I finished Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach program about two weeks ago, so I’ve had time to think about its importance. The program served as a reminder—a reminder that all of us get from time to time—to slow down and reflect on our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual pathways. The focus of the program is personal and professional renewal, not instructional techniques or school improvement. Participants are invited to speak authentically about their lives while listening to themselves—and to listen carefully as others do the same. It’s not your average K-12 professional development.

The program is a series of quarterly retreats anchored to the seasons of the year. A group of 20–30 people uses the seasons as a touchstone from which to think about their lives—the people in them, our values, where are we headed, what remains to be done, and what our next steps will be. The setting was incredibly beautiful—a retreat close to the city, beautifully maintained by a thoughtful church congregation, on a hill, in a room with huge windows facing meadows, comfortable sleeping rooms, good food, and a fireplace with soft chairs close in. There was plenty of poetry, conversation, questioning, and journaling. There were good stories and videos and a plethora of wisdom. Additionally, acres of flowers, fields, and woods made for great walking and quiet reflection. 

One of the most valuable tools that we learned and used was the clearness committee. A person volunteers to talk authentically about a topic that he/she is struggling with or is not clear about. It could be personal or professional. You may be familiar with some of the topics: Should I accept the other position? How do I handle conflict with a department colleague? How do I deal with a loss in my life? Normally we agonize about these things alone. Yet with the help of three or four members of the group, the focus person talks and support members simply ask open-ended, clarifying questions—not to fix the situation or person, not to suggest answers or advice, but simply to be there to listen and ask helpful questions. 

I can tell you that this was an energizing experience. To tell a truth, it forces people to step out of the hurly-burly environments most of us inhabit to take time to think deeply about who we are and how far we’ve come. It’s clearly an experience that educators (administrators, teachers, boards of education) can benefit from because you can’t give what you don’t have. Energy, compassion, excitement, direction, and commitment are so important in public schools that we have to take the time and space to renew! 

So run, don’t walk, to http://www.couragerenewal.org/ to check out the program. Do yourself a favor and find a colleague or two to go along. Then find a facilitator for your state and send an e-mail asking when the next program starts. You’ll be doing you, your students, and your school community a great service! 


About the author:

Walter “Skip” Olsen is a contributer to the eNews: Leader Learners newsletter aha! Process, Inc. produces for busy principals.  Find out how to receive the newsletter here.