What does it mean to be a teacher?

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Anyone who has had the privilege of being taught well knows that the role of the teacher extends beyond the mere imparting of information. Parker Palmer (1997) explores the essence of what it means to truly teach, what it takes to deeply connect with students and the importance of self-examination and self-realization. The Courage to Teach is an inspirational book with the basic message that good teaching springs from the identity and integrity of the teacher, especially those teachers who develop and nurture an understanding of themselves in relation to their teaching as a spiritual calling.

Setting aside questions of curriculum and methodology so prevalent in educational debates, Palmer shifts focus to highlight the importance of the human aspect in the process of learning. Dismissing typical reform agendas which address curriculum, budget appropriation, district zoning and other external issues as superficial, he asserts that, “the human heart is the source of good teaching” (p. 3) and promotes emphasis on the invaluable human resource.

Mirroring the philosophy of therapist Carl Rogers, Palmer calls for a “subject-centered education” where teachers are genuine, non-judgmental and dynamically involved both with students as whole people and the learning process as a powerful collective entity. His philosophy argues for the re-establishment of connectedness between people so often disregarded in our fragmented and individualistic society. Furthermore, he challenges age-old objectivist concepts of truth and instead encourages a view of learning as a bold and unyielding journey of both personal and cooperative discovery which redefines meaning for the individual and society.

Perhaps Palmer’s most significant statement is also his shortest and simplest one – “we teach who we are” (p. 1). While this declaration is grammatically simple, its implication and challenge are profound. Above all issues of content and subject matter, he considers the person and the quality of the interactions to constitute the real substance of teaching. He states, “Teaching, like any other truly human activity emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject and out way of being together” (p. 2).

Palmer challenges teachers to engage in a rigorous journey of self-discovery and self-appraisal which encompasses the whole person - heart, mind and spirit. He argues that beyond the personal growth and satisfaction such an endeavor enhances the teacher’s ability to make an impact in the classroom – to motivate, to inspire and to create the fertile ground where dreams for the future can be honed into reality.


Palmer, P. J. (1997). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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