Parker Palmer at Augsburg College

/ 18 May 2003

Yesterday (Saturday) I had the rare privilege of hearing Parker Palmer live. In the afternoon he worked with a group of faculty and administrators on the question of vocation, and in the evening he spoke about “honoring thy teacher: authentic reform in an era of smoke and mirrors.” I actually found the evening session the more exhilarating of the two, but that might be in part because I’ve read everything I can find that’s he’s written, and his afternoon session did not much extend that. Things I’d like to remember include:
his description of the interconnected nature of our inner and outer work being like that of a ‘mobius strip’ — perpetually moving and never clearly one or the other

numerous quotes from Thomas Merton, particularly “we are called to give our hearts away, but first we must have them in our own possession”

a quote from a participant in one of the groups he leads — “I want my life to be about something that maximizes the possibility of live encounters, and minimizes the possibility of inert collisions”He spoke at some length about needing to “change the market” for simplistic solutions, and find ways to support people into living into the paradoxes and ambiguities of this very needy world we live in together. He talked about a major, longitudinal study of school reform in the Chicago K-12 system, and its primary finding that the single most predictive factor for successful reform was the level/degree of relational trust. (It’s a study authored by Bryk and Schneider, out of the University of Chicago.) One of the crucial questions to ask, then, for any future school reform is: to what extent will this reform enhance relational trust, and to what extent will it detract from it? (Another obvious example here, is the clear way in which the “No child left behind” act detracts from such trust.)More than once he talked about how “things are hidden in plain sight” (the relational trust finding being one such), where something is so obvious but we refuse to see it, or for some reason can’t see it, or are only willing to look in certain places. Here he told a funny story about a man on his knees searching for a lost watch one dark evening, in the small pool of light from a street light. Another man comes along and offers to help search. After a long bit of such searching, the second man asks the first if he’s certain he’s lost it here, and the first man replies no, he actually lost it much further down the alley, but this was the only place where there was enough light to search. One obvious implication being: to what extent have we so narrowed our search for constructive school reform that we are binding ourselves to failure? Which, incidentally, is another implication of what Palmer is saying: that the current round of education reform might be structured in such as a way as to seek failure — precisely to build public support for vouchers, charter schools, and other attempts to deconstruct the public education system in this country. What can we do to support relational trust? Support the heart of the teacher. Good teaching, Palmer argues, comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher, not from some pool of “techniques” picked up along the way (here I hear echoes of the points I try to make when using Heifetz’s notions of “adaptive” vs. “technical” challenges). Another interesting point he made was that supporting teachers ought to require us to ask not “how much knowledge can you hold?” (which is clearly the point of so much of the standardized testing, of both teachers and students), but “how do you hold your knowledge?” Meaning — do you hold it as a sword to wield over someone, as a bridge to connect them to something, as connective tissue in a community, and so on. Here he also used as an example the ways in which young people learn about character. Not so much from some “character building” curriculum (although he was quick to point out that he is not denigrating such work), but more clearly from the “implicit” or “null” curricula in place, from the ways in which the adults around them treat each other and treat their students.Here I couldn’t help but think about the research my colleague Rollie Martinson is engaged in, looking at what factors keep youth involved in churches. So many of them are generative of relational trust!In any event, it was a powerful evening, and I came away with much to ponder, as well as renewed certainty about the important place in my teaching that is occupied by Palmer’s ideas.