Fear is everywhere--in our culture, in our institutions,
in our students, in ourselves--and it cuts us off from
everything. Surrounded and invaded by fear, how can
we transcend it and reconnect with reality for the sake of
teaching and learning? The only path I know that
might take us in that direction is the one marked
Fear is so fundamental to the human condition that all the
great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to
overcome its effects on our lives. With different
words, they all proclaim the same core message:
"Be not afraid." Though the traditions
vary widely in the ways they propose to take us beyond
fear, all hold out the same hope: we can escape
fear's paralysis and enter a state of grace where
encounters with otherness will not threaten us but will
enrich our work and our lives.
It is important to note with care what that core teaching
does and does not say. "Be not afraid"
does not say that we should not have fears--and if
it did, we could dismiss it as an impossible counsel of
perfection. Instead, it says that we do not need to be
our fears, quite a different proposition.
As a young teacher, I yearned for the day when I would
know my craft so well, be so competent, so experienced,
and so powerful that I could walk into any classroom
without feeling afraid.
in my late fifties, I know that day will never come.
I will always have fears, but I need not be my fears--for
there are other places in my inner landscape from which I
can speak and act.
Each time I walk into a classroom, I can choose the place
within myself from which my teaching will come, just as I
can choose the place within my students toward which my
teaching will be aimed. I need not teach from a
fearful place; I can teach from curiosity or hope or
empathy or honesty, places that are as real within me as
are my fears. I can have fear, but I need not be
fear--if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner
We yearn for a different place to stand, and I know of no
better description of that yearning than the Rilke poem:
Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner--what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.
"Cut off" is our customary state of being.
But there is within us the constant yearning for
connectedness, a yearning--"Ah!"--to live
without the slightest partition between our souls and the
distant stars, between ourselves and the world's
otherness. We yearn for community with the other
because we know that with it we would feel more at home in
our lives, no longer strangers to one another and aliens
to the earth.
But the "homecoming" of which Rilke speaks has
two qualities that make it quite different from our
conventional image of home. First, it is inner, not
outer. This home is not a place that we can own--but
by the same token, we cannot be banned from it, and it
cannot be stolen from us. No matter where we are or
what condition we are in or how many obstacles are before
us, we can always come back home through a simple inward
Second, when we make that inward turn, the home we find is
not a closed and parochial place in which we can hide,
from which we can neither see nor be seen. Instead,
this home is as open and vast as the sky itself.
Here we are at home with more than our own familiar
thoughts and those people who think like us. We are
at home in a universe that embraces both the smallness of
"I" and the vastness of all that is "not
I," and does so with consummate ease. In this
home, we know ourselves not as isolated atoms threatened
by otherness but as integral parts of the great web of
life. In that knowing, we are taken beyond fear
book builds on a simple premise: good teaching
cannot be reduced to technique but is rooted in the
identity and integrity of the teacher. Good teachers
share one trait: they are authentically present in
the classroom, in community with their students and
their subject. They possess "a capacity for
connectedness" and are able to weave a complex
web of connections between themselves, their
subjects, and their students, helping their students
weave a world for themselves. The connections made
by good teachers are held not in their methods but
in their hearts — the place where intellect,
emotion, spirit, and will converge in the human self
— supported by the community that emerges among us
when we choose to live authentic lives.