Teaching as an Act of Hospitality

Teaching as HospitalityIn a recent post that I wrote for Catapult Corner, I took one of the benchmarks of Thomas J. Sergiovanni’s premises in his book Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvementthe role of the teacher. Sergiovanni’s claim is that the central component in any movement towards school improvement rests in fostering a collegial bond between principal and teacher. According to Sergiovanni, one of the preeminent functions of the principal as a servant leader is to be ever cognizant of the crucial role that a teacher plays in creating the environment of a learning community.

Sergiovanni asserts that it is the principal’s responsibility not only to recognize but also to honor and celebrate the teachers’ professional commitment and knowledge of their craft. This nurtures both collaboration and collegiality, which in turn strengthens the learning community that enhances the students’ academic performance and behavior.

Based on Sergiovanni’s hypothesis, I would like to take it one step further and look at it from the perspective of the teacher’s expectation.  I would like to go beyond the ordinary prescription that is given for teacher efficiency. The need for credentialed, qualified and professional educators in the classroom goes without saying. Effective professional development programs are needed to continue the growth of the teacher. Professional deportment is required. Sound pedagogy is a must. But there is a dimension not often spoken about in the preparation of our teachers. There is a great deal of emphasis placed on the academic training—and rightly so. But teaching is also a highly relational profession. 

How a teacher relates to his/her students can be one of the determining factors of how effective the lesson is taught, how information is conveyed, and how well students respond. The lens through which teachers view their students can make the difference between a good teacher and a mediocre one.

In Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, he develops a very simple but beautiful insight of the teacher’s role in the classroom. He sees the significance of the interrelationship between teachers and their students. The teachers’ daily involvement with their students manifests the teaching profession’s sense of self-fulfillment.  Palmer sanctifies the profession of teaching; he states, “One of the blessings of teaching is the chance it gives us for continuing encounters with the young.”   Palmer sees these continued encounters not as a chore, or the need for a “generative relationship,” but one that builds on the rooted belief of service to the young.

The teacher, as “host,” is the one who invites the student, the “guest,” to partake in the mental banquet where only knowledge can satisfy. That invitation needs to be warm, caring, sensitive and respectful of the student. It is an invitation where the teacher makes every effort to surrender one’s self for the comfort and well being of the invitee.Palmer’s perception of the art of teaching is very clear: “Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young…by offering hospitality, one participates in the endless rewarding of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host.”

I realize that this might be a stretch, but if teachers were to see their classrooms as their home where students are invited as guests, then all that Palmer is saying fits.  In the day to day dealings in the social graces, we go out of our way to ensure the comfort of our guests. We put forth our best effort to be warm and welcoming.  These efforts are a sincere desire to make our guests feel comfortable. Why should not our students, for the amount of time that they spend before their teachers, walk away feeling that they have been cared for and that their needs were genuinely attended to in a hospitable environment?

This might be Pollyannaish, and there are certainly many challenges within the classroom when dealing with students, but it should not diminish the human side of who we are as educators. We teach, but we also model.  Palmer sees the act of teaching as a reflection of the inner self and on that basis you cannot separate the person from the teacher, for both influences the act of teaching.  In The Courage to Teach, Palmer states,

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less that the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, 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 act of hospitality in teaching is really an exercise in coming to grips with the inner self. When we hold up that mirror to our soul we would want to see warmth, caring and compassion as the elements that make the classroom a welcoming space where our students want to be.

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