Moving in Mysterious Ways

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An excerpt from “Good Teaching: A Matter of Living the Mystery” by Parker Palmer

Good teaching is an act of generosity, a whim of the wanton muse, a craft that may grow with practice, and always risky business. It is, to speak plainly, a maddening mystery. How can I explain the wild variety of teachers who have incited me to learn — from one whose lectures were tropical downpours that drowned out most other comments, to one who created an arid silence by walking into class and asking, “Any questions?”

Good teaching cannot be equated with technique. It comes from the integrity of the teacher, from his or her relation to subject and students, from the capricious chemistry of it all. A method that lights one class afire extinguishes another. An approach that bores one student changes another’s life.

Faculty and administrators who encourage talk about teaching despite its vagaries are treasures among us. Too many educators respond to the mystery either by privatizing teaching or promoting a technical “fix.” The first group uses the variability of good teaching as an excuse to avoid discussing it in public — thus evading criticism or challenge. The second group tries to flatten the variations by insisting on the superiority of this or that method or subtlety. In both quarters, [?] the far-ranging conversation that could illumine the mystery when we think of it as a “black box,” something opaque and impenetrable that we must either avoid or manipulate by main force. Mystery is a primal and powerful human experience that can neither be ignored nor reduced to formula. To learn from mystery, we must enter with all our faculties alert, ready to laugh as well as groan, able to “live the question” rather than demand a final answer. When we enter into mystery this way, we will find the mystery entering us, and our lives are challenged and changed.

Good teachers dwell in the mystery of good teaching until it dwells in them. As they explore it alone and with others, the insight and energy of mystery begins to inform and animate their work. They discover and develop methods of teaching that emerge from their own integrity — but they never reduce their teaching to technique.

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