…reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends. — Parker Palmer (The Courage To Teach, p3)
As any seasoned teacher knows, teaching methodologies, pedagogies, and best practices change regularly. We all know someone who is skeptical or resistant to the latest techniques (either because they are our colleague or because we are that person), and you can’t really blame them. Throughout all the different reforms and curricula teachers see over decades in the classroom, the one thing we rarely, if ever, give due consideration is the person who teaches.
When teaching, there are two options: we either teach from our true selves or we put our true selves aside when we enter the classroom. When we can be real and authentic with our students, that is when a true learning community can be formed. In contrast, when we teach from a divided self (as Palmer calls it), our students will struggle to connect with us, the subject, and each other. What’s more, in so doing, we model for them that a public or professional life can be void of integrity.
Being true to yourself, who you are and what you think, is best but it is not always easy. It’s not like you can just flip a switch and turn on your true self. Many of us have spent a fair portion of our lives hiding parts of ourselves. We may fear ridicule or poor evaluations if we don’t step in time with each new mandate in our schools, even if it rings flat to us. There are so many external pressures and voices vying for a teacher’s attention at every moment of every day. From lesson planning, to irate parents, to new legislation, to grading, to IEPs — how can we possibly make space for our true selves in all of that?
But you are the most important part in the classroom. You are the one who makes a connection with students and fans the fires of curiosity. If you are too burned out or too diminished by all the external pressures, the heart of the classroom is gone. There has to be room for you, and you just might be the only person who can make that space. Of course you want to put your students first, but you must make space for yourself. To put it another way, how can a person do good work without the necessary tools?
First, Start Small:
- Write down all the obstacles you encounter in trying to teach from your true self. Whether it’s budget restrictions, teaching to the test, mandated curriculum, whatever — just write it all out.
- Now tear it up. You can crumple it, throw it away, burn it. Just get rid of it. You probably can’t control a lot of those things, so don’t focus on fixing those before making room for yourself.
- Write down your One Thing. What is the one thing you will not compromise on? Write it on a note card and tape it to the top of your desk so you can see it every day. Then do that thing every day. Maybe you want to make an individual connection with each student by greeting them at the door, or maybe you will never embarrass a student, or you will never give homework for the sake of homework. Find your One Thing.
This one thing might take extra effort at first, but over time it will become habitual and give energy back to you, because in that moment you will be teaching from your true self.