David J Carey
Phone: +353 (0) 1 2100600
Mobile: +(0)86 811 5764
The great psychologist and contemporary of Freud,
Alfred Adler (1870-1937) stated over and over again that the teacher
was the second chance for every student. So powerful was the influence
of the teacher that Adler believed he or she could overcome nearly all
of the mistakes in child rearing the parents had made. The critically
important role of the classroom teacher, in both primary and secondary
school, is becoming firmly underpinned by new neuroscientific research.
In this article I will address this important role from a number of
viewpoints: neuroscience, cultural tradition, proverbs and poetry. The
purpose of this article is to stimulate interest in my thesis and
inspire teachers to believe in themselves as healing agents in the
lives of children and adolescents.
A Story to Begin
All life is a story, lived forward, understood backwards , but a story none the less. So we will begin with an excerpt from a children’s book, “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams. In this book, essentially a fable about the restorative power of love, Williams tells the tale of a little boy who is given a stuffed rabbit as a toy. He is a sickly child and has been gifted with many toys. Indeed, the nursery is filled with toys, stuffed, mechanical, toys of all sorts. The rabbit he is given has real thread whiskers and a round bottom. It can’t stand up on its own and tends to fall over if not held. The velveteen rabbit becomes the best loved of all the toys in the nursery as the boy hugs it and kisses it each day and night for many days.
Well, toys being what they are do get jealous and so it transpires that the other toys in the nursery get angry with the rabbit and begin to make fun of it. “You’re not real” they say with scorn. The mechanical toys are especially vicious. They tell the rabbit that they know he isn’t real because he can’t move like they can. All these insulting horrible comments hurt the rabbit deeply and, in a desperate attempt to make sense of his world he turns to the wisest toy in the nursery, the skinless horse.
You see, the skinless horse had once been the child’s favourite toy; so loved, kissed and hugged that his fur had been worn off and his button eyes were falling out. But the love he had received had made him wise and honest and now, sitting in the back of the boy’s closet with all the other discarded toys, he enjoyed the status of a wise elder.
The velveteen rabbit approached the skinless horse and told him he was being jeered and mocked by the other toys. He told him what they said, that he wasn’t “real” and ask the skinless horse a profound question, though the rabbit didn’t know it was profound: “What is real?” Well, the skinless horse, being wise as a result of having been loved, answered, “Real isn’t something you are, its something you become. It takes a long time.” The rabbit pondered this answer and then asked another weighty question: “Does it hurt to become real?”
The skinless horse, being wise and trustful had this to say in response: “Yes, it hurts to become real. Sometimes before you are real all your skin is rubbed off and one eye is hanging out. That’s why becoming real doesn’t often happen to things with sharp edges.”
At this point I want to remind my readers that, like the educational philosopher Friedreich Froebel, I believe that the power of stories is intrinsic and needs no explanation. So I will not tell you about the story or reveal its moral, I will let its truth find its way into your heart.
The Neuroscience of the Second Chance
Nearly all educators have studied attachment theory sometime during their course of study to prepare as a qualified educator. Attachment theory, originally espoused by John Bowlby, posits that the “bond” between mother and infant lays down important patterns of development that influence the child’s adjustment and behaviour. Bowlby spoke of the bond between mother and child but subsequent researchers have recognised that attachment arises out of the bond between the primary caregiver, male or female, between caregiver and infant. Attachments can be either “secure” or “insecure”.
A secure attachment helps the child feel loved and lovable. A child who feels this way will go out in the world and be able to interact with other children and adults in a productive way. This child will believe that people care, will respond to their needs, and comfort them when necessary. This child will also be able to enter the world of new facts, figures and knowledge without undue anxiety. On the other hand a child who is insecurely attached will develop the opposite belief patterns. This child will find it hard to trust adults and to believe adults are comforting people. This child will find it difficult to learn new facts because it will be too anxiety provoking to do so. Either way our initial attachments lay down important neural pathways that result in the internal templates through which we view the world.
Recent neuroscientific research has uncovered a group of neurons located in the brain called mirror neurons. This interesting group of neurons play an important role in social cognition and social relationships. Mirror neurons are activated when we do something: play music, dance, move our hands or arms for example. Incredibly, they also activate when we watch someone do the same thing. In other words, mirror neurons are the electrical-chemical substrates that facilitate all social interaction. They activate when we smile and when we see a smile. They activate when we or others frown. They respond to non-verbal behaviour that we observe in others. Mirror neurons can be said to be the glue of social relationships.
It is the mirror neurons that are largely responsible for the formation of attachment, secure or insecure. But because they continue to grow and develop as we age these neuron remain important mediators in how we humans get along with one another. When a child in a classroom sees a teacher’s smiling face the child responds with feelings of comfort. If they see a frown or cross expression they generate similar emotions within themselves. The important role of mirror neurons makes it possible for the teacher to correct attachments when they are not secure. This correction lays down new and positive templates helping a child to feel loved, cared for and nurtured, not only in the classroom but in the wider world.
The Poetry of the Second Chance
In the early 20th century in America a lawyer began to write poetry. Edgar Lee Masters was a scholar of Greek and Latin. His studies had led him to a collection of Greek poetry known as the Greek Anthology. These were short poems and epigrams written from the point of view of famous and unknown people, deceased and commenting on their lives. Entranced with the Greek Anthology, Masters wrote Spoon River Anthology , a collection of post-modern” epitaphs” of former citizens of the fictitious Spoon River, Illinois.
Three of his poems speak loudly to the notion that the teacher is the second chance for every pupil and student. I will quote each of the three poems in turn and have a few words to say about each in relation to my thesis.
Whoever thou are who passest by
Know that my father was gentle,
And my mother was violent,
While I was born the whole of such hostile halves,
Not intermixed and fused,
But each distinct, feebly soldered together.
Some of you saw me as gentle,
Some as violent,
Some as both.
But neither half of me wrought my ruin.
It was the falling asunder of halves,
Never a part of each other,
That left me a lifeless soul.
Powerful truths speak out from this poem. The deep polarity of gentleness and violence are mixed together in one personality. However they are not fused into a union of opposite and the result is that people never noticed the whole person, only one half or the other. The falling apart of halves which was the inevitable consequence of life led without a union of its parts.
Is it possible that the teacher is a “welder of souls”? Is it possible that in being the second chance for every child we can fuse opposites into a union and totality? Is it possible that we can help those children and adolescents who come to us as a collection of sharp edges become “real”?
Where is my boy, my boy-
In what far part of the world?
The boy I loved best of all in the school?-
I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,
Who made them all my children.
Did I know my boy aright,
Thinking of him as spirit aflame,
Active, ever aspiring?
Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed
In many a watchful hour at night,
Do you remember the letter I wrote you
Of the beautiful love of Christ?
And whether you ever took it or not,
My boy, wherever you are,
Work for your soul’s sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you,
May yield to the fire of you,
Till the fire is nothing but light1
Nothing but light!
The village school teacher with a pure heart, the teacher who made all the children her children, sees the light inside this boy. She recognises him as containing the opposites of clay and dross and beseeches him to yield to the goodness of the burning flame within him to unite these opposites. Here again Masters perceives the incredible and unknowable conflict of opposites contained within the human soul. Here again he underscores the vital importance of uniting these opposites. Only this time he inserts the teacher as the healing agent.
Well, what of Emily Sparks and her exhortation to her boy? Well, as it happens the boy himself lies in the Cemetery of Spoon River and reminisces about his teacher.
Well, Emily Sparks, your prayers were not wasted,
Your love was not all in vain.
I owe whatever I was in life
To your hope that would not give me up,
To your love that saw me still as good.
Dear Emily Sparks, let me tell you the story.
I pass the effect of my father and mother,
The milliner’s daughter made me trouble
And out I went in the world,
Where I passed through every peril known
Of wine and women and joy of life.
One night, in a room in the Rue de Rivoli,
I was drinking wine with a black-eyed cocotte,
And the tears swam into my eyes.
She thought they were amorous tears and smiled
For thought of her conquest over me.
But my soul was three thousand miles away,
In the days when you taught me in Spoon River.
And just because you no more could love me,
Nor pray for me, nor write me letters,
The eternal silence of you spoke instead.
And the black-eyed cocotte took the tears for hers,
As well as the deceiving kisses I gave her.
Somehow, from that hour, I had a new vision-
Dear Emily Sparks!
In this most remarkable poem Masters unites the teacher and the student in the broken life of a boy saved across time and space by the healing, silent memories of his teacher. Not just any teacher but the teacher who never gave up on him, who would saw him still as good despite the trouble of his life. The teacher who loved him “best of all the school”. What a wonderful reverie on the healing and life-saving role of the teacher. Masters, the millionaire lawyer and poet knew in his heart what Adler, attachments theorists and contemporary neuroscientists are now proving: the teacher is the second chance for every child.
Proverbs and the Second Chance
Bí go maith leis an ngarlach agus tiocfaidh sé amárach.
Be good to the child and he will come to you tomorrow.
Is society in general being good to the child? Where is the goodness in a Department of Education that spends millions of euro in the high court fighting the legal actions of parents of children with autism rather than fund, establish, resource and appropriate educational programmes for them? Where is the goodness in a Heath Executive that permits the child and adolescent psychiatric service to be stifled with horrendous waiting lists? Where is the goodness in teacher training programmes that spend little time preparing mainstream teachers to teach children with special needs while at the same time fostering the notion that every qualified teacher is also a qualified special education teacher? Where is the goodness that permits the Department of Education and Science to provide so little continuing professional development and not to reward those who do complete it with an increased salary allowance? It is a wonder, in view of the above, that our children come to us tomorrow.
Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.
Praise the young and they will blossom.
Although seemingly a good notion to praise children the proverb fails to appreciate the power of encouragement over praise. Praise is external, coming from the powerful adult world in school. Praise focuses on the product a child has produced and is highly dependent on the arbitrary decisions a teacher has made about what standard of work to praise. Slow learners and performers in school do not receive much praise as so often the bar is set too high. Encouragement focuses on the effort a child has put into completing their work. Encouragement focuses no the feelings children have when they put sufficient effort into work and the feelings they have when they don’t.
Mitigating against the power these lovely proverbs have is the social reality that children have few rights vested under Irish law, social policy or the constitution itself. The potential of the teacher to be a second chance for every child is reduced by social factors including large class size, small classrooms, limited teaching resources, the pressurised curriculum at both primary and secondary level and the crushing weight of an exam-driven secondary educational system which places value primary on how many students go on to third-level education as opposed to how many students leave school equipped to live a life of dignity, self-respect, self-confidence and the ability to be contributing members of society.
In writing this piece I have focused on the healing role of the teacher in the life of every child. I have underscored this notion with evidence from a founding figure of psychology, from a children’s story and from poetry, from attachment theory, from the neurosciences and from Irish proverbial wisdom about children. I have introduced the mitigating factors of society-at-large and the role of those who dictate to us how families, children and teachers have to live their lives-our government and its policy makers.
It is true that the teacher is the second chance. I encourage teachers to meditate on this basic fact and to recognise that their highest worth is not to be determined by how much knowledge they instil but rather on the impact of their healing role in the lives of children who bring to them “sharp edges.”
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