The Courage to Teach

Last week, I was at the XVth International Numismatic Congress. On the way to and from the conference, I finished reading the tenth anniversary edition of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. The book has two central theses and they both resonated particularly well with me as I was going to this conference.

Theme One: Know Thyself and teach with integrity and authenticity. You should not focus on the techniques of teaching, but you should focus on the goals—inspiring students and opening their minds to the ideas of your field—and on why you’re in the room teaching them. What got you interested in your subject? Why do you love it? What do you like about your subject? Which mentors inspired you and who inspires you now? Learn these answers and then use this self-knowledge to guide your teaching—use strategies and methods that are you, not someone else. If you are unsure about how to address something, ask “How does my own teaching persona and philosophy guide me in this instance?”

This theme speaks to me because I am currently trying to figure out and articulate myself, my teaching philosophy, and my career goals while I finish graduate school and go on the job market.

Theme Two: Teach within a “Community of Truth.” Palmer points to two different extreme, models of teaching: (1) a teacher-focused method in which the teacher dispenses the objective truth and serves as an intermediary between the students and the subject’s primary material, and (2) a student-focused approach in which subjectivity and the validity of everyone’s opinions as “truth” predominates. As an intermediate and superior method, Palmer proposes that teaching happen within “communities of truth” in which all members of the class are “knowers” who access the “truth” through direct engagement with primary sources, the standard thought processes and logic of the discipline, personal perspectives and interests, and conversations dedicated to developing a better understanding of the subject.

This model resonated particularly strongly with me while I was on my way to the XVth INC (and thinking broadly about research for my dissertation). We were all trained in the ways of numismatics, offering new perspectives and/methods, and working to better understand coins. I was very pleased to hear many helpful suggestions on my presentation and offer some for other people’s papers. I have been looking forward to and am enjoying looking through my data (and additional data) to look at my topic through more perspectives in order to further our knowledge. I was also very pleased by the kindness and collegiality that seemed to spread throughout the conference. In many ways, it was the kind of atmosphere you want in a classroom: very learned and cheerful discussion focused on primary sources (and Palmer does note the similarities between research communities and his idea of a community of truth). Yet, there was a major difference between the congress and a classroom: we were all trained in numismatics (even if our knowledge levels were vastly different) but this is not always the case in a classroom.

Therefore (and this is also a reflection of my own views of myself as a teacher—Palmer’s other theme), I suggest a slight adjustment to Palmer’s idea. I suggest that one of the “knowers” (i.e. the teacher, or the “guiding knower” in my diagram) is closer to the subject material and the discipline’s norms and guides the other knowers (i.e. the students, or “growing knowers” here). This is not to say that the teacher/guiding knower knows everything or cannot learn from the students/growing knowers. Indeed, teachers should learn and grow too (guides can, afterall, also lose the path sometimes).

Courage to Teach Adapted

Palmer’s focus on the primary sources and evidence helps mitigate—and sometimes relies on—the teacher being closer to the subject material. Exemplary primary sources are perfect for class discussions because, as Palmer points out, they provide data and gaps. These gaps can be filled by a discussion that interrogates and analyzes the source as well as teaches the students the thought processes, norms, and analytical techniques of the discipline. I would also add that the reliance on primary sources levels the playing field so that all students–and the teacher to some extent–all have the same documents in front of them to draw on. Palmer, though, is right that we must provide time for these discussions and balance between sharing lots of information to fill the informational gaps on the one hand and guiding/allowing student discussion to fill the gaps. If we can mange this balance and develop this community, it allows us to share our passion with the students and each other, motivate us further, and help students learn more material, learn more deeply, and learn more lastingly.


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