My favorite book about teaching is Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. It’s been my favorite exploration of what it means to be a teacher since it was first published in 1998. Despite reading many other books about teaching and education since then, it’s the one book I go back to, again and again, for insight, wisdom, and rejuvenation. I recommend it frequently, to both new and seasoned teachers, and to anyone who wants to understand the complexities, joys, challenges, and rewards of this important work.

The subtitle, “Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life,” gives an indication of the focus of The Courage to Teach. Palmer’s premise is that good teachers choose a vocation more than a profession. The word vocation shares the same Latin roots as the words voice and vocal. A vocation therefore is a calling: it is an activity that gives voice to who we are as individuals and helps integrate our identity, purpose, and life work. In Palmer’s words, good teachers teach from “their hearts – the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.”

Good teachers don’t fit a single mold. Good teachers come in a myriad of styles, backgrounds, and personalities, but they share certain characteristics. They are “truly present in the classroom, deeply engaged with their students and their subjects.” They have a high degree of self-knowledge and the resilience to navigate the complicated “crossroads of personal and public life” that all teachers encounter. For good teachers, teaching is “an act of generosity,” and, when we are effective, our work brings a sense of “deep gladness.” 

One of Palmer’s most powerful insights is in identifying the place of paradox in a teacher’s life and the need to hold opposing forces in balance. My own view of teaching has expanded to incorporate this idea of paradox, “a view of the world in which opposites are joined,” thus forming a deeper and truer appreciation of the work we do with children. There are many powerful paradoxes in teaching:

  • Good teaching requires predictability and order; good teaching requires flexibility and openness.
  • Teaching is a very public activity, with one’s actions on display daily; teaching is a very personal activity that involves great vulnerability and frequent isolation.
  • Good teachers exercise authority to make a classroom work well; they relinquish authority at times to allow children to grow.
  • Good teachers embrace the magnitude of their power and influence, they are keenly aware of the limits of their impact.
  • Good teachers focus on the needs and growth of individuals; good teachers focus on the well-being of the whole group.

Both research and experience tell me that the quality of a school depends on the quality of its teachers more than any other single factor. At The Valley School, we are blessed with dedicated teachers who have chosen teaching not as a profession but as a vocation, where, each day, they bring their identity and integrity to the sacred work of helping children find their voices and speak their truths. I work with people who have the courage to teach.