Wednesday, April 02, 2014

For That Purpose Alone

A reader responded to a post I wrote last week, by referencing Jon Muth's book The Three Questions, a story based on the Leo Tolstoy short story of the same name. A couple years ago, I wrote a post inspired by Tolstoy's story and thought it might be worth sharing it again. I think about this story nearly every day in my work with children: it has become one of the touchstones of my practice as a teacher.

I'm not the boss of these people I teach. I don't have the right, or even the ability, to tell them what to do.

I am responsible for them: for their safety; for inviting them to play with things, with me, and with one another; for answering their questions as honestly as I can; for listening to what they are telling me with their mouths and bodies; for helping them understand their emotions, their successes and failures, and how to get along with the other people; and for getting out of their way so that they can get about the business of learning.

In Leo Tolstoy's short story Three Questions, a king searches his kingdom for answers to his three important questions:

(H)e had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to anyone who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And in the end, a hermit helped him to his answers:

Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are . . . and the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"

If a teacher rightly has any power at all, it is the power of Now. It isn't the power of hierarchy, of being right, of being in charge. Now is the ultimate power of seizing an opportunity. The children with whom I work already understand this power much more fully than do I; they are, in fact, in a process of un-learning it so that, in the usual turnings of life, newer children can one day re-teach them. Now is the natural habitat of the very young and it is where a teacher must go if he is to be any good at all. That is where the power is.

And once we are there in the Now, that's where we find the children, the most necessary people; not miniature or incomplete adults, but fully formed human beings for whom we are responsible, not because they are little and we are big, but because they are the ones with whom we are.

And what do we do with these most necessary people? How do we exert our power? We help them with what we find them doing. And what they are already doing is playing, learning, figuring things out. Those are the garden beds they are digging. It's with that a teacher helps. It is for that purpose alone that man is sent into this life.

I'm not the boss of these people I teach. I don't have the right, or even the power, to tell them what to do even if I'm the king.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Teacher Tom, thank you very much for "un-bossing"! "Help me to handle the necessary actions by myself" - found in Maria Montessori. Title maybe "the secrets of childhood" (translated from German).
looking forward for further postings and wishing you all the best!
Kind regards from Germany

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