Who is it that teaches?


Today I read this passage from Parker Palmer’s book, “Courage to Teach.”  It nails what I have been thinking about and I wanted to share it:

The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question – what subjects shall we teach? When the  conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question – what methods and techniques are required to teach well?  Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purposes and to what ends do we teach? 
But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question- who is the self that teaches?  How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I  relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?
I think it is important as parents, educators, and really, participants of this dance we call life – to ask who is the self that is dancing?  I know that when I have been up against a challenge with a student or my own children – my first step is to distinguish what barriers stand in the way of me understanding that human being before me.  There is that automatic response I initially bring that is colored by my own experiences, opinions, and ideas of what is the “truth.”  These things alter my ability to understand what is really, in truth, the issue.
An example:  there was a boy in my class one year who refused to come to group time.  He would tell me or my colleague – “No, I don’t have to!” and march into a hiding place.  At first glance, I thought he was being stubborn and rebellious.  As a young girl, I was taught that you did what the teacher told you to do – NO questions!  I was raised to believe to tell a person of authority “no” was disrespectful.  As I stood there with this young boy, I put aside my belief and just watched.  He went to his cubby and hid behind his coat.  I followed my instincts and did not interfere – I gave him time to be in that alone space.   He did not move.  I noticed he did not like whole group times.  He would only come out of hiding when it was time for centers.
I wondered what was missing for him?  Daily, he seemed to need a hiding hole.  A week passed and he would regularly hide.  I kept giving up my need to control him and “make” him “respect” the “rules.”  I would tell him, “When you are ready, I would love to have you join us.”  I think it was the 6th day of this behavior when the breakthrough happen.  He came up to me, tears falling, and said, “My dad died in a car accident.”   My jaw dropped!  We were into the third week of school and no one had told me!  In fact, the family was in deep crisis and were too paralyzed to discuss it!  His father had been killed just two months earlier and his mother was expecting a baby any day.  In that moment, I was so grateful that I had not taken the actions that were my first impulse.
When I understand the “self” I bring to the party, so to speak, I have greater access to seeing what the other person is really saying in their speaking or behavior.   To ask the question “who is the self that teaches?”  gives me the opportunity to take off the tinted glasses of my own version of reality and actually be fully present, in the now, with another human being.
It is a gift we can give – to be fully present to each other and to our children.  I wonder, is this the true curriculum?

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  1. This is a wonderful post. Thank you. I think I need to be more present like you wrote about. I just noticed in your About Me that you are a teaching artist and fellow in a statewide arts integration program. I do a weekly Artists and Art meme that you and other teachers might find useful. http://theadventuresofbear.blogspot.com

    I love reading your blog.

  2. Thank you for sharing your blog – I went over to check it out and it is so rich with activities and ideas! I love it! I will be visiting it often!


  3. This was great. thanks for sharing…..love reading your thoughts on education…


  4. Carol says:

    This is a great, great question to ask, Sally. It is a great continuation of your earlier question of “Why educate?” We would all be better off if everyone involved in education asked these kinds of questions more often, rather than bickering with each other over responsibility for test scores….especially when the most important things about education can never be assessed by a standardized test.

  5. It is such an uneasy time in education! And interestingly, it really has me reflecting on why I am in this profession. I absolutely love teaching. And it concerns me that we are moving more and more towards teaching to the test. I can’t help but wonder – will the cure for cancer come from a mind educated to the test? Or from the rich depths of the arts and sciences taught in a way that has children beg for more! We owe it to future generations to fight for the true education. Our culture is at stake! Thanks you for being in this inquiry.

  6. iris says:

    this one is a dozy, but it just tells you that even we sometimes have to go against our “rules” because you just don’t know what goes on at home. patience is the only way to build a rapport with some children, breaking down the walls with love and respect. thank you for sharing this.

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