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Book Review: The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer

An insightful approach to reuniting education with the heart and soul of the teacher.

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, was one of the first books recommended to me after I'd decided to transition my career from clinic to teaching. At first, I was skeptical to the value this book held for me; after all, I was a knowledgeable healthcare professional and seasoned speaker on health and disease. I had mistakenly believed that, with time and experience, confidence replaces the need for courage.

Years later, I still experience occasional fumbled and cringeworthy moments in the classroom. But now, at least I can appreciate the crucial role that courage plays in teaching.

Palmer’s writing style is thought-provoking and speaks to the philosophic nature of our being. For the reader, The Courage to Teach is a “call to arms” for educators to look deep within their own insecurities, as opposed to hiding behind their implicit authority in the classroom. Several times, I found myself feeling a bit ashamed and physically wincing as I read all-too-familiar stories of failed teaching moments.

Reduce teaching to intellect, and it becomes a cold abstraction; reduce it to emotions, and it becomes narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual, and it loses its anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion, and spirit depend on one another for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best…

Reuniting the Divided Self

This book encourages reflection on one’s own vulnerability; one of the hardest boundaries to push for humans as ego-driven beings, and harder still for “experts” in any profession. To let down our guard and feel vulnerable is to risk our safety, security, and position in the world, at least in our minds. But, as Palmer writes, “teaching holds a mirror to the soul”, and even if we choose to look away from our reflected soul, the students get a clear view of our inner, divided selves.

When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life—and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well.

The author reminds us about the invaluable role of the teacher’s “internal awareness” in the learning process. What I like most about this book is that it does not include lists of “teaching techniques” within its pages. Instead, Palmer states, “Technique is what teachers use until the real teacher arrives…”. It emphasizes the teacher as a conduit for knowledge and analogous to electrical conductors, it is the teacher (conducting material) that determines how easily information flows to the student.

Subject at the Center

Palmer continues his exploratory rhetoric by breaking down the very institutions that educators hold in such high esteem. He brings the “subject” itself on to the centerstage; not the frameworks, policies, and institutional or professional norms surrounding the subjects. His proposed model, called the “Community of Truth”, is a subject-centric paradigm shift away from the educator’s authoritarian rule and control over knowledge and its attainment. In this model, the student, teacher, and subject become inextricably linked for the main purpose of honoring the subject and its transmission from one generation to the next.

Knowing is a human way to seek relationship and, in the process, to have encounters and exchanges that will inevitably alter us. At its deepest reaches, knowing is always communal.

Get Inspired

Ultimately, this book offers solace and guidance for teachers who feel disheartened by their profession, or seek to reignite the passion to educate others from the heart by overcoming the imagined obstacles that hinder connection (to the self and others) and embracing the fear that dwells within…


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