The Power of Teaching
I have a favourite teacher story and it goes like this. As a child, Albert Camus was asked by his impoverished single mother to quit school and start work. Camus’s teacher visited the family home and convinced her to let young Albert continue his education. The teacher’s name was Louis Germain.
Albert Camus went on to become one of the 20th centuries most important novelists. Many decades after leaving school and upon being awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus wrote a letter to Mr Germain entitled “What You Have Been and Still are for Me”. He wrote “Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.”
How many of us have life journeys that are profoundly enriched and transformed by the hand of a teacher? Sometimes as children we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders through poverty, abuse or neglect. In all of that fragility and wrenching pain, it often takes a teacher to make us believe we matter and to unlock the opportunities to exercise curiosity, collaboration and cultivate character
Two thirds of us have had teachers who made a difference in our lives, according to research from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Yet the research also shows that these teachers are outliers in their own school settings. Even the university professors who produce the most impactful teachers are outliers in their faculties. Our education systems do not incentivise modern-day Mr Germains at all
The research now shows what common sense should have always told us. children only learn from teachers they love. We once saw reasoning as being the opposite to emotion, but neuroscience tells us something different. It is only through a deep network of relationships, belonging and collaboration in school and life that we can have an ecosystem for learning. To motivate and organise ourselves for learning, we have to engage the emotions. Emotions are not compartmentalised in a different part of our brain while we deploy rationality and reason to absorb facts.
In any given classroom of 25 children, at least 4 or 5 may experience multiple forms of severe trauma at home. Such trauma chronically activates their stress response system. This doesn’t switch off when they enter the classroom. An attuned teacher in a trauma-informed classroom can soothe the stress response system. They can help the child to learn, trust, connect and build resilience and attachment. And here is where the healing, and therefore the ability to learn, begins. Trauma-informed schooling is potentially one of the most impactful strategies for reducing child trauma in general.
A few years ago attended a lecture by Harvard Professor Tony Wagner on outlier teachers who help kids recover from a broken start . It inspired me to track down a teacher who had transformed my life. At 15 I lived in state care in an inner-city area blighted by drugs and crime. I had been kicked out of three schools and had wound up in an education centre for those at the very end of the line. In every sense, my life prospects were incredibly bleak.
Jan Rapport was an idealistic teacher working in the most difficult of education settings. She gave me a chance. She is the only adult I could remember having a real conversation with during my entire childhood. She instilled in me a lifelong passion for learning and particularly for literature. My imagination soared and I began to see a different path forward. I now know, it was probably the calming attachment and connection, the relationship itself that made the most difference.
When I the school at 16, I lost contact with her. When I finally found Ms Rapport over 25 years later there was so much to talk about that we didn’t really know where to begin. She was now a pensioner and I was well….er…middle aged. We caught up on what we had done with our lives. Nobody expects someone from my background to have a job in the UN, though somehow she thought I would turn out okay. I needed to tell her that she saved me-that I would not be here and I wouldn’t have done all of this without her. I didn’t have any words in my vocabulary that could adequately convey how grateful I am. I was in awe to look into the eyes of this person who saw things in me that I did not see in myself and helped me beat a pathway to places I could have never imagined. A teacher. The power of a teacher.
It is often said that when you are teacher you don’t know where you legacy will end. Louis German commitment stayed with Albert Camus through his life. A part of it passed onto to others through his work, friendships and family. Imagine if we could deliver a global legacy on teaching. If we could take what inspirational, life-changing teachers have and dispense it through entire teaching workforces. Every teacher emotionally present for children. Every child made to feel like they belong and matter as an individual. Every school dedicated to learning, curiosity and trauma-informed healing. We could and we should celebrate the power of teaching and harness it to touch the lives of every child.