequentially from start to finish. Palmer slowly and surely takes the reader on a journey starting with the self and ending full circle in community. The first three chapters address the individual or self. Chapters 4 through 6 address the self in community. The final chapter ties things together nicely. The journey is peppered with pointed stories that exemplify Palmer’s points. Though many of these stories are based on Palmer’s own teaching experiences, he is careful to also include a generous number told to him by colleagues and by workshop participants.

Since the book was originally published in 1997, some things have changed, or perhaps, been clarified. It is not only those who hold the title of ‘teacher’ who teach. So, too, do other professionals, including members of the major professions: that is, doctors, lawyers, and accountants. The revised text addresses the needs of what Palmer calls in the afterword, “the new professional.”  This new professional is one “who can confront, challenge, and help change the workplace” (p. 203) regardless of what type of work is being done. Clearly, Palmer is neither a revolutionary, nor a reactionary. He does not arm the reader with tools to reach a pedagogical utopia.

Because Palmer’s work has never been faddish, readers of the original text need not worry that Palmer has abandoned his earlier tenets. The basic premise remains the same:  to survive and thrive as a teacher, a teacher must live an undivided life, a life in which “soul and role” co-exist in harmony. As Palmer puts it, “teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life” (p. 18).  As such, he asks readers to actively embrace life’s paradoxes and dialectics while remaining true to themselves. He himself remains fervent that technique is not the solution to our pedagogical problems. “If teaching cannot be reduced to technique, I no longer need suffer the pain of having my peculiar gift as a teacher crammed into the Procrustean bed of someone else’s method and the standards prescribed by it” (p. 12). This is not a book of quick fixes and lists, the literary equivalent of an in-service; instead, it requires quiet reflection by the reader.

Parker Palmer is a practical man. He draws on his experiences as a longtime Quaker and shares methods for teachers to use with their colleagues. One method is what he terms the “clearness committee” (p. 157). In this method, a focus person brings a problem or issue to be addressed; circle members “are forbidden to speak to the focus person in any way except to ask that person an honest, open question” (p. 157), thus allowing the focus person to achieve clarity about the problem or issue. One is reminded of the ‘Critical Friends’ movement in K-12 schools.

Palmer is at his most insightful in his treatment of the dialectic of organization and movement, the need for stability and structure and the simultaneous need for change of that structure to avoid stagnation. Addressing educational reform, he offers readers a four-stage model based upon his study of successful social movements. In Stage 1, “Isolated individuals make an inward decision to live ‘divided no more’” (p. 172). In Stage 2, these individuals “form communities of congruence that offer moral support and opportunities to develop a shared vision” (p. 173). In Stage 3, these communities “go public.” In Stage 4, institutions are changed and movements are sustained through recognition of and enactment of “alternative rewards” (p. 173).

Palmer takes great care to anticipate and to address potential criticism of his work. In fact, in the Introduction he goes so far as to state that, “If you are a teacher who never has bad days, or who has them but does not care, this book is not for you” (p. 2). Further, he maintains that, “The work required to ‘know thyself’ is neither selfish nor narcissistic. Whatever self-knowledge we attain as teachers will serve our students and our scholarship well. Good teaching requires self-knowledge: it is a secret hidden in plain sight” (p. 3). Even further, “My focus on the teacher may seem passé to people who believe that education will never be reformed until we stop worrying about teaching and focus on learning instead” (p. 6). Doth he protest too much? Methinks not. This is a shrewd strategy or technique (my apologies to the author) used with equal success in popular texts such as this and in academic theses.

One caution to potential readers: Palmer’s language is rated ‘L’ for Love. For example, “There is a name for the endurance we must practice until a larger love arrives: it is called suffering” (p. 88). In a culture that promises us both weight loss and wealth without work, this is strange-sounding language indeed. Just don’t call it ‘touchy-feely.’ That is a fighting word to Palmer, or would be if he weren’t a Quaker. Palmer is also a great fan of poetry; each chapter begins with a poem or part of a poem that is then used within the chapter to bolster a point. Readers who dislike poetry, or who cringe at words such as ‘soul’, ‘heart’, ‘love’,  ‘sacred’ and ‘self’ may find the book tough going, but to them I say “Hey, hug it out!” (my apologies to Ari Gold, Jeremy Piven’s character on “Entourage”). Even the most hardened skeptics will be left with a gnawing at their hearts after reading the stories in this book and listening to the CD. Parker Palmer is an inspirational man, I mean, teacher.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 30, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14945, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:02:39 AM

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About the Author
  • Vincent Cyboran
    Roosevelt University, Chicago
    E-mail Author
    VINCENT L. CYBORAN, Ed.D., has over 20 years experience in the Training and Education fields, covering performance improvement interventions, instructional design, and professional development of both teachers and trainers. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Graduate Program in Training and Development at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He holds a B.A. in Education from the University of Illinois, an M.S. in Instructional and Performance Technology from Boise State University, and an Ed.D. in Curriculum Studies from DePaul University. He has graduate-level teaching experience both in Education and Training.
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