Interview with Parker Palmer, Part 2

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Parker J Palmer 0

Ten years after its first release, Parker Palmer is republishing his book of encouragement for teachers called The Courage to Teach. The book helped countless teachers and other professionals to recover meaning in their work lives, in the midst of troubled, sometimes toxic systems. Recently, The High Calling spoke to Mr. Palmer about helping teachers and other professionals reconnect with their vocations and reclaim their passion for work.

The Center for Courage and Renewal builds "circles of trust." How do people create these circles in a workplace dominated by fear, jealously, and unhealthy competition?

This concept of a circle of trust is spelled out in detail in Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. The purpose of each circle of trust is to make a safe space for the soul to speak. The kind of workplace you describe is the quintessential unsafe space. Many people in workplaces of that sort want to find their way toward identity and integrity, but they are surrounded by distrust, envy, power plays, and so forth. I think churches have a huge role to play in this. We just received a large grant from the Lily Endowment for a project at our Center that helps us teach pastors and lay leaders around the country how to build circles of trust. Virtually all of them are taking this back to their churches. So now we have doctors, lawyers, and teachers in the church sitting in safe places getting in touch with their deepest callings as Christians and human beings. The next step is for these people to gain a kind of strength and new capacity to take what they’ve learned in the safe places into a more challenging, even hostile environment.

Can you give us a concrete example of what this might look like?

We have teachers in these circles learning how to ask honest, open questions that aren’t disguised as advice. They’ve worked at developing this new muscle of communication in a safe place.

They say things like, "In a staff meeting, somebody said something I absolutely disagreed with. But instead of speaking in opposition, I asked an honest, open question." They expressed their desire to understand more deeply what the other person was saying and why they were saying it. Suddenly things start to change. Instead of a pitched battle between two points of view, the person who first spoke is feeling like someone is listening to them, and the person who asked the honest, open question is actually listening. The vision here is to change the dance with each other just a little bit in all of the daily, practical, on-the-ground things that we do with each other. If we don’t change the dance, pathologies keep multiplying themselves in the workplace. For example, a doctor in a hospital who is disdainful of the nurses is cutting off an important avenue of communication that may someday bear on the well-being of a patient because the nurses are afraid to say anything to this person.

What do you think are some of the biggest spiritual challenges facing leaders today in any profession?

We have so much work to do in every profession to bring the institutional context in which we do our work into line with the highest values of our professions. Catholic priest Ivan Illich wrote a book in the '70s. A passage in Deschooling Society went something like this: "Just because we have hospitals, doesn’t mean we have health care. Just because we have schools, doesn’t mean we have education. Just because we have courts, doesn’t mean we have justice. And just because we have churches, doesn’t mean we have faith."

If you look at HMOs or public schools these days, a lot of them put obstacles in front of the good people who work in them. Individuals would like to serve patients or students well, but institutional circumstances prevent it. There is incongruity between the highest values of their profession and the institution in which they work. We must encourage leaders to ask critical questions about the integrity of the institutions in which they work. We must equip leaders to be wise about how institutions change. A lot of our institutional structures divide the communities of work that they are supposed to be holding together. Schools, for example, tend to force teachers to privatize. Each of them has so much individual work that there is very little opportunity to form community with fellow teachers or between teachers and administrators. This dynamic needs to change, so our institutions depend on the strength of community within them. Leaders must attend to community building within their institutions, or they are actually undermining the quality of work that can be done.

Can you give an example?

A dramatic study became available a couple of years ago. It is detailed in a book called Trust in Schools. Two scholars, Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, at the University of Chicago studied the effort of school reform in the Chicago city school system. During the '90s, they asked two very simple questions: "Which schools have grown most in their capacity to serve kids well?" and "Which schools have not grown or even declined in their capacity to educate young people as measured by standardized tests?"

Their study looked at factors that would explain the difference between those two sets of schools. They looked at every external variable that you can think of. How much money did the schools have? What were their governance models? How about their curriculum teaching technique? Or their in-services? Not one of those external factors had any real explanatory power. The factor that explained a huge amount of difference between the schools that succeeded and the schools that failed in serving kids well was named "relational trust."

If you had high levels of relational trust between teachers and administrators, between teachers and parents, you were much, much more likely to be able to serve kids well than if you had low levels of relational trust. Statistically it was astonishing!

What did they learn about this relational trust?

First, if you had leaders who cared about trust, kids were much, much more likely to get served well than if you had leaders who didn’t value it. They also discovered the correlation between relational trust and success on behalf of kids, held constant no matter how much money was involved or how well-funded the school was. So you could have a very rich school with low levels of relational trust, and they would be failing kids. You would have a poor school with high levels of relational trust, and they would be helping kids. So what helps relational trust along? That loops us right back to where we started this conversation. It’s inner and spiritual work around questions of ego, envy, anger, greed, suspicion, and paranoia. All of these kind of inner demons are examples of inner darkness that gets in the way of trusting each other.

It turns out that those things also get in the way of successful implementation of institutional mission. That study, called Trust in Schools, could just as easily be titled, Trust in Hospitals or Trust in the Justice System or Trust in Business. A building full of people who trust each other, no matter what kind of work they’re trying to do, can do that work better than a building full of people who don’t trust each other. Trust is a huge variable. The only question I have is, "Why do we keep imagining that the answer lies somewhere else?" This—relational trust—is a secret hidden in plain sight.