Parker Palmer and “The Courage to Teach” renew teacher’s spirit

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By Yael Grauer

I just finished my first two years of teaching. They were spent in a very challenging urban district that I soon learned was, in short, not a good fit . The challenges were many and rewards were few. And, although I have grown in leaps and bounds as a teacher from my first to second year (which I’m sure my students would attest to), by the end I was left feeling frazzled, destabilized and unsure whether I even wanted to teach.

Enter courage and renewal work.

I’d first heard of educational activist Parker Palmer while still completing a practicum as part of my teacher certification course. My supervising teacher lent me a copy of The Courage to Teach-which I admittedly did not even look through amidst the hustle and bustle of the first year of teaching. Still, I’d find quotes from Palmer here and there which always left me thirsting for more… such as this one:

“Teacher-bashing has become a popular sport. . . . Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever ‘solution’ has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine; and in the process, we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.”

And so I was thrilled to learn that there would be an introductory Courage to Teach retreat right here in Tucson, Arizona. Time spent in retreat–full of self-reflection and solitude (as well as conversations amidst like-minded people) seemed like just what the doctor ordered…and I thought would help me transition form the last two years of teaching and clean the slate a little before starting a new position next August.

We met at a retreat center at Picture Rocks. The desert is stunning, and it was impossible to forget when being thrust in the center of it–beautiful saguaros dotting the landscape, nestled in the mountains. A labyrinth and various petroglyphs are some of the other features at the retreat center. But there really is something inescapable about being out somewhere–away from home, away from the buzz of cell phones and constant internet chatter–where all of your needs (including tasty buffet lunches) are provided.

The retreat began with us gathered in a circle, discussing some touchstones to really create a circle of trust for the retreat.The hardest part for many, myself included, involved responding to others with open, honest questions–to really hear another person instead of immediately rushing to fix their problem. Being comfortable with their own uncertainty is a deeper level of intimacy than the panacea of solutions we often offer as teachers–and not being expected to fix things offered us a deep and unexpected sense of relief. Presenting a problem and really being heard provides the speaker the chance to listen to their own inner teacher, so that they can make decisions based on their own inner guidance. It seems so wise in its simplicity but is easier said than done! (This was taken to another extreme when we practiced a retreat version of an old Quaker custom–a “clearness committee”–in which one participant details a problem or dilemma they are facing and the rest of the small group of participants spend several hours asking open, honest questions…without curiosity, problem-solving or their own agenda. It was an amazing experience for the participants.)

Much of the weekend involved reading poetry and stories. We would then write in our journals–not a critique, but a response reflecting on what we had experienced in our own lives or work that relates to a line or two in the poem. We would have up to a half hour to write and 40 minutes to discuss our answers in small groups.

It is difficult to describe the transformation that occurred within me during the three day conference… yet somehow the process of reflection filled me with startling clarity about the two years that have just commenced leading to the year that is about to begin. Reflecting and writing about a variety of topics, such as my own joys and sorrows, the idea of living a whole, authentic life, people who have helped me along my own path, and finding a deep sense of center amidst the chaos… is what called me to teaching in the first place. I left feeling a deeper sense of purpose and better sense of understanding of what brought me to teaching and how to continue my own practice in a way that is sustainable and productive. Getting away from the everyday bustle and to a quiet space was incredibly helpful for creating fertile ground where insights can grow. We ended with our own reflection on what we’ve seen of ourselves during the retreat and our own list of small ways we can continue to attend to ourselves and insights we identified during the retreat.

Any inner work must be sustained over time to truly be effective, but it is Parker Palmer’s theory that we must tend to the “who” that is teaching–fill ourselves up as teachers so that we may have a lot to give to our students without burning our candle at both ends. I suspect he may be right.

Yael Grauer just finished two years of teaching 8th grade Language Arts, Reading and Lifeskills in Tucson’s South Side, and is about to embark on a new journey teaching Humanities in a charter school. She is a graduate of Shimer College, the Great Books College of the Midwest. In addition to teaching, reading and writing, she enjoys desert gardening, lifting heavy things and training in Brazilian jiu jitsu. She also runs her own very successful blog at

If you’re interested in learning more about Parker Palmer, you might enjoy downloading and reading this free article by Palmer entitled The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching

or view it here:

The Heart of a Teacher

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