“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach
For those of you not aware of the great Parker Palmer, he is one of America’s foremost writers on education and social change. Since the 1980s, he has been encouraging teachers to recognize that education is a spiritual journey, not just an exercise in data transfer.
For Parker Palmer, teachers need not only to know their subject matter, but to have undertaken the journey of inner wholeness, to embrace the courage to teach. In his view, teaching takes courage because it is the art of letting your soul speak. And that takes passion and wholeheartedness, but mostly it involves an active surrender to vulnerability.
In The Courage to Teach, Palmer writes, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”
It’s this interconnectedness between teacher, students, subject matter, and the world that forms the central idea in his approach to education. Put simply, teachers and students project their souls onto each other and it is in this intimate, vulnerable connection that true learning can take place.
In other words, teachers require relational engagement with their students and must be open to learning from them as well as teaching them. In this respect, Palmer invites teachers to “cultivate a beginner’s mind” no matter how much expertise they have in their subject matter. He writes, “Clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. So, alk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling again and again, then getting up again and again to learn — that’s the path to a life lived large, in service of love, truth, and justice.”
Distance and resistance are the killers of the educative process.
I’ve been reading Parker Palmer for many years, but it has only been recently that I’ve really felt the weight of his vision for teaching. And I think I have the pandemic to thank for that. Since the coronavirus pandemic sent us all into shutdown, propelling education online and forcing teachers and professors, preachers and trainers to communicate through screens, I’ve discovered the debilitating effects of distance and resistance on my teaching.
I was meant to speak at five conferences this month. Well, when I say I was meant to speak at them, I did in fact speak at them, but something was missing. When most of Australia went back into lockdown in late June, a couple of those conferences were moved online so I presented them live via Zoom. For the other ones, I had to pre-record my talks on an iPhone (in a makeshift studio in my garage).
I gave those talks every bit as much preparation as if I were teaching them to a live group. And when I presented them to that small dot on my phone or my laptop I did so as energetically and as enthusiastically as any lecture or sermon I’ve presented. But when each one was done and I closed my computer or uploaded the video, there was a strangely empty feeling.
Done. Finished. Nothing.
Sure, I’d said everything I’d prepared myself to say, sticking to topic, sharing what I thought were stimulating and helpful ideas, fulfilling the brief of the conference. And sure, I received really positive feedback from the conference organizers, thanking me for the talks and telling me how much people appreciated them (if you don’t mind me saying so).
But still… nothing.
And then I thought of Parker Palmer’s words, “Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the student, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. 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.”
That’s what’s missing in pre-recorded lectures or sermons. It’s just data transfer. Ideas are shared, but no act of hospitality is present. There is no hosting, no giving and receiving, no interconnectedness. No one challenges the presenter’s views, or adds to them, or illustrates them. There’s no collaboration. And while it’s not as bad, even livestreamed classes foster a level of distance and resistance as well unless the teacher works hard to overcome it.
And all this got me thinking about preachers.
To those of you who preach, I understand the restrictions we’ve been under have meant you’ve had to improvise, using pre-records and livestreaming, mediating your sermons through a lens and a screen. It’s what we’ve had to do under these current conditions. But I hope it has left you feeling a little empty. I hope it has confirmed for you that all teaching is relational, and that the best preaching is an act of hospitality that benefits both the host and the guest.
If preaching and teaching were just about transferring information, we could all think of better ways to do it than watching teachers and preachers on a screen. But learning from a true teacher, one willing to share their soul with us, one ready to learn from us as much as teach us, this requires interaction, vulnerability, intimacy, connectedness.
In Jesus’ time, learning from a teacher or rabbi required a close following and a deep devotion. As a young acolyte went forth to follow a rabbi, others would say, “May you be covered with the dust of your rabbi.” The assumption was that students should follow their rabbis so closely that the dust kicked up from the road by the feet of the rabbi would cover the disciple following behind. The dust itself was proof of the disciple’s devotion.
Of course, that should be the desire of every disciple of Christ, to walk so close to him that we would be covered with his dust. And I’m not proposing we follow preachers the way the disciples followed Jesus. But I am saying that preachers and congregations, lecturers and students, conference speakers and delegates should get a bit dirty in the process of learning together. Their lives should rub off against each other. They should embrace the courage to be vulnerable, the grace to be humble, the gentleness to be curious, and the desire to be different.
Of all people, the local church preacher should exemplify this more than anyone. She lives in the same neighborhood as her congregation. She journeys with families through the birth of their children, the death of loved ones, through marriages and tragedies, and the mundaneness of everyday life. The sermon should be the fruit of a life lived in devotion to the Scriptures and to the doing of life with a congregation.
The sermon emerges from the work of hospitality. And the sermon should be an act of hospitality in itself.