Being hospitable

I’m a Parker Palmer fan. I know there are lots of people who aren’t that into Parker Palmer, but I don’t know of any other educational scholar who touches on the emotional aspects of the teaching profession quite like Parker Palmer does. I’ve read The Courage to Teach probably five or six times over my career and each time it feeds my “teacher soul” in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. In my interactions with students and other teachers, I find myself trying to channel my inner Parker Palmer and tap into my own courage to teach. My class last week was one of those occasions.

Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about how I was teaching an undergraduate class after several years of teaching graduate ones. It has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to know some amazing preservice teachers and help them develop evidence-based understandings of assessment to support student learning. More than the content of the class, though, we’ve shared a lot of great conversations about our trajectories as students and how our experiences as students can inform our identities as teachers. We’ve talked about becoming advocates for change and how we need to be champions for our students, both in words and deeds. Our final class met last week and it was definitely an emotional experience for many of us.

As I sat in my office after the class, I reflected on the overall experiences of the semester for the students and for myself. While I wanted to revel in the joy of the students’ reactions to our time together, I kept thinking about one student who had made a dramatic shift during the semester. Through the first few weeks of the class, Dave (not his real name) presented himself as the model, engaged student. Dave arrived early to class, participated thoughtfully in class discussions and always contributed valuable insights in his papers and online posts. But midway through the course, Dave became more reserved. He didn’t participate as much during class and started arriving late. His work wasn’t the high quality he had once shared.

During our last class, I had the students write short reflections on their work during the semester. Drawing on some of the activities I shared in a blog post last fall, I wanted to provide some “meaningful course closure” by “engaging “students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.”  While many students wrote in-depth, thoughtful reflections, Dave’s was sullen, dark, and, at times, disrespectful to me, our class, and our university’s whole teacher education program.

As I read Dave’s reflection, I wondered how Parker Palmer would handle this. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer talks about how effective teaching requires the development of “relational trust” which is “built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” Someplace along the way, I lost some relational trust with Dave, and I didn’t want our time together to end without a chance to rebuild some of it. To do that, I’d need to channel some of that “compassion, patience and capacity to forgive” with Dave.

So, I emailed him and invited him to meet to chat. While he was initially hesitant to talk, when we finally sat down for a few minutes to iron things out, he was much more receptive. We discussed his engagement as a student and his work in the class. We discussed his written reflection and the emotional journey he had taken during the semester. More than that, however, we discussed his future role as a teacher and how teachers emotionally react to the students with whom they work. I’m happy to say that things definitely left on better terms than they had during our final few classes together.

Besides relational trust, Parker Palmer also explores some other critical elements that inform our work as educators. In situations like the one I shared with Dave, one aspect that I try to remember is the need for teachers to “be hospitable.” Palmer writes:

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

While my hospitality was toward Dave, it was also a gift a hope for me. Through our conversation I was hoping that maybe someday in the future, when Dave works with a student like himself, he’ll have a better example of how to deal with it. That he’ll be patient. And empathetic. And be willing to forgive.

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