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The Courage To Teach


by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod

February 9, 2018


As educators, we must constantly remind ourselves of who we are!   We have the ability to transform the way a student perceives, not only the world, but himself.  We have the capacity to help transport our students to places they never dreamed of, as we equip them with the tools to see themselves as global citizens who have the right to dream boldly and to see those dreams through to fruition.  If you think about it, I mean really think about it, you have no choice but to conclude that we are entrusted with awesome power.  And with awesome power comes awesome responsibility.  So how should we wield this power responsibly?


Well, first, we have to have what educator and author Parker J. Palmer calls “the courage to teach.”  As he strongly cautions us against standing still in our professional development, he writes:


    “Stagnation is the state chosen by teachers who are so threatened by students that they barricade themselves behind their credentials, their podiums, their status, their research.  Ironically, this choice for stagnation mirrors the disengagement of the students these teachers fear.  Having been wounded by fearful young people who hold their teachers at arm’s length, these teachers fearfully fend off their students, thus feeding the cycle of fear.


    It is not unusual to see faculty in mid-career don the armor of cynicism against students, education, and any sign of hope.  It is the cynicism that comes when the high hopes one once had for teaching have been dashed by experience—or by the failure to interpret ones’ experience accurately…” [Emphasis added] (pg. 13)


I know about that which Palmer speaks!  I am now certain that I have wanted to be a teacher all my life.  My family chuckles to this day about how, as a young girl, I taught school every day, without fail.  I was quite the rigid teacher and my pupil (or captive)—my baby brother— would call my mother and father on their jobs to complain about the work I had assigned him to complete before I would let him go outside to play!  However, because I poured so much knowledge into him, and because he was brilliant anyway, when he enrolled in school, he sailed through, achieving all kinds of honors.


But I digress; let’s get back to "the courage to teach."  When I became a college educator, as my second career, I was incensed by how immature and underprepared for college level work most of my students were. For a moment, I felt demoralized.  "I want to be a college professor," my inner voice wailed.  And if I am to be honest about it, I was nothing short of devastated.  I had moved almost 1200 miles to arrive at the university, the working climate and morale was horrible, I sensed no real collegiality among faculty, the office I was assigned was tacky, ugly, and small—hardly inspiring, and I felt I had made a serious mistake by accepting the job.


However, acknowledging a challenge that simply had to be met, I quickly recovered and began to experiment with different ways of delivering academic content to my disenchanted students.  As professionals, we are trained to be problem-solvers; and I realized I could not demand that my students analyze information and think critically if I was not willing to do the same for them.  Even more to the point, I earnestly believed that a world-class education was the one thing that stood between success and failure for my beautiful, if exasperating, students.  I knew how important their education was even if they did not.  As the person deemed to be the “expert” in the room, and as the one deemed to have the superior fund of knowledge about human behavior, I made educating each and every one of them—not teaching, but educating them, and making them understand the importance of an education—my personal challenge every single day of every single semester. 


Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu talks about teachers who teach the lesson, perhaps brilliantly, but fail to teach the child; and I was one who put a lot of energy into developing my lectures--really wonderful lectures—but I realized, early on, that students were not getting it, even though I felt I was almost spoon feeding the material.  But it was only after I made invaluable connections and built important relationships and rapport with my students that they began to soar. I later learned that there is a body of research about schools and “connectedness” that makes it clear that students who have caring, responsive, supportive relationships in school have better outcomes, including being more engaged with, placing more value on, and having a better attitude toward, school and academics.*


So, I began to do the work necessary to engage them.  Mentally, I assessed each student.  For each student I asked:  Who is she? In what is he interested? What makes her smile? What does it take to spark his curiosity?  From where does she hail?  What is his hometown like? What would compel her to talk?  What kind of music does he like?  In what and who are these students interested?  If I played Nina Simone proudly and emphatically singing “Young, Gifted, and Black,” would they recognize themselves?  If I quoted conscientious rappers like Lauryn Hill, would they respond?  What kind of comments can I make on any given day to this or that student to break through the walls that separate us so the student can have not just a good experience, but a phenomenal academic experience that she will always remember?  After I made these assessments, indeed, as I was making them, I freed myself to just let it flow.  Naturally, organically, and with the force of my personality—which is caring and compassionate—things just turned around.  My students began to flourish!  I realize now, that I was just exhibiting “the courage to teach.” 


The payoff was great.  By the end of each semester, because I was willing to put the time in to “problem-solve,” I had classes where the overwhelming majority of the students were so “turned on” to, and engaged with, knowledge, my colleagues began asking me, “What are you doing?  Your students love your classes.”  I eagerly shared some of the tactics, strategies, and techniques from my repertoire with my colleagues, because I firmly believe that we can all capture the magic we need to light up our classrooms and create ultra-engaged learners.  Our students can transform into academic superstars right before our eyes as a result of the lift we give them.  That is, of course, the joy of teaching. We just have to, as Palmer says, have “the courage to teach.”




Kunjufu, J.  (2013).  Changing school culture for Black males.  Chicago:  African American Images


Palmer, P. J. (1998).  The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.


*See, for example: 


Rosenfeld, L.B., Richman, J.M., &  Bowen, G.L. (1998)  Low Social Support among At-Risk Adolescents.  Children & Schools, 20 (4), 245–260,


Klem, A.M. & Connell, J.P. (2004).  Relationships Matter: Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement.  Journal of School Health, 74 (7), 262-273.


Barber, B. & Olsen J. (1997). Socialization in context: Connection, regulation, and autonomy in the family, school, and neighborhood, and with peers.  Journal of Adolescent Research, 12 (2), 287-315.


Also, remember, Dr. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – “belongingness” is one of those needs!



**A different version of the essay was published on in 2017

     Black Males Ill-Served by the "Stud" Stereotype




by Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.


Last semester one of my students dropped by for an office visit and, to my great surprise and annoyance, sex came up again and again.


Yes, sex.  Like when, sensing his restlessness and wistfulness, I asked him how he finds “peace” so that he can achieve a state of mind conducive to studying.  (Even though he was failing my class, it was clear to me that he has a great deal of promise.)  He responded that he likes to drive around in his car, watch sport competitions, “and I like sex.”


Then, as I listened to the student degrade women -- all the while trying to keep the revulsion I felt to a minimum -- I couldn’t help but wonder why this student felt so comfortable as he sat there talking to me -- his professor whom he barely knew -- about his personal sex life.  Nothing I did to redirect the conversation toward something having to do with how to improve his dismal classroom performance worked.


In thinking about this conversation, I began to recognize that sitting alongside this student’s woman-hating diatribe was a deep, almost overwhelming, longing for a human connection that is meaningful and sustaining.  One of the main problems, however, is that he has mentally degenerated to a “hustler” state where meaningful relationships are especially difficult to establish and maintain.  He doesn’t “trust” women, they are “hoodrats” who “betray” him, and they “won’t act right,” yet he readily admits that neither does he.  But my student couldn’t think analytically about how his behavior contributes to his inability to attain that which he so deeply desires.


Also troubling, I thought, is the way that sex in this culture -- especially among people my student’s age -- has become so pornographic in concept.  So many young men attempt to experience mere sensation without any thought toward humanistic concerns.  Sadly, many of them mistakenly think a so-called “no-strings attached, feel-good” sexual relationship is exactly what they want.


More to the point, I had to question why this society continues to be so fixated on making black men the sexual “animals” of this culture.  This society has always conceptualized black males in demeaning physical terms -- the stud with unlimited sexual prowess, for example -- and so much so that many of these young men seem to have internalized a warped sense of their own humanity.  As another one of my male psychology students put it during a classroom discussion on gender issues (after which several of my female students thoroughly castigated him), “It’s just sex.”


Just sex?  Sex is one of the most intimate acts two human beings can engage in - an unveiling of the soul and spirit, as well as the mind and body.  It is this notion that “it’s just sex” that has so many people confused and unhappy.  People are so wrapped up in their wants and desires, that, ironically, they don’t understand the basic needs attached to those desires.  The fact is, many people lack a sound analysis of sexuality and feelings, but black males are encouraged by the American culture to forego such analysis, and, we must insist upon asking why this continues to be the case and what is the psychological and social cost to these young men?


I ended the meeting with my student by trying to get him to “analyze” his situation, and as is my way, I gave him some “vocabulary words” to look up and define.  The list of words?  “Barbaric,” “savage,” “animalistic,” “primitive” and “Neanderthal.”  I figured if he wanted to continue operating on the level he seemed to be advocating, why not “keep it real” for him and clue him in to how others may evaluate his “game.”


He balked, demurred, and (thankfully) appeared quite insulted when I handed him the list.  “‘Barbaric,’ ‘savage’...,” he faltered.  “What?”


“Here, take the words.”


“Are you serious?”




He threw his head back and sent forth a hearty, but clearly embarrassed, laugh.  “Okay.  I’ll look them up.”


A breakthrough?  I hope so.




Note:  This article first appeared in The Huntsville Times in 2008.





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