Home' Independence : Independence Vol 32 No 1 May 2007 Contents Have you ever really had a teacher? One who
saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that,
with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine?
If you are lucky enough to find your way to such
teachers, you will always find your way back.
Sometimes it is only in your head. Sometimes it is
right alongside their beds.
The last class of my old professor’s life took place
once a week, in his home, by a window in his
study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant
shed its pink flowers. The class met on Tuesdays.
No books were required. The subject was the
meaning of life. It was taught from experience.
The teaching goes on.
We cannot teach the meaning of life. Hopefully,
our students learn it from us, and through
whatever wisdom we have acquired. Wisdom
comes only from constant and deep struggle: the
struggle to be authentic, to work out for ourselves
the values that will guide our lives and to attempt
to live according to them. The final two passages
come from one of my favourite teacher-writers,
Parker Palmer. In Palmer’s view, and in mine, we
teach who we are. Whether we want them to
or not, our students learn from the example of
how we live our lives much more than the formal
content of our lessons. Palmer writes of the reality
of the daily struggle of teaching - the times of
exhilaration and of hopelessness and ennui.
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!
If you are a teacher who never has bad days, or
who has them but does not care, this book is not
for you. This book is for teachers who have good
days and bad, and whose bad days bring the
suffering that comes only from something one
loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their
hearts because they love learners, learning, and
the teaching life.5
This final passage develops Parker’s theme of
the need for integrity and honouring one’s own
deepest self if one is to be a teacher. He outlines
what he considers the two most difficult truths
. .. the call to teach does not come from external
encounters alone - no outward teacher or
teaching will have much effect until my soul
assents. Any authentic call ultimately comes from
the voice of the teacher within, the voice that
invites me to honor the nature of my true self.
By the voice of the inward 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
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
When I follow only the oughts, I may find myself
doing work that is ethically laudable but 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 what never was, or no longer is,
their true work?
In contrast to the strained and even violent
concept of vocation as an ought, Frederick
Buechner offers a more generous and humane
image of vocation as ‘the place where your deep
gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet’.
In a culture that sometimes equates work with
suffering, it is revolutionary to suggest that the
best inward sign of vocation is deep gladness
- revolutionary but true. If a work is mine to do, it
will make me glad over the long haul, despite the
difficult days. Even the difficult days will ultimately
gladden me, because they pose the kinds of
problems that can help me grow in a work if it is
If a work does not gladden me in these ways, I
need to consider laying it down. When I devote
myself to something that does not flow from my
identity, that is not integral to my nature, I am
most likely deepening the world’s hunger rather
than helping to alleviate it.
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’
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
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 listen.
I simply propose that we need to learn as many
ways as we can of ‘talking to ourselves’.
As I often tell my students, teaching is the best
and most noble profession of all. To help to
develop fine human beings, and thus contribute
to the ongoing development of our communities,
our country and our world, is the most important
task on earth. May these pages help to keep us as
teachers inspired by the lofty aims, privileges and
responsibilities of our profession.
1 Beare, H., Caldwell, B., & Millikan, R. (1989),
Creating an Excellent School: some new
management techniques. New York: Routledge,
2 Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education
(1982), Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to
Faith. Homebush, NSW: St Paul Publications,
3 Groome, T. (1998), Educating for Life: a
spiritual vision for every teacher and parent.
Allen, Texas: Thomas More, pp.34-6
4 Albom, M. (1997), Tuesdays with Morrie: an
old man, a young man, and life’s greatest
lesson. London: Warner Books, p.192.
5 Palmer, P. (1998), The Courage to Teach:
exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s
life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p.1
6 Ibid. pp.29-32
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