It is not unusual to have worked as a teacher for forty years, but to answer the question of what sustains us as teachers might be very different for each one. It is now more than forty years since I began learning how to teach, and looking back, I wonder what has given me energy through the ups and downs and roundabouts of working in a school.
In the 1970s, the children in the surrounding villages where I lived were, most of the time, not going to school. My first move was to provide a space for young children to come to play and learn at their own pace and according to their own interests through various activities. I was taken aback from the beginning because the children who came were not only the five year-olds whom I was expecting but, along with them, their older siblings, who were up to eleven and twelve-year olds. They had never been to school before. Perhaps the first lesson I learnt was just how much children learn from each other and how ready they were to take on responsibility for one another.
The children’s enthusiasm and excitement were infectious. Many children came early in the morning and left only as it became dark in the evening. The children seemed so receptive to the quite limited resources we had. I was struck by their resilience; they rarely complained even when they were sick or even hungry. Many of the children had a strong sense of independence but also a close bond with each other so that they wanted to do things together. There was relatively little friction over sharing things.
I was not a trained teacher, but I was fortunate that soon after the school started, a newly trained teacher from Emerson, the Waldorf Teacher Training College in England, came and worked for nearly two years in the school. She was a remarkably gifted teacher, and I was privileged to be her apprentice, albeit a rather wayward one. One thing I noticed was that she was very reluctant to import the externals of a Steiner approach to the curriculum and was much more concerned to find out what was appropriate in this context with these particular children. Perhaps the hardest lesson for me was to realize that I could be inspired by her but could not imitate her! I had to find my own way of being a teacher and take on only what could take root in me and become my natural source of energy. Trying to be someone whom we are not seems only to deplete our energy.
In the early days of the school, things were quite fluid but gradually a rhythm to the day, week and even the year emerged which seemed to anchor students and teachers alike. Nevertheless there were also spaces for the unexpected and the out-of-the-ordinary routine: a week of drama activities, days to prepare for a dolls’ wedding, or open-ended time to make jewellery from paper, wire and beads that created a morning’s bazaar to buy and sell home-made ornaments, and staying in the evening to observe the stars. Preparation for festivals gave life to all of us in the school so that making lanterns, doing dramas, making scrolls to tell a story and practicing dance and song channelled a lot of energy.
One of the joys of teaching was so often being surprised by children’s questions, responses and solutions to problems. Energy comes from trusting in children’s powers of imagination, practical skills and capacities to think things through. In the last few years, one part of the week was given to free choice activities. The children could choose what they wanted to do and with whom they wanted to work. Some chose to work alone and others would surprise us by working across ages and abilities. Sometimes a new craft activity was introduced and children were supported by an adult, but there were also activities that were done quite independently. A favourite activity was using a whole room to work together to create a landscape, a kingdom or a battle-field with wooden blocks and it was amazing to see how they added new elements to create a dramatic narrative. I remember an elaborate structure made with saris and desks that we took turns to wriggle through to be surprised by the secret treasure at the end.
For a number of years the school was so much part of my identity that it was hard to detach myself from the work, and that brings an ambivalent energy which can be both creative but also, not always balanced. It is not an energy that can sustain over a long period or weather the inevitable frustrations, failures and disappointments. There has to be some distance as well as engagement.
As the years went by, I also realized that it was not only children who needed space but I too needed space sometimes to be something other than a teacher. Certainly children give us energy, but I needed to step back and give time and thought to things that recharged and nourished me: practical and mental activities that I enjoyed and were totally engaging. Energy comes for each through different sources and possibilities: running marathons, stitching quilts, writing poetry, grappling with difficult ideas, making puppets, meditation, growing vegetables or playing and listening to music.
What is common to each of these is receptiveness to the present moment but also seeing all these within the whole of life so that the past, present and future have a unity.
Perhaps what saves us from being bored or being boring teachers is when learning and teaching are part of one stream. There is a story told about the renowned cellist, Pablo Casals. A fellow musician remarked that Casals was like a jeweller who could envision the grand and the whole but also could give his utmost attention to the tiniest element in the music he played. On one occasion, when Pablo Casals was 91, a student came upon him practicing. The student asked in bewilderment, “Master, why do you continue to practice?” Casals replied, “Because I continue to make progress.” When I read this exchange I was struck by the confidence and diffidence of the great cellist and thought how, at the age of 91, Casals was still open to learning and receptive to something beyond his grasp.
The power of a teacher can be a frightening thing because for a brief time a teacher can be in a position to humiliate or undermine a child’s trust in life itself. Authority used in this way is the antithesis of a positive or creative energy that sustains both teacher and student. There are some children who we do find difficult or who challenge us; they are sometimes very different from us but on occasion they are like us in ways that we find uncomfortable to acknowledge. The elusive part is to accept the other, free of both positive and negative projections, and on their terms, not ours.
In the last few years I have become increasingly apprehensive about talking about theories and ideals of education. It seems more important to try to respond creatively to the present moment and to engage with the child or children in front of you and to try and understand the hopes and aspirations of the communities they come from.
I am reminded of a friend who was a wood-carver. He commented that the real challenge for him in making a sculpture was to abandon or revise his pre-conceived design when he encountered an unexpected knot in the wood. Knots in wood are small hard, cross grained areas where a branch once grew, and they lie hidden within the trunk. They may seem like imperfections, interruptions or distractions but they cannot be disregarded as irrelevant. The wood-carver had the skills and the tools but the question lay in the material itself and how to accommodate the unexpected and include its dynamic potential.
I once attended a most unusual workshop. It was about the teacher as a clown. The clown by nature has little power other than to make us laugh at ourselves and is mostly vulnerable in an upside-down world. The clown is ready to risk the unknown and stay with uncertainty. He is only unfailingly prepared for surprises which he or she takes as an opportunity for finding unlikely solutions. The woodcutter encounters the knots in the wood but the clown responds to the ambiguity, the mess and the folly of human nature with humour, insight and lightness. Ironically, it is precisely these qualities of powerlessness and lack of self-conscious dignity that seem to give strength to meet life in all its contradictions and complexities.
A story or poem sometimes lies dormant in us waiting for us to re-visit. I was reminded of a poem that I learnt as a child; it is called ‘Who has Seen the Wind?’ by Christina Rossetti.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by.
Our energy is rather like the air we breathe. It is all-pervasive and palpable in its absence but hard to define, calculate, grasp or control. Creative energy seems to come from sources that we cannot predict: our unanswered questions, times of uncertainty, seeing, as though for the first time, people and things that we thought we knew. Chance encounters with “all things counter, original, spare, strange”,1 and the seemingly un-dramatic events of daily life have a beauty that gives us life.
1 From the poem 'Pied Beauty' by Gerald Manley Hopkins