“Boundaries are like railing on a balcony. If you had no railing, you would stay in, by the door, but if there is one, you can go out and enjoy the view.”
This interview is part of a project named Stories of Inspiring Teachers that aims to share innovative practices around the world and explore the benefits of teaching social and emotional skills (communication, collaboration, creativity, self-awareness, critical thinking) at school.
You could find the 3e college in the end of a residential street, just by a big park. It is 3.30 PM, and all the children are coming out while I’m getting into that cozy and friendly school. The colors in the hallway are vivid, and there is a place to sit and chat comfortably. Amy, the principal, reflects the warm atmosphere of her school: full of life and ideas. She greets me and takes me down to the staff dedicated basement, we pass by a giant open space for teachers, and she invites me to her office to start our discussion. Bianca is joining us a couple of minutes later and then will be Jonathan.
1. “Teaching how to be human.”
Bianca is a cheerful early childhood teacher with a very slight New Zealand accent as a reminiscence of many years living in Auckland. She’s been teaching for 7 years, in various places in China (Shangai, Beijing) and fancies working with the youngest children as they have everything to learn. Ironically, when she was younger, she was asked to work with this class of age, but she refused plainly: “I thought I didn’t know enough, I didn’t want to mess them up!” She got back to the 0–3 years old after several years of mixed ages settings and after an experience as an English teacher. When we ask her what she is doing, she answers directly: “I’m teaching them how to be human.” In front of my confusion, she explains: “I’m teaching them how to be members of society, deal with each other, and themselves. In fact, it’s mainly about relationship with their peers, with us, with themselves.” A pretty huge work!
Empathy is a word that will come back often in our exchanges with Bianca and Jonathan. Building it in children is one of her ultimate goals. But both of them are talking a lot about how we, teachers, should have empathy and should listen to children. Jonathan is working as an Arts teacher with students from every age, and he definitely cares about how he can engage everyone by finding each child’s passion. Teaching is a connection. He talks about a child he has in class, full of energy: “everything is about managing that energy to focus it on something meaningful for him instead of wasting your energy trying to get him to do what you planned. You have to listen to what is going in the classroom.”
Bianca continues with her favorite topic: consent. “You know, even babies can give you consent! You have to be very careful and warn them before you do something to them.” We all know this old relative we didn’t want to kiss goodbye, but we had to because our parents said so. Bianca is very clear: a child is a person, and his choices about his body should be respected. Amy couldn’t agree more and carries on mentioning Ira Chaleff’s “Blink. Think. Voice. Choice” motto (in his book, Intelligent Disobedience): four simple words to help the child to take a moment and think before acting when a supposedly trusted authority asks him to do something wrong. It is crucial to teach children about consent: feel when it’s no, and express it.
2. Setting rules
“This is something on which I changed my mind, explains Jonathan. When I started, I think I wanted to be a friend more than a teacher, and I gave up a little bit on rules. But I understood after a couple of years how critical it was to set them clearly.” Bianca answers with a metaphor: “setting boundaries is like having a railing on a balcony. If you had no railing, you would stay in, by the door but if there is one, you can go out on the balcony and enjoy the view. In fact, rules are not stifling children, there are making them free.” Children will try to push the boundaries, but they need to be redirected each and every time, and Amy has a beautiful way to do this, she says: “Make a new choice.” Needs can be satisfied but safely, safely for the child, for other children, and for adults. Safety is the only thing that matters.
In fact, setting rules is crucial for many reasons. At first, it is the only way to get a proper learning atmosphere when expectations are clear and explicit. Jonathan works on it when he lets one of his students be the teacher: “that’s how I see if they understood the rule and when to use it.”
Amy continues insisting on how important it is to teach frustration because dealing with self regulation is the key to life. We mention the marshmallow test: a child is sat in front of a marshmallow for an experiment, the scientist asserts: “You can eat it now if you want, but I’m leaving for a moment, and if you wait until I come back, you will have two marshmallows.” Years after, scientists came back to the same people and analyze how happy they were with their life. They happened to discover that children who delayed gratification (eating the marshmallow) were quite successful: they earnt a better salary, had more friends. On the opposite, children who didn’t wait, as grown up, were less likely to have a satisfied life: they had much more addiction, less paid job and fewer friends. This study showed the value of self-regulation skills. And it is still accurate today and confirmed again lately by the Dunedin study, an ongoing, longitudinal study of the health, development, and well-being of a general sample of New Zealanders, from their birth in 1972 until now.
If we admit that setting rules is necessary, Amy adds that it has to be positive rules. “When I say: “Don’t think of an elephant!”, What are you thinking about? Elephant, right?” All teachers have little catchphrases in the school: “walking feet” (instead of “don’t run!”), “keep your hands for yourself,” (instead of “don’t hit”), “keep your feet on the floor.” (instead of “don’t climb”) And those become more elaborate as children are getting older, teachers also take more time to explain. But ironically Amy wasn’t convinced at first by those weird rules: “When I came here and learned about this, I just thought “What is this verbal environment?!” But I got used to it, it is natural now, and children are more likely to collaborate.”
3. Designing the classroom
Bianca starts : « I am highly sensitive to how is set the classroom, even in little things like what colors are out for the children to paint with. I mean, how can you expect something good with only orange, pink and red? I try to think about everything. »
« I’m trying to create an environment that says yes,» she continues. It comes from Maria Montessori’s observations about early childhood and her attention on providing a safe place for children: nothing dangerous at their level of course but also if you don’t want them to touch something, just it has to be hidden from sight, so that the child can evolve safely in his environment.
« Organization is crucial in the classroom management, adds Jonathan, the Art teacher, you can minimize the amount of fight by having everything ready and the same for everyone. » Jonathan speaks slowly, and his words are well-chosen: « everything in my class is labeled in English, Mandarin and with pictograms to be explicit. » His class is organized in a way that every child knows where he can sit, where he should look at: the objectives are clear as well as the example and the original work used for inspiration. They know where things are, what they should do with their work when it is finished, what they can do after they’re done. All this organization makes students independent, they don’t need a teacher for little tasks, they know where they are going and what they are expected to do. This clarity avoids confusion, dispersion, and a waste of time. « But, replies Bianca, sometimes, over planning can take away some interesting learning. We had this discussion with Amy, and she came to make me change my mind a little bit about my organization. For example, I used to have on every table a warning about how many children should be around it, and when a fifth child would join, I would come to him and show him the pictogram to make him understand he should go to another table. Amy thought it might give away an opportunity from the children themselves to speak up and problem-solve. I’m still reflecting upon this. »
As a conclusion: empowering children
All of this leads to making students more independent. I must admit here that it is my favorite topic and my ultimate goal! Setting clear rules, designing the classroom, giving children tools to express their feelings and their discomfort, all of this contributes to empowering them. « We should change our mind about what we think of a child’s ability, he can often do much more than we let him do by himself. »