January 27th, 2009

Identity and Integrity in Teaching


I was re-reading Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach last week. What a classic! If you haven’t ver read this book, it does deserve to be on that must-do-before-I-die list. It is such a good book. Actually it is so good, I ended up being just a bit depressed. This weekend I finished the book I’ve been working on for the last three years and it is so not as good as the Courage to Teach. Perhaps I will be able to write something that significant in my next life.

The book’s basic premise is bedrock: “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (p. 10)

Why do we so struggle with how teaching expresses our personhood? We hide behind our need to be objective about the content. We get caught up in our sense of professionalism—what it is and is not appropriate for college teacher to do and say. We collect techniques hopeful that having lots will ensure the effectiveness of our presentations.

The point that Parker makes through out the book is that these authentic expressions of personhood are what enable students to connect with us and our content. They are what call forth the energy that deep and lasting learning requires. Minus those connections, students in so many classrooms just go through the motions. They memorize material for exams, write papers they think professors want to read and follow lab instructions without any interest in the results. It is education of the most dismal sort.

But letting students see the person the teacher really is can feel so risky. What if they see a person who isn’t good enough or smart enough? What if they see a person with faults, one who doesn’t always do what he or she should? Will they decide they can’t learn from a teacher so tarnished? Will they use their knowledge to hurt the person? Both are possibilities but the more likely result is that an expression of authenticity will bring integrity to the educational process making it meaningful and motivating to students.

—Maryellen Weimer