Teacher is an autobiographical account by Sylvia Ashton Warner about her teaching experience of over 20 years – between 1938 and 1954. It is relevant to note her own background as a child and later, to appreciate the ideas that she proposes as a part of the book. She was born into a family of nine children. Her father was crippled with arthritis and so the family was dependent on the mother, a teacher, who taught in remote rural schools to make a living. She was often at odds with the educational authorities. Warner’s accounts seem to suggest that she had a childhood with not many friends, and not a very pleasant schooling experience. Her siblings and the natural world around seem to be the sources of her interaction. Her work which largely reflects a fantasy world and highly romanticised language perhaps come out of this time spent alone with nature.
Ms. Warner was not a teacher by choice. She wanted to become an artist or a writer and felt teaching would limit her creative aspirations. She took to teaching to earn a living.
The book, Teacher, was published in 1963 many years after she retired as a teacher. The book captures her experience in teaching Maori children in State- run schools in New Zealand. It’s a book about an unorthodox teaching effort, written in a rather unorthodox style as a ‘write it as it comes’ narrative, presenting her ideas and approach to teaching interspersed with classroom conversations and other tidbits. Embedded in the often sentimental and romanticised narrative are some very powerful ideas of the author.
The key concept in the book is ‘organic teaching’. Warner believes that children’s natural energies and urges should form the source of pedagogy. She contends that externally prepared and induced efforts stunt the child’s creativity and can often be alienating and uninteresting to the child.
Warner’s attempts at evolving an unconventional pedagogy was a response to what she saw as ‘lifeless’ and uninteresting content and methods in use at the time.. She proposes that the child’s imagination and the ‘inner world’ should form the basis for building a child’s language and vocabulary. She sees the mind of a 5 year old as a ‘Volcano with two vents, one of destructiveness and one of creativity’. The more the child is allowed to use the creative vent, the less destructive the child will get. Dance, music and art find an important place in this approach. There is a strong Freudian influence in her proposition that the key vocabulary of a child is around two key instincts – Fear and Sex.
Warner’s ideas force one to stand up and look at the creative energies that a child brings to the educational space and the rich potential that these have – It reminds one of the Fukaokian concept of ‘do nothing’ farming – the power of nature and natural forces for creation. But, can this approach be readily applied in our own contexts.
Warner worked with a Maori tribe, which lived in their own villages with a distinctive culture. From this book and other accounts, the habitations and the school itself was located amidst rich and beautiful natural surroundings.In a way, the settings were much more natural than what is available as an environment to modern school children especially in India. So, the big question is how natural is natural? Can we, despite the setting, carry the romantic notion that all energy that a child exhibits is ‘natural’ and ‘organic’?
Or is there, because of the situation we are in, a need for more external inputs to correct and counter these influences? If societal influences are conservative, highly casteist, gender-biased, is there no need for using external means, through consciously designed content and use of symbolism to let children question these?
Natural farming is possible when the land still has the capacity to be regenerative, and there is the necessary flora and fauna to keep the natural processes active. If modernity has abused land with repeated use of chemicals and the ecology around has been destroyed to eliminate the local flora and fauna can we really leave the repair to nature? Or are some minimal interventions needed?
Playing the role of a teacher
Starting off reluctantly, she goes on to be a very intensely involved and empathetic teacher who goes beyond the classroom to understand the culture and the ethos of the children’s lives. Her knowledge of a child’s inner world, their milieu, culture and living suggests a teacher’s work is mostly out of the classroom. In the classroom, the teacher brings all this understanding to facilitate the child to channelise her creativity.
However, what is of concern is the kind of social vision that is reflected in her book for the Maori people. It seems from the book, that she is merely helping them transition from their culture to the ‘mainstream’ dominant European cultural paradigm. There seems to be no vision of what the role of education is for the children when the community is faced with the growing influence of a largely western conception of modernity. Is it just to let the Maori children make a painless smooth transition into this way of life – as the author seems to suggest? It makes one wonder if all of this is just to have a vibrant, culturally distinct and rich social group transition to and conform and fit into a homogenous social order that is largely a western definition? Her view that the ‘browns and the whites’ can never mix – is rather disturbing. Perhaps the book does not allow one to come to any conclusion on her views on the political and social implications of education but what comes out as her vision of the kind of social order that education should attempt to build, from the accounts in the book, are very narrow and limited.
The book, without actually building a theoretical frame or even referring to any, very powerfully speaks for constructivism. Especially, in language learning. It makes one put down all the charts, worksheets aside for a moment and look at the child, her energies, interests, excitements and remind oneself how important, rich and valuable resource these can be.
Except for the tinge of sentimentality and the sometimes-desultory organisation the book is a worthwhile read for teachers and an interesting peek into the wonderful life of Maori children.
And finally, for a person who is a reluctant teacher and who is apprehensive about this forced career choice coming in the way of her more desired creative pursuits, teaching only enriched Warner’s equally celebrated literary and creative work. This should go towards removing the rather prosaic image of teaching as a routine, unimaginative profession.
The reviewer works with Centre for Learning, Secunderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].