In August 2012 a friend sat beside me on the couch in his home and lay a book in my lap. A simple enough occurrence, but as I glanced at the title, the vibrations in the air around me changed in a way that heralded a paradigm-shift – he gave me his copy of The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer.
He also gave me a suggestion – that I enjoy taking in a paragraph, and sitting with that slice of sage for half an hour to meditate upon it before reading more. I grant that this was indeed wise counsel, but it wasn’t the counsel for me! From the first page I realised that I had been waiting all my life to read this book and I fell upon it amid a buzz of cognitive connections, flashes of insight and furious reading well into the night.
Parker articulated concepts and perspectives that I had come some of the way toward in my own experiences and thinking, but the language which he used, and his sensitive examples, gave me more than I had yet managed – beautiful sentences like: “Teaching emerges… from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.”, “Who is the self that teaches?”, and “When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life…”.
Now, I am not a teacher, I am a speech pathologist, but the wisdom of ‘teaching from who I am’ immediately revealed its deep coherence for not only the classroom, but also the clinic room. I had long been aware that when I used words like ‘hope’, ‘beauty’, ‘joy’ and ‘love’ as I set about my work with children and parents, that the dynamic and depth of connection altered positively, wondrously – in a manner difficult to measure, but impossible to deny.
I recall a session last year with a non-verbal, 4 year-old boy with autism, in which I simply commented to his anxious parents: “What a future this little fellow has – he has such appeal in his sweet warmth and tenderness”. His parent’s eyes welled up, then they laughed, and then we got down to the business of the day’s therapy in an ambience of joy. These parents, who would bear so much of what it would take to build this child’s future, found strength in shared joy. Certainly there would be challenges in the future – many of them – but words spoken from the heart had the power to fortify with pleasure, in a way that words spoken from intellect and technique could never have done on their own.
When autism or another disability impacts communication skills, support needs to be delivered through a positive relationship of care, respect, dignity and honour toward vulnerable child and vulnerable parents. In the presence of disability, the way things are and the way we would like things to be are very far apart. The dignified and gracious concept of ‘holding the tension’ of this gap, while not denying its pain, revealed to me a deep empowerment and support for all who deal, daily, with disability.
By the end of The Courage to Teach, I knew that I had been gifted a framework for a daily practice that deeply honoured authenticity of self and joy-of-other in the therapeutic relationship. Actually… in all relationship. The portent of the title had wrought its work. I closed the book, googled ‘Courage & Renewal’ to find a relevant email address and sent off an enquiry about how to become involved in training to bring this wholehearted work to my beautiful home state of Tasmania and its beautiful people.
Serendipity and circumstance had conspired, and opportunity to apply for an Australia-based training was only 12 months away. The pause for a year was enormously good for me. It slowed me down, provided opportunity to be a participant at a number of retreats; and to live, struggle and question into this “self that teaches” – in my case, this self that conducts communication therapy, coaches parents, mentors a team, steps through life’s sequence and events, dreams, collapses, dreams some more, and on and on. To participate was both salve and expansion, it was deep sensing of the freedom of reflection, and it was to catch, perchance to hold, new understanding – revealed in stillness. I am ready, with desire quietly burning, to share this wholeheartedness with others.