Please don’t teach your children. Listen to them — in as many ways as you are able. Listen with your ears, nose, eyes, heart, brain, and hands. If you hear an appeal for help or advice from a child while you are listening don’t stop listening but offer help or advice as you are capable. Emphatically state that what you are offering are your own muddled concepts and that a child’s most fulfilling strategy might be to seek the same help or advice of anyone and everyone.
Tofino, British Columbia
I can dress children and not be dressed by them. I can feed children and not be fed by them. I can even love children and not be loved by them. But I cannot teach children and not be taught by them. For me, teaching children is impossible as a pure act.
Last summer my youngest daughter began to sit at the table to eat dinner. I set a large pillow under her to help her reach. Some days I forgot the pillow and she would take her place and begin eating eye level with her plate. A bowl rim would be so high she couldn’t see what was in it, but she would go at it anyway, spilling a lot. I would notice, “Oh, you need a pillow. Let me set you up higher.” I would go and find a big pillow or a box and bring it back to the table where she would still be eating with concentration. As the scene repeated itself, I noticed that the fuss and bother was all mine; she never asked for a pillow or complained about being too low or showed any sign that she enjoyed her meal more when she was more conveniently seated.
My teaching to her was: “You can eat more easily if you make some preparation.” Her teaching to me was: “I don’t have to eat more easily; I can eat with full satisfaction without the preparation.” Which led me to wonder — how much of life’s nourishment and enjoyment do I put off while I bustle about fetching and arranging pillows? And I wonder, in teaching children — who gets the better lessons?
Teaching children is a task more important than making money, being famous, having fun, “pursuing a career,” or “seeing the world.” It is fair to say that Jocebed and the Virgin Mary moved history in their fidelity to their matronly tasks. You’d never know it to live in America. The future wealth (or poverty) of our world — the kids — are left with video games, television, and candy bars as their surrogate parents so that we can have enough spare time to live it up. What are we teaching these children while they are suffocated by the frivolity of modern culture? We are teaching them how to be selfish and how to avoid life’s sterner duties. Good for us. The collective waste of human talent and nobility must fill the Omniscient One with tears enough to fill the Pacific.
Children learn what you teach them. This simple truth needs emphasis. Children learn what you teach them.
So what are you teaching them?
If you’re teaching them something you’re not living yourself, you’re teaching hypocrisy. The first lesson then, in teaching children, is to be living right yourself. You can’t fool kids. You know that. They’ll pick up not what you say but what you are. You’ll pass your guilts, trips, and phobias along to them as surely as the sun rises in the east. What right do you have to do that? First be at peace with God, your fellow man, and yourself. Now you’re ready to teach.
Teach them that God is love and that love never fails. Teach them that there is power in love stronger than any nuke. Teach them that though they’ve been beaten, misused, and misunderstood, that it is still a counterproductive death wish to harbor anger, bitterness, and resentment. Teach them about the karmic repercussions of all their thoughts and words and actions. Teach them to sanctify life and be real. Teach them to face squarely life’s difficulties and not to cower in the face of adversity. Teach them that problems are really challenges. Teach them to have the courage to love where there is hate knowing that their ultimate reward will make worthwhile the often apparent failure of love to triumph in the present. Teach them to be generous, honest, humble, helpful, and joyous.
Of course this teaching will not come through rational sermonettes, neatly outlined. It will come through treating the pretty sister the same as the ugly sister. It will come through consistency in discipline. It will come through your choosing to buy valentines for them with your last $5.00 rather than a bottle of wine for yourself. It will come through your realization that you are an older guide divinely awarded the duty of shepherding young minds to truth through the gargantuan jungle of lies in the world. You are not their equal, or just their buddy, and can’t pretend that it’s just their thoughts versus yours. Sorry. You know better than to buy those modern lies. Accept your responsibility with fear, trembling, and joy.
Make your house and classroom rules simple and few, so that they can be enforced with consistency. This is very important. Three rules, maybe five. Otherwise you help create monsters of jive. Be strong when they beg you to let the rules bend. Your firmness will pay off in the long run. I know it will for sure. Hang in there.
My teaching partner in 1981, Lynn Frey, tells me to believe in the children. Accept them. Love them and let them know that you love them. Be willing to get involved with them emotionally. Help them to succeed. Bring out that part of them which is uniquely them. Help them to grow up, Lynn says, to be who they are, not who you want them to be.
This is very hard, isn’t it, parents and teachers? You can only resist the temptation to push them into your mold if you’re on your own true path yourself. Whether you’re their natural parent or not, you’ve only been given a stewardship from Heaven for their guidance. There are no titles of ownership or dog tags. They are not your property. So persevere. Don’t grow discouraged. Find mercy. Love covers a multitude of sins. Hug them. Pray for them when you’re alone at night and pray with them when they’re at your side.
Love them with all the wisdom and talent and strength that you possess. If you use behavior modification systems, don’t sell out to them; they always create artificial borders which real life often ignores. Don’t make the children guinea pigs. Help them to keep trying in the great battle of life, and help them resist the many urgings to give up the struggle for something easy but unreal. Teach them never to give up though the odds are against them.
The Golden Rule will never be improved upon. So treat them as you would want to be treated. Okay, children?
Elk Grove, Illinois
You are not their equal, or just their buddy, and can’t pretend that it’s just their thoughts versus yours. Sorry. You know better than to buy those modern lies.
I walk into a class and the class flies apart. After five minutes I’m walking to the back to get some tall twelve-year-old to sit back down, while the kids in the first row tickle each other and color in secret pictures of the Hulk, and the kids I pass point to the ground and tell me, “Your shoelaces are on fire.”
My problem is that I flunked out of college — or rather that I’m glad I flunked out of college. Nothing else has so benefited my education. I learned that learning is a human need, not just a desire. I learned that the streets supply their own assignments, that the sky gives homework.
I want to teach these kids chaos. I want them to see the face of chaos so clearly that they yearn for discipline’s thin, cold lips.
In the meantime, I wish they’d save me a seat in the back row that’s safe from spitballs.
New York, New York
This is a poem by one of my fifth grade students in Brooklyn.
Fish are hevenly People in the sea of Dark and Day. Fish swim and Pray for the next day to be bright and gay. When it comes night they will Pray for another day to be Bright and Gay and with the blue sky the Fish will never die.
I believe I have karma with children — karma being “that which will not let go of you.” My college degree is in elementary education and I taught first grade for five months while I was pregnant with my first child. My teaching position was less than ideal; I had forty-three children on double session. That meant trying to teach them reading, writing, etc. in three hours a day. About half my children lived in old mill houses with no plumbing. They came to school barefoot and with no lunch. I did what I could and was happy to quit and have my baby.
I had four children before the first was six because I needed to be needed. I remember teaching them: “If you have five fingers on each hand and you have two hands, what’s two fives?” I remember painting and drawing and working with clay, helping them write letters, and reading to them endlessly. (I have read The Hobbit and The Trilogy aloud twice.)
The oldest three children went to public school. On my part there were years of growing discontent with schools — feelings of frustration and inability to do anything about them. I read John Holt’s books and Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching As A Subversive Activity. They told me that there were alternatives to “open the head and pour in knowledge,” alternatives to “all insects have six legs — true or false,” alternatives to children missing their outdoor playtime as punishment for unfinished work. John Holt suggested: “Start your own school.” So we did.
We went out in the country on top of a hill and put up a building without electricity. Construction began the week after school started, using only volunteer labor and the thirteen children enrolled. Our curriculum included school construction, fossils, weather, Indian artifact collecting, field trips all over the county (gas was cheaper), cooking, insects, snakes, animal tracks, rocks, trees, sewing, and anything that anybody wanted to investigate, talk, read, or write about. Someone gave us a piano and two old guitars. Also donated were a stove and refrigerator (still in use twelve years later), and two toilets, two sinks, and hundreds of books.
We attended two free school conferences en masse our first year. People would say, “A free school in Alabama!” We had a wonderful, frantic, impossible year. The second year things got a little more formal with math workbooks for everyone because some of the parents were worried that their children would get “behind” and might not be getting “enough.” That year in October my marriage fell apart. I made it through the rest of that year, running the school by myself with teaching assistance from several young people who were interested in education. We had a student teacher from Antioch College ad another from the University of Wisconsin. But somehow the pizazz was gone and I didn’t do any recruiting for the third year. With just five children, it was a good year — quieter, not so hectic. We wrote some beautiful poetry together.
I fell in love and got pregnant again that year so it was easier not to have the school the next year. My third and fourth children had school at home for two years and then finally went to the local county school, because they were lonely.
I found myself full circle with a two-year-old to teach. He and I had a playschool with all the local children within two miles — four of them — for two years. My last child is nine now and goes to a Montessori school out in the country where they let me teach science. We climb the mountain behind the school to look for fossils in the limestone bluffs, and go to the “Indian cave” that’s ten miles away, or down by the Tennessee River to a shell midden, or to a good arrowhead field, or to the weather bureau. We make recycled paper or bread, build bird houses or feeders, or make peanut butter for bird seed cakes, or study space with endless fascination.
Next year my child will go to public school in an experimental, open classroom situation. Maybe not next year but some year soon my karma with children will begin winding down.
My twenty years in education have made me wiser about the elusive nature of learning. It is increasingly clear to me that the nature of successful interactions between teachers and learners can never be adequately described and categorized. Each different approach and innovative activity will work for some teachers, some learners, some of the time. The process of learning is simply too complex to accept codification. I have seen the same child be helped by teachers of such different temperaments and styles that it defies the imagination. The teachers I have known to be truly effective with their students do, however, have one essential trait in common — a superior sense of timing. The art of teaching is instinctively knowing when to do things rather than just what to do — sensing when a child needs to be left alone, challenged, touched, given this book or those materials, paired with that child, encouraged, even told no. It is this kind of timing that enables a teacher to help a child master a skill, understand an idea, or discover an insight previously unknown. Schools of education unfortunately do not offer a course in timing and, if offered, it would undoubtedly be as dull and useless as most education courses. Teachers who have the innate ability to develop a sense of timing usually do so by learning from their own experience with children, and through their successes, gaining the confidence to trust their increasingly refined gift.
It is sad that many men and women with good instincts for teaching never get near a classroom. The one consolation is that, as parents, they can at least partially counteract the negative effects of schools on their children. Otherwise we would have even fewer young people surviving formal education with their interest in learning still intact.
St. Francis High School
I’ve always had “a way” with children. I can take a crying baby from her mother’s arms in a grocery store and soothe her; I can carry a tired, irritated nephew to his room and quiet him; I can touch a premature infant lying amongst the eternal tubes and comfort him; I can caress a mentally handicapped woman and love her.
Everyone has said — you have such “a way” with children. You should teach them.
I cannot teach these children. It is they who teach me — how to soothe, how to quiet, how to comfort, how to love.
Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
Our daughters, 7 and 9, have their schooling at home. Most adults who hear that express concern that the girls miss out on “social life,” “social learning,” and “socialization.”
I never tire of pointing out that there is no intrinsic need fulfilled by grouping 20 or 30 people of the same age in a learning situation or social situation. Age grouping for education is an invention of the age of specialization. It serves no educational or social need.
Our girls had a time of being very shy. I ignored all advice on what to do about this “problem.” Not all of us are meant to be highly outgoing.
As their interests and knowledge widened, and as they discovered that there are adults who will communicate with them from an equal footing rather than from an assumption that adults are different from, wiser and more complete than children, they became less shy. As they discovered that other children share some of the same interests, they became less shy. They communicate well with most people who do not have age stereotypes plugging up their minds.
Any conversation about any television program draws a blank from the girls because they never watch television.
But they traveled with, lived with, and loved Morley and Ratty and Badger and the irrepressible, the incomparable Toad. They drew hundreds of pictures of them, invented dozens of stories about them and about characters from other books. They write and illustrate their own books. They read hundreds of books in a year’s time. Fiction and fact. They know more about animals, stars and planets, volcanoes and rocks than I do.
But what impresses me most is that they have almost no place in their existence for any sort of interpersonal violence. They know about war and crime from their reading, about violence and murder and injustice, but physical force, even verbal force, the imposition of one ego on another, is almost completely absent from them. We, their parents, didn’t have to do much about teaching them to be that way. They are that way naturally. They just haven’t learned the unnatural, interpersonal violence from television or from being in close and constant contact with children who have learned it from television or from their observations of the people around them.
I want to teach these kids chaos. I want them to see the face of chaos so clearly that they yearn for discipline’s thin, cold lips.
I have been an elementary school teacher for ten years. Certainly, one of the more tedious aspects of my job has been grading test papers.
Brightening the many unavoidable hours of grading, however, are such unexpected answers as these, all from my sixth graders:
Q: Where was the Great Wall of China built?
A: New York.
Q: Why did the Roman empire fall?
A: The people stopped taking baths.
A: It was too old, anyway.
Q: What was the motto of the French Revolution (“Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood”)?
A: Eat, drink and be merry.
A: Me, you and I.
A: Blood, sweat and tears.
Q: What was a favorite Roman entertainment?
A: They threw Christians to the loins.
(After a month teaching the intricacies of electricity, I asked the class . . . )
Q: In scientific terms, explain what happens when a light bulb goes out.
A: The room gets dark.
Q: The U.S. gets most of its ______________ from the Middle East?
Q: What is the Middle East’s most abundant natural resource?
Q: What did the seer warn Julius Caesar about? (The Ides of March)
A: The idea of March.
Q: Define “prophet.”
A: The money you make when you sell something.
Q: Too much _____________ in your diet is bad for your health.
Q: What is the equator?
A: A broad running around the center of the earth.
A: An imaginary lion running around the center of the earth.
That so many people are dissatisfied and angry about mainstream American education comes as no surprise. What is curious is how late these observations are being expressed and with what vehemence and frustration.
There are two fundamentally different ways of looking at the child. As Dr. David Elkind notes in The Hurried Child, “Americans have traditionally employed two contrasting metaphors for childhood. The first of these . . . describes the child as a growing plant that needs to be nourished and looked after. . . .” The second metaphor sees the child as “raw material” to be kneaded and molded, filled and formed, from the outside in. John Locke spoke of the child as a “tabula rasa” — a blank slate upon which the successes and failures of life are indelibly inscribed. I call this the “beaker theory” of education, in which the child represents a beaker or jug into which data are poured by teachers and measured incessantly by nationally standardized mechanized tests which start from preschool and last throughout high school.
John Holt, the home schooling advocate, says, “Arguments go on about what ought to be in the pitchers, and whether to pour this in at age six or age nine, how fast you pour it in. . . .” He adds, “The assumption continues that if the pouring process is interrupted in any way there’s something wrong with the jug; in other words, that learning is a product of teaching . . . a quasi-industrial process.”
Schools are seen as factories and assessed on performance, production. Unionized teachers are held accountable for the competency of their students. Competency is measured quantitatively by tests. This system has no time for differences and ignores children. The slightest deviancy is termed learning disabled, hyperactive, or something else. After labelling, these children are then put on separate assembly lines — sometimes. Labelling is supposed to guarantee accountability. As Jonothan Kozol says, “You’re reading along with some kids. The supervisor wants to know if it’s reading, language arts, reading for instruction, or poetry. If you should happen to be playing music while you’re reading, he wants to know if it’s music appreciation.”
With the beaker theory, there are pressures to radically speed up the production line. If test scores increase, why not put fifth grade material in grade three? Why not start second grade arithmetic in kindergarten? Schools are mainly concerned with the temporary acquisition of skills, not their application.
Dr. Elkind writes, “There are few innovations in education that have had any staying power, but the machine-scored test is the exception and has become a major force in contemporary education.” The management of these tests requires teachers to spend less time on teaching and more on filling and filing forms. If teachers’ and administrators’ jobs depend on the results of testing, one can imagine where major instructional efforts will be directed. Several states have instituted testing procedures designed to measure “minimum basic skills.” If a district should fail those tests, administrators and superintendents would have a clear incentive to adjust the curriculum to emphasize preparation for tests. Teachers are gradually forced to become educational managers and bookkeepers. Students become progressively alienated with a subsequent increase in school dropouts and violence. The learning process becomes arid, pressured, joyless, and meaningless.
What about the growing plant metaphor? At the least, it recognizes individuality in the child who, according to Elkind, “may be trusted to unfold according to its own inner dynamic of growth.” This is a radical turn-around. It implies that the environment and methods nourish, support, and encourage growth in the student. The teacher cultivates artfully the hidden capabilities of childhood; he or she is a guide and instrument through which the curriculum content is gradually revealed to the child. The teacher as assembly-line worker is replaced by the teacher as gardener. By definition, this metaphor acknowledges independence and originality. It is based on the developmental needs of children, not on a static adult perception of societal needs. It assumes an education not defined by ulterior motives, but whose primary endeavor “must be to develop free humans who are able of themselves to import purpose and direction to their lives” (Rudolph Steiner). This, in turn, demands that the student learn actively, not receive passively.
By recognizing what children really require at what time in the form of stories, playtime, fables and legends, history, geography, math, grammar, and languages, a teacher can give a child access to an experience of all these subjects. By theorizing too early or remotely, the child will have no direct experience of numbers, no sense of botany, of the intricate laws of nature, of geographical configurations, no sense of the course of history or impact of different languages on the cultural expression of a people. The tendency to place all responsibility for decision-making, self-direction, self-education, and self-government on children (as evident in many Free Schools) does not take into account the need for children to have guidance and direction from an adult. Without care and supervison, the garden of childhood will grow wild.
Within this metaphor there are numerous methods used with varying degrees of success. Just as one can garden biodynamically, organically, or with heavy chemical fertilization, one can educate children through a variety of ways. The question phrased within the metaphor is: for what reason do you garden? There are numerous well-meaning private schools which do as much damage to the child as other schools. This is due, in most cases, to improper “gardening techniques.” I believe that many private schools have an undefined vision of the child as an organism with its own pattern of growth. In practice, these schools represent agribusiness to me. They educate according to a program designed with a particular end in mind. One such end, for example, is to graduate over ninety percent of the students into (Ivy League) colleges and universities.
In my opinion, one is ideally looking for an education which will give expression to, and balance, the intellectual, physical, and emotional needs of children. Equally important, an educational system would demand growth in the teachers! Every teacher must strive to become a “green thumb.”
While there are several schooling options which follow the plant metaphor, there is one in particular which strikes a balance between cognitive development and the gradual unfolding of consciousness.
Waldorf education makes significant and unusual demands on the teacher as well as challenging the child in a creative, home-like environment. Great emphasis is placed on the continuum of care. The teacher, who takes the child through the first eight grades, attempts to give expression to and balance the intellectual, physical, and emotional needs of the children.
Waldorf education is based on the premise that the human being passes through distinct phases of development characterized by approximate seven-year cycles. The Waldorf teacher is called upon to recognize the inner nature and transformation which accompanies each phase, and the curriculum supports the child in giving full expression to the outer and inner needs. There is a delicate symbiosis between teacher and student in the Waldorf school, in which the seeds of independent social activity are nurtured.
Cornelius M. Pietzner
Waldorf Institute of Mercy College of Detroit