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Education Corner – Marc Baker

The I Who Teaches

Marc (Cohort 1) is starting his 7th year as Head of School at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA. Marc previously taught and served as Judaic studies director at The Weber School in Atlanta. He lives with his wife Jill (Cohort 1) and their four children in Brookline, MA.

At the Gann Academy August faculty in-service, new teachers arrive early for a special orientation. As Head of School I have the privilege of spending one of their first hours with them, learning about who they are and why they teach and sharing with them Gann’s and my vision of Jewish high school education.

The first time I prepared to facilitate this session as a new Head of School, I thought carefully about what I wanted to share with our new teachers, the people who would soon be responsible for shaping the hearts and minds of my precious students.  I thought back to the first day of my first year as a teacher (athletic director and informal educator, actually) at the New Jewish High School, when I was first introduced to the author and thinker Parker Palmer, who would become a rebbe and friend to me over the next 15 years.

Parker is probably best known for his book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, which I review each year in preparation for my new teacher session. I am inevitably called back to certain passages, passages that also call me back to myself, the most important place from which I can begin a school year. Some of these passages include:

. . . Teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge—and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject. (The Courage to Teach, p.2)

After three decades of trying to learn my craft, every class comes down to this: my students and I, face to face, engaged in an ancient and exacting exchange called education. The techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do they suffice. Face to face with my students, only one resource is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches—without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns. (p.10)

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. (p. 11)

Parker writes and speaks about connectedness—between us and each other, us and our world, us and ourselves. He laments the ways that fear and disconnectedness can deform our relationships, our educational environments, and our democracy. His first book, To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, lays the theological (how we conceive of God or Truth) and epistemological (how we conceive of what it means to know something) foundations of The Courage to Teach. His most recent book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, offers suggestions for how we can restore the vibrant civil discourse that is essential to a thriving democratic society.

When I read Parker’s works, I am reminded how appropriate it is that the start of school coincides with the month of Elul. This is a time to reconnect with ourselves and recommit ourselves to being true to the subjects we teach, the students we teach, and the one who teaches. As we prepare to enter the classroom again and anew, one way we can take responsibility for our personal identity and integrity is by asking ourselves and our colleagues questions such as:

When do I feel most connected to my students and my subject? When do I feel disconnected?

What breaks my heart about teaching and how can I stay open to my subject and my students in spite of my heartbreak?

When in my teaching do I feel most fully myself? How can I more frequently experience this and teach from this place?

May this be a productive and fulfilling year of personal and professional learning and growth for us all!