Wednesday, March 01, 2023

"The Teacher Is Not A Machine"

The teacher . . . is not a machine which follows a certain syllabus, which has certain lessons to recite to the child, and too make him recite them back. She is a sensitive human being who works with her intellect, and loves her work. She is not helpless. She has faith in human nature and the child. She is calm and sure of herself, but not timid. She is not frightened or nervous or in doubt. She is armed with love and understanding.

Educator Maria Montessori wrote this over a century ago. She was part of a vanguard of philosophers, scientists, and innovators that included fellow pioneers such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Rudolph Steiner who were working during that era to understand what it means to treat children as fully formed, capable human beings, rather than as incomplete products to be manufactured along an education assembly line.

Tragically, this idea is still considered "alternative" despite over a century of science and experience supporting and expanding their work. Today our schools are more factory-like than ever, with children being subjected to standardized syllabuses handed down from on high and from which teachers mustn't deviate. Of course, the best of us do deviate, because we know, even as the curriculum writers do not, that children are fully-formed human beings. We deviate because we are sensitive humans who work with our intellect and love our work. We have faith in human nature and the child. This is what has made school at least tolerable for many, if not most, children.

Increasingly, however, policy-makers, largely ignorant of anything about children beyond the factory-model of schooling, seek to punish educators who do not mindlessly adhere to their manufacturing methods, methods that are explicitly inhuman, having been proven in commerce, but never in classrooms. In some places, educators are not even free to choose their own books, discuss scientific theory, or suggest that history is made of both greatness and horror. Some places we are even expected to set our intelligence aside and stick to scripts while being monitored and micro-managed. It would be one thing if these measures were based on scientific principles about how young humans learn, but instead, in many cases, they are being foisted upon school systems in the name of what "the parents" want.

Of course, this all makes it increasingly impossible for educators to love their work. We see this in action as more and more of us are opting out of this profession that we once loved. And for those who remain, it is becoming progressively more difficult to summon up the calm confidence that Montessori and others recognize as a central tenant of teaching.

I have never met a parent who did not want their child treated with love and understanding. I've never met a parent who wanted their child to be taught by a machine. But that is exactly what these education factory bosses are attempting to do to the lives of our children who have no choice about whether or not they will spend their days on these test score assembly lines. In fact, for many children, it is only their teacher's love and understanding that makes school tolerable. 

I've never met a parent who wants their child to suffer from anxiety and depression, yet that is exactly what is happening as even our youngest are expected to put their little noses to the grindstone.

I have been working with early childhood educators and with schools, both directly and indirectly, for over 20 years. We talk about children as fully-formed, capable human beings. We talk about their need to explore, discover, and think for themselves. We talk about the centrality of play to how we learn, especially in the early years. We talk about our faith in human nature. We talk about the importance of relying upon our own intellect and experience and meeting children where they are, rather than where some curriculum says they should be. And we always talk about love and understanding. We question and debate and think. Most of us are parents ourselves: this is what we want for our own children.

Sadly, despite the fact that educators and parents genuinely want the same thing for children, the politics around education has, in many cases, resulted in an almost adversarial relationship between early childhood educators and the parents of the children we teach. This is not good for us, the parents, or society, but it is particularly bad for the fully-formed, capable human beings we call children.

The longer I've done this, the more convinced I've become that if we are going to continue to do our jobs as sensitive human beings, with love and understanding, we are going to have to work to heal this unhealthy divide. Indeed, parents and early childhood educators are natural allies and if we can find a way to link arms, there is no power on earth that can stand in our way. And it starts, as it does with the children we teach, with our relationships.

This is why I developed my 6-week course entitled Partnering With Parents. I won't pretend that it is a panacea for all that ails us, but it is a way forward. Imagine what our world would be like if we could get educators and parents on the same page. Imagine a world in which both educators and parents knew that the best thing for children is love, understanding, and play. It can start with us.


It takes a village to raise a child. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups. The cohort starts on March 2, so act now!

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