Listening to our own souls, discerning our own truth

In a previous post, I asked whether school teaching is still a worthwhile job. I received feedback from a few former students. Those who still find teaching a worthwhile job unanimously cited the strong bond that they get to foster with their students as the single strongest factor that has kept them in teaching, not the pay, the status, or the holidays (which have become shorter and shorter). As L (false name) relates:

Just as teachers have the privilege of giving unconditionally to students, students can give and love their teachers unconditionally too. The following are the words I said to the many students who came to my wedding banquet this year: ‘I have seldom gone through much emotional ups and downs in my life, and I’m no good at expressing myself. Yet, It is you who have taught me how to laugh and cry. It is you who have made my life complete.’– I cried like a baby that night—more because I was so moved by my students than for marrying my husband. Haha! At one point in my teaching career, I don’t even think I want to have any children of my own. After all, students are like my kids (and some are like my siblings) —we have a close bond and yet we are spared the tension and conflicts between parents and children, or between siblings. And while there is no guarantee that children will reciprocate parents’ love, students WILL for their teachers’ love. Had I been not a teacher, I would not have been who I am and what I am today.

And like most teachers, what demoralize L are school policies that are unreasonable and uncaring, and colleagues who are not doing their jobs properly. It is often these factors that devastate conscientious teachers the most, and make them seriously consider whether they should stay in the teaching profession or not. Another former student, W, has changed schools twice in the last few years, in the hope of finding a school where she can do some meaningful teaching. But she confesses that sometimes she wonders whether she should quit teaching altogether.

Recently I read a little story in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards an Undivided Life, by Parker J. Palmer. It is the story of Linda who, after teaching for 15 years, has become extremely resentful towards school and especially her colleagues. Parker was describing the circle of trust that he had been running for teachers’ professional development. His main points were (a) a circle of trust facilitates people’s exploration of their innermost feelings, and (b) the best way we can help someone in distress is not to offer advice, but to help them identify what is troubling them. The story about Linda that Parker tells, provides stimulating food for thought

It happened in a long-term circle of trust I facilitated for public school teachers. One of them, Linda, was a woman at the end of her rope. After fifteen years of teaching, she had nothing good to say about her supervisors, her colleagues, or her students–all of them, by her account, were misguided and sometimes malevolent. She felt certain that she would be a happier person and a better teacher if only she could replace all these annoying aliens with actual human beings.

The teachers who sat with Linda listened to her receptively and respectfully. Occasionally, they asked an honest, open question to help her say, and hear, more deeply what was troubling her. But guided by the ground rules of this form of community, they offered no commentary, no argument, and no advice.

Instead, they held her in a space where Linda was compelled to listen to herself. This turned out to be a revolutionary experience for someone whose cynical view of humanity had continually been reinforced by the people to whom she complained. I do not mean the few who agreed with her. I mean those who told her she was wrong and tried to talk her out of her cynicism, as well as those who turned their backs in disgust and walked away. See, Linda would say to herself, I was right about people. No one gets it, and no one cares. Like most of us, Linda knew how to use rejection to reinforce her view of the world.

I learned how revolutionary it had been for Linda to listen to herself when she told me, after several retreats, that she intended to drop out. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the group,” she said. “In fact, being here has helped me understand that I don’t belong in teaching anymore. The problem is not my students and colleagues; they’re decent people doing the best they can. The problem is me. I’ve burned out on teaching, and I’m harming myself as well as others by sticking with it. I’ve decided to quit at the end of this year and find a different kind of job. So I guess I shouldn’t be taking up space in this circle anymore.”

In fact, Linda had made courageous use of her space in the circle. She had seen her shadow, stopped projecting it onto others, come to grips with her own reality, and taken a step toward wholeness. I told her she was welcome to stay.

A circle of trust, I said, has no agenda except to help people listen to their own souls and discern their own truth. Its purpose is not to help people recommit to a particular role or even become better at it, though one or both may happen. The fact that Linda had seen her shadow and now felt led to leave teaching was no less important than the vocational renewal that was happening for others in the group.

Linda stayed and continued to make good use of this community. She emerged more fully from her shadow, grieved the loss of her longtime calling, and found clues to a new vocational path that fit her gifts. She was able to listen to herself because she was with people who knew how to let her alone without abandoning her—let her be alone, that is, with her inner teacher.

(To listen to my readaloud of this story, go to

  These are the reasons why this story resonates with me:

  1. It reminds me of some of the frustrated teachers I know.
  2. It highlights the importance of self-reflection. (In a previous post, I made the claim that people in education are generally not reflective enough, though the job requires a lot of critical reflection.)
  3. Like Parker and his philosophy for the circle of trust, I refrain from dishing out hasty advice to others.
  4. Sometimes, we need to look at things from a different perspective; this may help to reduce the anger or frustrations within ourselves. (Chan Hon Sum made a similar point in his article when he, upon retirement, reflected on his 28 years of teaching at his school:

 I hope those frustrated teachers who are reading this post will not think that I am encouraging them to quit teaching should the idea cross their mind. But this little story perhaps reminds us of the need for teachers “to listen to their own souls and discern their own truth.”

 I’d like to end this long post by citing L again, who speaks the minds of the many frustrated but wonderful teachers out there:

 For me right now, I’m just confused. Yet, as long as I am a teacher, I will strive to better my teaching, stay commited to my profession and continue to suffer— the bitter sweetness of teaching.


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