Unpacking Parker J. Palmer: Fear and Education

This is the first of what I hope becomes a series of reflections on Parker Palmer’s, book The Courage to Teach. His book really speaks to my thoughts and feelings on what it means to teach. By “unpacking” what I read, I hope to get more insight into the often unchartered territories he deals with. They aren’t easy places to navigate, but I trust that the arrival will be worth it. I hope these explorations feed your curiosity as much as they feed mine.


Ten minutes before class. What am I supposed to teach today? Damn, I’m not ready! Who has taught this class before. Matthieu. Right. I’ll give him a call.

Damn, he isn’t answering. Oh man. Eight minutes left now.


“Jon, can you help me out? What am I supposed to teach today?”, panicking on the phone as I scramble to find something more professional to wear. I’m still in my jeans and old t-shirt!

“No worries. It’s the end of the semester and they just need to cover this and this…”, said in the smooth, calm voice Jon always seems to have.

“Oh wow, you’re right! They only have a few classes left! Thanks Jon. I think I can handle it.”, gasping — not sighing in relief like I should be — as I think to myself, ‘How did I let this happen? Two more classes in the semester? They are going to think I’m so incompetent. I am! And man, I’m late now….’

At this point I woke up. I didn’t get a chance to see the faces of my course participants. I suppose my subconsciousness couldn’t bear seeing them.

Fear. This is what I felt when I opened my eyes. In this case, the fear of failure. At that moment, Parker Palmer’s chapter Culture of Fear I had just read a few days before, made much more sense. Even in my dreams I didn’t want to face the fear I sometimes feel. One of the points Parker Palmer makes in this chapter is how fear disconnects us from our students. Fear labels them as the lazy kid, the problem boy, the girl who can’t pay attention. When we see students like this, of course it’s hard to trust what’s inside their minds.

Fear causes this to happen:

… our assumption that students are brain-dead leads to pedagogies that deaden their brains. When we teach by dripping information into their passive forms, students who arrive in the classroom alive and well become passive consumers of knowledge and are dead on departure when they graduate. But the power of this self-fulfilling prophecy seems to elude us: we rarely consider that our students may die in the classroom because we use methods that assume they are dead.

– Parker Palmer, p.42, “The Courage to Teach

*cartoon by Yoo Ha-na (유하나)

When I first read this quote, I was inspired to write a rant blaming the Korean education system for perpetuating apathy, violence, and yes, death. This is what I first wrote:

Fear. It has a grip on us. It is all around us and so it permeates our senses and our way of being. It has become such a societal norm that we don’t even realize it’s there.

To notice fear would mean we would need to face it. To admit that fear exists would be to admit that we are doing it wrong.

And this is what I believe. I believe we are doing it wrong. When fear rules our education system, we need to set aside our pride, and look into its face. Administrators aren’t ready for this. To face their fears would also mean losing face.

That’s as far as I got. I was just about to go into tirade (Yes, trust me, it is possible.) against Korea’s old boys’ club when I started thinking of the English teachers in this system. I imagined the fear some of them have told me about: the dread of going to class and meeting students that talk back to them; the anxiety they have about the kid who is “better” at speaking English than they are; or the administrative stress of paperwork and the need to follow the demands of the system they’re in (ie: teaching the same lesson as all the other English teachers, not leaving any room for creative lesson planning; listening to parents who aren’t satisfied with the way they are teaching their kid.)

I realized I couldn’t point fingers. Not many of us want to meet fear: not administrators, not teachers… not me. Looking into fear would mean that we’d have to admit our vulnerability. And let’s face it, not many education systems out there create a safety net for vulnerability.

But here’s the twist: it’s only by facing our fears that real change is able to happen. This relates as much to a fear of heights as it does to a “fear of diversity”, “fear of conflict”, or a “fear of losing identity”: the diversity of our students’ experiences, interests and motivations; the conflict that could happen by paying attention to this diversity; and the loss of our ways of being, our ideas, and our traditions in the face of all this (The Courage to Teach, p. 38). If we want students who are happy to come to class, we will need to look at what we are doing that prevents this from happening. If teachers want to be happy when they come to class, they will need to take some time with fear. According to relationship expert, Robert Augustus Masters, PhD, this is the only way that fear will loosen its grip:

When we remain outside our fear, we remain trapped within it.

When we, however, consciously get inside our fear, it’s as if it turns inside out. Getting inside our fear with wakeful attention and compassion actually expands our fear beyond itself. Once the contractedness at the center of fear ceases to be fueled, fear unravels, dissipates, and terminates its occupancy of us.

In entering our fear, we end our fear of it.

Through attending closely, caringly, and carefully to the particulars of our fear, we decentralize it, so that its intentions and viewpoint can no longer govern us. When the light goes on in the grottos of dread, then fear is little more than our case of mistaken identity having a bad day.

Robert Augustus Masters, Transformation Through Intimacy

As I ponder my own fears, I wonder if teachers and administrators will ever find a safe, communal space to attend to theirs. The idea of “decentralizing” fear in order to make room for real connections with each other is one I find incredibly appealing.

When I consider the magnitude of this healing, sitting with my own fears sounds a little less scary.

*A big thank you to Yoo Ha-na (유하나) for drawing this cartoon, and to Michael Free for asking her. And thanks to Tim Thompson, Joseph Bengivenni, James Taylor, and Arjana Blazic for helping me locate the cartoon Ha-na’s cartoon was inspired by.

Related links:

The difference between love and a stick

Each semester, I get to know our course participants via dialogue journals. I’ve written about my apprehension in giving this assignment in past (The Bittersweetness of Dialogue Journals – Take 2), but this journal entry, written by Mr. Go Jong-hyun, is another wonderful reminder of why I keep doing it.

Mr. Go was kind enough to let me share his entry with all of you. This is especially meaningful considering the topic of my last post, The love stick that motivates (I highly recommend reading the heart-wrenching, yet enlightening, comments).

In response to the question, Who was your favorite teacher? Why was he or she your favorite teacher? How would you like to be like him/her?, Mr. Go writes:

I was asked those questions in the test to become an English teacher several times. Whenever I think about it, I cannot help remembering my old home room teacher whose name was Kyoung-hwa Kim in the middle school. I was second to last in the elementary. I even had to have the supplementary classes for the students of underachievement in the elementary school. I was beaten with sticks, even slapped in my face by some of my home room teachers because I couldn’t do my homework. No teachers complimented me because I was poor at studying. However, I took the head in cleaning up the classroom. When I was a first grader in the middle school, most students shirked their duty during the clean-up time, but I steadily cleaned up my area. One morning, Ms. Kim spoke high of me because I cleaned the classroom diligently in front of the all classmates. She also said I would excel in study. I was panicked for a while, but very happy to hear that. Her compliment changed me. Her positive reinforcement and trust in me got me not to let her down. I studied and tried to be the best student to rise to her compliment. Finally, my score improved very much, and I became a class leader. I can’t forget her, and am in debt forever to her. Kyoung-hwa Kim was and is my favorite teacher always because she was the best example of the teacher.

The compliment and belief of a teacher have wonderful and compelling power to change and motivate students. I teach where there are many naughty and low-level students comparing with the other academic high schools. However, I always try to look on the bright side of them, and believe them. I always made zealous effort to have trust in my students; they can be changed. I believe the power of optimism and trust. I will compliment my students on every efforts, unique talents and strong points as well as good scores like my great teacher, and then students will rise to my expectations.

Thank you so much Mr. Go.

The love stick that motivates

Confusion and concern rushes through me whenever I hear comments like these:

I know my teacher cared because he hit us with his stick when we didn’t get the answer right.

If I fail a quiz, my teacher hits me with a stick. I don’t mind this because it makes me think of what I’ve done wrong.

Although I didn’t like it at the time, when I look back, I know he hit me because he loved me and wanted me to learn. This is how he motivated me.

Both Korean teachers and students have shared such stories with me, and each time I hear them, I’m left baffled. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the equations: hitting=love and hitting=learning. 

Maybe I react this way because I put myself in the shoes of the student being threatened or hit. There is no way that my 12 year old self would understand these equations. I’m pretty confident that 16 year old Josette would rage with hatred if that stick of love came down on her palms. And I’m equally sure that 10 year old Josette would cry home in shame.

I also realize that not everyone would react like me. For the sake of trying to understand, I’ll set aside my prejudices for a moment. What if students want to this type of punishment? It seems some believe they do.  But what about the Josettes in the class? If my intention is to show care, I would need to make sure that my students respond to this kind of care. Would teachers need to get feedback from students to determine if they need the “stick of love” discipline? It surely would make for an interesting needs assessment:

Circle the answers that match your needs.

I want to be hit with the stick of love when I make a mistake or fail a quiz/test.

  • Yes
  • No

If you want to be hit, how many times do you want to be hit with the stick of love?

  • 5 strokes
  • 10 strokes
  • 20 strokes

If you want to be hit with the stick of love, where do you want to be hit?

  • posterior
  • back of the legs
  • palms
  • soles of the feet

I don’t think this kind of feedback is being collected.

My intention isn’t to make light of this. I know it’s a sticky subject and will conjure up plenty of mixed feelings. I just needed to write this out of concern for students who don’t respond positively to the love stick (so hard to write that sentence. I can’t imagine anyone truly responding positively. What about the long-term consequences? What does this do to their spirit? “Squelch it” comes to mind.) And of course the question comes up, even if they think they need the stick, are they capable of making a rational decision at this point? I know students out there who don’t want to be hit. They want love. They want warmth. They want to feel safe.

I have a hard time believing this boy would respond well to the stick.
* image from “Korean Students Speak” at http://koreanstudentsspeak.tumblr.com/

I also know that there are teachers out there who just don’t think they have an alternative. I have heard many times that this is part of the their tradition. This is how Korean teachers have been motivating students for centuries. They can’t imagine another way to encourage students to study. Plus, taking away the stick means giving the stick to students. Check out PRI: The World for more on this point: South Korea debates students discipline.

I think there is an alternative. I think it involves listening to students. I realize there is a lot in that sentence. What does it mean to listen to 30 students who don’t want to be in English class? What does it mean to listen to students when they are depressed, and you are exhausted because you have far too much paper work to do and still need to monitor students until midnight?

How do we listen? It’ll take a major shift in the system, but I think it can happen. It needs to happen. Too many students are in pain. Too many students are chronically depressed. Too many students are dying.

The stick of love won’t suffice. I think teachers and administrators need to learn about the power of compassion and understanding. They need to be trained how to listen compassionately. They need to learn how to see students as human beings. More counselors are needed whose only job is listening and caring. Of course, a lot more than this needs to happen (maybe a complete overhaul of the system), but this could be a start.

I think everyone in the Korean educational system could benefit from being heard. I think everyone could benefit from a little more love…minus the stick.

Other article related to this topic:

Smart Phones in School – inspired by an IATEFL post

This essay was written by Lee Yeongheon, a middle school English teacher who teaches in Ulsan, South Korea. She was inspired to write this after I asked her and other course participants questions for this post, Got Bandwidth? @IATEFL 2012. Yeongheon and I are excited to share this with you, and look forward to your comments and feedback.

Continue reading “Smart Phones in School – inspired by an IATEFL post”

Got Bandwidth? @IATEFL 2012

After perusing the inspiring IATEFL Conference 2012 video interviews and the various registered bloggers, it became clear to me that something is missing from my dialogue with the in-service teachers in our training program: technology. Watching Nik Peachey‘s interview prompted me to start the discussion.

In his interview with Rob Lewis, Nik describes what he thinks schools should look like:

“Schools would do much better investing in good wireless, broadband connectivity, and make the whole school a kind of learning zone so that any student coming in with any mobile device can get connected and find useful materials that they can learn from”

Continue reading “Got Bandwidth? @IATEFL 2012”