“Teaching Holds a Mirror to the Soul”

Parker Palmer‘s premise might be a scary prospect if it weren’t absolutely indispensable to the learning-while-teaching process. If it weren’t true, how else might we lead and learn from within? When I look back over the highest highs and lowest lows of what has become an academic career, I am compelled to agree. The students who held the mirror most revealingly over the years are those I remember by name or lesson.

I remember the burly, unshaven taxi driver who, having disrupted the class for the last time, regressed to about three years old when invited to step outside. I was not proud of the sharp tone in my voice, and was as surprised as he when I closed the gap between us and, nose to his chest, demanded an answer to the question, What do you need! Until that moment, I had no idea what I would say or do once outside, but the ruffian by association in me came out and handled our business quite elegantly. Were it not for that incident, I might never have known that coming from the Bronx could be an asset.

Another time, an entire class arrived ill-prepared for the day’s activities and, feeling defeated after failing to get their attention numerous times, I softly but firmly announced, Class dismissed. At that they seemed to straighten in their chairs as if members of one body. Beyond that initial shift, there was no movement visible, only a stunned and pregnant silence. I looked out at them, my gaze moving slowly from face to face, looking for what I knew not, but searching all the same. I was waiting, I believed, for the first one to accept the invitation to leave and for the rest to follow. Instead, one student countered, Why?

You are prepared with neither homework nor attention. Class dismissed.

No. We’re not leaving. Teach us.

Teach you what? With what, and how, came my genuine and equally stunned reply.

After that, it was on. The collaboration had begun. Somewhere from within the ‘convolutions of our inner lives’ we’d forged common ground. The remaining classes and semesters have taken care of themselves. While both these incidents occurred in my first few semesters’ teaching, countless turning points and teachable moments have occurred since. I am grateful to have been awake enough to notice and present enough to continue learning from each one.

If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge – and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject. – Parker Palmer

It is this capacity for connectedness that emerges from the confluence of our “shadows and limits, our wounds and fears” that creates the space for deep learning to take place. This is the integrity of identity that ultimately teaches who we are.


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