“The Courage to Teach” is about YOU more than about teaching – a response

The Courage to Teach is what I have been waiting for. Sure enough, we have read powerful and important texts this semester, each depositing paradigm-destabilizing ideas into my mind. But Palmer is different. He has added very little to my thinking, but he has described what I have not been able to put into words. He has built a coherent architecture for the impressions that have been developing in me for some time. What I find most amazing about this piece is, as I said, that there is almost nothing novel in it. That’s why I found myself “LAWLing,” being moved, rereading portions, digging into my own memories and imagination. It was entirely relatable for me. What novelty is there is not in the ideas, but in the naming. He named as subject-centered that balance of space between teacher- and student-centered education that I have been trying to delineate but did not have the words to. He pointed to “great things,” which have been the stuff of both my most important intellectual waypoints and greatest moments of teaching. How come I never thought to call those subjects that we collectively continually circle, seek out, and avoid “great?” The “greats” of fear and being-over-doing, which I have spent considerable time considering, fit cleanly into the schema and, upon early mention, were two of the indicators that I was going to thoroughly enjoy The Courage to Teach.

Just yesterday I found myself spontaneously teaching. It was not my intention to teach, and I’m not convinced that I did. However, we had a successful time together as a group. What I love about the success of yesterday’s situation is that it honestly had very little to do with me as a technician or as a knower. Rather, the group began to live, itself, and my part was being a certain way, intentionally approaching a “great thing,” and doing it within a diverse, safe community. Let me tell you about it.

Sabbath School starts at 10 a.m. and runs for about an hour. It is like Sunday School, but it gets its name from our going to church on Saturday. Typically, a small group of us will meet and discuss a particular topic, often having prepared by reading a weekly Bible study that is distributed by our church’s hub. I have been attending one of the adult Sabbath School groups since arriving in Buffalo, but this week decided to accept an invite to our young adult group.

Buffalo Suburban SDA Church is impressively diverse. So, when I found the young adults, it was no surprise that in our class of seven, I was in the cultural and linguistic minority. We were three native English speakers and four Congolese speakers. The other two Americans were leading the group and were sorting out what to do for the lesson when I arrived.

Historically, I am deeply curious about and fascinated by people of all kinds, which might be the main reason I jumped in to ask everyone’s names just as the leaders were about to dive into the lesson. In the absence of a group plan, I had already invited the two young ladies in the group to sing a song in their home language; they often sing a special item for the church service.

Luke, an English speaker, read the opening text, James 4:10 (NASB): “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” He trotted through the text with relaxed articulation and looked up expecting us all to be able to react intelligently to what he had just read. Three of the four Congolese were in the weeds–the older of the young men, Theo, has been studying in the U.S. for four years and typically translates for the others, so he had some notion of the text. I was pretty certain that presence and exalt would be beyond comprehension for now, so I decided to check in with everyone about the definition of humble. We spent the next 50 minutes discussing definitions and implications associated with this text.

I had inadvertently joined a circle gathered around one of the “greatest things” of all, the nature of humility. Though I had no language to describe what was about to happen then, I can now see that we narrowly avoided the objectifying of humility in a de facto teacher-centered way given the language gap. In the end, the language gap is what allowed us to slow down and consider this topic as a subject.

The subject of humility has been heavy on my mind for several years now. Even so, I admit that I cannot have fathomed it entirely yet. At times I have taken the banking or depositing approach when discussing humility. More recently, however, I have tried to join the circle of the “community of truth” intending to both contribute and learning something. This is just what happened yesterday though I did, in essence, take Palmer’s teacher’s role. It’s not that I sensed the disorganization of the two leaders and felt the need to take over. I am, however, obsessed with making sure we all understand what is going on and immensely respectful of such a classic and “great thing” as the dynamic of humility. Consequently, as I began to check in with the language learners about their knowledge of the English words we were using, the conversation meandered to pride, types of pride, alternate uses of the word, being exalted, and the spatial nature of what it means to exalt (using gestures). As we moved from one angle to the next, I would problematize their definitions or usages with questions like, “Is it always good or bad to be proud?” “Can you think of an example of someone being proud?” The dialog opened up slightly, though did not genuinely include the two Congolese girls as much I would have liked.

My learning came when Luke associated the word pride with confidence. Theo knew that word and translated it for the girls. Janette, the more proficient of the two girls, managed a simple definition about feeling like you can do the thing you are about to do. That’s when I realized that these two words are related temporally: confidence comes before an act; pride comes after. At this point I was pretty excited. Trust had already briefly come into the discussion peripherally when we talked about the difference between humility and pride earlier. We had touched on the Christian idea that when we do good things, it is God working in us, that the Christian can have no cause to take the credit for right doing. It takes belief for that to happen, a concept related to trust. It was time for trust to come back in–like when Palmer’s teacher traces that line along the path of the discussion. As it was coming together in my mind, I set up the insight simply and physically. We all agreed that confidence was good, so I started there. “We are confident; ‘I can do this thing.’ Then we do the thing. Then we are proud or humble. What makes the difference between being proud or being humble after you are confident and you do the thing?” I left silent space afterward. It was almost long enough to be awkward.

Soon, someone–I think Rachel, Luke’s wife–connected confidence and trust. We were then collectively able to assemble this process: pride results in having approached and succeeded in a task having had confidence or trust in your own ability, while humility results in having succeeded having had confidence or trust in God’s ability. Why is this a significant conclusion? It gives the individual another simple schemata with which to understand, for instance, the feelings associated with failure. Failure when one has maintained confidence in self necessarily creates a crisis of value and identity–depression, anger, and fear result. On the other hand, success creates an inflated and unstable notion of control and self-importance. In the scenario where one trusts in God, success is not the main focus, nor is control. Instead, the goal is to serve and serve well, without any intention of taking credit for one’s actions. In success, the credit goes to God and His system. In failure, the individual is able to focus on learning and growing rather than self-preservation because the crisis does not occur. The result is peace of mind.

All of this is to say that we as a small group had for a short time encompassed a “great thing” and let it reveal its secrets through dialog. I cannot imagine a simpler dialog leading to concept creation with such vast real world implications. It was exciting to participate. I’m thankful to Palmer for his thinking and naming. The whole thing is starting make sense.