The Don Deshler Leadership Award was created to honor Dr. Donald D. Deshler, my advisor, former boss, mentor, and friend. Don is one of the most accomplished people I’ve met in my life. He directed more than 250 research studies while at University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, and among many other accolades, the Council for Exceptional Children named him one of the 10 most influential people in special education in the 20th century.
But Don’s legacy transcends his professional accomplishments. I believe his greatest gift is how he makes people feel when they are with him. He makes people feel like they matter—because they do matter to him. While Don has taught me a lot about how to do the work of educational research, he has taught, and continues to teach, me much more about how to be a good person.
To honor Don, each year the Instructional Coaching Group gives the Don Deshler Leadership Award to someone who has influenced my work and the work of the Instructional Coaching Group to such an extent that we would not be able to do what we do without their work. Previous winners include Don himself along with Jean Schumaker, Joellen Killion, Michael Fullan, Randy Sprick, Ann Hoffman, Dan Alpert, and Doris Williams.
This year’s winner is Parker Palmer, who, like Don Deshler, has influenced me both by the impact and beauty of his writing and the warmth and humanity of his character.
Palmer’s work reminds us that it is the human heart that lies at the core of teaching, not technique, efficiency, or test scores. Good teachers do their best to remove the wall between themselves and their students so they can build connections between ideas and people. “A teacher,” Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “who shares his or her identity with students is more effective than one who lobs factoids at them from behind a wall.”
To tear down the wall between ourselves and others, Palmer encourages us to live an “undivided life,” a life where the person we present to the world is the person we know ourselves to be. When we live an undivided life, we invest ourselves in work that aligns with our deepest values, we respect the dignity of others, we refuse to hide our beliefs, indeed, we refuse to hide our true selves. “Authority,” Palmer writes, “is granted to people who are perceived as authoring their own words, actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their hearts.”
This journey to an undivided life is best made with others. In A Hidden Wholeness Palmer describes “circles of trust,” small communities where people communicate in nonjudgmental, authentic ways to support each person’s quest for wholeness. We need circles of trust, he writes, “because the journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo.”
Parker Palmer has also written powerfully about our larger community. In Healing the Heart of Democracy, written in 2011, he suggests ways in which we may live through this time of great political turmoil. “There are times,” he writes, “when the heart, like the canary in the coal mine, breathes in the world’s toxicity and begins to die.” For many of us, these words capture precisely how we feel today.
“The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”
The way forward, Palmer says, is not to avoid confronting the dishonesty, corruptness, selfishness, and hateful divisiveness of politicians. Instead, we must hold politicians accountable for what they are doing to this country. However, the way forward, according to Palmer, is not to demonize and hate those with whom we disagree, severing “the human connections on which empathy, accountability, and democracy itself depend.” We can begin this process by hearing each other’s stories. “The more you know about another person’s story,” Palmer writes, “the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”
I am a better person because of Parker Palmer’s ideas, and a better writer (with lots of room still for growth) because I am inspired by the beauty of his writing. In A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer explains that he is encouraged to write the way he does because of the advice he received from his life partner, and first editor, Sharon Palmer. “When I asked her what she looks for when she edits,” he writes, “she answered with three questions: Is it worth saying? Is it said clearly? Is it said beautifully?” Fortunately, for us, Palmer’s writing is consistently worthwhile, clear, and beautiful. All of us who are familiar with his writing are better because of it.
Learn more about Parker Palmer! Register to attend this year’s #TLC2020 to watch Jim’s complete TLC interview with him, and have access to over 30 on-demand breakout sessions, 6 live keynotes, and 4 live panel discussions.