Teaching from the heart

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

Who am I? In what ways am I changing? Am I growing into the person I would like to become? As teachers we need to periodically check in with ourselves, plumbing our inner selves, to understand who we are. Because more than anything else, “we teach who we are.” This straightforward yet profound truth articulated by Parker J. Palmer harbours many insights. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer argues that self-knowledge is more elemental than knowing our students or the subjects we teach. He also adds that the fount of excellent teaching is the human heart.

When we introspect, Palmer exhorts us to examine three interwoven strands of our being: the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of who we are. How we “think about teaching and learning” constitutes the intellectual thread. The emotional landscape involves how we and our students feel about each other and the teaching-learning process. The spiritual realm entails feeling connected to something larger and more purposeful than our individual selves. Only when we know ourselves thus, can we really forge meaningful connections with our students.

Because more than anything else, teaching is about guiding students as they make their own “inner journey toward more truthful ways of seeing and being in the world.” As teachers, we must try and create conditions that propel students forward in this quest. And, for that we must know our students and ourselves, deeply and earnestly.

Palmer also observes that inspiring teaching cannot be “reduced to technique” or prescriptive formulas. Excellent teaching emanates from the “identity and integrity” of the teacher. Good teachers are those who seamlessly weave their personhood into their teaching. That they love their subject and what they do leaks out in ever so many ways. From the passion in their voice, to the vast storehouse of knowledge that they continually build upon, to their strong work ethic.

In great teachers, we see a melding of “self and subject”. Besides forging linkages with themselves and their subject, they also propel students to construct a web of connections for themselves as they strive to make meaning of various subjects and the world.

Self-knowledge involves not only reflecting on our passions and predilections but also on our vulnerabilities and the darker aspects of our nature. As teachers, it’s essential that we’re aware of our inner demons so that we don’t let them stymie our own growth or that of our students.

Only when we know and accept our whole selves, can we function as integrated beings. Working with children, who are still discovering their burgeoning selves, involves being fully present in the moment and being comfortable with our complex selves. Only teachers who are “inwardly integrated” can establish bonds with students. In contrast, teachers with fragmented selves may “distance” and even “destroy others” as they try to cling on to a “fragile identity”.

If you think back on your own academic journey, you probably encountered a couple, or if you’re lucky, even a handful of teachers, who kindled a spark in you. Those special souls may evoke a smile in you even today. Of course, as there is no formula to great teaching, these teachers may have been vastly different. Yet, they connected with you – either intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, or some combination of the three – and left a deep imprint.

What does it take to be that kind of special teacher to your students? Foremost, this involves repeated reflection of yourself, your students, your methods, and materials. Journaling is an excellent habit for teachers to cultivate as it gives you the space and time to pen down your thoughts and feelings as you recall the day’s happenings and highlights. Talking to colleagues and friends, going for solitary walks, reading and engaging in meditative practices can help you untangle and unpeel multiple layers of yourself, so that you can connect with your core self. While this is a tall order for any teacher to accomplish, I hope Palmer’s book gives you the courage to embark on this process.

Finally, as this is the concluding piece of Book Talk, a column that I have authored for two years, I would like to thank the outstanding team at Teacher Plus for their support and guidance. I also hope that the reader in you has been awakened and that you will continue to devour books and stimulate your students to do the same.

The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com.

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