Sanctuary in Seattle

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Feeling jaded, lacking inspiration, need to reconnect your inner and outer selves? Maybe it's time for some alternative professional development, West Coast-style. Stephen Phillips reports

The Plisades Retreat Center in the picturesque northwest of the United States traditionally plays host to local clergy seeking a little reflective contemplation. But now it is welcoming a different sort of pilgrim.

Teachers from as far afield as Boston and Kentucky come here for a bit of rest and recuperation and to fortify themselves for the classroom challenges that lie ahead. About 2,000 American teachers have been attending Courage to Teach retreats since they began in 1996, in centres across 22 states. Rick Jackson, of the non-profit Center for Teacher Formation, which organises the retreats, stresses that, despite its usual role, there is no religious aspect to the Plisades retreat; it's just that secular centres cost more to hire.

It would be difficult to top the setting. Nestled on Seattle's southern shore, the centre has a sweeping view of Puget Sound, the narrow strait on which the city sits, sheltered from the open ocean by a rainforest and a patchwork of islands. The Olympic mountains loom to the west, while on the eastern horizon lie the soaring peaks of the Cascade range, still snow-capped in high summer.

But during the five days of this retreat, the temperature hits 33C; there's no sign of the damp fog that customarily seeps through the area, and one lunchtime a rare bald eagle soars past the cafeteria window. Spectacular scenery and smiling weather gods may be a blessing, but we're not here to admire the views or to sunbathe. "This retreat is an invitation to meet ourselves again. In the current culture we embrace multi-tasking, but here the invitation is to give ourselves the gift of doing just one thing: to listen to ourselves," says Mr Jackson.

It's the opening Monday night and we're sitting in a circle after a supper of roast pork and apple dumplings. There are 22 "retreat-ants", mostly teachers, although this event has been opened to other professions with whom the message might resonate. So there's also a doctor, a lawyer and a charity consultant. The education contingent is eclectic, and includes an English teacher from a swanky private Boston secondary, a sprinkling of state school teachers - urban and rural - an administrator and a couple of teacher training academics. The four-day event costs $450 (pound;245), which can be claimed back from education departments.

Mr Jackson begins by exhorting us to summon the "courage to reconnect our inner and outer lives". To illustrate this, he twists a strip of paper and joins the ends to form a geometric shape called a Mobius strip. "This is my Quaker PowerPoint," he quips, brandishing the home-made prop. "You trace your finger around the outside of the circle and seamlessly find yourself on the inside. It reminds us that there's no inner or outer life; it's all life. This is an invitation to explore the intersection of soul and role."

Cosmic stuff. But how does this mesh with your average teacher's lot? Courage to Teach is the brainchild of a former Georgetown University sociology professor, Parker J Palmer, whose 1997 tome, The Courage to Teach: exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life, is a big seller in the US. Professor Palmer (a Quaker, hence Rick Jackson's reference) argues that people enter teaching out of a sense of vocation and that good teaching flows from the "integrity and identity" of the teacher.

One teacher after another explains how the book has articulated his or her gut feelings about teaching. Amy Maupin, a former secondary teacher in Appalachia, Tennessee, turned education professor at Kentucky's Transylvania University, describes it as "the single most influential piece of writing in my entire lifeI it spoke to me passionately. It addresses who's doing the teaching. All traditional forms of professional development are about technique - 'do this and you'll be great'."

In this vein, the retreat shuns pedagogical prescriptions in favour of an unabashedly subjective approach. So Mr Jackson and his "co-facilitator", Caryl Hurtig Casbon, hand out journals in which are to record our deepest thoughts as tools for our "inner journey".

In the centre of the circle there is a tableau of flowers and fruit, symbolising the seasonal themes used in Courage to Teach. We're asked what season we think our careers have reached. Struggling to get into the spirit, I volunteer "multiple seasons". Regulars who are more used to the style suggest equinoxes, solstices, harvest time, even "green shoots popping up through the snow".

It's gone 9pm when the session breaks up; it's been more than two hours since we started wrestling with seasons and the place where "soul and role" intersect, or where they are out of whack in our lives. Drained, we file back to our spartan rooms. That great American icon, the television, is conspicuously absent and I miss this week's American Big Brother.

The next day begins with a 7.30am reveille for those who want to start with half-an-hour's meditation before we get down to business at 8:45am. Poems are read; Mr Jackson offers words of wisdom from assorted luminaries, including odd bedfellows such as the Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen and the erotic writer Anais Nin to keynote each session.

Some of the New Age-style rhetoric ("listening with soft eyes"; "what's the colour of your feeling?") can be a little alienating. I'm also experiencing a little "resistance", as the parlance goes, to the jargon; for example, "sheepdogging" to denote chairing a discussion, or using "gift" as a verb.

But maybe Mike Poutiatine, a teacher from Spokane, Washington, who is studying for an education doctorate, has hit on something when he describes the theme of a Taoist poem we're discussing, about a wood sculptor, as the "work before the work".

Mr Poutiatine believes that Courage to Teach retreats offer a professional lifeline to older teachers who have grown jaded and listless. But their appeal may be more universal. In Stories of the Courage to Teach: honoring the teacher's heart (2002), a follow-up to The Courage to Teach, Sam Intrator, professor of education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, highlights the reality behind the New Age jargon and the poetry. He quotes his father, a 30-year veteran of New York schools, who says: "We think it's all about techniques and tricks, but techniques only take you so far. We need teachers who care about kids and what they teach, and who can communicate with kids. We, real, live teachers, are what make methods come alive. We need to have faith in the importance of our work."

The Courage to Teach: exploring the Inner landscape of a teacher's life, by Parker J Palmer, is published in the UK by John Wiley, pound;5.50 (paperback). Center for Teacher Formation:

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