Sukhomlinsky received hundreds of letters from teachers throughout the Soviet Union, asking for advice. In response to these letters, Sukhomlinsky wrote 100 Pieces of Advice for Teachers. We will translate a selection of these 100 articles, and post them on this website, starting with the first piece of advice, which relates to young people choosing a vocation:
1. What is a teacher’s vocation, and how is it formed?
Like any qualified, purposeful, planned and systematic work, the education of human beings is a profession, an area of specialisation. But it is a special profession, unlike any other. It is distinguished by a number of specific characteristics and qualities:
a) We are dealing with the most complex, priceless and dear thing in life—with human beings. Their lives, their health, intellects, characters and wills, their civic and intellectual identities, their positions and roles in life, and their happiness, depend on our ability, skill, artistry and wisdom.
b) The final result of educational work will not be visible today or tomorrow, but only after a very significant passage of time. What you have done and said, the influence you have had on a child, sometimes only becomes evident after five years or ten years.
c) A child is subject to the influences of many people and life phenomena, including their mother and father, their school friends, the so-called ‘street environment’, books read and films viewed unbeknown to you, a completely unforeseen encounter with someone who exerts a powerful influence on a young soul, and so on. These influences on children can be positive and negative. There are difficult and oppressive family situations that leave an indelible mark on a person for the rest of their lives. A school’s mission, our joint task dear colleague, is to fight for every human being, to overcome the negative influences and to encourage the positive influences. For this to happen, it is essential that the teacher’s personality should have the brightest, most effective and beneficial influence on a student’s personality. Dmitry Pisarev wrote: ‘Human nature is so rich, powerful, and elastic, that it can preserve its freshness and its beauty, even in the midst of the most oppressive and ugly environment.’ But human nature can only fully reveal itself when a child has an intelligent, skilful and wise educator.
d) Our work addresses subtle aspects of the spiritual life of the developing personality—intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness. One may influence these spheres only through like action, through intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness. The most important means for influencing the spiritual world of the pupil are the teacher’s word, the beauty of the surrounding world and of art, the creation of circumstances in which feelings find their most striking expression—human relationships covering the whole emotional gamut.
e) One of the most important features of our creative work as teachers is that what we are working with—children—are forever changing, forever new, different today from what they were yesterday. We are responsible for the formative years of a human being, and that is a special incomparable responsibility.
Such are the characteristics of educational work. What then constitutes a vocation for it? What objective criteria are necessary for it, and how can we prepare for, establish, develop and refine that vocation?
It is a fundamental spiritual requirement of any human being to communicate with other people. In this we find joy and fulfilment. But in some people, as a result of various circumstances, this requirement is little developed, while in others it is a personality trait that dominates all the others. There are some people who ‘by nature’ are unsociable, withdrawn, uncommunicative, who prefer solitude or the companionship of a narrow circle of friends. (‘Nature’ of course has nothing to do with it. The decisive factor is upbringing, especially in early childhood.) If socialising with a large group of people gives you a headache, if you would rather work alone, or with two or three other people, than with a large group of colleagues, then do not choose teaching as a profession.
The teaching profession equates to a study of human nature, a constant, never-ending effort to enter into the complex inner worlds of other people. A remarkable trait—the ability to constantly discover new attributes in another human being, to experience the wonder of discovering those new attributes, to see a human being in the making—is one of the roots from which a vocation for teaching grows. Its foundation is laid through the efforts of elders—fathers, mothers, teachers—who educate a child in the spirit of love for others and human respect.
You begin to dream of becoming a teacher. Run a check and test yourself. If you are in the final two years at school, ask the Communist Youth League committee to appoint you as leader of a Pioneer troop or a group of Little Octobrists. [Note: Pioneers were like Scouts, and Little Octobrists were like Cub Scouts, with each class of school students forming a troop.] In front of you are forty youngsters—at first glance they seem very similar to each other even in their external features, but by the third, fourth or fifth day, after several walks to forest and field, you become convinced that each child is a world in themselves, unique and never to be repeated. If this world reveals itself to you, if you sense the individuality within each child, if the joys and sorrows of each child find a response in your heart, in your thoughts, cares and concerns—then you may confidently choose as your profession the noble work of a teacher and you will find in it the joy of creativity. For creativity in our work (I will return to this later) is first and foremost the process of coming to know, of discovering a human being, of experiencing wonder at the many facets and inexhaustibility of human nature.
If, on the other hand, those forty children seem depressingly the same to you, if you have trouble remembering their faces and names, if each pair of children’s eyes does not tell you something deeply personal and unique, if you cannot recognise a child’s voice ringing out in the depths of the yard, and what they are expressing in that shout, cannot recognise it after a week or a month, then think seven times, as they say, and then decide if you are suited to teaching. Because there is not a single educational rule, not a single truth, that is absolutely equally applicable to all children. Because in practice education is knowledge and skills, developed to a point of mastery, and then raised to the level of an art. Because to educate a human being is first and foremost to know their soul, to see and feel their individual world.
‘If I had the power, I would cut out the tongue of anyone who says that people are incorrigible.’ These words by the great thinker Abai Qunanbaiuli sunk deep into my soul. They burn before me in fiery letters every time I think about the vocation of a teacher, when I have to talk with young teachers about their joys and sorrows, their successes and failures. Limitless faith in human beings, in their fundamental goodness, that is what should live in your soul if you are thinking of devoting your life to the noble work of teaching. Not faith in some abstract human being that does not exist in nature, but in our soviet children, developing in a socialist society.
The cornerstone of the teaching profession is a deep faith that every child can be successfully educated. I do not believe that there are incorrigible children, adolescents or young men and women. We have before us a young person who is just discovering the world, and it is in our power to make sure that nothing crushes, cripples or kills the goodness, kindness and humaneness in that little person. For this reason any person who dedicates their lives to educating human beings must be patient with children’s weaknesses, which, if we examine them very carefully and reflect on them, turn out to be insignificant, and not worthy of rage, indignation or punishment. Do not think that I am advocating tolerance of any behaviour, an abstract tolerance that requires a teacher to put up with anything, and ‘bear their cross’. I am talking about something completely different, of the wisdom that allows an older person—a mother, father or teacher—to understand with mind and heart the subtle motives and causes that give rise to children’s misbehaviour; to understand with mind and heart the childish nature of this misbehaviour. Not to place children on the same level as ourselves, and not to have the same expectations of them that we have of adults, but at the same time, not to be childish ourselves, not to descend to the level of the child, but to understand the complexity of children’s behaviour and their relations with each other.
If every childish prank arouses irritation and an accelerated heart rate, if it seems to you that those children have reached the limit, and you need to do something extreme and take emergency measures, weigh seven times to see if you should be a teacher. You cannot educate properly if you are in constant conflict with children. The ability to calm conflict first and foremost through an understanding of the fact that you are dealing with children—this ability grows from a deep root that supports a teaching vocation—from understanding with mind and heart that a child is a constantly changing creature.
There is another trait without which, in my opinion, a teaching vocation is impossible. I would call this trait a harmony of heart and mind. There is probably no other profession other than education and medicine that demands such heartfelt involvement. You may have more than forty pupils. If you are teaching in senior classes you may have a hundred or a hundred and fifty students. And you have to give each one a little of your heart. You have to find room in your heart for each one’s joys and sorrows. Empathy, heartfelt concern for others—this is the flesh and blood of the teaching profession. A teacher cannot be a cold indifferent person. Cold calculation, meticulous consideration of everything that has happened, and a fear of not fully observing all the relevant regulations, arouse mistrust in children. Children dislike teachers who are too calculating and will never bare their hearts to them.
In all circumstances act on the first impulse of your heart—it is always the noblest. But at the same time teachers need to regulate their heartfelt impulses with reason, and not let their emotions get out of control. This is especially true when you have to make decisions concerning mistaken, impulsive and just plain wrong behaviour by your students.
A teacher’s art and skill is in their ability to combine heartfelt empathy and wisdom.
Sometimes you need to delay taking a decision, and allow your feelings to subside. Each time I have to talk with a student about behaviour that expresses complex, conflicting motives, I put off the discussion for several days. I assure you, my respected colleagues, that the emotional impact of your words, when you address the mind and heart of your student, will be greater for the wait, because in these cases your feeling will be ennobled by the wisdom of your reflections. And your reflections, your words, will reach the depths of your student’s heart, because they will be enlivened and saturated with the emotion of your heart. This ability, the ability to attune yourself for a heartfelt conversation with a student, especially with an adolescent, is an exceptionally important part of your educational toolkit, which every teacher has to put together. We have to educate this ability within ourselves, to create it, perfect it and refine it, making it more subtle and effective.
Developing this ability, it is essential to enter into a child’s soul, to understand what they live for, how they view the world, what the people surrounding them mean to them.
My dear colleague, to become a real educator, you have to pass through a school of empathy, over a lengthy period to apprehend with your heart everything that your pupil lives for, thinks about, finds joy in and is concerned about. This is one of the subtlest aspects in our educational work. If you persistently work at it, you will be a genuine master.