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bell hooks and Parker J. Palmer dialogue

This dialogue between bell hooks and Parker J. Palmer took place on Wednesday, April 20, 2016, as one of several public events at the 2016 bell hooks Residency at St. Norbert College, where the Cassandra Voss Center serves as a sister-center to hooks’ own bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Kentucky. It was co-sponsored by Humana and Killeen Chair of Theology & Philosophy. For more information about the Cassandra Voss Center, visit

Over the course of their conversation, hooks and Palmer discuss a variety of topics including spirituality, feminism, the meaning of wholeness, the heart of education, and the activist life; while they examine some of the key issues facing our society: violence, racism, patriarchy, dehumanization and systemic oppression.

About the Speakers

bell hooks: Honored as a leading public intellectual by The Atlantic Monthly, as well as one of Utne Reader‘s “100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life,” hooks is a captivating speaker and canonical scholar who has authored over 40 books, including five for children, on issues of social justice, media literacy, education, and spirituality. She is Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.

Parker J. Palmer is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, and spirituality. Palmer has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak.

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My First Year Teaching – The Courage to Teach with Gratitude

apple and books

Teaching is a challenging endeavor. With all the demands on a teacher’s time and energy, it is easy to lose the enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom. The situation is not getting any easier with new requirements added to our load, including standardized testing and dealing with changing curriculums.

My first year teaching, I entered the classroom with idealistic dreams. I went through extra training in pedagogy that tempered those lofty goals and gave me many tools I was anxious to use. I taught 7th grade science in an inner-city school and saw 120 students a day. Sadly, within a few weeks of dealing with a multitude of challenges, I quickly slipped into survival mode and questioned my decision to become a teacher. But, small and sometimes tremendous miracles did happen that kept me moving forward and opened me up to the true rewards of teaching.

The Courage to Teach

Of all the things I have done in my life, getting through my first year of teaching was by far my most challenging undertaking. Early that year, another new teacher saw that I was struggling and generously gave me a book she had been reading that really helped her, Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach.

courage-to-teach-booksImmediately, Parker’s ideas about how important it is for teachers to renew their heart, mind, and spirit made a tremendous impact on me. I realized that through all the stress of teaching, I was not spending any time reflecting, connecting with other teachers, or taking time to replenish my spirit. One of my neglected practices was developing gratitude by making a list of things I was thankful for. This was recommended to me by a friend, and I always felt the benefits when I actually did it.

When I wrote my gratitude list, I built an optimistic attitude through all the challenges of that first year. A fellow teacher commented that even though my first year was tough and she saw me struggle, I kept the most positive attitude she had ever seen. That constructive outlook did help me, but I didn’t see how it could apply with the students yet.

With some of the ideas from Parker Palmer’s book and practicing my attitude of gratitude in the classroom, I would occasionally reach those transcendent moments where I did authentically connect with the students and felt the magic materialize. Here is one of the moments:

An Angel Sings for Me

One day, I came across one of my students, Angel, sitting in the hallway with some sheet music. I asked, “Are you a musician?” She said, “No, but I love to sing and I am learning a new song.” I asked her if she would sing for me, but Angel said, “No, Mr. Griffith, I am too shy.” As I walked away I said, “Someday, when you are ready, you will sing for me.”

Then, a month later, Angel saw me in the hallway and said, “Mr. Griffith, I am ready today.” I tried to think about what she meant. Through the tornado of activity that first month, I forgot about that previous interaction. But she brought out the sheet music, and I suddenly remembered it all. I realized that she had been working for a month on the song and getting her courage up just for this day. I asked her if she would perform for the class, but she said, “No, I will sing just for you.”

That day, when the students all exited the classroom, she closed her eyes, and a voice came out of her that fit her name. It truly seemed like an angel had entered the classroom as she sang. I closed my eyes and enjoyed listening to her share her musical talent.

As I listened, I also realized the power to inspire we have as teachers and that when we challenge our students, they will often respond positively.
In addition, she inspired me to bring my guitar into the classroom and share music with my students, integrating it into the lessons I would teach. While she grew in her courage through this interaction, I grew in my ability to connect with my students by seeing that there are many ways to reach students outside the traditional paradigms.

However, many nights, I would still wake up at 3 AM, haunted by all the things going wrong with my teaching. This is when I would remember the book, The Courage to Teach, about nourishing my spirit and I would think of a few things I was grateful for in the classroom, like connecting with Angel.

This kept me going through those darkest hours when quitting teaching starting sounding appealing. But I persevered and I am so grateful I did. If I would have quit, I would have robbed myself of some of the most transformative experiences of my life and the opportunity to connect with others, like helping to start a thriving community of teachers at our school that still meets weekly and continues to help us all grow as educators and human beings.


A Teaching Community is Created

One day, my partner teacher looked at me and said that our discussions about gratitude and growing spiritually had such a powerful and positive impact on both of us; we should share it with the school. Thus began our little group of teachers that developed into a community of educators that meets each Wednesday before school to support each other in the classroom and renew our spirits.

For that first meeting, we all brought home-made baked goodies and I brewed up the fresh coffee. We let the group take shape authentically, as people volunteered to bring books, quotes, and the practices that enabled them to connect with their students and stay strong through the long school year. Our supportive spiritual community was created without any real effort, it came into being.

Each Wednesday, at 7 AM, we would talk about things going on in our classrooms and lives that we needed help with. We would also celebrate the victories with students. Sometimes we would conduct book studies. One time, I even brought my guitar and sang an inspirational song with the choir teacher.

students-teacherMembers would often bring encouraging quotes, from favorite authors, the Bible, or other spiritual wisdom. Copies of the quotes were always made so we could put it by our computer monitors, reminding us through the week that we are not alone in the classroom but are connected to our fellow educators, even though it may not feel that way sometimes.

At that time, I was not aware of the Touchstones from the Center for Courage & Renewal. As I review them now, I see that they naturally came about in the group. It is definitely a sacred space where people can share their stories and be vulnerable. The “Circle of Trust” developed organically as people were willing to share openly and at a depth that established a profound level of connection.

Accordingly, this level of connection provided a feeling of acceptance, empathy, healing, and compassion that translated to our teaching practices as well as our personal lives. One of our group members lost her father suddenly and some of us were able to share similar experiences and help her process her grief. This probably would not have happened without the group.

On the days when we still meet, I find my school day goes smoother as I more easily connect with students, parents, and colleagues. The little frustrations don’t bother me as much and I feel the deep gratitude that allows the joy of teaching to shine through.

Not surprisingly, the students notice these changes and inquire curiously. I tell them about our group and the power of taking part in a vibrant community of educators. One simple idea I share from a colleague is, “When I share a problem with a group I trust, it is cut in half and when I share a victory, it is doubled.”

Still Teaching with Courage and Gratitude

Now, 11 years later, I continue to use the power of gratitude and The Courage to Teach as I pass it on to students and colleagues, especially new teachers. In our classroom, we continue to reap the benefits of practicing gratitude, as we write gratitude lists, gratitude letters, and initiate student-led, altruistic projects that take our “attitude of gratitude” into action.

In a recent interview that Parker Palmer gave on the radio show, On Being, Parker asked a compelling questions, “What do I need to do right now, to water the roots of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful?” I still ask myself that question and when I truly reflect, the answers always come, guiding and inspiring me.

As I write about my first year of teaching and contemplate what we all can do to “water our roots of inner wisdom,” I am reminded of that sad statistic, that 50 percent of all new teachers leave the profession in the first 3-5 years. I know that some of those teachers would persevere if they could read The Courage to Teach and practice some of the principles put forth by the Center for Courage and Renewal, like being grateful for the opportunity to be an educator and truly make a difference in this world.

OWEN M. GRIFFITH is a teacher, writer, educational consultant, and blogger residing with his wife and son in North Georgia. He earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and his work has appeared  on Huffington Post and Edutopia. He is also author of the newly published book, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching (March 2016).

Grounded in scientific research, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching delves into numerous integral aspects of gratitude as it relates to education. Featuring success stories and step-by-step instructions to successfully implement gratitude in schools, educators will also be shown how to combat materialism and entitlement with gratitude and altruism, and how to help teenagers utilize gratitude successfully. Finally, educators will be inspired to stay energized with gratitude throughout the school year. You can buy the book here on Amazon.

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Why the Butterfly Died: The Hazards of Wrong Help

Have you ever had a friend or colleague try to give you helpful advice that wasn’t helpful?

Probably your friend had good intentions. Probably they imagined their advice was just what you needed to hear. But in reality, their “help” was irrelevant, misdirected, or even harmful.

This kind of thing happens all the time, and most of us are guilty of it too! We’re conditioned in all sorts of ways to respond to other people’s problems with attempts to help, advise, or correct them. And that goodwill is often a wonderful thing… but not always.

The lesson of the butterfly illustrates this paradox in such an elegant way. Perhaps you’ve heard a similar telling of this story in Parker’s A Hidden Wholeness, but I invite you to revisit it again.

butterfly-emerging-from-chrysalisThe Lesson of the Butterfly
by Paulo Coehlo

A man spent hours watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. It managed to make a small hole, but its body was too large to get through it. After a long struggle, it appeared to be exhausted and remained absolutely still.

The man decided to help the butterfly and, with a pair of scissors, he cut open the cocoon, thus releasing the butterfly. However, the butterfly’s body was very small and wrinkled and its wings were all crumpled.

The man continued to watch, hoping that, at any moment, the butterfly would open its wings and fly away. Nothing happened; in fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its brief life dragging around its shrunken body and shriveled wings, incapable of flight.

What the man – out of kindness and his eagerness to help – had failed to understand was that the tight cocoon and the efforts that the butterfly had to make in order to squeeze out of that tiny hole were nature’s way of training the butterfly and of strengthening its wings.

Sometimes our attempts to help another person can actually do more damage than good. When we “cut open the cocoon” we interfere with a process that is essential for their self-growth.

That’s why in a Circle of Trust we have a Touchstone for “No fixing, saving, advising or correcting.” It means that you don’t convince other people to see things your way or give them your idea of a good solution. Instead you provide non-judgmental support that empowers them to explore the questions and answers that will be the most meaningful to them.

What have you learned about how and when to help others?

What experiences have you had of asking or being asked about what might be helpful?

What happens when we trust others to find their own answers?

With gratitude and best wishes,
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Circles of Trust are an opportunity to explore questions about your life & leadership guided by touchstones like “no fixing.” See upcoming Courage & Renewal programs on our calendar.

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Vocational Clarity in a Circle of Trust


At 9am on a Sunday morning, in front of a group of new acquaintances, I was shedding quiet tears. From a bluetoothed ipad, Cat Stevens sang ‘Morning has Broken’ as I regarded a carpet of tree collages on the floor of the meeting room – the product of a workshop exercise the previous day. Let me be clear. I don’t cry in public. I reserve that for movies, in private, about dogs doing something noble. What was I doing here? And why was I so moved?

It was the last day of a retreat called ‘Courage and Renewal’.

Neil Millar, one of the facilitators, had joked “We will be using a methodology which has proven its success since the 60s…(pause)…” Oh no, I thought, something hippy and flaky. He finished the sentence “…since the 1660s”.

Aah, this could be interesting. Courage and Renewal is based on the ‘Circle of Trust®’ approach described in Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Parker is a Quaker, and the approach is modelled on his experience with Quaker dialogue circles. Neil pointed out that the process had triggered the anti-slavery commitment among Quakers decades before the issue took on broader political significance in abolitionist campaigns.

A friend had lent me the book a few months earlier, and I found Parker’s ideas both wise and inviting. Much of his writing is about reviving a spiritual dimension in our professional lives and communities. His definition of spiritual is generous and non-religious – a sense of connection to purpose that is larger than oneself, intention that extends beyond the ego. A more ambitious version is about reconnecting to a sense of ‘whole-hearted’ living. Challenge enough for many of us grown cynical with age or disillusionment.

We had been encouraged to come to the retreat with questions about our vocation or our life journey. My question was basic. What next, where I am heading now?

Two days later, I was still basking in the balmy emotional tone of the weekend, and a lingering quietness. Everything looked different. I noticed a lone tree on Stanmore station that I had never seen before. The faces of my fellow commuters on the train to Parramatta were more interesting – I was imagining us as animals in a zoo, how interesting we would be observe. I felt kinder towards my species.

That has diminished a bit as the days passed. What has enduring is a great sense of clarity about my purpose, my ‘vocation’ in Neil’s words.

I had come with a very specific question about vocation. Without directly addressing it, I found that when I woke up on Saturday morning, my question was already answered. I was quite clear about my vocation as a form both of self-expression and contribution. I could just lay the question to rest. I also acquired a quiet sense of confidence about shifting some of these new insights into a wide range of my current endeavours. Even more, I was now free to draft up a less vocational, much more delicious and evocative question by Sunday morning. What, in the past, have I delighted in, that I could revive and nourish in the years ahead?


A specific breakthrough for me was about being more open emotionally, less silenced by fear and shame, more able to acknowledge vulnerability. I know that my common response to difficulties, and challenges, or even intimacy is to be funny, smart and dismissive. It is a kind of protective cocoon that has well outlived its usefulness.

I approached my Monday work meeting with a quiet confidence, and willingness to explore others’ deeper intentions. On Tuesday I shared more personal stories than ever before. And felt quite comfortable doing it.

So why this shift?

The retreat process was, on face value, quite simple. Kirsty and Neil would present some kind of stimulus – a poem, a song, a cartoon – then pose a question to address. “Our lives pose questions which have no right to go away”. And questions may come for a time, and evaporate as other, more timely, questions take their place. I love the idea of a question being answered by a better question.

Then each activity or question is left for us to explore alone. We write journal notes, form collages, or just reflect. After this we share things with one or two others. Then we gather the strands of these conversations in a circle group. We are often reminded “this is not a share or die event”. Silence is more than permitted, it is encouraged, indeed celebrated. The tone of our conversations, when they occur, is thoughtful, heartfelt, often moving. There were a few basic rules for discussion (labelled “touchstones” rather than “ground rules”). No ‘fixing’ or solving someone else’s dilemma, no advice. Just open and honest questions.

The process is both delicate and powerful, Parker Palmer uses the image of holding a little bird in one’s hands (A Hidden Wholeness p.146).

What was both remarkable and lovely, was that some of the most enduring dilemmas facing me, questions which I had wrestled with for long, were so gently resolved. If not resolved, then shifted into a frame that seemed easy and amenable. This is such a relief, and exposed a habit of making things more complex and challenging than necessary. I noted a quote from one of the books scattered around the meeting room,

“It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility (David Whyte, Consolations).

The formal, instructional language is ecumenical. What drew me to this retreat was something I had read in parker Palmer’s book. He talks about ‘a hidden wholeness’ and the ‘shy soul’. The first I think is a quote from Thomas Merton, a an American Catholic writer of last century (Pope Francis mentioned him in his address to Congress). My sense is that much that is deeply moving and important, moments of insight and deep reflection, are skipped over in our busy, anxious lives. Louder, more practical, even cynical voices take precedence. We fail to nourish our gentler urgings. When I turned sixty late last year, I resolved to pay more attention to my own inner life. A quote from Parker Palmer on ‘the soul’ “it doesn’t matter what you name it, as long as you name it.

I also had a renewed delight in silence and reflection in the middle of a busy life. Parker uses the metaphor of the Moebius strip. We have both inner and outer lives, which should nourish each other rather than contest. Neil introduced the first session with a comment about places. We have plenty of places that encourage the intellect to flourish, and the ego. But places that nurture the inner world are rare.

The Möbius strip, a surface with only one side

Parker encourages acceptance of the paradoxes we live within. How do we manage the pull between inner and outer worlds (the Moebius strip as a metaphor). How do we learn and change while holding on to what is most important? How do we learn and change while holding on to what is most important? In our relationships with others, do we give too much or too little.

The latter paradox is very important – the paradox of the self in community. Parker reports his conclusion that the specific gift that Quaker communities have to offer the world is about creating communities of ‘discernment’ – places where each individual finds encouragement to speak their own truths, and to be heard in a way that allows oneself to discover, to discern, what is most valuable and true. With time, and enough individual ‘threads’ being laid down by the individuals involved, the community itself may discern its collective truths.

The most valuable benefit from the workshop was that such a gentle, but rigorous process made it not only possible, but highly probably that I would discover a renewed sense of purpose. And I did.

Ian Colley facilitates change and learning projects to build common ground, solve problems, lead difficult conversations, and create clarity about uncertain futures. He facilitates and supports strategic planning for a range of schools, businesses and nonprofit organizations. For the past decade he has been a principle consultant at Make Stuff Happens.

Editor’s note: This blog is reposted here with permission from Ian Colley and originally appeared here.

Courage and Renewal retreat: facilitated by Kirsty McGeoch and Neil Millar, Killcare, 2015
“Listening to your Life – Tuning in for what matters most”
Central Coast NSW  September 25-27, 2015

Calendarorange200x200Also check out upcoming Courage & Renewal programs in Australasia.

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Perfect Pitch: A Program to Develop Women’s Voice


What is a perfect pitch? Music? Notes of accuracy and beauty? Winning trust? Angle of exactness? A field upon which to play?

As a metaphor of life, perfect pitch includes all of these. Each involves some showing of ourselves. A ‘being seen’ – with a confidence and integrity which persuade, influence, support, and bring the openness of song.

But what if one doesn’t feel confident? What if one hides, and hides in, the wispy threads of spidery fear? ‘Wispy’ because they are threads which are hard to see and discern. Yet in their hiddenness, the tenacity of their sticky grip increases.

My colleague, Natasha Cica, had many times observed capable and brilliant women who decline to put themselves forward to speak publicly on their topic of expertise, to tell their stories or to speak-up in the board room. Discussing this over lunch one day, Perfect Pitch was born as a program for women to intentionally meditate upon the factors in their lives which keep them in a sticky web of fear about the owning of their voices.

I’m a speech pathologist, and Natasha is a speaker and facilitator of dialogue within corporate and political sectors. Between the two of us we saw a set of skills to bring information about the ‘techniques’ relevant to public speaking – voice, projection, social connection with an audience, podium skills, the energy-arc of performance; but primarily we sought to bring reflective space and supportive methodology by which participants might hold a deeper conversation with themselves about those sticky threads.

perfect-pitch-quoteI am so grateful to have become a Courage & Renewal Facilitator. This deep and honest approach to inquiring of oneself has provided me with many tools, strong yet gentle, which were perfect for Perfect Pitch.

Informed by a deep and tried probity, and the virtue of non-violence, the Touchstones of the Center for Courage & Renewal were brought to Perfect Pitch. Its processes, “grounded in honoring the identity and integrity of each participant – flow out into the world as an authentic source of personal and societal power for positive social change”. It was all about releasing chutzpah for women, with the humility of meekness: which is to say, strength, intentionally guided for the common good.

Perfect Pitch and its participants gave and received gifts of deep listening. Women in a room together, gathered with honest intention around the subject of voice, the right to use that voice with respect and care, fortitude in oneself, strong support for each other; and bringing thereby, ripples of non-violent engagement beyond the assembled group.

The evening session included special guests to the conversation who candidly shared their stories of finding voice and bringing leadership and influence in their communities. They included Tasmania’s gracious Governor – the first woman Governor of this island state of Australia; as well as an indigenous activist – strong and generous voice for the rights of her peoples; the first woman Premier of Tasmania, the first woman Speaker of the House of Assembly, the Minister for Women, and many other accomplished and full-hearted women from across corporate and community sectors.

And so we were all the beneficiaries of another life-giving process – generativity. This term, coined by Eric Erikson, refers to the practice of guiding and ‘giving back to’ the next generations. This beautiful, intentional way of being also has the power, incrementally, to move the world for the common good. We saw this happen across the program and on the night our guests were in attendance. We felt ourselves moved by the constellation of open, honest process, and community. We lived being seen more clearly in the glow of our own light, whilst mirrored in the light of others.

Luminescence by which to clear the cobwebs.

rosalie-martinRosalie ‘Rosie’ Martin has spent 30 years as a generalist speech pathologist – the past 20 of which have been in her own practices. She has particular skills in supporting people with literacy acquisition disorders and autism – and their families. As a Facilitator with the Center for Courage & Renewal, she is committed to creating safe and nurturing learning space to support individuals and professionals in transformative learning and growth. Learn more about Rosie’s work at Speech Pathology Tasmania.

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STEM Collaborations and Trust

This blog features an excerpt from The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders by Courage & Renewal facilitator Ann Myers and her colleague, Jill Berkowicz.

“In systems of trust people are free to create the relationships they need. Trust enables the system to open. The system expands to include those it had excluded. More conversations—more diverse and diverging views—become important. People decide to work with those from whom they had been separate.”

—Margaret Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers

A 21st century STEM learning environment relies heavily on collaborative work by teachers and students alike. The degree of enthusiasm with which adults enter a shift with the magnitude of punctuated equilibrium will determine the energy of their followership and the ultimate experiences of students. If, as we think, STEM shifts can secure the future of public education by keeping it at the center of society and economy, then they are important in whatever degree a locality chooses. This is not about the notion of a leader whose vision will atrophy when he or she leaves. It about the external pressures that cannot be ignored intersecting with the desire for American children to be among the most highly achieving in the world, among the most innovative, and the most free. This book would be missing a key element in enabling a successful shift if this chapter were missing.

It is naive to assert that people know how to be trustworthy and want to be collaborative. Many human beings, for reasons of personal life stories and personality, are reticent to trust and would rather work independently. To encourage followership for a change initiative, someone in the system must be paying attention to the people in the process and focused on the relationships that will ignite a creative and generative spirit.

heart-handshake-trustTRUST AS A SHIFT ESSENTIAL

Amid the national agenda about Common Core, intense training is being provided in standards, assessments, and lesson development. Professional development, it seems, must connect to student test-taking skills and results. It is as if we have forgotten that all adults who have chosen to work with children are first human beings, themselves. Those humanizing qualities are not checked at the schoolhouse door—or they ought not to be. The teachers we remember were those who brought more than the facts in their heads to work. They brought the inner qualities of themselves to care, to believe, to inspire, to reach out with compassion and into the world of every child with respectful encouragement. They also bring vulnerability and their own life stories.

School systems have been reluctant to spend public funds to prepare faculty and leaders for a work environment that requires trust and collaboration. There seems to be some underlying belief operating that all adults come hardwired with these propensities and skills and they emerge when called upon. Or, more deeply troubling, there is a mind-set that diminishes these skills as only tangential to the work of obtaining better student results. Stephen M. R. Covey (2006), the personal and organizational development guru, referred to trust as the lifeblood of an organization. His book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything makes the business argument that leaders can increase the speed of change and decrease associated costs if trust levels are high. Franklin Covey (global consulting and training leader) contends that trust, as a verb, is a skill that can be developed, and they have designed training programs to do just that. If the approach is too much sales or too corporate for some of our readers, there is hard research to support the importance of trust in schools.

Amid change of any sort, we ought not overlook or forget the research of Megan Tschannen-Moran. It is one of several pieces that provide a convincing argument that that trust matters. In fact, Trust Matters is the title of her book, recently republished in its second edition. Trust is defined as “one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent” (2004, p. 17). These five factors, so simply fundamental and so difficult to find sometimes, are critical to building relational trust. The 2006 study by Tschannen-Moran and her colleagues “demonstrates that a bridging strategy [from schools to their communities] provides a . . . powerful construct as schools seek to engage their parents and community members and increase student achievement” (Tschannen-Moran, Parish, & DiPaola, 2006, p. 410). To undertake a STEM shift, parents and community leaders as well as teachers and students must be walking into the new territory with us, discovering what is there, revitalizing what we bring, and beginning anew.

ladybugs-on-heart-shaped-leaves crop

Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider (2002) were, simultaneously, conducting studies of relational trust and school improvement in Chicago, Illinois. They concluded that “relational trust is a core resource for school improvement.” Integral components of relational trust are respect, personal regard for others, competence in core role responsibilities, and integrity. Bryk and Schneider further suggest that any substantial lack of these components will work against the building of relationships and thus hinder student achievement. The lack of trust can disable a shift, but a shift investigation creates a profound opportunity to build trust, even in previously fractured systems.

“These studies and our own experiences cause us to assert that the STEM shift will occur faster and with greater ease in settings where trust is high and where it is nurtured.”

These studies and our own experiences cause us to assert that the STEM shift will occur faster and with greater ease in settings where trust is high and where it is nurtured. A community of trust and collaboration must be intentionally created, nurtured, and sustained to carry people through a fundamental shift. For some, learning how to lead in such an environment may need to be part of the process. Leading schools into an emerging organization is substantively different from leading in the status quo while tinkering on its edges. Even to consider one fundamental difference would be highly disturbing to some. Teachers must be encouraged to innovate, and failure must be embraced as a lesson along the way. Risk taking must be reinforced for trust roots to develop.

Especially in the current culture of accountability, this shift can be successful only if leaders’ and teachers’ risk taking is met with approval, support, and encouragement. Risk taking is part of the professional learning cycle; it produces failures and successes. It reinforces creativity and career growth. It doesn’t end them. Trust is essential in all schools and relationships, personal and professional, hoping to grow and be productive.

shopcarticon64Visit Amazon to buy The STEM Shift.

Ann MyersAnn Myers is Director of the Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung Center for Mental Health and School Safety and an Associate Professor at the Sage Colleges. She serves as a board member of the New York State Association for Women in Administration, an organization whose mission it is to support equity for girls in schools and for women in leadership. She is coauthor of Leadership 360, a national blog on leadership for EdWeek, and of The STEM Shift: A Guide for Schools Leaders. 

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Courageously Speaking and Listening In Schools

photo via Valery Kenski on flickr

Have you ever felt the fingernails of words scraping on your skin? Have words ever maligned or ridiculed you? Many of us have felt that type of abuse. It seems to be rampant throughout our digital spaces. Our playgrounds are hurting. That’s one issue to address.

A second is evermore subtle and evermore difficult to learn: how to speak our truth in a way that respects another’s truth. It’s hard for me. Yet, I feel certain we must learn, model, and teach our children because the two issues are related. With recent events in the political sphere, aren’t you even more motivated? I am.

Schools are dynamic and brilliant places to both learn, model, and teach our children this powerful practice.

But let’s be real. In my experience teaching in two states and two provinces, I know schools can be toxic places. We so desperately want to be better, yet we find ourselves frustrated by the system and the mass of human need. Truthfully, it wears us down. We can easily become apathetic, detached, or cynical.

Because of that possibility, in my school we are deeply considering school culture. Inspired by Parker Palmer’s teachings, we are learning about culture-building. We believe culture trumps strategy. We are more focused on our Learn Forward philosophy and our manifesto than our annual innovation plan. We focus on what matters most for children to thrive. It’s organic. It is an invitation, not a demand. It looks like cultivating community first.

Everyone knows education is and will continue to change. Do we know we must change together? We can’t do it alone.

So, we are hosting webinars on “Connecting In Our Schools,” authoring covenants to honour the relationships in our school, and re-imagining how we can relate with one another using a metaphor we call the Table of Learning. We are pretty sure it is more like a supportive family. We invite parents, teachers, and students. In so many ways, the teachers and parents must learn how to honour one another, so we can teach the children.

We believe cultures of community are foundational for cultures of change.

The Center for Courage and Renewal’s work is guiding us. When we gather, it is an invitation, not a demand. We sit in a circle. We practice. We hope to speak our truth in ways that respect other’s truth. We must speak and we must listen. Our hearts turning to one another. The whole model is based on my experiences with the Academy for Leaders.

We open our circles with a reading to set intention:

lf-circle-pic“To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”   

—Henri Nouwen, “Listening as Spiritual Community”

Nouwen names the pre-requisite: interior stability. In schools, we need to be able to breathe through those points when we misunderstand, or pain is triggered, or we feel frustrated. It is important. These are our children.

We work on breathing through those times. We practice our breathing with a program developed by our dear friends and yogis, Jeff and Sonya Thomlinson, called “Take a Breath.” The program for schools gives teachers, parents, and students tools to learn how to harness the tremendous power of the breath to help us bring our best selves to our community.

We are learning so much! We can’t help but call it the Table of Learning! Parker Palmer knows that community itself will propel us forward.

We feel safe.

Now we are ready to get at our school curriculum, the reading and writing, the algebra and projects.


Journal Questions:

  • What do you value in your school community as a parent or an educator?
  • How can reach out to connect intentionally this week?
  • Write down your intention to both speak and listen while honouring the other.

karine-veldhoenKarine Veldhoen, M.Ed. is the founder of Learn Forward and a creative force in education. She’s also the Chief Learning Officer at Willowstone Academy, the CEO/Founder of Niteo Africa, a former Education Consultant for Fresh Grade and a modern day pilgrim. Learn Forward™ represents a lifetime of her professional study, action research, and meaning-making within the context of education for over two decades. Explore her book and her blog at
@Learn_Forward | @Mrs_KV | Learn Forward on Facebook

Also check out Karine’s previous blog  — The “Inner Work” of Leadership and the Courage to Learn Forward


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Speak Your Truth, Respect Other People’s Truth


Do you find it hard to talk to someone you disagree with? When divisive topics are full of emotion, it’s hard to keep calm and genuinely listen when your mind is busy crafting a comeback.

How often do you pause to fully uncover the story behind somebody’s opinion? Or wish someone would truly listen to you?

Speaking your truth in ways that respect other people’s truth is one Touchstone in Circles of Trust – places where it’s safe to have conversations about things that matter. It isn’t just for disagreements but can work for all sorts of discourse.

Imagine what it might feel like to simply meet each other as human beings for a moment – feeling safe to speak, curious to listen.

This song, by Courage & Renewal facilitator Alan Claassen, creates a mindset of possibility. Invoking both Rumi and physics, Alan invites us into an open-hearted field where we can interact with compassion.

Higgs Field (lyrics)
by Alan Claassen

Out beyond ideas of right and wrong
There’s a field where you and I belong
Out beyond ideas of land and sea
There’s a shoreline where you walk with me
Oh my friend, I’ll meet you there.

Deep within the stone there is a fire
Deep within the seed there is desire
Far above ideas of young and old
There’s a mountain where our stories are told

Oh my friend, Oh my friend,
Oh my friend, I’ll meet you there

Light and dark are dancing a miracle
Everything large is made up of particles
That slow down long enough to embrace
This time. And this place.

Deep below ideas there’s my broken heart
Searching for a place where I can start again
Deep within my heart there is a song
I’ve been wanting to sing for oh so long

Oh my friend, Oh my friend,
Oh my friend, I’ll meet you there.
I’ll meet you there in this time
I’ll meet you there in this place

I’ll meet you there…

What happens when you try this and bring four simple practices to a conversation?

  • Listen with an open and compassionate mind, seeking to first understand.
  • Resist the urge to interpret, correct or debate what others say.
  • Acknowledge that our views of reality may differ.
  • Speak your own truth with “I statements”.

With gratitude and best wishes,
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Circles of Trust provide an opportunity to explore big questions about your life and leadership in a safe space framed by touchstones like “speaking your truth.” See upcoming Courage & Renewal programs on our calendar.

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Living Intentionally & Nurturing Community: A Conversation with Dan Hines

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally appeared on the blog for A Small Good Thing, a provocative new documentary about re-imagining ways to build community and create meaning in our post-American-Dream world. 

How can we build a more compassionate world? In our fast-paced society, how can we live intentionally with one another and nurture community? How can we channel our longing for societal change into the active pursuit of it? These are just a few questions that lead the life and work of Dan Hines, an Anglican priest, leadership consultant, and facilitator of personal and professional development programs for the Center for Courage & Renewal.

dan_hines_workshop.pngDan’s mission is to “create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.” His dedication to living with meaning not only informs his work as a facilitator, but also guided him to co-found the intentional living community, RareBirds Housing Co-operative, a group and cooperative home dedicated to reducing their environmental footprint, sharing resources and living costs, and providing social enrichment and community support for one another.

Dan kindly took the time to chat with me about his passion for nurturing relationships, living sustainably, and his work at the Center for Courage & Renewal.

A Small Good Thing: Your work is focused on living together in community and striving towards a more connective, compassionate world. How did you begin living in this way?  

Dan Hines: My first awakening to community was probably through Church, seminary and ministry where I was seeing the potential of the faith community as a resource for transformation. As I grew up, I was quickly learning about consumerism, which I now see as a narrative that is doing us little good. Church told an alternative story and awakened me to community.

ASGT: How did that translate into your wanting to build a lifestyle around community?

DH: One of my mentors is Jean Vanier who is a humanitarian, communitarian, and social thinker. Jean says we go through a series of conversions throughout our lives. I look back and I think one of my conversions has been falling in love with the world. One of my other teachers calls it horizontal transcendence or deeper materialism. It’s a spirituality of not trying to fly above the nest, but to go deeper into it with others.

ASGT: I think your intentional community, the RareBirds Housing Co-Operative, sounds like a powerful project. Can you tell me a little more about it? How did it start?

rare_birds_house.pngDH: We’ve been at this together for 5 years. It’s interesting, because it comes back to the power of film. A couple of our members had seen an eco-comedy about sustainable living called “How to Boil a Frog” and decided to get serious about living a more sustainable lifestyle with others in an intentional community. For three years we worked on developing our group — communication, consensus decision making, conflict resolution, and how to hold safe space — so that the project would be sustainable on human emotional and spiritual levels. Then we bought property. Then we built a house. We’ve been in the house now for 2 years. It’s solar driven, we generate a fair amount of our own power, and we have solar hot water. We’re also an owner-equity cooperative: we have equal shares in the house and we self-financed the project.

ASGT: How has it evolved and what effects have you seen in your community?

DH: It’s become a bit of a focal point for the community around what’s possible. We’ve had great conversations with people who say, “I have been talking with my friends about this for a long time and it’s nice to see someone doing it because this is a daydream of ours.” It will be a growing edge of the housing movement. Co-housing already is a big part of the movement, but I think we’ll see these are a lot less expensive and more efficient than co-housing units. This is the monastic lifestyle. You come together and you support one another.

ASGT: You are also a facilitator for the Center for Courage & Renewal. What drew you to the Center for Courage & Renewal?

parker_palmer_and_dan_hines-min.pngDH: The Center for Courage & Renewal is the product of the work of Parker Palmer, who is a community organizer, activist and Quaker reflector and writer. Parker and others received support to develop programs that would address the sustainability of teachers, and Parker brought Quaker small group practices, deep listening, and attentive awareness. It evolved from teachers to other professional groups and in 2003 it became the Center for Courage & Renewal.

The work is focused around a movement model of social change, which is the idea that the transformation of individuals triggers social change as those people begin to find their integrity and authentic voice. They can no longer be silent in the face of injustice. It starts with a handful of individuals who choose to live divided no more and not to tolerate disconnect.

I had read Parker as part of my work as an Anglican priest – I was traveling a lot, helping congregations in conflict and in change. Parker addresses the way people talk to one another in a small circle, breaking patterns of insular relationships, and introducing truth-telling. From there, I got invitations to retreats and workshops and a couple of years ago I decided to freelance. I’m working on a yoga retreat in Panama with Courage & Renewal practices. I like those on top of the community-activist work. It’s intensively soulful and bodied and physical.

ASGT: What are your primary resources for your work?

DH: All of Parker’s works have been very influential for me. Probably the most helpful has been A Hidden Wholeness, which is his book about Quaker practice, how it has been operationalized over centuries, and how we borrow and learn from it and other spiritual communities.

The writing of Jean Vanier has also been very powerful, particularly a book called, Community and Growth. We use that as a reflective tool for our intentional community. Since the 1960s, Jean has been writing and thinking about the nature of community itself.

Peter Block’s writings have been growing in me, particularly a book called Community: The Structure of Belonging. He has been opening my eyes to the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of work on individual transformation, but his challenge is around community transformation. That’s taken me into political activism.

ASGT: What inspires you when you are putting together these programs?

wayfinding.pngDH: I was sailing with friends a couple of years ago. My buddy noticed that I had been looking down at the navigation screen too much and he said, “You need to look up and around.” It triggered a memory of a talk I had heard on Pacific Islanders and the art of wayfinding, the ancient practice of navigation that relies on wind and wave to provide direction. They go on 30 day voyages and keep track of space and time by a deep awareness of what they’re taking in. That whole metaphor jumped out to me. I went to the Hawaiian islands and spent time in the voyaging community, learning. Just a taster was all I got, but it was enough to remind me of what we’re capable of and how what they’re doing on the ocean, we’re all doing in life: trying to navigate with limited information and trying to orient ourselves in difficult situations. It’s a lot of storm activity, we’re in a huge societal transformation, so how do we know where we are? How do we know where we’re going? How do we sustain a vision for the island and conjure it up out of the ocean? It’s not about moving somewhere, it’s about realizing what’s coming and embracing it and being true to it so that you can manifest it. That’s become a powerful teaching story. I find that if I can stay true to story, metaphor, and imagery, that’s powerful.

ASGT: Your upcoming forum is called “The Activist as Mystic.” What does it mean to be an activist in a world where we’re searching for connection?

DH: Anything that’s going to be sustainable in activism or in mysticism has to be done with others. We’re all in this together, so I think the first movement for anyone who is serious about active living and spiritual growth is to find a community. Find like-minded folks to share that vision, to sustain you and also to hold you accountable.

I think “activist” and “mystic” are terms that shut people down because they seem daunting. The reason I love A Small Good Thing is the idea of small acts of kindness — small initiatives that are not small at all, they’re significant, but we say they’re small because they’re not getting media coverage. That kind of storytelling allows people to see themselves as activists and as mystics.

Dan HinesDan will be screening “A Small Good Thing” on April 23, 2016 as part of his forum “The Activist as Mystic,” a two-day event on Gabriola Island in British Columbia. You can register for the forum here.

Check out all of Dan’s upcoming retreats here.

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Leadership is Inviting Others to Be Their Best Selves


Last week I was sitting in the office of someone above me in the food chain of academic medicine. I was discussing the tough selection process for faculty who want to teach in the course I direct. I have a core of dedicated faculty who have made sacrifices in their clinical work to be part of what we’ve created for all first-year students, a 14-week course in Medical Humanities—what it means “on the ground, in the clinic” to remember that underneath all the dross of the daily grind is a real human being who needs a real human healer. My faculty live by this belief. So there’s a core group, and there’s a wait list of faculty who want to do this work. I have the not-so-enviable task of deciding whom to choose while fully honoring the noble intentions of each person who wants to join the team.

So I’m sitting here sort of chatting about this and the person sitting across from me looks straight at me and says, “To be a good leader, you have to not care so much about how other people feel. You need to make tough decisions, take decisive action.”

Over the past eight years in my current positions, I have made very tough decisions and I have taken decisive action many times. But I’ve always been guided by my core value of caring for the other person—the person’s feelings, the person’s ego, the person’s sense of self-worth and value to our students and to the institution.

At the end of our Courage to Lead residency, I am clear that “not caring so much about how other people feel” is a perspective and a behavior that I do not choose to guide my work as a leader or, in fact, as a human being.


So what do I stand for as a leader? I want my faculty to identify (if they haven’t already) their own birthright gifts. It is my great joy to help them understand how best to “live into” those birthright gifts in the everydayness of work. That means:

  • Listening very carefully to hear what’s in their heart—listening to what they say and what they don’t say. Listening over time. “Deep listening.”
  • Creating opportunities for these valued individual people to practice their
    birthright gifts and skills in a safe place where “failure” is seen only as a necessary stepping-stone to growth.
  • Celebrating with them when they excel—quietly and also jubilantly with others by
    spreading news of the successes.
  • Showing up; being there; prioritizing them over whatever deadline might be
    staring me in the face.

This, then, is my legacy, too, if I’m fortunate and if I’ve managed to live out my intentions. In helping one person, or two, or twenty become their own best selves, I believe the “seeding” will continue down the generations. And what happened in the million little kairotic moments of this lifetime will create millions more. The names of those who seeded me—just like my name—won’t matter. No plagues, no trumpet voluntary, perhaps not even a eulogy. Only and ultimately the living-into-one’s-own-best-self that echoes on down through the ages.

If I can have managed this a few times, then that will have been enough in the end.

Editor’s Note: This piece is a reflection from a participant at at Courage to Lead in Health Care series facilitated by Hanna Sherman and Penny Williamson. You can find program opportunities like this one at


Kimberly Myers photo for CTLKimberly R. Myers, M.A., Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities at Penn State College of Medicine, where she serves as co-director of the Medical Humanities course for first-year medical students and co-chairs a medical school admissions team. She is co-creator of Edges of Light: Images of Breast Transformation, an exhibit of art photography and poetry about breast cancer and the processes of reconstruction that is touring nationally. Kimberly founded and hosts the Penn State Hershey Physician Writers Group, whose members regularly publish creative writing in professional medical journals.

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