When we decided to do an issue on teaching, we knew we would need to do an interview with Parker J. Palmer. Here’s why:
Mr. Palmer is a highly respected writer, teacher, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. A former Senior Associate of the American Association of Higher Education, he founded the Center for Courage & Renewal, which oversees the “Courage to Teach” program for educators of grades K-12 (www.CourageRenewal.org). In 1998, The Leadership Project, a national survey of 10,000 administrators and faculty, named Mr. Palmer one of the 30 “most influential senior leaders” in higher education. And in 2005, Jossey-Bass published Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker J. Palmer, featuring contributions by experts in medicine, law, philanthropy, politics, economic development, and education. Mr. Palmer is the author of several best-selling and award-winning books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, To Know as We Are Known, The Company of Strangers, and The Promise of Paradox. A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), he lives with his wife, Sharon, in Madison, Wisconsin. The interview was conducted with enthusiasm and expertise by Ron Jackson.
YWJ: Since this is a journal for youth workers, we have to ask you: What do you like on your pizza?
Palmer: My favorite topping is one that a lot of people don’t like. I love anchovies.
YWJ: Did you ever have a youth worker who played a significant role in your life?
Palmer: Absolutely. I have to say that I have been blessed with significant teachers at every stage of my life; but one of the most significant was Burt Randle, the youth minister at the Wilmette, Ill., Methodist church, where I grew up.
He was just a remarkable guy who knew how to create community with a diverse crowd of young people. My high school, like most high schools, had a pretty rigid stratification system. Kids were clustered into groups — the studious ones, the athletes, the popular ones — and we never crossed paths with each other. You stayed in your air-tight group, and you were suspicious of people in other groups.
But in this youth group that Burt Randle organized and held together over the years, all those differences disappeared. Kids in that youth group were from every social stratum. That youth group was an early vision of the beloved community.
YWJ: You’ve dedicated your life to teaching and teaching teachers. Tell us what makes a good teacher.
Palmer: I’m 67 years old now. I’ve had a lot of good teachers over the years; and they have been very, very different from one another. They all had passion for what they were doing, but their styles were unique to them as individuals.
I wrote a book called The Courage to Teach, in which the central concept is that good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.
For me, teaching is about weaving a web of connectedness between myself, my students, the subject I’m teaching, and the larger world. And, of course, connection and connectedness are other words for community and communion. At its deepest level, I think teaching is about bringing people into communion with each other, with yourself as the teacher, and with the subject you are teaching.
This means that I don’t do a lot of top-down teaching. Although there are some enormously gifted lecturers and preachers who do create community with oratory, I like to do anything I can to engage my students with each other, with me, and with the subject. And the subject, I think, always has to take prominence.
YWJ: You have written a lot about the inner life of teachers. How does a youth worker’s inner life connect with his or her teaching?
Palmer: You don’t become a good teacher by applying techniques; you don’t become a good teacher by using the latest hot methodologies that are being promoted in this or that handbook. The teachers who have had the most impact on me and on most learners I know are teachers whose “selfhoods” have been deeply invested in what they are doing.
Students want to know, “Are you painting by the numbers, or are you really present as a human being to what you are doing; and is it coming from inside of you?” So I would ask teachers this question: “Do you have a wellgrounded personal experience and conviction concerning whatever it is you are trying to teach?”
People are always asking, “Is this person in front of me the same on the inside as he or she appears to be on the outside? Is there congruence between what’s within that person and the words and actions I’m viewing and hearing externally?”
Children ask that about their parents; students ask it about their teachers; parishioners ask it about their pastors and priests; employees ask it about their bosses; and in a democracy, citizens ask it about their political leaders. And when the answer is “Yes,” as much as is humanly possible in all our frailties and fallibilities, there is a trustworthy congruence between the inner and the outer in this person. Then everything sings, everything hums, everything works.
When the answer is “No” and there is a gap between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside, that’s when people retreat into their foxholes because it is an unsafe situation. You don’t know what you are dealing with. What you see is not what you are going to get. And that is when people start withdrawing.
YWJ: So how does a youth worker who is perhaps in the midst of building an identity help adolescents come to a place of wholeness, even if the youth worker hasn’t arrived there yet?
Palmer: I think step one is to say, “God ain’t finished with any of us yet.” Let’s begin with the quest for what Catholic mystic and thinker Thomas Merton called “true self,” which Merton understood as the indwelling of Christ in every person. Everybody is on a lifelong journey toward trying to live more deeply. There is nobody who can say, “Well, I’ve got that one checked off my to-do list.” We have to be honest with ourselves about where we are on this journey and about the difficulty of living in our own identities and integrity.
YWJ: In the midst of a culture that bombards young people with media images, connectivity, and noise, how can we best create a space for learning within youth ministry?
Palmer: Technology is incredibly creative and has great potentials; but it is also very seductive in the way it isolates people, in the way it jazzes people up, in the way it makes junkies out of us — junkies who need a constant stimulation, more information, more bells and whistles, more electronic wonders in order not to be bored.
I am very, very uneasy with churches that have basically said, “Well, since that’s what people want and that’s what sells, then were going to do our worship services like Hollywood productions. We’re going to have a lot of bells and whistles. We’re going to have high entertainment value, and it is going to have a lot of gloss and glitter. I think the church needs to be much more countercultural than that and invite people into slowing down, into a “Be-still-and-know-that-I-am-God” mindset.
There is a tradition that the church represents, without which we wouldn’t have the church, that’s all about diving deep beneath the surface of the culture and finding those timeless, eternal truths that the whole Christian enterprise is rooted in. And one of those is that you don’t come to God at 180 miles an hour. You are much more likely to have a holy experience in a quiet, focused, and communal context than you are when you are being entertained.
I understand that there are forms of entertainment that can make people weep or jazz them up so they feel like they have had an experience. But I also know that an hour later that’s faded and you are back to the difficult realities of your own life. And we need to help people know how to go beyond those difficulties to a place where God dwells.
YWJ: Do you have any advice for those of us who teach in “informal classrooms,” such as the gym, the hallway, or the bus on the way to Disneyland?
Palmer: When you are with young people, it is almost inconceivable that things wouldn’t arise that you’d have to respond to, such as someone wrestling on the bus. And how you handle that, how you respond to that, how you deal with that is a lesson to the people you are on the bus with.
Even though kids may have planned for months for the trip to Disneyland, some may be feeling very homesick, very forlorn, or very marginalized by the group. Your capacity to perceive those kinds of situations and respond to them in a pastoral way is the stuff you are teaching. And even though the kids may appear to be ignoring you, they are very aware of what you are doing and how you are doing it. They are also very aware of what you are missing and not picking up on. That’s why I like to say that before we can create an external space in which to receive people, we have to create an internal space in which to receive them.
The most powerful kind of learning goes on in these informal classrooms. We can teach a good, formal lesson on forgiveness as a Christian virtue and all the doctrines that are attached to it. But to be in a real-life situation, a work camp or a trip or some other activity with young people where real forgiveness needs to happen, that’s a different situation altogether. And that is where the deepest learning will occur.
Last spring, I returned as a visiting professor for a term to my alma mater, Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. I was there for three months teaching in a place where almost 45 years earlier I had been an undergraduate, and I got to spend a lot of time with three of the great mentors and classroom teachers I had at that time.
One evening when we were all sitting together, I said to them, “You know, I took classes from all three of you; and I cannot remember a single thing I learned in your classes. But you made lasting impacts on my life because of what happened outside of class — when you invited me to your homes for dinner, when I saw you with your families, when we went on walks and talked things over, when I broke up with my girlfriend and needed consolation. Just your ways of being in the world made imprints on my heart that are still there, just as strong, 45 years later.”
That is the great opportunity and challenge that teachers have — because we are watched very closely.
YWJ: Do you have any final words of encouragement or thoughts for youth workers that we haven’t covered or talked about?
Palmer: If my life is any example, the work that youth workers are doing is very, very important. It tends to get marginalized in the church or seen as less important than being a senior minister in a large, prosperous congregation; but I don’t believe that for a minute. I think this is absolutely critical work in the life of the church; and I think my path in life would have been much different if it hadn’t been for my youth minister, Burt Randle, and a series of campus ministers in both college and graduate school.
About a year ago, National Public Radio interviewed a guy who had done a massive research project on the needs of young people in the United States. At the
end of the segment, the interviewer said, “If you had to say one thing about what young people in the country need, what would you say it was?” And the guy blew
my socks off with his answer. He said, “Every young person needs some adult who’s just wild and crazy about them!” Bingo. In a way, this is why I think youth
ministry is so important.
An ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, Ron Jackson is a veteran youth pastor and children’s pastor. He now serves as the pastor to college students at College Church of the Nazarene on the campus of MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas.