Bringing out the Best in the Children

One of the parents’ meetings at The School of Total Education during 2012 focused on the topic “Bringing out the Best in the Children”, with questions put to some of the teachers from the school. John Cosgrove has been a teacher at the school for many years and is currently teaching Grade 7. This article is an edited transcript of his responses.

Q: What does it mean to bring out the best in your children?

JC: It’s very hard to know always what is best for the children, because situations are always unique.

I’ll describe the way I approach my teaching. I begin my day by sitting quietly for an hour from 6am to 7am. I do a settling practise which is like what people call meditation, but it’s not really meditation, it’s just sitting quietly for an hour. I’ve been doing this for quite a few decades now, and the benefit that I get from it is quite profound, given where I’ve come from in my life.

And so what happens is, I sit quietly and settle right down, and I experience a stillness and a sense of spaciousness. And in that state, which has taken many years to develop, things just come to me, and it’s not always about the children, but sometimes it is, and sometimes not much happens at all and I just sit there very quietly and it’s really pleasant. This practise sets me up for the day and then I come to school and I’m fairly focused. My mind is pretty much present with the children — I’m not thinking about stuff at home. I wouldn’t say I’m totally available, but I’m as available as I can make myself, and that has an effect on the children.

When I come into class I have, not an agenda, but an intention, and that intention is translated to the children. And so they feel a sense of reassurance from that because they sense that I’m not bringing any extra baggage with me, I’m just there and that’s how I start the day. And when we do school work, it’s the same thing. I have a certain, not an expectation, but a requirement which has to do with the standard that I have, and I project that into my day.

Part of that is encouraging in children a capacity to be still and to work quietly, because today we’ve got so much coming into our lives from life and from technology that it’s very hard for kids to settle and get a sense of themselves and what they have to do. So I set my classroom up like that every day.

Of course the children all differ in their abilities, and so I deal with that on an individual basis. In terms of bringing out the best in the child, I try to provide a “platform” if you like from which I operate, and I do that every day so the children get an experience of consistency from me, in how I come into the classroom each day. After that of course anything can happen. All hell can break loose. But at least you make a good start, and then when the situations come up, you’re there to deal with them.

There’s a big part of children’s lives that exists outside school and the classroom. All sorts of things can be happening at home and so they can come to school with quite different states of mind. That’s why I emphasize creating a sense of security and steady consistency at the beginning of the day, because it sets up the tone for the whole day.

Q: Can you give us some understanding about what an abiding or deep sense of self worth is?

JC: I think our whole system of education at this school is based on self worth and developing a sense of self worth in the children is possibly our most important job as teachers.

With children, we’re dealing with self-esteem issues all the time. But we’re also dealing with self-esteem issues in ourselves and a lot of what we’ve got to offer the children is directly related to what we have in ourselves and how much of that we’ve worked out in our own lives. When it comes to looking at moving your children forward, you can’t really divorce that from where you are in yourself and how much you’ve looked at that sort of thing in yourself. So self-esteem is an important issue for all of us.

In the classroom I try to be with the children and encourage them to move forward, yet without having any expectation of them. But there are goals, directions and guidelines that I expect them to follow in the classroom. I have a conviction that following positive guidelines is going to build self-esteem in the children, and because I believe in it, that somehow gets transferred across to the children.

Even though some children find it really hard to settle in the morning, I insist on a certain period of time where they work silently. To that extent they start to build their self-esteem, because over time they realise they can do things, they can achieve things.

Q: What are your thoughts about “innateness”?

JC: Children inherently have a beauty about them and when you work in a supportive environment, which is what our school is, it’s a great privilege, because you get an opportunity to see the children as they really are. And although what you see isn’t perhaps always to your liking, the fact is, in this environment they can be themselves. The emphasis on bringing out innateness as one of the ideals of the school is that by allowing children to be themselves, it gives them an opportunity to work through things that are unique to their personalities. It’s different for each child. Over a period of time, they become more settled and then things start to become self evident to them very, very subtlely.

Now it may not happen in the 12 years or so that they are at the school. That’s where the element of patience comes in. For those of us who are educators it is important just to be there, to allow the children to go through what they have to go through. Eventually they find their strengths. Some of these strengths can be readily identified and often people think of innateness as musical talent or artistic ability or scientific leanings. But innateness to my understanding can also be about the humanity of being a person — the capacity to empathise, the capacity to develop those human qualities.

This can be seen especially when we have special days in the school, when the older children share activities with the younger children — they work with them and bring out joyful things in them, probably in ways that we can’t do. Quite often that relationship is very subtle and they learn from each other.

Different children are bound up in different ways, and as teachers, we try to encourage those aspects which will help free them up. The challenge for us is to empathise with them, so that they feel OK about themselves and once they start to feel comfortable, they start to explore, in quite a non self-conscious way.

Q: How can teachers and parents work together to bring out the best?

JC: I think one of the great things for children is if they see the teacher and the parents getting along well, or at least on the same page. I think that happens a lot at our school. It’s based on respect and having faith that the teacher has the best interests of your child at heart. As teachers, we get a lot of support from each other also. For example, Judy (the Deputy Principal) might ask me to follow something up and then she’ll provide me with information and ideas to help me with that. It happens with other teachers too. Everyone supports and helps each other. The children see that being modelled in the school and that has a really powerful transforming effect. So if parents and teachers are communicating really well together, that creates a tremendous benefit for the students.

Some parents can be over-concerned about what’s happening with their own child. Of course it’s your child and that’s really precious and while I can totally understand and appreciate that, sometimes the preciousness can get in the way of seeing things clearly.

I mentioned the word lightness before. Having lightness in the classroom, or dealing with situations with an element of lightness can really help, because as teachers we know that children are going to go through things and that they always come out the other side. Wherever your child is at this particular point in time, and however concerned you are about them, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s going to pass.

It’s one of the things I had to learn early as a teacher. When you start your teaching you want everything to be “just so” and you try to control things, but after a little while you find out that you can’t control things. It nearly drives you crazy, but as you get older and more experienced, you start to let go and have faith that things take their course and you get help from unseen sources. I’m not hugely religious but I do believe in the influence of forces greater than us.

You begin to understand that it’s not all about you, it’s not all about your child — there’s a bigger picture in play. If you have faith in that, and believe in it, you start to look for aspects in your life where you see that working out. The more that you see that, the more it will show up in your life. Speaking personally, I’ve found this really helps in dealing with anxiety or frustration, because it’s only natural that when something starts to go wrong you want to grab it and hang on to it and control it. But I’ve had to learn over the years to step back and let things evolve in their own way.

About the Author

John Cosgrove has been a teacher at The School of Total Education since the 1990s, after studying teaching at the University of Southern Queensland. Before that he had a rich and varied work experience, including working for many years in businesses which provided philanthropic support for the school.

(Published on web site: November 2012)