Finding the “Courage to Teach”

Several years ago, when I was a staff reporter at Canada’s once reknowned Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper, I exposed a massive business opportunity scam that swindled millions of dollars from mom and pop victims all over North America.

I’ll never forget the thrill and the fear I felt the day before the paper published the big story. After weeks of digging, I’d finally located one of the fraudsters. I stood on the doorstep of his home, announced that I was a reporter and that he was “in big trouble,” and that he’d better talk to me (he did). Weeks later, there was more terror when one of the scam’s two ringleaders threatened to harm my family after the RCMP picked up on my investigation and started to pursue criminal charges.

Those two experiences were the most terrifying and thrilling of my life—until I started the roller coaster career of teaching.

After four years of teaching business communications at my local community college, most days are exhilarating and most days I feel as if I’ve found my life’s work: to inspire students to love learning, to help them be better communicators, and to guide them toward becoming better people.

Nonetheless, there are still terrifyingly bad days. There are days when I doubt my abilities as a teacher and my future as an educator. Indeed, after a mostly wonderful two semesters with my office administration students this past June, I lost my mojo during the last class and singled out a student for acting disrespectfully. I felt like every student in the class was looking at me as if I was the biggest, meanest jerk in the world. I felt awful.

Although the student apologized privately to me later (and I apologized to him), it took me several days to get over the experience. It was the first time I had lost my cool in front of a class and I felt like a failure.

In time, I got over it, and I’m now excited again about returning to teaching. One tool that has helped is Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. Although Palmer is an expert in helping teachers to connect with themselves, their subjects, and their students, he still has bad teaching days. He still fears the “student from Hell” (who still has the ability to hijack his classes) and sometimes he faces classroom behavioural issues he cannot fix, even with all of his expertise and decades of experience.

Palmer’s book provides many other important lessons, some of which I’ll describe in my next blog entry. However, this was the lesson—that even the best educators can do a bad job and can have days when they feel terror and doubt—that I most needed to learn from him.

In The Courage to Teach, Palmer provides vivid details about these encounters and is often astonished to discover that his interpretations of students’ negative behaviours are frequently wrong. For example, a “student from Hell” who sat sulking at the back of his class and refused to participate later approach him to deferentially ask him an important ethical question. This example reminded Palmer that students who appear arrogant often do so out of fear that it is not safe to speak out in class.

Parker J. Palmer (banner photo from the Center for Courage & Renewal website

In another one of his classes, Palmer experienced such widespread disruptive behaviour that the only way he could make peace with the class was to give up on the whole group. “I hate to teach or live that way, but with this group, that seemed to be the only way out,” he said.

The memory still pains and embarrasses him. I feel his pain as I’m sure you do. At some point in our teaching careers, it’s probable that we will all have a class that we give up on in order to survive. At the least, we’ve all had experiences in the classroom that continually make us cringe inwardly and make us wonder what we could have done differently.

Palmer suggests we delay that question and instead start by studying our identities as educators and by realizing that our greatest strengths are also our weaknesses.

Frank Armstrong leading one of his business communications classes

Perhaps my greatest strength is my passion, passion for my subject (communicating effectively) and passion for inspiring others. I know that students can, and do, learn much from me when they engage and open themselves up to learning. When I teach, I share all of my being and I work myself into exhaustion by the end of each semester developing and tweaking fun and innovative lessons.

When students turn a blind eye to my teachings by skipping classes, carrying out side conversations, or texting during lessons, I take it personally. I can react with pain, anger, and indignation, which rarely resolves the negative behaviour.

I react like this because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that students are misbehaving because, despite all the passion that I’ve put into their lessons, I’m not good enough—and never will be—and they don’t respect me.

I’m going to try not to think that way anymore. I know that so much more could be going on in that student’s head and it may have nothing to do with me or my lesson.

Next time, I’m going to think about Parker J. Palmer and The Courage to Teach and I’ll remember that nobody’s perfect, not even the gurus.

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About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
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2 Responses to Finding the “Courage to Teach”

  1. This is so right on the money, Frank. I taught Career Communications to hairdressing and esthetician students for three winter terms at SLC and did take it personally when students would skip class or not pay attention. It got easier and I learned not to let it ruffle me so much. I’ve also taught Creative Writing courses at the college and they are much easier because the folks there choose to be there rather than having the program chosen for them. I’ll have to check out this book because I do love teaching and want to do more of it. Currently I work with a small group in my town, and want to do more with them, and work with similar groups of people who just want to write and maybe have someone guide them through it. I’d also like to get more work at the colleges but that seems pretty difficult right now.

    • Hi Christine. It’s great to hear from you. I also taught that creative writing course so I know exactly what you mean. Teaching in the full time programs is a whole other ball game. Even if we hit home runs 99% of the time, the 1% of classes that are crummy experiences can debilitate us. I recommend this book if you are in need of a pick-me-up!

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