IN:SIGHT Working in the Margins
May 2nd, 2018—When you struggle as a teacher, and all teachers struggle at some point in their career, who do you turn to for wisdom and guidance? Do you rely on your instructional teammate? A relative who has taught for over 30 years and knows the ropes? Maybe a university professor who was always there with just the right advice or question that broke open a deeper understanding of the problem? Or perhaps a beloved K-12 teacher, because of all the people you know they had the gift of seeing you fully for who you are, even when you didn’t trust yourself? For the past 20 years I’ve turned to Parker Palmer’s landmark book on the inner life of teachers; Courage to Teach for guidance when I’m troubled as an educator.
On the University of Denver campus we recently hosted a two day celebration of the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking text with sessions designed to invite faculty, staff, and students into deeper contact with the call to serve and care for others. The highlight of the event was a live video chat with Parker Palmer. Each of the six panelists was invited to engage Parker around the following questions, 1) when did you first encounter Courage to Teach, 2) in what ways has the book changed your practice, and 3) what aspect of living the Courage to Teach still engages you.
One of the panelist spoke of the challenges and internal conflicts she faces initiating and sustaining change in her educational setting. She described the constant struggle as “swimming upstream” against the strong current of institutional norms and resistance to innovation. For her the effort was exhausting and dispiriting and she wondered if Parker had any guidance or insights on how to remain true to her passion. In the way of a wise educator he paused in response to this heart-felt question, for a moment of reflection and empathy, before engaging the question. He began his answer with a description of floating the Colorado River in a raft and ended with the observation that every good boatperson knows that if you overshoot your destination you can move to the side of the river and use the back-eddies to navigate against the current to your intended destination.
I find in Parker’s analogy a series of helpful steps for anyone working for change in a system they care deeply about, especially educational contexts with their strong tendency to preserve existing norms and protocols. The first step is to literally get out of the current and stop battling the forces of tradition that seek to sweep you toward the intended goal and outcomes as quickly as possible. Sometimes it is best to consciously search out the margins of the river where the current flows with a different sense of purpose. The second step is to realize that every rock, log, and obstruction in the river creates a back-eddy that can be used by the observant boater to move sideways to the current or even impossibly upstream. In this way a change agent can artfully work the institutional barriers and roadblocks to quietly move past the obstructions toward a healthier more life-giving place to teach and learn. The third step is to recognize that it takes practice to find the right eddies with the right physics of change capable of accomplishing your goal. And a willingness to make mistakes; to end up where you didn’t intend or back where you started, swimming against the current. The final step is to bring along an experienced guide who “knows the river” in all of its moods and rates of flow. A person who can point out the sweet spots in the current. A wise guide, when exhaustion threatens to overcome the boater, who points out the best eddies for resting, regrouping, and refocusing on the task of accomplishing change that is sustaining. Someone who knows from experience when even the best boater risks disaster, given the strength of the current, and advises staying out of the river until the spring thaw diminishes and the river returns to more manageable flows.
With the analogy of institutional river of back-eddies in mind: who are your fellow paddlers? Do you have a more experienced guide with you? Have you studied the current, marked the obstacles, and tracked the location of the best eddies? If you feel exhausted from the struggle where will you eddy out and rest? If so, you are ready to push off into the current and work the margins toward meaningful and sustaining change. Oh, and if you make a mistake and get “flushed out”, no worries; be patient, and work the eddy lines back against the current.