Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Teaching Who We Are

Photo via Dordt College. All rights reserved.
Facebook told me that it was eight years ago yesterday that I graduated with my Master of Education degree. That was an important personal and professional accomplishment! I learned so much about myself as a teacher through the coursework and research that was behind that degree; the professors I worked with helped me to review, rethink, ...and perhaps even redeem my teaching practice. I am the teacher I am today thanks to their work with me.

Early in my studies, one of my professors encouraged me to read the book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer. This book was so formative for me. In it, Palmer challenged me to be my authentic self as a teacher. Palmer suggests throughout the book that "We teach who we are." Our identity and our integrity is always with us when we step into the classroom; our identity in the sense of "knowing ourselves" and our integrity in the sense of "how it all holds together" both matter. And, as a Christian educator, this takes on such depth of meaning for me: "Who am I?" is a fine place to begin, but "Whose am I?" is the deeper question behind it, for me at least.

I have reread Palmer's book many times over the past dozen years or so since I first encountered it. For a while, I read it every summer to prepare my heart for another year of teaching, to call to mind the importance of my identity and integrity for how I conduct my work as a faithful teacher. And this has become a core belief for me: if we are going to really, truly be the teacher (and not just act like a teacher,) we have to come to grips with "Who am I?" and "Whose am I?" because all of our instructional decisions will flow out of this basic understanding.

This core belief comes out in my teaching practice now as a teacher educator as well. On the first day of Intro to Education, lesson one is this: "You teach who you are." We begin with an exploration of our identity, and how very much that matters for how we conduct our work as Christian teachers. We build on this throughout the semester as we learn together, examining the different aspects of the teaching profession through the lens of what it might mean to "teach Christianly." And then, for their final in the course, I assign students to review the work we've done throughout the semester--the things they read, the discussions we had in class, the things they learned in their practicum, and more--and write an essay expressing their conception of what it means to teach Christianly.

Many students refer back to specific things we discussed, and not a few of them comment on that first lesson, in which we think about our identity and how this shapes our teaching practice. One of my students, in her final essay this semester stated it this way:
In lesson one we were told that we are to “teach who we are,” but I think that it should be, “teach who God created you to be.” Christian teachers need to take their identity as a teacher seriously.
Amen to that. This one has the idea--at least at the beginning, Intro-to-Ed-level.

My hope and prayer is that they all will continue to develop this understanding throughout their work in the program, and that it carries on into their own classrooms someday!

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