I was a fabulous teacher. If you’re thinking it sounds self-centered for me to state that, don’t worry-I’m thinking that too, and saying it anyways. I was a fabulous teacher. I was a fabulous teacher because I would have done the job for no money at all (and it’s a sad truth that many teachers would say the same and many make so little that it is virtually true). I was fabulous because many of the traits that make me Me are traits found in Fabulous Teachers I’ve worked with or had. Fabulous Teaching traits, and traits that I have when I am in my Sarahness. They are are these: I listen, and I allow people to come as they are. What makes it Truly Fabulous, though, is that those are two traits children naturally possess, in a way that is so beautifully raw because they aren’t aware that they possess them.
You might be thinking I’m crazy (and I don’t use that word lightly!); anyone who has taught preschool, or had a child, or known a 3 year-old, would have good evidence to say kids can’t listen to save their lives (and I don’t use that phrase lightly, either!). You need only watch 1 minute of a typical circle time to have concrete behavioral examples of how challenging it can be for young children to listen to each other. But what I know to be true is that it isn’t challenging at all, it just has to be worth it.
Humans, little and big, young and old, make change only when they are personally invested. The layers of that investment might be thick; someone’s reason to change might be that changing will ease the suffering of those they care about, thus easing their own suffering. “I’m not going to binge today because I know that when I binge, people I love worry more, and it helps me when I help others not worry.” Or the layers might be thinner, more obvious: “I feel less physical discomfort when I eat one cookie instead of three, so I’m only going to eat one right now.”
We call children under a certain age “ego-centric” because they are; they can’t imagine that the way they experience the world isn’t the way everyone else does. It’s something we try to teach out of them. But, ultimately, all humans are ego-centric, regardless of age. We all act only when it is worth it, on some level, to do so. We all struggle to see outside our own lens of experience. The problem is, we “adults” add layers of shame and guilt and fear onto this-we tell ourselves we should be able to step into someone else’s shoes, that acting for selfish reasons is selfish, and that selfish is bad. But ultimately, we are all always acting for selfish reasons, no matter what. Children just aren’t afraid to be blatantly selfish, until we show them that they should be. We do this out of love and a desire to protect them, but what we really do is protect them from being their True Selves, give them the message that showing up as you are is not always okay, especially if “as you are” is Intensely Intense.
I stumbled upon this clip from an old Sesame Street show the other day, and I think it is brilliant. It is brilliant because I remember watching it as a kid and seeing it as entertainment, and wanting to find some paperclips after the end of the episode. And it is brilliant because when I watch it now, I see something totally different. I see a little boy who is listening intently, and picking up cues, and becoming more and more confused because the experience he is having doesn’t match other experiences he’s had. People don’t usually express Sadness, Anger, and Happiness all within a 1 minute, 25 second span (when they do, we label it disordered). He, at the age of three, knows this, because he is unable to do what the puppet is asking him to do-show on his face what it looks like to be genuinely Sad or Angry or Happy. Because he’s not any of those things, he’s totally, legitimately, confused.
John John does, in this brief clip, what I know kids to be innately capable of, when given the chance and motivated by their own desires: He listens, and he allows space for this puppet to come exactly as he is-Sad, Angry, Happy. He does this naturally, despite his own confusion. He teaches me more about emotion regulation and non-judgment than the adult human behind the puppet.
So, in my cyclical, long-threaded way, I’m back to this: I was a fabulous teacher. Because I didn’t teach at all. Because I recognized, early on, that kids are the true teachers. I got the privilege of observing them closely, of watching and listening and describing their journey as they made messes, literally and figuratively, and figured out entirely on their own how to clean them up. And because I got to do that, I also got to listen to them, when they needed it, and to always make sure to tell them that it is okay to come as you are. In telling them that, I was telling myself. My human selfishness was that, in telling an intensely sad child that it is okay to cry and be intensely sad, I was telling myself that, too. In writing these words I’m telling myself that right now. And isn’t that what fabulous teaching is all about?