Advice for Teachers – 3

Optimism and faith
We are continuing our translation of Sukhomlinsky’s 100 Pieces of Advice for School Teachers with chapter 3, which is about how to avoid nervous exhaustion.

3. How to avoid nervous exhaustion in the process of our daily work
Our work takes place in the world of childhood, something that we should not forget for a moment. And this is a special, an incomparable world. We should get to know that world, but that is not enough. We should live in that world. You could say that in every teacher a spark of childhood should shine and never grow dim.
What is the world of childhood? Here I am merely giving practical advice to teachers and do not claim to be providing an academic, psychological definition of all the characteristics of childhood. I would say that childhood is first and foremost an emotional discovery of the surrounding world. The world of childhood is above all the heartfelt apprehension of everything that children see around them and do: a bright, full-blooded, expressive life of the heart, a play of feelings and emotions. That is what the world of childhood presents to us as the object of our labours and the environment in which we work.
Hour by hour the life of children’s hearts brings us satisfaction and dissatisfaction, joy and sorrow, sadness and delight, bewilderment and amazement, affection and anger. In this extremely broad range of feelings presented to us by the world of childhood there are pleasant and unpleasant, joyful and disappointing melodies. Being able to make sense of this harmony is an important precondition for finding spiritual fulfilment, joy and success in educational work. If associating with children brings a teacher only disappointment, anger and indignation, this not only leaves unpleasant impressions on his soul; it disturbs the function of his internal organs. Teachers who are not able to appreciate the world of childhood and its complex emotional harmony, often develop psychosomatic conditions, the most unpleasant and serious of which is nervous exhaustion.
‘I only teach three lessons a day,’ writes Lydia N. from the Tambovsk Region, ‘But I come home completely exhausted. I don’t have the energy to even think, let alone prepare for lessons or read. Why is this? During my hours or work at the school I am stretched to breaking point. The children’s pranks give me no rest. It seems as if each little boy thinks of nothing else but how to cause me some unpleasantness. During the lesson I see Fedya dig Vanya in the ribs, and Vanya returns in kind, hitting Fedya over the head with his ruler… The other teachers say these things are trivial, but I cannot observe these things calmly: a hot wave of feeling surges through my body and my heart nearly jumps out of my chest. My arms and legs feel numb. I lecture the student, trying to speak calmly, but my voice shakes. The children notice this and seem to be making fun of me, thinking up new tricks. What should I do?’
This has already reached the stage of a nervous disorder, caused by a failure to understand the world of childhood. On the whole this is a wonderful world, dear colleague, and if you know it and feel at home in it, like a fish in water, it will bring you far more positive experiences and emotions than negative. You must learn to listen to that music that we call childhood with your heart, and to discern the brighter, more joyful melodies. And do not content yourself merely to listen to the music of childhood; help to create it by becoming a composer. In the music of childhood, create those bright, joyful melodies upon which depend your health, your strength of spirit, and the condition of your heart. Your piano and your manuscript paper, upon which you write the music of childhood, your conductor’s baton, with which you direct the melodies, come from a very simple and at the same time very complex thing, from your optimism. Remember that amongst children, adolescents and young men and women there are none with criminal intent, and if such do sometimes appear—one in a thousand or one in ten thousand—they are created by evil, and healed by goodness and humanity, and by that same magic violin and magic baton—optimism.
There is nothing in a child that would demand cruelty from a teacher. And if vices do arise in a child’s soul, then that evil is overcome mainly through kindness. This is not preaching non-resistance to evil, but a realistic view of the world of childhood. I hate grating suspicion towards children, and the formal regulation of demands and prohibitions. I am not preaching sloppiness and ‘free education’, but I firmly believe that kindness, affection and love towards a child—not some abstract kindness, affection and love, but real, human feelings embodying faith in young people—constitute a mighty force, capable of affirming all that is beautiful in people and leading them towards an ideal. I do not believe that a child who has been correctly educated can become a hooligan, a parasite, a cynic, or a false and depraved creature.
Optimism and faith in people provide an inexhaustible source of creative and nervous energy, and of health for both teacher and student. Do not allow the seeds of suspicion or a lack of faith in people to grow in your soul. A lack of faith in people, however small and insignificant it may seem at first, can grow into what I might call—since we are talking about physical and mental health—a cancerous tumour of ill will. Ill will is a dangerous condition of the soul, which affects the heart and nerves. This condition covers the eyes of a teacher with scales, so that he cannot see the goodness in a person. Ill will is like a pair of magic glasses, whose lenses diminish anything good to microscopic proportions, making it invisible, and magnify anything bad to monstrous dimensions, so that it hides more subtle human characteristics. The deterioration in a teacher’s health begins, my young friend, by allowing ill will to grow, feeding it with intentions and actions that have nothing in common with an optimistic faith in people. Ill will is the mother of anger and bitterness, and bitterness, figuratively speaking, is a sharp thorn that constantly pricks the most sensitive corners of the heart, wearing out the soul and weakening the nerves.
Most of all avoid the malice that takes pleasure in another’s misfortune. Suppose you have managed—may this never happen—to really get under a student’s skin and hurt him. You have written in his diary about his misbehaviour, and somewhere in the depths of your consciousness a joyful thought has flashed: ‘Your father will read my note, and he is very demanding your father, he will give it to you…’ You glance at the child’s sad eyes and they do not bother you; you remain calm. Understand, dear friend, that such moments mark the beginning of your great misfortune. Malice is taking root in your heart. It seems at first a weak, harmless creature, but in actual fact it is a poisonous serpent. Malice in turn gives rise to intolerance. A malicious heart becomes deaf and blind, incapable of sensing the subtle movements of a child’s soul. A malicious person sees evil intentions in ordinary childish pranks. Intolerance of childish misbehaviour and pranks turns a teacher into a cold logician, a calculating overseer, hateful to children. And they pay him back for his petty fault-finding by baiting him and trying to unsettle him. Once this process starts, the teacher’s heart gradually burns out from having to continually suppress his anger. Avoid this great misfortune my friend. If you do not manage to avoid this, you will become a peevish, irritable, gloomy creature. Your work will become hard labour, and you will develop a hundred ailments and a hundred vices.
Goodwill and rational kindness—that is the atmosphere that should characterise the life of a class of children, and relations between a teacher and children. What a beautiful word that is, and at the same time what a deep, complex, many-facetted human quality—goodwill. If it is mutual, one human being opens up to another with all the depth of their soul.
I have said it a thousand times, and will repeat it till the day I die, that mutual goodwill between a teacher and children creates those subtle threads that connect hearts, and thanks to which—this is so important in our educational work—one person understands another without words, feeling the subtle movements of their soul. Many years working in schools has firmly convinced me that if I have goodwill towards the children, and have educated goodwill in them, they will spare my heart and my nerves, and will understand when my soul is troubled, and when it is hard for me even to speak. Sensing my state of mind, feeling that my soul is troubled, the children even talk softly, avoid making a noise, and try to afford me as much peace and quiet as possible, during both lessons and breaks. In this mutual reading of hearts and souls is an inexhaustible source of health for you, my dear colleague. But here we are entering a very special aspect of school life, an area about which very little is said, but much needs to be said. We are speaking of the very essence of goodwill as one of the most important aspects of emotional education.

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