These Six Paradoxes for Teaching, Relating, and Long-term Flourishing

Teaching is paradoxical in many ways, and I tend to do best when I work with Parker Palmer’s six teaching paradoxes in mind. (Actually, these six paradoxes can help with all sorts of relationships.)

Palmer believes that the spaces in which he teaches need to have room for these six areas of paradox: 1. bounded and open; 2. hospitable and “charged”; 3. inviting the voice of the individual and the voice of the group; 4. honoring the “little” stories of the students and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition; 5. supporting solitude and surround it with the resources of community; and 6. welcoming both silence and speech. –from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (74)

With many new teachers in our high school this year, I’m simultaneously thinking about how the Palmer paradoxes work in teacher-to-teacher relationships as well as with teacher-to-student relationships.

Over the years, with experienced and new teachers, I’m increasingly trying to learn to listen to how they approach some of these areas of paradox (when I don’t listen this way, distress and dysfunction tend to ensue). Echoing Palmer’s insights, I find that effective teachers don’t fit uniformly into singular ways of approaching each of these important paradoxes. I need to remind myself of this as I work with and around other educators so that I can support their work and gently share concerns or even advice.

On “bounded and open,” some effective teachers lean toward tightly scripted lessons, classroom management plans, and schedules while others tend to work more like jazz musicians and want to just the main notes so that they have to discover and improvise as they get into the work.

On “hospitable but ‘charged’,” some effective teachers have a very warm relational style while others are much more business like. Both extremes of effective teachers tend to avoid hostile relationships with students, and both extremes will rightly keep the focus on subject matter, knowledge building, and skill development as the main thing of the course. The differences will involve how the teachers welcome the students into the goodness of the main thing of the course.

On “inviting the voice of the individual and the voice of the group,” effective teachers will have modes of both of these. The focus on individual voicing is especially important for helping a teacher informally assess and encourage particular students, and the focus on the group is especially important for developing cooperation skills and a sense of belonging for the individuals. These two areas of invitation are not an issue of either/or but of when? & how? How one provides dialogue and feedback supports the invitations for individuals and groups to become more thoughtful.

On “honoring the ‘little’ stories of the students and the ‘big’ stories of the disciplines and tradition,” there are so many important applications for the classroom, especially for English and history teachers. Indeed, there are many deep and superficial ways that one may either relate or reject any given text. Most of our concerns over canonical literature and other texts in our curriculum relate to this paradox. There are two fronts of narrative to consider: The story of society that we all belong to and the way our own stories can thoughtfully fit with those larger stories. Although many rightly challenge some of our naive acceptance of some of the larger stories of society and tradition, I think that the postmodern wholesale “incredulity toward metanarratives” is running afoul of the psychological discoveries that we need larger, enduring stories to anchor our own. (For the well-researched, psychological necessity of larger stories see chapter 9 of Daniel J. Siegal’s Mindsight. Also, for a deep-dive explanation, analysis, and refutation of “Applied Postmodernism” and the related problematic uses of critical theory in our larger cultural moment, see Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories.)

On “supporting solitude and surround it with the resources of community,” teachers have in this area some of the most relevant considerations for academic, social emotional, and ethical character development. It’s good to work students through both ends of this spectrum. More extroverted students can benefit from developing some introvert skills, and our introverted students can benefit from developing some extrovert skills. I’m increasingly finding this to be a great area for self-assessment and the teacher’s version of life-coaching. (See just about anything by Susan Cain for more about the introvert/extrovert dynamic.)

On “welcoming both silence and speech,” the temperaments and skills related to introvert/extrovert dynamics noted above fit together well. Whether students are quiet or noisy, we should not just assume that they are hindered by a certain personality type. We should inquire as to whether the mode they’re in is thoughtful, questioning, and knowledge-seeking. It might be too easy to assume that a person is a good student in either of these modes (by being quiet or by being the first to answer). In a knowledge-rich, subject-centered classroom, we may benefit from inviting students to practice related disciplines of reflecting or contemplating at times and sharing thoughtfully at other times. I tend to find that the type of questions and the level of complexity of a given moment of working through a text or topic does tend to favor engaging in one mode or the other.

I echo Palmer’s qualification of the six paradoxes as not the be-all and end-all of teaching. But I’m finding them very helpful for grounding me and setting me up to relate well to my colleagues and students in this upcoming year:

"When I design a classroom session, I am aware of six paradoxical tensions that I want to build into the teaching and learning space. These six are neither prescriptive nor exhaustive. They are simply mine, offered to illustrate how the principle of paradox might contribute tribute to pedagogical design." --Parker J. Palmer. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (74) 

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