Last August at the West Hollywood Library in the children’s room I witnessed a real pro in charge of seven two year-olds. What I observed was a model of education as leadership, leadership that created the conditions for the children to exercise their own decision-making capabilities—their own leadership.
This young woman just sat, watched and reacted. The children generated all the action: touching, testing, choosing, initiating, proposing, exploring, fitting and not fitting, building and knocking down, trying, failing, trying again, taking, talking, disagreeing, defending, agreeing, following, conflicting, and resolving their own conflicts without adult intervention. Watching all this humanity in motion was magical.
From time to time the adult corrected bad behavior. Leaving little room for confusion about what was okay and what was not, she nonetheless rarely used her emotions as messages. The children did a lot of self-correcting.
Adult power seemed to emanate from her unflappableness. Her calm, uneffusive presence was, itself, a message: “This is the way one wants to be.” She seemed to see her job as presider, the authority on the throne, the ground of their being. The kids were the show, not her. Her role was guardian and guide.
We hear a lot about the virtue of “consistency” with children. What was consistent was her affect: business like–almost deadpan. She reacted honestly and straightforwardly to everything. The children always knew where they stood with her. They were not, however, always able to predict her response.
Some misbehavior seemed an important part of the learning experience–finding out where this paragon of adult integrity and reliability stood on things. It’s as if the thought in a toddler’s head was: “I know I am not supposed to grab something someone else is playing with, but this is a slightly different situation. I wonder how the law applies in this case.”
Other misbehaviors seemed to have the purpose of checking in—checking for a reaction from time to time to see if the queen was still on the throne, still standing for what she has always stood for.
When her session in the library was over, I talked to her. I had to find out who this person was. It turns out she was a baby sitter.
These same phenomena can be seen at all ages. Judy Stone, one of the all-time great middle school teachers, and I were in charge of 48 seventh and eighth graders for their 45 minute lunch/recess period one rainy day in March several years ago. We were in an old parish hall that had not yet been fitted out for children. Judy called us all together at the beginning and said: “There are three rules: no running, no throwing balls and no jumping off the stage.”
For 45 minutes there was no bad behavior. However, Judy did spend the rest of her time adjudicating whether or not what we had just observed was “running” or a fast walk, “jumping” or a giant step. Was that projectile that went flying past us a “ball” or a wad of duct tape? Now and then we had a student take a ten-minute timeout, but all 50 of us—the 13- and 14-year-olds and the two 50-year-olds alike—had a good time together even though the constraints and restrictions of our environment were somewhat unusual and cruel for active children.
Contrary to popular opinion, children are not fundamentally selfish brutish barbarians naturally bent on chaos needing to be taught right from wrong. Humans are naturally social beings whose brains are designed for learning the ways of collaboration. Research by Alison Gopnik, Patricia Kuhl and others shows that children in the first five years of life utilize the scientific method all day long, that their central research question is what causes what, and that their main field of research is social dynamics.
Educators derive their power from their centeredness and their clear mission to create an educational space rather than to “teach.” Underlying everything is their commitment to child-initiated activity, internal motivation, decision-making, creative problem-solving and cooperation.
Education is leadership. Children resist being managed, but they are happy to be led, especially if leadership helps them with their own leadership skills. Humans are herd animals, but there is a leader in each of us, and our wellbeing in life requires that we keep gaining competence in when, where and how to lead. A life of pure followership is deadening. Sometimes it can be a killer.