The Why and the Who of Teaching (reflections on Parker Palmer, part II)

My coffee finished, I return to the couch and my computer, and the cats show up momentarily. It’s time to turn my attention to Parker Palmer’s next two questions.

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purpose and to what ends do we teach? My first thoughts here are both obvious and complex – at Stoneleigh-Burnham, we teach to the mission statement of the school. Developing each girl’s unique voice and supporting her as she discovers and works to be her own best self is behind everything we do. Of course, though, each girl lives in community, and so she is also learning how best to coexist with all the other “best selves” in her world. “Who am I, what is my world, and how do I fit in?” is one of the most fundamental questions of adolescence. To answer this question, one needs the ability to listen, express oneself, find, analyze, and synthesize ideas, and more. One needs most fundamentally to know how and have the desire to learn.

Heather Wolpert Gawron of Teacher Leaders Network, in a blog entry at the Huffington Post entitled “What is the Purpose of Public Education,” writes of the vast range of responses she received to this question when surveying over 300 people. In my conversations with parents over the seven years of our middle school program, I have heard every one of the 20 widely varying themes Ms. Gawron highlights. She asks if it is really fair to expect our schools to hit every one of those areas. I’m still working through that. Certainly no two of the 20 themes are mutually exclusive and many are different takes on the same general idea. I suspect it may be possible to hit them all in that the underlying skills for different themes are largely the same. I do not think, however, it would be possible to hit them all except in a school that truly elevates and respects student voice, which brings us back to our mission statement.

So how do these very broad “why” questions look in practice? Yesterday, several students in my “Foundations of Language and Culture” class asked for extra practice in learning French numbers, while others wanted to work on their textbook project. I took one group to the empty classroom next door and made up on the spot an exercise in completing number sequences in French. Afterwards, one student and I were walking back to our regular classroom. I had just commented that what they had done should have helped build some new neural networks and thickened some myelin sheaths. She gave me her “Aha, I know exactly what you’re doing here” look and said, “So that wasn’t really random at all, what you just did with us.” I responded, “I usually have several reasons for almost everything I do – including randomness.” Sometimes, I wish I could turn off that little metacognitive voice in my head that seems to be constantly probing, analyzing, evaluating, and counseling me on virtually every decision I make in the classroom, focusing me on what the goals are and how best to achieve them given the unique and special students who are in my classroom and what is happening right now. Ultimately, though, I know I’m better off with the little voice than without it. Look what happened to Pinocchio when he successfully ditched Jiminy Cricket!

But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? Ah, I thought, here we go – because of course, if we place the focus squarely where it should be, on student learning, then the most important self that “teaches” is the student herself, with not only the “teacher” but also classmates, parents, friends, houseparents, and a host of others as resources. But the follow-up question brought me up short.

How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? This was a double shock. First, because it is such a strong instinct of mine to focus on students in the classroom as opposed to myself. This question forced me, at least for the moment, to turn the spotlight back on myself. My whole body tenses as I recall the moment. Second, because it’s easy to think, talk and write about my good intentions for my students as I develop myself as an educator – but way tougher to have to confront the notion that who I am may actually deform how I relate to people. One of the most fundamental aspects of my character is to listen to people, seek to understand, and try to find ways to build bridges. I try to listen to students and try to take their comments seriously and that helps. Parents, too, give me insights, and I know I can safely bounce ideas off Sally and middle school team members and they will also give me the reality check I need. Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with me to model what it means to be my own best self, and perhaps how I deal with my own imperfections has to be part of that modeling.

How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? If I can feel safe in acknowledging my own concerns and if I can trust that I will receive honest input back to my questions, that already speaks volumes. And I certainly see other people willing to seek support when they need it. So I think my school has at a minimum created an atmosphere in which people can sustain and deepen themselves as human beings and as teachers. Is that enough? Maybe it is. Given that every single teacher here is working hard to do right by the students, maybe it is indeed.

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