The Heart of a Teacher:
Identity and Integrity in Teaching
by Parker J. Palmer, Center for
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We Teach Who We Are
I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the
classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and
I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway
out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is
illumined by the lightning-life of the mind--then teaching is
the finest work I know.
But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful
or confused--and I am so powerless to do anything about it
that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then
the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien
planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal
pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a
fool I was to imagine that I had mastered this occult
art--harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for
mortals to do even passably well!
The tangles of teaching have three important sources. The
first two are commonplace, but the third, and most
fundamental, is rarely given its due. First, the subjects we
teach are as large and complex as life, so our knowledge of
them is always flawed and partial. No matter how we devote
ourselves to reading and research, teaching requires a command
of content that always eludes our grasp. Second, the students
we teach are larger than life and even more complex. To see
them clearly and see them whole, and respond to them wisely in
the moment, requires a fusion of Freud and Solomon that few of
If students and subjects accounted for all the complexities of
teaching, our standard ways of coping would do--keep up with
our fields as best we can, and learn enough techniques to stay
ahead of the student psyche. But there is another reason for
these complexities: we teach who we are.
Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one's
inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the
condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way
of being together. The entanglements I experience in the
classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of
my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror
to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not
run from what I see, I have a chance to gain
self-knowledge--and knowing myself is as crucial to good
teaching as knowing my students and my subject.
In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on
self-knowledge. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who
my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in
the shadows of my unexamined life--and when I cannot see them
clearly I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I
cannot know my subject--not at the deepest levels of embodied,
personal meaning. I will know it only abstractly, from a
distance, a congeries of concepts as far removed from the
world as I am from personal truth.
We need to open a new frontier in our exploration of good
teaching: the inner landscape of a teacher's life. To chart
that landscape fully, three important paths must be
taken--intellectual, emotional, and spiritual--and none can be
ignored. Reduce teaching to intellect and it becomes a cold
abstraction; reduce it to emotions and it becomes
narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual and it loses its
anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion, and spirit depend on
each other for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human
self and in education at its best, and we need to interweave
them in our pedagogical discourse as well.
By intellectual I mean the way we think about teaching and
learning the form and content of our concepts of how people
know and learn, of the nature of our students and our
subjects. By emotional I mean the way we and our students feel
as we teach and learn feelings that can either enlarge or
diminish the exchange between us. By spiritual I mean the
diverse ways we answer the heart's longing to be connected
with the largeness of life--a longing that animates love and
work, especially the work called teaching.
Teaching Beyond Technique
After three decades of trying to learn my craft, every class
comes down to this: my students and I, face to face, engaged
in an ancient and exacting exchange called education. The
techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do
they suffice. Face to face with my students, only one resource
is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense
of this "I" who teaches--without which I have no sense of the
"Thou" who learns.
Here is a secret hidden in plain sight: good teaching cannot
be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity
and integrity of the teacher. In every class I teach, my
ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with
the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the
degree to which I know and trust my selfhood--and am willing
to make it available and vulnerable in the service of
My evidence for this claim comes, in part, from years of
asking students to tell me about their good teachers. As I
listen to those stories, it becomes impossible to claim that
all good teachers use similar techniques: some lecture
non-stop and others speak very little, some stay close to
their material and others loose the imagination, some teach
with the carrot and others with the stick.
But in every story I have heard, good teachers share one
trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work.
"Dr. A is really there when she teaches," a student tells me,
or "Mr. B has such enthusiasm for his subject," or "You can
tell that this is really Prof. C's life."
One student I heard about said she could not describe her good
teachers because they were so different from each other. But
she could describe her bad teachers because they were all the
same: "Their words float somewhere in front of their faces,
like the balloon speech in cartoons." With one remarkable
image she said it all. Bad teachers distance themselves from
the subject they are teaching--and, in the process, from their
Good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric
of life because they teach from an integral and undivided
self; they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their
students, a "capacity for connectedness." They are able to
weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their
subjects, and their students, so that students can learn to
weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these
weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory
experiments, collaborative problem-solving, creative chaos.
The connections made by good teachers are held not in their
methods but in their hearts meaning heart in its ancient
sense, the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and
will converge in the human self.
If good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, I no longer
need suffer the pain of having my peculiar gift as a teacher
crammed into the Procrustean bed of someone else's method and
the standards prescribed by it. That pain is felt throughout
education today as we insist upon the method du jour--leaving
people who teach differently feeling devalued, forcing them to
measure up to norms not their own.
I will never forget one professor who, moments before I was to
start a workshop on teaching, unloaded years of pent-up
workshop animus on me: "I am an organic chemist. Are you going
to spend the next two days telling me that I am supposed to
teach organic chemistry through role-playing?" His wry
question was not only related to his distinctive discipline
but also to his distinctive self: we must find an approach to
teaching that respects the diversity of teachers as well as
disciplines, which methodological reductionism fails to do.
The capacity for connectedness manifests itself in diverse and
wondrous ways--as many ways as there are forms of personal
identity. Two great teachers stand out from my own
undergraduate experience. They differed radically from each
other in technique, but both were gifted at connecting
students, teacher, and subject in a community of learning.
One of those teachers assigned a lot of reading in her course
on methods of social research and, when we gathered around the
seminar table on the first day, said, "Any comments or
questions?" She had the courage to wait out our stupefied (and
stupefying) silence, minute after minute after minute, gazing
around the table with a benign look on her face--and then,
after the passage of a small eternity, to rise, pick up her
books, and say, as she walked toward the door, "Class
This scenario more or less repeated itself a second time, but
by the third time we met, our high SAT scores had kicked in,
and we realized that the big dollars we were paying for this
education would be wasted if we did not get with the program.
So we started doing the reading, making comments, asking
questions--and our teacher proved herself to be a brilliant
interlocutor, co-researcher, and guide in the midst of
confusions, a "weaver" of connectedness in her own interactive
and inimitable way.
My other great mentor taught the history of social thought. He
did not know the meaning of silence and he was awkward at
interaction; he lectured incessantly while we sat in rows and
took notes. Indeed, he became so engaged with his material
that he was often impatient with our questions. But his
classes were nonetheless permeated with a sense of
connectedness and community.
How did he manage this alchemy? Partly by giving lectures that
went far beyond presenting the data of social theory into
staging the drama of social thought. He told stories from the
lives of great thinkers as well as explaining their ideas; we
could almost see Karl Mark, sitting alone in the British
Museum Library, writing Das Kapital. Through active
imagination we were brought into community with the thinker
himself, and with the personal and social conditions that
stimulated his thought.
But the drama of my mentor's lectures went farther still. He
would make a strong Marxist statement, and we would transcribe
it in our notebooks as if it were holy writ. Then a puzzled
look would pass over his face. He would pause, step to one
side, turn and look back at the space he had just exited--and
argue with his own statement from an Hegelian point of view!
This was not an artificial device but a genuine expression of
the intellectual drama that continually occupied this
teacher's mind and heart.
"Drama" does not mean histrionics, of course, and remembering
that fact can help us name a form of connectedness that is
palpable and powerful without being overtly interactive, or
even face to face. When I go to the theater, I sometimes feel
strongly connected to the action, as if my own life were being
portrayed on stage. But I have no desire to raise my hand and
respond to the line just spoken, or run up the aisle, jump
onto the stage, and join in the action. Sitting in the
audience, I am already on stage "in person," connected in an
inward and invisible way that we rarely credit as the powerful
form of community that it is. With a good drama, I do not need
overt interaction to be "in community" with those characters
and their lives.
I used to wonder how my mentor, who was so awkward in his
face-to-face relations with students, managed to simulate
community so well. Now I understand: he was in community
without us! Who needs 20-year-olds from the suburbs when you
are hanging out constantly with the likes of Marx and Hegel,
Durkheirn, Weber and Troeltsch? This is "community" of the
highest sort--this capacity for connectedness that allows one
to converse with the dead, to speak and listen in an invisible
network of relationships that enlarges one's world and
enriches one's life. (We should praise, not deride, First
Ladies who "talk" with Eleanor Roosevelt; the ability to learn
from wise but long-gone souls is nothing less than a classic
mark of a liberal education!)
Yet my great professor, though he communed more intimately
with the great figures of social thought than with the people
close at hand, cared deeply about his students. The passion
with which he lectured was not only for his subject, but for
us to know his subject. He wanted us to meet and learn from
the constant companions of his intellect and imagination, and
he made those introductions in a way that was deeply integral
to his own nature. He brought us into a form of community that
did not require small numbers of students sitting in a circle
and learning through dialogue.
These two great teachers were polar opposites in substance and
in style. But both created the connectedness, the community,
that is essential to teaching and learning. They did so by
trusting and teaching from true self, from the identity and
integrity that is the source of all good work--and by
employing quite different techniques that allowed them to
reveal rather than conceal who they were.
Their genius as teachers, and their profound gifts to me,
would have been diminished and destroyed had their practice
been forced into the Procrustean bed of the method of the
moment. The proper place for technique is not to subdue
subjectivity, not to mask and distance the self from the work,
but--as one grows in self-knowledge--to help bring forth and
amplify the gifts of self on which good work depends.
Teaching and True Self
The claim that good teaching comes from the identity and
integrity of the teacher might sound like a truism, and a
pious one at that: good teaching comes from good people. But
by "identity" and "integrity" I do not mean only our noble
features, or the good deeds we do, or the brave faces we wear
to conceal our confusions and complexities. Identity and
integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our
wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.
By identity I mean an evolving nexus where all the forces that
constitute my life converge in the mystery of self: my genetic
makeup, the nature of the man and woman who gave me life, the
culture in which I was raised, people who have sustained me
and people who have done me harm, the good and ill I have done
to others, and to myself, the experience of love and
suffering--and much, much more. In the midst of that complex
field, identity is a moving intersection of the inner and
outer forces that make me who I am, converging in the
irreducible mystery of being human.
Byintegrity I mean whatever wholeness I am able to find within
that nexus as its vectors form and re-form the pattern of my
life. Integrity requires that I discern what is integral to my
selfhood, what fits and what does not--and that I choose
life-giving ways of relating to the forces that converge
within me: do I welcome them or fear them, embrace them or
reject them, move with them or against them? By choosing
integrity, I become more whole, but wholeness does not mean
perfection. It means becoming more real by acknowledging the
whole of who I am.
Identity and integrity are not the granite from which
fictional heroes are hewn. They are subtle dimensions of the
complex, demanding, and life-long process of self-discovery.
Identity lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that
make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those
forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than
fragmentation and death.
Those are my definitions--but try as I may to refine them,
they always come out too pat. Identity and integrity can never
be fully named or known by anyone, including the person who
bears them. They constitute that familiar strangeness we take
with us to the grave, elusive realities that can be caught
only occasionally out of the comer of the eye.
Stories are the best way to portray realities of this sort, so
here is a tale of two teachers--a tale based on people I have
known, whose lives tell me more about the subtleties of
identity and integrity than any theory could.
Alan and Eric were born into two different families of skilled
craftspeople, rural folk with little formal schooling but
gifted in the manual arts. Both boys evinced this gift from
childhood onward, and as each grew in the skill at working
with his hands, each developed a sense of self in which the
pride of craft was key.
The two shared another gift as well: both excelled in school
and became the first in their working-class families to go to
college. Both did well as undergraduates, both were admitted
to graduate school, both earned doctorates, and both chose
But here their paths diverged. Though the gift of craft was
central in both men's sense of self, Alan was able to weave
that gift into his academic vocation, while the fabric of
Eric's life unraveled early on.
Catapulted from his rural community into an elite private
college at age 18, Eric suffered severe culture shock--and
never overcame it. He was insecure with fellow students and,
later, with academic colleagues who came from backgrounds he
saw as more "cultured" than his own. He learned to speak and
act like an intellectual, but he always felt fraudulent among
people who were, in his eyes, to the manor born.
But insecurity neither altered Eric's course nor drew him into
self-reflection. Instead, he bullied his way into professional
life on the theory that the best defense is a good offense. He
made pronouncements rather than probes. He listened for
weaknesses rather than strengths in what other people said. He
argued with anyone about anything--and responded with veiled
contempt to whatever was said in return.
In the classroom, Eric was critical and judgmental, quick to
put down the "stupid question," adept at trapping students
with trick questions of his own, then merciless in mocking
wrong answers. He seemed driven by a need to inflict upon his
students the same wound that academic life had inflicted upon
him--the wound of being embarrassed by some essential part of
But when Eric went home to his workbench and lost himself in
craft, he found himself as well. He became warm and welcoming,
at home in the world and glad to extend hospitality to others.
Reconnected with his roots, centered in his true self, he was
able to reclaim a quiet and confident core--which he quickly
lost as soon as he returned to campus.
Alan's is a different story. His leap from countryside to
campus did not induce culture shock, in part because he
attended a land-grant university where many students had
backgrounds much like his own. He was not driven to hide his
gift, but was able to honor and transform it by turning it
toward things academic: he brought to his study, and later to
his teaching and research, the same sense of craft that his
ancestors had brought to their work with metal and wood.
Watching Alan teach, you felt that you were watching a
craftsman at work--and if you knew his history, you understood
that this feeling was more than metaphor. In his lectures,
every move Alan made was informed by attention to detail and
respect for the materials at hand; he connected ideas with the
precision of dovetail joinery and finished the job with a
But the power of Alan's teaching went well beyond crafted
performance. His students knew that Alan would extend himself
with great generosity to any of them who wanted to become an
apprentice in his field, just as the elders in his own family
had extended themselves to help young Alan grow in his
Alan taught from an undivided self--the integral state of
being that is central to good teaching. In the undivided self,
every major thread of one's life experience is honored,
creating a weave of such coherence and strength that it can
hold students and subject as well as self. Such a self,
inwardly integrated, is able to make the outward connections
on which good teaching depends.
But Eric failed to weave the central strand of his identity
into his academic vocation. His was a self divided, engaged in
a civil war. He projected that inner warfare onto the outer
world, and his teaching devolved into combat instead of craft.
The divided self will always distance itself from others, and
may even try to destroy them, to defend its fragile identity.
If Eric had not been alienated as an undergraduate--or if his
alienation had led to self-reflection instead of
self-defense--it is possible that he, like Alan, could have
found integrity in his academic vocation, could have woven the
major strands of his identity into his work. But part of the
mystery of selfhood is the fact that one size does not fit
all: what is integral to one person lacks integrity for
another. Throughout his life, there were persistent clues that
academia was not a life-giving choice for Eric, not a context
in which his true self could emerge healthy and whole, not a
vocation integral to his unique nature.
The self is not infinitely elastic--it has potentials and it
has limits. If the work we do lacks integrity for us, then we,
the work, and the people we do it with will suffer. Alan's
self was enlarged by his academic vocation, and the work he
did was a joy to behold. Eric's self was diminished by his
encounter with academia, and choosing a different vocation
might have been his only way to recover integrity lost.
When Teachers Lose Heart
As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with
students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the
threads are tied: the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and
the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that
teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the
heart--and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking
it can be.
We became teachers for reasons of the heart, animated by a
passion for some subject and for helping people to learn. But
many of us lose heart as the years of teaching go by. How can
we take heart in teaching once more, so we can do what good
teachers always do--give heart to our students? The courage to
teach is the courage to keep one's heart open in those very
moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able,
so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the
fabric of community that learning, and living, require.
There are no techniques for reclaiming our hearts, for keeping
our hearts open. Indeed, the heart does not seek "fixes" but
insight and understanding. When we lose heart, we need an
understanding of our condition that will liberate us from that
condition, a diagnosis that will lead us toward new ways of
being in the classroom simply by telling the truth about who,
and how, we are. Truth, not technique, is what heals and
empowers the heart.
We lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise
in vulnerability. I need not reveal personal secrets to feel
naked in front of a class. I need only parse a sentence or
work a proof on the board while my students doze off or pass
notes. No matter how technical or abstract my subject may be,
the things I teach are things I care about--and what I care
about helps define my selfhood.
Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the
dangerous intersection of personal and public life. A good
therapist must work in a personal way, but never publicly: the
therapist who reveals as much as a client's name is derelict.
A good trial lawyer must work in a public forum, but unswayed
by personal opinion: the lawyer who allows his or her feelings
about a client's guilt to weaken the client's defense is
guilty of malpractice.
But a good teacher must stand where personal ' and public
meet, dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an
intersection where "weaving a web of connectedness" feels more
like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect
ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make
ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to
indifference, judgment, ridicule.
To reduce our vulnerability, we disconnect from students, from
subjects, and even from ourselves. We build a wall between
inner truth and outer performance, and we play-act the
teacher's part. Our words, spoken at remove from our hearts,
become "the balloon speech in cartoons," and we become
caricatures of ourselves. We distance ourselves from students
and subject to minimize the danger--forgetting that distance
makes life more dangerous still by isolating the self.
This self-protective split of personhood from practice is
encouraged by an academic culture that distrusts personal
truth. Though the academy claims to value multiple modes of
knowing, it honors only one--an "objective" way of knowing
that takes us into the "real" world by taking us "out of
In this culture, objective facts are regarded as pure while
subjective feelings are suspect and sullied. In this culture,
the self is not a source to be tapped but a danger to be
suppressed, not a potential to be fulfilled but an obstacle to
be overcome. In this culture, the pathology of speech
disconnected from self is regarded, and rewarded, as a virtue.
If my sketch of the academic bias against selfhood seems
overdone, here is a story from my own teaching experience. I
assigned my students a series of brief analytical essays
involving themes in the texts we were going to be reading.
Then I assigned a parallel series of autobiographical
sketches, related to those themes, so my students could see
connections between the textbook concepts and their own lives.
After the first class, a student spoke to me: "In those
autobiographical essays you asked us to write, is it okay to
use the word ŽI'?"
I did not know whether to laugh or cry--but I knew that my
response would have considerable impact on a young man who had
just opened himself to ridicule. I told him that not only
could he use the word "I", but I hoped he would use it freely
and often. Then I asked what had led to his question.
"I'm a history major," he said, "and each time I use 'I' in a
paper, they knock off half a grade."
The academic bias against subjectivity not only forces our
students to write poorly ("It is believed...," instead of, "I
believe... "), it deforms their thinking about themselves and
their world. In a single stroke, we delude our students into
believing that bad prose turns opinions into facts and we
alienate them from their own inner lives.
Faculty often complain that students have no regard for the
gifts of insight and understanding that are the true payoff of
education--they care only about short-term outcomes in the
"real" world: "Will this major get me a job?" "How will this
assignment be useful in 'real' life?"
But those are not the questions deep in our students' hearts.
They are merely the questions they have been taught to ask,
not only by tuition-paying parents who want their children to
be employable, but by an academic culture that distrusts and
devalues inner reality. Of course our students are cynical
about the inner outcomes of education: we teach them that the
subjective self is irrelevant and even unreal.
The foundation of any culture lies in the way it answers the
question, "Where do reality and power reside?" For some
cultures the answer is the gods; for some it is nature; for
some it is tradition. In our culture, the answer is clear:
reality and power reside in the external world of objects and
events, and in the sciences that study that world, while the
inner realm of "heart" is a romantic fantasy--an escape from
harsh realities perhaps, but surely not a source of leverage
over "the real world."
We are obsessed with manipulating externals because we believe
that they will give us some power over reality and win us some
freedom from its constraints. Mesmerized by a technology that
seems to do just that, we dismiss the inward world. We turn
every question we face into an objective problem to be
solved-and we believe that for every objective problem there
is some sort of technical fix.
That is why we train doctors to repair the body but not to
honor the spirit; clergy to be CEOs but not spiritual guides;
teachers to master techniques but not to engage their
students' hearts--or their own. That is why our students are
cynical about the efficacy of an education that transforms the
inner landscape of their lives: when academic culture
dismisses inner truth and pays homage only to the objective
world, students as well as teachers lose heart.
Listening to the Teacher Within
Recovering the heart to teach requires us to reclaim our
relationship with the teacher within. This teacher is one whom
we knew when we were children but lost touch with as we grew
into adulthood, a teacher who continually invites me to honor
my true self--not my ego or expectations or image or role, but
the self I am when all the externals are stripped away.
By inner teacher, I do not mean "conscience" or "superego,"
moral arbiter or internalized judge. In fact, conscience, as
it is commonly understood, can get us into deep vocational
trouble. When we listen primarily for what we "ought" to be
doing with our lives, we may find ourselves hounded by
external expectations that can distort our identity and
integrity. There is much that I "ought" to be doing by some
abstract moral calculus. But is it my vocation? Am I gifted
and called to do it? Is this particular "ought" a place of
intersection between my inner self and the outer world, or is
it someone else's image of how my life should look?
When I follow only the oughts, I may find myself doing work
that is ethically laudable but that is not mine to do. A
vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued,
does violence to the self--in the precise sense that it
violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract
norm. When I violate myself, I invariably end up violating the
people I work with. How many teachers inflict their own pain
on their students--the pain that comes from doing a work that
never was, or no longer is, their true work?
The teacher within is not the voice of conscience but of
identity and integrity. It speaks not of what ought to be, but
of what is real for us, of what is true. It says things like,
"This is what fits you and this is what doesn't." This is who
you are and this is who you are not." "This is what gives you
life and this is what kills your spirit--or makes you wish you
were dead." The teacher within stands guard at the gate of
selfhood, warding off whatever insults our integrity and
welcoming whatever affirms it. The voice of the inward teacher
reminds me of my potentials and limits as I negotiate the
force field of my life.
"Good Talk About Good Teaching: Improving Teaching Through
Conversation and Community" appeared in the November/December
1993 issue of Change. A revised version appears as Chapter VI
in The Courage to Teach.
"Divided No More: A Movement Approach to Educational Reform"
appeared in the March/April 1992 issue of Change.
A revised version appears as Chapter VII in The Courage
I realize that the idea of a "teacher within" strikes some
academics as a romantic fantasy, but I cannot fathom why. If
there is no such reality in our lives, centuries of Western
discourse about the aims of education become so much
lip-flapping. In classical understanding, education is the
attempt to "lead out" from within the self a core of wisdom
that has the power to resist falsehood and live in the light
of truth, not by external norms but by reasoned and reflective
self-determination. The inward teacher is the living core of
our lives that is addressed and evoked by any education worthy
of the name.
Perhaps the idea is unpopular because it compels us to look at
two of the most difficult truths about teaching. The first is
that what we teach will never "take" unless it connects with
the inward, living core of our students' lives, with our
students' inward teachers.
We can, and do, make education an exclusively outward
enterprise, forcing students to memorize and repeat facts
without ever appealing to their inner truth--and we get
predictable results: many students never want to read a
challenging book or think a creative thought once they get out
of school. The kind of teaching that transforms people does
not happen if the student's inward teacher is ignored.
The second truth is even more daunting: we can speak to the
teacher within our students only when we are on speaking terms
with the teacher within ourselves.
The student who said that her bad teachers spoke like cartoon
characters was describing teachers who have grown deaf to
their Inner guide, who have so thoroughly separated inner
truth from outer actions that they have lost touch with a
sense of self. Deep speaks to deep, and when we have not
sounded our own depths, we cannot sound the depths of our
How does one attend to the voice of the teacher within? I have
no particular methods to suggest, other than the familiar
ones: solitude and silence, meditative reading and walking in
the woods, keeping a journal, finding a friend who will simply
listen. I merely propose that we need to learn as many ways as
we can of "talking to ourselves."
That phrase, of course, is one we normally use to name a
symptom of mental imbalance--a clear sign of how our culture
regards the idea of an inner voice! But people who learn to
talk to themselves may soon delight in the discovery that the
teacher within is the sanest conversation partner they have
We need to find every possible way to listen to that voice and
take its counsel seriously, not only for the sake of our work,
but for the sake of our own health. If someone in the outer
world is trying to tell us something important and we ignore
his or her presence, that person either gives up and stops
speaking or becomes more and more violent in attempting to get
Similarly, if we do not respond to the voice of the inward
teacher, it will either stop speaking or become violent: I am
convinced that some forms of depression, of which I have
personal experience, are induced by a long-ignored inner
teacher trying desperately to get us to listen by threatening
to destroy us. When we honor that voice with simple attention,
it responds by speaking more gently and engaging us in a
life-giving conversation of the soul.
That conversation does not have to reach conclusions in order
to be of value: we do not need to emerge from "talking to
ourselves" with clear goals, objectives, and plans. Measuring
the value of inner dialogue by its practical outcomes is like
measuring the value of a friendship by the number of problems
that are solved when friends get together.
Conversation among friends has its own rewards: in the
presence of our friends we have the simple joy of feeling at
ease, at home, trusted and able to trust. We attend to the
inner teacher not to get fixed but to befriend the deeper
self, to cultivate a sense of identity and integrity that
allows us to feel at home wherever we are.
Listening to the inner teacher also offers an answer to one of
the most basic questions teachers face: how can I develop the
authority to teach, the capacity to stand my ground in the
midst of the complex forces of both the classroom and my own
In a culture of objectification and technique we often confuse
authority with power, but the two are not the same. Power
works from the outside in, but authority works from the inside
out. We are mistaken when we seek "authority" outside
ourselves, in sources ranging from the subtle skills of group
process to that less-than-subtle method of social control
called grading. This view of teaching turns the teacher into
the cop on the comer, trying to keep things moving amicably
and by consent, but always having recourse to the coercive
power of the law.
External tools of power have occasional utility in teaching,
but they are no substitute for authority, the authority that
comes from the teacher's inner life. The clue is in the word
itself, which has "author" at its core. Authority is granted
to people who are perceived as "authoring" their own words,
their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a
scripted role at great remove from their own hearts. When
teachers depend on the coercive powers of law or technique,
they have no authority at all.
I am painfully aware of the times in my own teaching when I
lose touch with my inner teacher, and therefore with my own
authority. In those times I try to gain power by barricading
myself behind the podium and my status while wielding the
threat of grades. But when my teaching is authorized by the
teacher within me, I need neither weapons nor armor to teach.
Authority comes as I reclaim my identity and integrity,
remembering my selfhood and my sense of vocation. Then
teaching can come from the depths of my own truth--and the
truth that is within my students has a chance to respond in
Institutions and the Human Heart
My concern for the "inner landscape" of teaching may seem
indulgent, even irrelevant, at a time when many teachers are
struggling simply to survive. Wouldn't it be more practical, I
am sometimes asked, to offer tips, tricks, and techniques for
staying alive in the classroom, things that ordinary teachers
can use in everyday life?
I have worked with countless teachers, and many of them have
confirmed my own experience: as important as methods may be,
the most practical thing we can achieve in any kind of work is
insight into what is happening inside us as we do it. The more
familiar we are with our inner terrain, the more sure-footed
our teaching--and living--becomes.
I have heard that in the training of therapists, which
involves much practical technique, there is a saying:
"Technique is what you use until the therapist arrives." Good
methods can help a therapist find a way into the client's
dilemma, but good therapy does not begin until the real-life
therapist joins with the real life of the client.
Technique is what teachers use until the real teacher arrives,
and we need to find as many ways as possible to help that
teacher show up. But if we want to develop the identity and
integrity that good teaching requires, we must do something
alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about
our inner lives--risky stuff in a profession that fears the
personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the
I was reminded of that fear recently as I listened to a group
of faculty argue about what to do when students share personal
experiences in class--experiences that are related to the
themes of the course, but that some professors regard as "more
suited to a therapy session than to a college classroom."
The house soon divided along predictable lines. On one side
were the scholars, insisting that the subject is primary and
must never be compromised for the sake of the students' lives.
On the other side were the student-centered folks, insisting
that the lives of students must always come first even if it
means that the subject gets short-changed. The more vigorously
these camps promoted their polarized ideas, the more
antagonistic they became--and the less they learned about
pedagogy or about themselves.
The gap between these views seems unbridgeable--until we
understand what creates it. At bottom, these professors were
not debating teaching techniques. They were revealing the
diversity of identity and integrity among themselves, saying,
in various ways, "Here are my own limits and potentials when
it comes to dealing with the relation between the subject and
my students' lives."
If we stopped lobbing pedagogical points at each other and
spoke about who we are as teachers, a remarkable thing might
happen: identity and integrity might grow within us and among
us, instead of hardening as they do when we defend our fixed
positions from the foxholes of the pedagogy wars.
But telling the truth about ourselves with colleagues in the
workplace is an enterprise fraught with danger, against which
we have erected formidable taboos. We fear making ourselves
vulnerable in the midst of competitive people and politics
that could easily turn against us, and we claim the
inalienable right to separate the "personal" and the
"professional" into airtight compartments (even though
everyone knows the two are inseparably intertwined). So we
keep the workplace conversation objective and external,
finding it safer to talk about technique than about selfhood.
Indeed, the story I most often hear from faculty (and other
Professionals) is that the institutions in which they work are
the heart's worst enemy. In this story, institutions
continually try to diminish the human heart in order to
consolidate their own power, and the individual is left with a
discouraging choice: to distance one's self from the
institution and its mission and sink into deepening cynicism
(an occupational hazard of academic life), or to maintain
eternal vigilance against institutional invasion and fight for
one's life when it comes.
Taking the conversation of colleagues into the deep places
where, we might grow in self-knowledge for the sake of our
professional practice will not be an easy, or popular, task.
But it is a task that leaders of every educational institution
must take up if they wish to strengthen their institution's
capacity to pursue the educational mission. How can schools
educate students if they fail to support the teacher's inner
life? To educate is to guide students on an inner journey
toward more truthful ways of seeing and being in the world.
How can schools perform their mission without encouraging the
guides to scout out that inner terrain?
As this century of objectification and manipulation by
technique draws to a close, we are experiencing an exhaustion
of institutional resourcefulness at the very time when the
problems that our institutions must address grow deeper and
more demanding. Just as 20th-century medicine, famous for its
externalized fixes for disease, has found itself required to
reach deeper for the psychological and spiritual dimensions of
healing, so 20th-century education must open up a new frontier
in teaching and learning the frontier of the teacher's inner
How this might be done is a subject I have explored in earlier
essays in Change, so I will not repeat myself here. In "Good
Talk About Good Teaching," I examined some of the key elements
necessary for an institution to host non-compulsory,
non-invasive opportunities for faculty to help themselves and
each other grow inwardly as teachers. In "Divided No More: A
Movement Approach to Educational Reform," I explored things we
can do on our own when institutions are resistant or hostile
to the inner agenda. (See box.)
Our task is to create enough safe spaces and trusting
relationships within the academic workplace--hedged about by
appropriate structural protections--that more of us will be
able to tell the truth about our own struggles and joys as
teachers in ways that befriend the soul and give it room to
grow. Not all spaces can be safe, not all relationships
trustworthy, but we can surely develop more of them than we
now have so that an increase of honesty and healing can happen
within us and among us--for our own sake, the sake of our
teaching, and the sake of our students.
Honesty and healing sometimes happen quite simply, thanks to
the alchemical powers of the human soul. When 1, with 30 years
of teaching experience, speak openly about the fact that I
still approach each new class with trepidation, younger
faculty tell me that this makes their own fears seem more
natural--and thus easier to transcend--and a rich dialogue
about the teacher's selfhood often ensues. We do not discuss
techniques for "fear management," if such exist. Instead, we
meet as fellow travelers and offer encouragement to each other
in this demanding but deeply rewarding journey across the
inner landscape of education--calling each other back to the
identity and integrity that animate all good work, not least
the work called teaching.