education

Unpacking Parker J. Palmer: Fear and Education

This is the first of what I hope becomes a series of reflections on Parker Palmer’s, book The Courage to Teach. His book really speaks to my thoughts and feelings on what it means to teach. By “unpacking” what I read, I hope to get more insight into the often unchartered territories he deals with. They aren’t easy places to navigate, but I trust that the arrival will be worth it. I hope these explorations feed your curiosity as much as they feed mine.

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Ten minutes before class. What am I supposed to teach today? Damn, I’m not ready! Who has taught this class before. Matthieu. Right. I’ll give him a call.

Damn, he isn’t answering. Oh man. Eight minutes left now.

Jon!

“Jon, can you help me out? What am I supposed to teach today?”, panicking on the phone as I scramble to find something more professional to wear. I’m still in my jeans and old t-shirt!

“No worries. It’s the end of the semester and they just need to cover this and this…”, said in the smooth, calm voice Jon always seems to have.

“Oh wow, you’re right! They only have a few classes left! Thanks Jon. I think I can handle it.”, gasping — not sighing in relief like I should be — as I think to myself, ‘How did I let this happen? Two more classes in the semester? They are going to think I’m so incompetent. I am! And man, I’m late now….’

At this point I woke up. I didn’t get a chance to see the faces of my course participants. I suppose my subconsciousness couldn’t bear seeing them.

Fear. This is what I felt when I opened my eyes. In this case, the fear of failure. At that moment, Parker Palmer’s chapter Culture of Fear I had just read a few days before, made much more sense. Even in my dreams I didn’t want to face the fear I sometimes feel. One of the points Parker Palmer makes in this chapter is how fear disconnects us from our students. Fear labels them as the lazy kid, the problem boy, the girl who can’t pay attention. When we see students like this, of course it’s hard to trust what’s inside their minds.

Fear causes this to happen:

… our assumption that students are brain-dead leads to pedagogies that deaden their brains. When we teach by dripping information into their passive forms, students who arrive in the classroom alive and well become passive consumers of knowledge and are dead on departure when they graduate. But the power of this self-fulfilling prophecy seems to elude us: we rarely consider that our students may die in the classroom because we use methods that assume they are dead.

- Parker Palmer, p.42, “The Courage to Teach

*cartoon by Yoo Ha-na (유하나)

When I first read this quote, I was inspired to write a rant blaming the Korean education system for perpetuating apathy, violence, and yes, death. This is what I first wrote:

Fear. It has a grip on us. It is all around us and so it permeates our senses and our way of being. It has become such a societal norm that we don’t even realize it’s there.

To notice fear would mean we would need to face it. To admit that fear exists would be to admit that we are doing it wrong.

And this is what I believe. I believe we are doing it wrong. When fear rules our education system, we need to set aside our pride, and look into its face. Administrators aren’t ready for this. To face their fears would also mean losing face.

That’s as far as I got. I was just about to go into tirade (Yes, trust me, it is possible.) against Korea’s old boys’ club when I started thinking of the English teachers in this system. I imagined the fear some of them have told me about: the dread of going to class and meeting students that talk back to them; the anxiety they have about the kid who is “better” at speaking English than they are; or the administrative stress of paperwork and the need to follow the demands of the system they’re in (ie: teaching the same lesson as all the other English teachers, not leaving any room for creative lesson planning; listening to parents who aren’t satisfied with the way they are teaching their kid.)

I realized I couldn’t point fingers. Not many of us want to meet fear: not administrators, not teachers… not me. Looking into fear would mean that we’d have to admit our vulnerability. And let’s face it, not many education systems out there create a safety net for vulnerability.

But here’s the twist: it’s only by facing our fears that real change is able to happen. This relates as much to a fear of heights as it does to a “fear of diversity”, “fear of conflict”, or a “fear of losing identity”: the diversity of our students’ experiences, interests and motivations; the conflict that could happen by paying attention to this diversity; and the loss of our ways of being, our ideas, and our traditions in the face of all this (The Courage to Teach, p. 38). If we want students who are happy to come to class, we will need to look at what we are doing that prevents this from happening. If teachers want to be happy when they come to class, they will need to take some time with fear.

When we remain outside our fear, we remain trapped within it.

When we, however, consciously get inside our fear, it’s as if it turns inside out. Getting inside our fear with wakeful attention and compassion actually expands our fear beyond itself. Once the contractedness at the center of fear ceases to be fueled, fear unravels, dissipates, and terminates its occupancy of us.

In entering our fear, we end our fear of it.

Through attending closely, caringly, and carefully to the particulars of our fear, we decentralize it, so that its intentions and viewpoint can no longer govern us. When the light goes on in the grottos of dread, then fear is little more than our case of mistaken identity having a bad day.

- Robert Augustus Masters, Cutting Through Personal & Collective Fear

As I ponder my own fears, I wonder if teachers and administrators will ever find a safe, communal space to attend to theirs. The idea of “decentralizing” fear in order to make room for real connections with each other is one I find incredibly appealing.

When I consider the magnitude of this healing, sitting with my own fears sounds a little less scary.

*A big thank you to Yoo Ha-na (유하나) for drawing this cartoon, and to Michael Free for asking her. And thanks to Tim Thompson, Joseph Bengivenni, James Taylor, and Arjana Blazic for helping me locate the cartoon Ha-na’s cartoon was inspired by.

Related links:

Throwing Back Tokens TED Talks Playlist (curated by Josette LeBlanc)

This afternoon a few course participants asked me if I could email them some of my favorite TED Talks. As I started going through the list in my head, I started visualizing a playlist. Then I imagined what I would call that playlist. And now my imagination has taken me to this post instead of a private email. I guess you could call this a modern day mixtape for educators. :) I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it!

The first target of inspiration came from the playlists the wonderful folks at TED started putting together. Below are my favorites so far.

I have pulled out my favorite talks from these playlists, and from the memories etched in my mind. Instead of telling you why each of these talks inspired me, I’ll simply tell you how they made me feel. I’ll unashamedly admit that about 90% of these talks brought tears to my eyes: tears of inspiration, tears of disbelief, tears of joy, and tears of hope. I have watched each of these talks at least twice. These presenters are making an incredible impact on the world, and I have no doubt they will have the same affect on you. I am sure I have missed a few, so please feel free to add your favorites in the comments.

How Education Can/Must Change

Powerful storytellers

The Creative Mind

Mind, Body and Soul

Risking It All for Freedom

Perspectives on Success, Motivation and Leadership

Language

The Vulnerability of Failing: IATEFL 2013 Failure Fest

IATEFL Failure Fest: how is failure a better teacher than success?

When I first heard that Ken Wilson was going to lead a session on failure at IATEFL Liverpool, I was intrigued, but mostly I was grateful. I imagined the Failure Fest as a space for reality checks, healing, and great learning for ELT professionals. Sophia Khan wrote about this beautifully in her debut blog post, Why We Should Celebrate Failure Fest,

what I like about Failure Fest is that it says: “I am human, just like you”. It focuses on our similarities rather than our differences. Finding a shared emotional experience creates a sense of solidarity, mutuality and possibility. Because we are alike – human – I can learn from your mistakes – and your achievements – as if they were my own. What is possible for you is also possible for me. No matter how qualified or experienced you are, we are more alike than different. Think about it: have you ever had a worry, feelings of self-doubt, anxiety about what the right thing to do is – then you find that someone has gone through, or is going through, the same thing as you? It is such a blessed, wonderful relief to know that you are not alone, even if you still don’t have all the answers.

And this sense of relief is what we all felt during the fest. The relief was expressed through having a bit of fun (Caroline Moore‘s punctual cow bell and Ken’s witty introductions), and through the presenters’ ability to show their vulnerability.

What struck me about each of these engaging storytellers (Ken Wilson, Bethany Cagnol, Chia Suan Chong, Andy Cowle, Herbert Puchta, Jeremy Harmer, Rakesh Bhanot, Valeria Franca, Willy Cardoso) was the fact that they were all able to laugh at their failures. However, among the laughter, each presenter also expressed a sense of discomfort that came along with the initial moment of failure — or as Kathryn Schulz described during her TED Talk, On Being Wrong, how it feels to realize that moment of failure. Jeremy Harmer embarrassingly admitted that the first thing he had ever taught a student was to describe his “big, red, bushy beard.” Chia Suan Chong talked about how she cried after the miscommunication with a German bus driver. Valeria Franca described the dread of seeing little Luciana come up to her after her revamped English lesson on clothing. Bethany Cagnol shared the devastation she felt after being fired for having fun with her students.

“embracing our fallibility”

For many of us, the laughter doesn’t usually come immediately after these moments. It may come years after and for some people it may never come. There is something safe about hiding in the belief that we shouldn’t make mistakes:

“We get sucked into perfection for one very simple reason: We believe perfection will protect us. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.” – Brené Brown

I think one of my biggest failures has been holding on to this idea of perfection. I used to work late hours planning the “perfect” lesson, and on a few occasions I even broke down crying after class, realizing I had answered a question “wrong”. “I’m a trainer dammit! I *should know these things!” Although I may not be in a space where I can laugh at this failure, I feel a great sense of lightness at being able to admit it. And I know I am able to express this thanks the Failure Fest and also thanks to what teachers have been writing about failure over the past few weeks (Kevin Stein, As many flavors of failure…; Chris Wilson, Failing at Modal verbs).

The Journey of Failure

An old post of mine, The Teacher as the Archetypal Student, came to my attention the night of the Failure Fest when a new reader left a comment. I hadn’t read this post in years (written on September 11, 2010). Although my post doesn’t directly express my concern about failing, this reader saw it clearly:

I think it is the responsibility of the teacher to show her students that it is okay to make mistakes. Students can learn more from a teacher who allows herself to be vulnerable in front of her students, rather than an obviously flawed person who pretends to be perfect. Students will respect a teacher who openly admits her faults or knowledge gaps. When a teacher does this, learning can become a journey that the teacher and student go on together.

And so I thank Ken Wilson and Caroline Moore for providing a space to the world of ELT to embark on this journey of seeing the light between the cracks of failure. I also have great gratitude for all the presenters for sharing their light.

Willy Cardoso left us a wonderful quote to keep us pondering along this journey of embracing failure:

It is this great struggle, to choose between having a lot of freedom and having a lot of stability that makes us people. (…) And when you believe you can achieve both, it’s probably the beginning of a failure story…which is inevitable. You have to choose one when you know you won’t have much of the other. (…) I’m not likely to go about cycling on busy roads ever again because I don’t want to run the risk of falling, although I know it would give me a great sense of freedom. So in this regard I choose stability over freedom. In love, on the other hand, I will always be willing to fall.

In teaching and in learning, what is this love you are willing to fall for?

Got Bandwidth? @IATEFL 2012

After perusing the inspiring IATEFL Conference 2012 video interviews and the various registered bloggers, it became clear to me that something is missing from my dialogue with the in-service teachers in our training program: technology. Watching Nik Peachey‘s interview prompted me to start the discussion.

In his interview with Rob Lewis, Nik describes what he thinks schools should look like:

“Schools would do much better investing in good wireless, broadband connectivity, and make the whole school a kind of learning zone so that any student coming in with any mobile device can get connected and find useful materials that they can learn from”

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Stop Blaming: Develop Emotional Literacy

In last week’s post, Taking Responsibility for My Emotions, I asked:

When blame is seen as the only way to deal with feelings, as teachers what can we do? What is our role? How can we help our students understand that they are responsible for their feelings?

Interesting comments ensued via Facebook and email. Within these comments, questions were raised. To recognize my readers’ willingness and interest in keeping the discussion going, I am dedicating this post to them and to their questions.

Two readers wondered how I would answer my own questions:

- What can we do to help students/participants not blame others?” Are there strategies teachers can take? I know you opened it up to the readers but… what do you do? What might you do? Are there specific things you have tried? Would like to try?

- so what was your answer to your own question: what is the teacher’s role and responsibility?

The third reader questions another facet of this concept of taking responsibility:

Thanks for posting this. It seems healthy to build a kind of immunity to memes which can otherwise disturb a peaceful emotional state. I like the comparison to people able to create a zen-like tattoo experience. Still, it seems a focus on the one with the disturbed peace of mind lets the one who “threw the rock” off the hook. It seems to me that the bullied need emotional armor while the bullies need….what? Besides, sometimes people just don’t have a strong immunity system against what are harmful memes to them–maybe because they have an immature ego–and the triggering of emotions can cut like a knife. Do we really want to blame the person who correspondingly cries in pain for not controlling his emotions?

I will attempt to address these questions.

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Taking Responsibility for My Emotions

Have you ever blamed someone for making you feel the way you do? Maybe your student swore in class, so you blame her for the frustration you feel the rest of the day. Maybe your colleague vehemently disagrees with your teaching beliefs, and so you make a direct link between his response and your encroaching rage.

can you take responsibility for how you feel?

Some of you may have read the above paragraph and thought,

“Well, aren’t they responsible? If they hadn’t done that or reacted in such a manner, I never would have felt that way. “

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How Do You Create Smoother Transitions?

Transitions can create cohesive compositions, but transitions can also create cohesive groups. If teachers provide the right context, transitions into new situations or environments can be smooth, and can even help create strong connections between new group members (classmates).

One of my goals for the first session (total of 5 weeks) of our three session program is to help participants understand the basic construction of a paragraph. One of the elements we look at is how to create cohesion. However, what the participants may not notice is that through the process of learning how to write a cohesive paragraph, they are also becoming a cohesive group of learners. Through collaboration and shared understanding, a natural camaraderie develops during that first session.

So how does such a close-knit group feel when they find out that for the second session they will need to separate into new groups? As I discovered during this first session’s closure class, the participants felt scared, worried, apprehensive, and sad. I witnessed more tears than I expected on that last day. They didn’t want to leave the comfort and familiarity.

To support a transition from tears to smiles, the context I provide includes creating metaphors and diamante poetry. In the photo gallery below, you’ll see this context in process. Just click on each picture to get a closer view.

The transition process begins with groups searching for new walking, running and jumping synonyms. Then, using these words, they write individual metaphors, and share them with their partners, explaining why they chose the words they did. It’s at this point that they begin to notice others share similar feelings about both sessions. The whole process finally ends with them writing a group diamante. By this point, they realize that they may just get along with these folks too. With all this, the transition process has taken a softer step forward.

I’d love to know what you do to help your students or course participants transition. How do you support them in their transition from not being a student to now being one? What do you do to help them transition between semesters? Do you have a special routine to help students reconnect after Christmas, Thanksgiving, or spring breaks?

Now please enjoy the gallery walk!

* Previous posts about transitioning: In the post Lesson Planning Flow – Thesaurus Poetry, I write about the language (walking, running, jumping periphery verbs) participants generate in order to create both their metaphors, and their diamantes. In A Joyful Transition, I share the positive experience that past participants felt after they collaborated in writing group diamantes.