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What is good teaching?

In his book, “The Courage to Teach,” Parker Palmer observes that teachers choose their vocations because they care deeply about their students and their subject. “Good teaching comes in various forms,” Palmer writes, “but all good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

“Good teachers are truly present, deeply engaged, and strive to give their students the heart and strength needed to meet the challenges of their lives and those of their communities,” he concludes.

Last Sunday, Monsignor John Brenkle announced he will be retiring this year, after 55 years as a priest and 30 years as pastor of St. Helena Catholic Church. Father John has been a courageous teacher, who teaches and preaches in ways that endear him to many and alienate him from others.

In remarks before the U.S. Congress, Representative Mike Thompson hailed him as “a champion for Napa Valley farm workers and low-income individuals.”

Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame University theology professor, noted that the Catholic Church once had powerful defenders of workers’ rights, from Dorothy Day to Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. McBrien cited Father Brenkle as a church leader who insists that Catholic institutions act consistent with Church social teachings.

Father John also has detractors, such as a Catholic Citizens of Illinois columnist who labeled him “The Crackpot Preacher,” for having dinner with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, an occasional parishioner, given her stance against the Church’s positions on abortion and gay/lesbian rights.

Brenkle responded, “Yeah, well I happen to be a canon lawyer too, ya know, and you sound like somebody who, in the time of Jesus, would have said, ‘Why is he sitting and eating with these sinners.’”

Another critic commented, “Father Brenkle loves a good argument — any day, any time,” claiming that he has lost parishioners and students at the church school because of his outspoken stands on controversial issues.

Professor Palmer writes, “Good teachers share a strong sense of personal identity that infuses their work. Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.” They know and trust who they are, what they believe, and value; they are willing to be available and vulnerable in the service of others.

Few issues have been more difficult issues than the sex abuse scandals that have emerged in the Church.

John Van Der Zee writes on, “In one of the most significant developments in the recent troubled history of the American Catholic Church, one diocese has agreed to do something about sexual abuse that the church has never done before: apologize.”

Van Der Zee describes Father John as “probably the most respected priest in the Diocese of Santa Rosa” and suggested “this mess” would likely have been prevented if Pope John Paul II hadn’t ignored “the 43 priests of the Diocese who sent a letter requesting that Brenkle be appointed their new bishop.”

Father John was instrumental in providing financial settlements and counseling for abuse victims, and in offering them the apologies they both needed and deserved.

Personally, I have been impressed by Father John’s ability to make connections between the Gospels and everyday life. On more than one occasion when I have been at a loss for what to say to a group of faculty, students, or others, I have found inspiration in Father John’s homilies.

Last Sunday was the Catholic Church’s celebration of the Holy Family. Father John spoke eloquently of the challenges of parents so impoverished they had to birth their child in a stable; of a political situation so rife with danger that these parents had to flee their own country to provide for the safety and security of their child as immigrants. He described Joseph as begging for food and shelter for his wife and infant son. I could imagine Joseph waiting outside a marketplace looking for work.

A LA Times article described farmworkers finding shelter at the St. Helena parish hall, or sleeping on the rectory steps. Father John said, “Some people get upset because we’ve done this, but then I get checks from people all the time.”

Parker Palmer concludes that the power of good teachers is in their capacity to awaken truths within us, truths we can reclaim years later by recalling their impact on their lives. Good teachers support and encourage us to achieve our highest potential. They also challenge us to apply what we learn in order to improve our lives, as well as the vitality of our communities.

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to:


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