Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn – Stephen Sondheim
Today is National Teacher Day. It’s been a long time since I went to public school, but I remember all of my teachers. If I had to pick one to honor, it would be Miss Woodruff.
I couldn’t tell you what practical skills I learned from her, although I’m sure there were some. What I remember most is her kindness. I was a painfully shy 8-year-old with no friends. Every day during recess I held Miss Woodruff’s hand and walked the playground while the rest of the kids played around us. She never asked why I didn’t prefer swinging or jumping rope or finding some kids to play with. She just smiled at me with the kindest eyes I had ever seen and let me choose to spend recess with her.
What did I learn from her? Looking back, I’d say I learned the value of patience and unconditional kindness.
This week I participated in a discussion with some other parents about the definition of teaching, and whether abstractions such as kindness, respect, and living a purposeful life can be taught. I think they can, primarily by modeling.
Do I think Miss Woodruff’s actions were motivated by a desire to teach me the value of kindness? No, she was just being her kind, compassionate self to a kid who really needed it. The impression she made on me is indelible, something I feel more than remember.
Teaching intangibles may not be part of the official job description for school teachers and others who work or live with children, but the fact is that kids look to the adults around them for cues about how to conduct themselves in the world.
Modeling is teaching, but it shouldn’t be didactic, and it often happens without the teacher even knowing it. I have a daughter who loves singing. The summer she was eight, she spent several weeks participating in a production of The Sound of Music. The wonderful Sarah Pfisterer played Maria.
When my daughter asked Sarah about her musical education, Sarah said that long before taking voice lessons, she studied piano, which gave her a strong musical foundation. Guess who started studying piano shortly thereafter? Sarah never gave my daughter a single formal vocal lesson, but my daughter’s vocal abilities improved by leaps and bounds just from watching and listening to Sarah, and absorbing what she was doing. Sarah taught her a boatload about practical matters such as good vocal technique, and intangibles like the importance of musicianship, and the value of being kind to others (come to think of it, Sarah’s a lot like Miss Woodruff).
Which brings me to another point about teachers. They’re most effective when they’re identified by the learner. My music-hungry, crazy-for-singing daughter identified Sarah as someone she wanted to learn from and emulate. Perhaps that’s what I felt, too, when I chose Miss Woodruff as the teacher I’d always remember. That person, I thought. That’s the person I want to be like.
So kudos to Miss Woodruff and Sarah for being, whether they knew it or not, such wonderful teachers. When young people seeking to identify teachers look to us, may we all be so worthy.