Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Natural Teacher

People have called me a "natural teacher." I like the sound of it. I even sense the truth of the statement, at least insofar as I can't imagine doing anything else with my days. I hold a degree in journalism, not education. In fact, I've only taken a handful of ed classes. Instead, I've spent thousands of hours working with children of all ages, stretching back to my days as a baseball coach during my teen and early adult years. And yes, it feels natural. It always has.

I had reason recently to reflect on my first day as "head coach" of a team of first and second graders. I was 16-years-old. I'd already, the summer before, served as an assistant coach to a team of preschoolers (which hadn't been baseball so much as a big daily play date with a baseball theme), but this was the first time I was on my own with a team. I was nervous, of course, but only before I'd opened my mouth for the first time. I sent them to run some laps, then we re-convened for some warm up exercises before launching into baseball skills. It was my first 9-5 job, one during which I coached teams of kids from 5-14, boys and girls, and it was glorious. I did it for 4 summers all told: outdoors, all day, playing baseball with kids. It was my first job and, I'm afraid, it ruined me for every "real" job I tried until I landed on my current one.

In a way it saddens me to realize that I wasted the next couple decades figuring out that this is where I belong, playing with children, thinking with children, learning with children. It's not everyone who falls into their perfect niche right from the start, but I was too young and inexperienced, and growing up in a time when early childhood (heck, teaching in general) wasn't considered a "proper" option for a young man. I just couldn't see it. I thought that the sense of joy came from playing baseball all day long, not the kids.

I do, of course, look back over the path I've taken and, to steal from the Grateful Dead, "I see now how everything leads up to this day." All the pieces fell into place, including those dark years during which I worked as a PR flack for corporate interests, to guide me to where I am today. Knowing for certain what you don't want to do is important too, I guess.

I reckon there are a lot of us in this profession who are natural teachers. In fact, I can't think of a single teacher I know personally who doesn't fall into this category. Admittedly, this is could be an aspect of the progressive play-based bubble in which I live. I imagine there may be some of us who just "fell into it," or who somehow felt there was no other choice. Maybe there are even some who are in it for the money. And perhaps there is such thing as a "manufactured" teacher, like the kind the corporate education reformers envision, but I just can't imagine they last for very long in a career that demands your whole self every day.

So that begs the question, what is a natural teacher? It certainly has nothing to do with teaching style, because we're all over the place when it comes to that. Much of what I do in the classroom derives from those years as a coach. There's a lot of, "Come on, everybody!" and "Let's all go check out the workbench!" You know, rallying large contingents of kids into common efforts, teamwork, cooperation. It tends to be loud. I tolerate more rowdiness than many teachers. But I know plenty of natural teachers whose classrooms aren't like this at all. And it's not really about pedagogy either: there are wonderful natural teachers working through all kinds of approaches, methodologies, and techniques, including not-approaches, not-methodologies, and not-techniques. I also don't think it has much to do with the creativity of the activities we choose, our classroom schedules, or any of the other superficial things we fret over on a daily basis.

No, you find natural teachers everywhere, creating all kinds of thinking communities. The common thread, however, the thing that ties us together, is that each of us, in our own way, has learned how to connect with children, both as individuals and as a community.

It begins with warmth. I love the children that pass my way, and in each interaction I try to find a way to express that unconditional acceptance to them. Physically that involves eye contact, smiling, active listening, and gentle touching. Emotionally that means setting my own petty feelings to the side, being with them of course, but not being subject to them, wiping my own emotional slate as clean as humanly possible, leaving a space in which I can understand the feelings of another untainted by my own. And spiritually it is about stillness; being present. Of all the things I do to express warmth, it's this stillness that is most vital. I don't always succeed, but this is what I'm after each time I drop to my knees and get face-to-face with a child.

This is the greatest gift we can give children because it's only when they know they are loved and accepted that they can fully engage with the world around them, without reservation and without fear.

Secondly, a natural teacher, I think, is someone who knows that she is teaching fully formed human beings. I will not be your master, nor will I be your servant. Perhaps at times I will be your guide, just as there will be times when you are mine. It's a stance that says, you are competent and respected; that you have the same rights and, indeed, responsibilities as the rest of us. It's an approach toward children that acknowledges that the most important things children are learning (as opposed to mere academics) are things that we adults continue to learn throughout our lives, and that we have no lock on profundity or expertise.

Thirdly, a natural teacher does not confuse her role with leadership. There are times, of course, when the teacher leads, but more important are those times when we let the children take over, when we understand that our role is to facilitate, to create the forum in which play and thinking takes place, but not to steer or coral or otherwise compel the children in this direction or that. One of the most common responses from people who learn that I'm a preschool teacher is, "I don't know how you do it." This is almost always said by those with managerial type jobs in which they are responsible for teams of adults. They reflect on how hard it is to get adults to do what they want, and imagine it is only that much harder to manage a bunch of little kids. A natural teacher understands that it's not about getting the children to do what she wants, but rather to help them figure out how to do what they want.

And finally, it seems, a natural teacher is one that constantly strives to balance the needs and desires of the many with the needs and desires of the few. For me, this is where my coaching background plays it's most significant role. That this is the work of everyone, all the time, throughout our lives, at least if we believe in self-governance, makes it perhaps the most important thing we do.

Implied in the notion of a "natural teacher," I think, is the idea that we are born this way, but I think that is wrong. Natural teachers are those of us who through our lives encountered people who were able to express warmth to us, who respected us and held us competent, who acknowledged us as equals without bossing or serving us, and helped us see that even as individuals our destiny is always tied to our community of peers.

Natural teachers are the product of natural teachers, those that connect with us and make us taller by letting us stand upon their shoulders.

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Erin said...

Another insightful post. I think you are correct that we are not born that way. I know for myself, as a parent and as a teacher, I have changed, and am still changing every day. I reflect on all of my interactions with children (and adults for that matter).

I read a blog today that spoke of having the kids assess the days lesson/activity. What a brilliant idea. I'm going to try it this upcoming week. Not in a good or bad sense but in a "what worked for me, what didn't."

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Well, Tom, thanks!
I just love everything that you have said here!

Aunt Annie said...

Loving this!

I agree with everything except the leadership issue; I think a natural teacher does also lead, but in the manner of the Pied Piper- weaving a magic that makes the children want to follow to somewhere exciting. And of course, that's not what we do all the time; sometimes the children are the pipers and we get to follow them excitedly. It's a matter of balance.

I do so love the way you write.

CARRIE said...

One of my dearest friends to this day (I am 38) is my 7th and 8th grade teacher, Mrs. S. She read in my wedding, and my children and I visit her a couple times a year. She is very much the natural teacher who helped me see that I, too, have that calling.

Leslie said...

Beautiful post, I love how you describe it!

@jeannezoo said...

Naturally, I had to comment with Bravo and Thank You and Well Done. You hit many nails on the head on why I love spending my days with children. For me, it is as though the children are a unique language I have learned and a certain kind of food that is fulfilling like nothing else. Keep on writing, Tom :)

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