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Reflecting on the “Danger Zone” within Teaching

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

One evening this summer, my husband, adult son, and I decided to watch a movie in a theater for the first time since 2019, pre-pandemic. We chose Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun each for our own reasons. I chose to go because I just wanted a two-hour, care-free dose of entertainment – a break from a stressful summer teaching while my father was in the hospital for a month. I didn’t expect to learn anything from the movie; that wasn’t the point of going.

Yet I was surprised to see that in the 36 years since Top Gun was released, the protagonist, Pete Mitchell, aka Maverick, had changed. This older Maverick was cast as a teacher; not a role he originally wanted nor a role he felt qualified to accept. Yet once he put his ego aside, he demonstrated the value of vulnerability and compassion for his crew in a dangerous, pre-determined impossible, mission. The mission was led by a commander who did not believe in his people; especially Maverick who was known for his unorthodox methods. Granted the term ‘maverick’ has been used as a reference to someone who prefers “to blaze their own trails” ( since the 19thcentury. Yet Maverick’s own personal measure of success was to instruct his team in a way that everyone came home from their mission; something his commander thought impossible.

Then as I listened to the lyrics of the revisited “Danger Zone” (1984;, I was reminded that by stepping into our own danger zone, we unlock our highest potential; for the mission of transformative teaching is to do just that – support and respect every learners’ discovery of their highest potential in becoming who they want to be. This kind of teaching requires a brave space where trust, vulnerability, and compassion are cultivated which is explored by Parker Palmer ( in The Courage to Teach (1998).

Palmer explains that “many of us became teachers for reason of the heart, animated by a passion for some subject and for helping people learn” (p. 17). Passion does not know how to be objective and as years go by, “we lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability” which can feel like a contradiction in a scientific academic culture. As we begin to fear being vulnerable, we disconnect from our inner knowing of trust and compassion. We build walls of protection around us. We hide our feelings to appear objective. Yet, when we disconnect from our true feelings, we lose heart. Some of the burnout that students and teachers are feeling right now is connected to losing heart.

As I left the theater, I found myself thinking about the connection to my own mission as a prosocial teacher leader. When teachers enter the ‘danger zone’ with trust, value, and compassion for our students, even the highest expectations won't feel impossible. Twenty-five years ago, Palmer asked the question, “How can we who teach reclaim our hearts, for the sake of our students, ourselves, and educational reform?” – A question in the ‘danger zone’ that is just as relevant today.

[This piece was originally published as my contribution to a weekly Monday Morning Message for the School of Education and Human Development doctoral studies community at the University of Colorado Denver on Monday, August 15, 2022.]

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