Whole Student/Whole Teacher

by Shelley Welch

     In January 1975, Polly Berends published a parenting book, Whole Child/Whole Parent. In the introduction, she brings to light a pervasive parenting struggle:

If you don’t think the title of this book is Whole Parent/Whole Child, then you are the exception. Most people do. Implied is that if the parent is whole, then the child will be whole. If the parent knows how to do it, then the child will turn out okay. But then–oh, horrible thought and worse experience!–if the child seems not to be whole, then the parent must not be whole either.

     I cannot think of a more apt metaphor for our current approach to education. If the teacher is whole (read: licensed, highly qualified, teachers with advanced degrees, board certified teachers, teachers knee-deep in a constant stream of professional development, etc.) then the student will be whole (read: high performers in school/on standardized tests,  school leaders, Ivy League candidates, scholarship recipients, etc.) and, finally, the school will be whole (“reward school” ESEA status, high cohort graduation rate, percentage of AMOs met, number of classes taught by highly qualified teachers, etc.).

     But then– oh, horrible thought and worse experience! –statistics show that neither the students, the teachers nor the school are whole.  The students are apathetic, unmotivated, uninterested. The teachers are overworked, underpaid and resentful. The schools are dysfunctional, uninspired and prison-like. The students blame the teachers and administrators. The teachers blame the students, parents and administrators. And so on. Mostly, though, we look to repair the student. We are mistaken in our approach, and there is another way.

Berends Quotation

     Recently, I had a row with my 11th grade son’s AP science teacher. In my mounting frustration, I wrote to him:

Teachers seem to have lost their vision of students as competent, powerful, self-directed learners and, instead, replaced that vision with that of students as apathetic and unmotivated. As adults, you and I both know that being assigned a project is not the same as having our own ideas respected and encouraged.

     He responded:

Everything that you say makes sense to me. Inspiring these kids is the most important thing we could be doing. The focus on AP classes is in my opinion, one of the problems. These courses have so much content to cover and a test to take at the end of the year. Not much room for experimentation. But the thing that has been driving school districts to teach so many AP courses are the parents.

     There’s something wrong with the focus of the class. Teachers are forced to teach to the test. It’s the parents’ fault. Inspiring these kids is the most important thing we could be doing…he still doesn’t get it. They already are inspired. He is in the way. He is blocking the sun. If he would just position himself appropriately in their learning process, he would see their light, their competence and their intellectual curiosity.

     But what would he do with himself if he got out of the way? What would his administrators do with him if he veered off the traditional education pathway? Ah, therein lies the rub! If teachers don’t “teach,” what DO we do? If we don’t teach in the traditional way, how do we justify our work and represent the children’s true learning? If students are not empty vessels waiting for our knowledge to be imparted, what are they? If re-positioning ourselves enables us to recognize (re-cognize) student capabilities, how do we find the place to be?

Boy at Ocean with Quote

These are questions which, at their heart, invariably lead to deep inquiry (if we are brave enough!) into our image of children as learners and our image of ourselves as educators. Transforming the American educational system requires a willingness to revisit and re-form our image of these two roles.

     The schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy offer inspiration. Educators in Reggio schools view the child as a competent, powerful learner and the educator as a teacher-researcher. Children seek to make meaning of their world while teacher-researchers study children to make meaning of learning, teaching and relationships. Children and teachers become co-learners. The entire paradigm shifts, and the results are powerful. “Children’s learning processes, their search for meaning and their ways of constructing knowledge” become the raw data that the teacher-researcher observes, explores and reflects upon in order to make the children’s learning visible to themselves, their families, their communities (Carla Rinaldi, In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia). In every moment, the child’s actions precede the teacher-researcher’s actions. The child leads; the teacher follows with loving presence and awareness, articulating a negotiated curriculum from which the child can further lead and more deeply explore his interests. 

Forest Final

     So, what is a teacher-researcher? When I began to view myself as a teacher-researcher, what shifted most powerfully was my attention and intention. I practice observation: with mindful attention aimed at discovering the children’s thinking and their “languages,” I watch them play and explore; I listen intently to (and document) their self-talk and their talk with others; and, I seek to support and extend their investigations rather than direct them. I set my intention: I want to unpack their thinking, learning and ways of perceiving their world, to lay it bare for all to view and re-view. I also want to reflect on my own engagement with the children and remain cognizant of my place in their process. I research their work and my practice. I am co-learner with the children.

If the children are my co-learners, we both must have the ability to lead each other to discover and uncover. Most certainly, we do have this ability! With my new place in their learning process, I see them wholly. I see their intense curiosity, their steady drive to make meaning of all the new experiences they meet, their creative hypotheses about these experiences and their willingness to test them and be wrong. They teach me how to be human, how to be humble, how to love. They are not empty vessels waiting to be inspired and filled. Indeed, they are powerful, competent meaning-makers seeking loving relationships to support their explorations and lead them beyond what they could experience alone.

Loris Malguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilia’s educational philosophy, wrote in Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins that

observing [children] in this way offers tremendous benefits. It requires a shift in the role of the teacher from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on learning, teachers learning about themselves as teachers as well as teachers learning about children. This is a self-learning that takes place for the teacher and it enables the teacher to see things that are taking place in children that teachers were not able to see before.

     Indeed, what I see now that I was not able to fully see before is that the children are strong, intelligent, competent to direct their learning, creative, inspired. They also deeply yearn for our attention, not our attention to their creations, but our attention to their creative process. What I see now about myself as an educator is that my own yearning to intentionally and mindfully attend to their creative processes is stronger than I ever knew. This yearning has utterly compelled me to join the ranks of those Reggio Emilia-inpired educators who know they “must forget all the lines they knew before and invent the ones they don’t remember” (Malaguzzi, Your Image of the Child).

If my work now is to invent, I am surely in good company with the children.

© 2015 Shelley Welch