Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nurturing the Inner Life of a Teacher

This past January, we had a staff retreat at which I lead a session on “nurturing the inner life of a teacher”. Much of my session was based on the thoughts of Parker Palmer and his book “The Courage to Teach”. 

The main premise of Palmer’s book is that we as teachers “project the condition of our soul onto those that we teach” (Palmer 2007).  As teachers then, we must be self aware of our gifts and shortcomings.  Being aware of the flip side of our giftedness and nurturing our inner selves, will in the end, allow us to fully live out our life as a teacher (you can substitute teacher with anything).  This, in the end, will allow us to be present to wide, demanding and changing needs of our students.

In some further research, Palmer goes on to identify the top five “shadows” (to use Carl Jung’s term) or “weaknesses” that teachers in his study self identified. 
These top five shadows include:

Insecurity about identity and worth
This shadow manifests itself in such forms as jealousy towards other professionals, the” school owes me” attitude, competition with others, and a hostile attitude towards students.

Universe is hostile
This shadow manifest itself with attitudes that assume the worst in people and general negativity towards what people (or the school) are doing.

Everything depends on me
This shadow manifests itself by such actions and attitudes as lacking a balance between work and personal life.  This person wants “to be all things to all people” at the expense of their personal wellness.

This is the most common reported emotion for teachers.   Teachers identified such things as fear of failure, success, bad reputation and violence.

Denial of Death
Cannot “let go” of the past or present.  This person resists the natural order of the universe that says that all new things arise from “letting go” of the past.  This person resists change.

I would argue that as education professionals, the more aware we are of our inner lives the better equipped we will be to deal with our students and colleagues. 
As a change agent, understanding and nurturing the inner life of your constituents will only serve to enable change at much more sustainable level.

During the retreat, I asked the staff to reflect on and discuss, with a trustworthy partner, the following:
Which shadow do you struggle with the most?  What have you done (or will you do) to mitigate the impact of this shadow?

To deal with our own blind spots I suggested that we become reflective practitioners. Donald Schon describes this process as "the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning", which, according to the Schon, is "one of the defining characteristics of professional practice" (Schon, 1983)

You’ll be happy to hear that I’m still figuring it out!


  1. Johnny,

    What a wonderful post! I think you are doing an awesome thing by helping your colleagues to understand the potential reasons that are holding ALL of us back. The "shadows" must be brought into light before we can address them, and what you are doing is perfect.

    Thanks for a highly reflective and insightful post!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience working with Palmer's writings. We often refer to him and I appreciate hearing new perspectives.

    Other writers that may be helpful in your work might be Brookfield ( Becoming a Critically Reflective Practitioner ), Hubbard & Power ( The Art of Classroom Inquiry ) and Cochran-Smith & Lytle ( Inquiry as Stance ).

    Looking forward to reading future posts,

  3. Thanks for the other suggested works Tom. It nice to hear that you are using Palmer's works, I have found his works to be transformational

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  5. Leading with soul!

    Why is it so important that we nurture our inner lives?

    Well, when I think of what I want my students to 'get' upon graduation, I think that I want to leave them with the message of the importance of confidence; in themselves, in humanity and in their view of the future.
    As I think about it even more, a deeper message emerges: it is the fundamental, universal importance of a person’s capacity for love.

    As teaches, the only way we can help our students 'access' this love is to be open and committed to the possibility of "project[ing] the condition of our soul upon those who we teach."

    Thanks for sharing this, Johnny