From the desk of: Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.
The Courage To Teach
As educators, we must constantly remind ourselves of who we are! We have the ability to transform the way a student perceives, not only the world, but himself. We have the capacity to help transport our students to places they never dreamed of, as we equip them with the tools to see themselves as global citizens who have the right to dream boldly and to see those dreams through to fruition. If you think about it, I mean really think about it, you have no choice but to conclude that we are entrusted with awesome power. And with awesome power comes awesome responsibility. So how should we wield this power responsibly?
Well, first of all, we have to have what educator and author Parker J. Palmer calls “the courage to teach.” As he strongly cautions us against standing still in our professional development, he writes:
“Stagnation is the state chosen by teachers who are so threatened by students that they barricade themselves behind their credentials, their podiums, their status, their research. Ironically, this choice for stagnation mirrors the disengagement of the students these teachers fear. Having been wounded by fearful young people who hold their teachers at arm’s length, these teachers fearfully fend off their students, thus feeding the cycle of fear.
It is not unusual to see faculty in mid-career don the armor of cynicism against students, education, and any sign of hope. It is the cynicism that comes when the high hopes one once had for teaching have been dashed by experience—or by the failure to interpret ones’s experience accurately. I am always impressed by the intensity of this cynicism, for behind it I feel the intensity of the hopes that brought these faculty into teaching. Perhaps those hopes can be rekindled, because the intensity is still there: rightly understood, this sort of cynicism may contain the seeds of its own renewal.” [Emphasis added] (pg. 13)
I know about that which Palmer speaks! I am now certain that I have wanted to be a teacher all my life. My family chuckles to this day about how, as a young girl, I taught school every day, without fail. I was quite the rigid teacher and my pupil (or captive)—my baby brother— would call my mother and father on their jobs to complain about the work I had assigned him to complete before I would let him go outside to play! However, because I poured so much knowledge into him, and because he was brilliant anyway, when he enrolled in school, he sailed through, achieving all kinds of honors.
But I digress; let’s get back to "the courage to teach." When I became a college educator, as my second career, I was incensed by how immature and underprepared for college level work most of my students were. For a moment, I felt demoralized. "I want to be a college professor," my inner voice wailed.
However, acknowledging a challenge that simply had to be met, I quickly recovered and began to experiment with different ways of delivering academic content to my disenchanted students. As professionals, we are trained to be problem-solvers; and I realized I could not demand that my students analyze information and think critically if I was not willing to do the same for them. Even more to the point, I earnestly believed that a world-class education was the one thing that stood between success and failure for my beautiful, if exasperating, students. I knew how important their education was even if they did not. As the person deemed to be the “expert” in the room, and as the one deemed to have the superior fund of knowledge about human behavior, I made educating each and every one of them—not teaching, but educating them, and making them understand the importance of an education—my personal challenge every single day of every single semester. (Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu talks about teachers who teach the lesson, but not the child, and we do not want to fall into that useless bind.)
The payoff was great. By the end of each semester, because I was willing to put the time in to “problem-solve,” I had classes where the overwhelming majority of the students were so “turned on” to, and engaged with, knowledge, my colleagues began asking me, “What are you doing? Your students love your classes.” I eagerly shared some of the tactics, strategies, and techniques from my repertoire with my colleagues, because I firmly believe that we can all capture the magic we need to light up our classrooms and create ultra engaged learners. Our students can transform into academic stars right before our eyes as a result of the lift we give them. That is, of course, the joy we get from teaching. We just have to, as Palmer says, have “the courage to teach.”
Kunjufu, J. (2013). Changing school culture for Black males. Chicago: African American Images
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
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