Book Review: The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life

Upon finding out that I was exploring teaching as a career, this book was gifted to me by a respected senior. It was one of the first books he read and meditated on as a young teacher decades ago, he hoped that this book would help me decide if teaching was something for me, or not.

My first impressions of the book were very positive – it was insightful and real. It speaks to all those who love teaching and have tried teaching before. It allowed me to understand my own attitudes and philosophy towards teaching. At the time of reading, I felt I loved teaching but I knew I couldn’t have articulated or explained it if I were asked, and wasn’t sure if it was a passion worth pursuing. Reading the book cleared many things up for me, and helped me to understand what I wanted out of teaching and what I loved about it.

I am thoroughly thankful about starting with this book. Before diving into teaching as a full-time vocation, I believe it’s important to set my heart and intentions right. It wasn’t my priority when I first started reading, but this book definitely helped me to anchor my passion in a way I greatly appreciated. I realised again, the importance of not losing heart no matter how difficult the children may be. I discovered that I wanted to teach because I care intensely, not just about the subject I teach but the young subjects who receive my teaching. Teaching will not just be a job, it is my approach to life – empowering and inspiring others, especially the ones who don’t know yet how to help themselves – the young.

The first section of the book addresses the matter of the teacher’s heart and passion. It then moves into some techniques and the principles behind them. Through Palmer, I got to understand more about the dynamics and decisions that go on in the classroom. As a teacher tasked with the responsibility of education and discipline with expectations to peform, I realised it’s easy to feel like the amount of words we speak are proportional to the level of the learning experience. The more we say and give, the more the students learn, it appears. However, Palmer challenges this view with strong, realistic anecdotal and statistical evidence, suggesting that the choice of words, rather than the quantity, is what makes the difference. He summed it up by suggesting ‘[take] less space for my words, and more space for student involvement.(Page 134)’. It was simple enough to understand but I expect to be learning this lesson repeatedly with lots of feedback from colleagues and students alike.

For all the things that well-intentioned educators wish to achieve in the classroom, there are others that may slip out of consciousness now and then. Palmer reminds me that the ultimate goal is to impact and change lives beyond the classroom, and in society. On page 197, he says, ‘Respect, compassion, integrity, sensitivity and the transcendence of self-interest are not techniques.’ As efficient and productive adults, we sometimes see the need to enter a new ‘mind zone’ in order to complete a certain task effectively, but according to Palmer, a life of consistency; a living role-model is the most impactful. In the midst of reading about techniques and management skills, it is easy to forget this. Bringing out the best of our characters in times of difficult classroom days (as we battle unmotivated or temperamental students) may be what stirs something in the hearts and minds of those we wish to educate.

It’s amazing how classic this book is. I believe it was way way way ahead of its time when it was published and while there are significant improvements in education approaches around the world since then, the book still has a lot to offer to those who have a heart for truth and passionSave