I didn’t learn the most about teaching from school, nor from any teacher-training course, internship, mentorship, or apprenticeship program. Rather, I learned how to teach from a three- and a four-year-old.
I was not originally meant to be their teacher, although I’m sure I did teach them a thing or two over the time I served as their nanny. However, the small skills I shared with them, such as how to use their “yoga breathing” when they were feeling scared, or that peppermint oil can salve tummy aches, or even how to make a healthier version of the age-old favorite dessert of dirt, worms and mud, dim in comparison to what they taught me.
Mae and Ryan taught me how to change my approach to reach different students. Consequently, I learned to distinguish what sets apart a good teacher from a great one.
A good teacher recites all the right lines—and does it on cue. A good teacher facilitates growth by inspiring his or her students to move further and go deeper.
A great teacher does something else. A great teacher listens, and then helps the student to realize the growth that he or she actually needs, in the moment he or she needs it. And a great teacher does this, not by imparting every bit of sage wisdom he or she has to give, but by meeting the student on his or her terms.
Ryan and Mae had stark personality differences. Ryan, age four, was a sensitive, artistic type. When Ryan was stressed, he needed a gentle, loving approach. As he told me one evening, “I need space.” So space is what I gave him, until he worked through his feelings.
Mae, on the other hand, was outgoing and confident, effortlessly taking command of the playground. What Mae needed most was strict boundaries underlined with firmness. It took me weeks to figure this out. Finally, one day, I’d had enough of her daily, end-of-school-day tantrums. She would throw her backpack, lunch box and various other belongings on the hallway floor, cry and refuse to pick them up as I juggled car keys, sticky hands, art projects and snacks.
This day, I felt an outside force come over me I told her, in a stern voice, to put her lunchbox in her backpack because I would not do it for her. Mae’s preschool teacher, whom I greatly admired, walked by as this was happening, looked me in the eye, and said, “Good.” In her gaze, I saw a newfound level of respect.
I felt the same sentiment emanating from Mae, later that day, when she sat on my lap and gave me a hug. We had crossed a threshold together; Mae now respected me, and from this place she was able to love me on a deeper level.
When I once took a stricter approach, with Ryan, the opposite happened. I could feel him pull away. Tough love created an invisible boundary between us. No longer sharing his bright ideas and creative thoughts with me, he grew quiet in the car ride home. Later, when he spoke to me, he said my name differently than before, with increased emphasis on the “t’s,” a four-year-old version of the subtlest form of mockery.
As teachers, our responsibility is to not only know the differences between the Mae’s and Ryan of the world, but to also honor this understanding by teaching each individual based on where he or she is. This means understanding when tough love will lift someone up—or when it will cause him or her to shut down.
The key to achieving this lies in sensitivity. I have been told countless times that sensitivity is both a burden I must work with and one of my greatest strengths. I never saw this quite so clearly until my experience with Ryan and Mae.
Nevertheless, having sensitivity as a natural tendency does not make using it any easier.
Setting firm boundaries with Mae was incredibly difficult, particularly because I, personally, would not have responded to such an approach. Staying soft with Ryan was equally difficult in the moments in which he frustrated me.
The most important aspect of teaching is that it can never be about the teacher.
Any kind of egocentric tendency to derive self worth from helping someone else (or imparting greater “wisdom”) results in a downward spiral of tunneled vision through which it is impossible to truly see the student.
In order to truly teach, teaching must always be about the student. This means taking a chameleon approach based on what works for each individual, even when that entails stepping outside of what feels comfortable. It also means investigating methods outside of how we were taught.
I am fortunate to have found a teacher who is attuned to the level of sensitivity needed to teach me. As she says, when considering whether to learn from a teacher, we should ask ourselves, “Who told the teacher to teach?”
For me, the answer lies less in whether that person’s teacher(s), told him or her to teach, although that is certainly important. I look more for the ability to listen on a deep enough level, to teach me in both my Ryan moments and my Mae ones.
This post was published on elephant journal.