ON THE DISCOVERY OF GREATNESS
BY EDWIN R KULAWIEC
(Pedagogue, Professor Emeritus of the University of Southern Maine, previously Dean of the Department of Education at George Washington University. Author of numerous studies and essays on Janusz Korczak: translator of a variety of works by Janusz Korczak).
Good teaching requires more than a prescription or a carefully circumscribed set of goals and activities. A truly great teacher is inspired by profound beliefs and inspires his or her students to develop their own beliefs. Here, Edwin Kulawiec, a teacher of teachers, shares his discovery of an inspirational educator whose life and work captivated him, despite the fact that this great teacher has long been dead, a victim of the Holocaust.
I knew the moment I first read one of his books ‘When I am Little Again’. In this story a schoolteacher returns to his childhood home for two days and experiences both joy and pain as he encounters people from his past parents, friends, teachers, classmates and neighbours. The author juxtaposes the reactions of the adult teacher to the boy’s feelings about events. By stepping back in time with full awareness of the present, the author creates a book for all ages, children and adults alike. There was a quality about the writing that was instantly appealing, transparent, and even somewhat naive and innocent. Nothing lurked under ponderous phrases or behind phoney characters. All the characters were easily identifiable and recognisable. Its plot was as simple and straightforward as the brief time span his action covered.
You are mistaken, it isn’t lowering, bending, stooping, crouching down to children that is so tiring. But because we have to reach up to their feelings. Reach up, stretch, stand on our tip toes. So as not to offend.
When I read this, something in it touched me hard. It is easy to take children for granted, something adults do often, unthinkingly. Because children are small in size and lack experience and skills, many adults think their thoughts and feelings are small and inconsequential too. Adults tower over children in every way. It takes real effort on the part of the adult to learn and appreciate the child’s mind and point of view, a necessary first step in bringing adults and children together.
This book captures in a striking way an adult struggling with the child-adult conundrum by “bending down to reach up”. And it was published in I926. How strange! I might have guessed that it was more recent; its the me was so modem. I know, for I could easily have passed as one of the characters in the story – a teacher – as, in fact I am.
It was so me years ago, twenty actually, that my first chance encounter with this writer occurred. I was given a copy of “When I am Little Again” at a Moscow railway station by a parting Polish exchange student. The book whetted my appetite indeed; of that there could be no denying. I searched for more titles by the sa me writer. As it turned out, this was no easy task, for he was not well-known. A second volu me finally fell into my hands, sent to me by a friend from abroad; its title ‘How To Love a Child’. Preposterous, was my first thought. Is this a formula, a recipe to follow step by step? He must be joking. Impossible!
The book, I discovered was on child-rearing methods as they appeared in the author’s day. Drawing on his experience as a doctor in a number of different settings, he gives advice on how children should be raised. The turn-of-the-century Viennese school of child appreciation is strongly evident. One might be tempted to put the book down too soon in the knowledge of modern science, behavioural and develop mental psychology, Dr Spock and the like, were it not for the lyrical and poetical descriptions that abound in his works, insights that appear fresh even today, fifty years later. I read and read and read but I could not stop. This was a book written on the run from the enemy. There was a war and the author was an army doctor. Between amputations and the dressing of wounds he asks how to love a child, how to reach children, how to understand, bring up, teach and love so as to make the world a better place.
The doctor wrote searingly, as if with a hot poker. He was writing it as it was, not from behind the desk in some cozy office but out in the field under an open sky, or in a tent or a barn so me where, pulling out his thoughts, wrenching them out in agony. “To do away with war meant to reform the method of child upbringing”.
Of course, how simple and yet – maybe for that very reason – hidden, concealed, out of reach. Was this a the me for a teacher. Could it have been that my education was so one-sided? Could I have overlooked so me professor’s learned discourse, missed the reference, failed to note the author’s name some where?
I witnessed three wars, I saw wounded with their arms torn off, with their entrails exposed, I saw the battered and bleeding faces and heads of soldiers, civilians and children. But let me tell you – the worst thing that you could see is a drunkard beating a defenceless child.
Then I chanced upon a book about him ‘Mister Doctor’, the title taken from the manner in which he was addressed by his children in his orphanages. It may sound funny to write ‘Ns children’ or ‘Ns orphanages’, but from all appearances, this was just what they were. He was closely attached to two orphanages in his native city of Warsaw. One served Christian children, the other, the one with which he had the longest association and in which he lived, was called Dom Sierot (Orphan’s Home) and served Jewish children. Both homes served the poorest and most deprived members of the social strata. The author worked in these orphanages as well as in the neighbourhoods they served. He rejected a comfortable and affluent life, choosing to help the poor. The homes still stand today and serve needy children, but their doctor has long been absent.
The doctor’s whole life, I learned was spent with children. For over a quarter of a century he lived and worked with other people’s children in Dom Sierot. He had a room set aside for himself in the attic, to which he stole away at night and in which he wrote over twenty books. The the me of them all was children. As a young student of me dicine in Paris, he “dreamed a great synthesis of the child”. As a trained scientist – he was a pediatrician – the author hoped that the best knowledge of the natural sciences could be brought together with the most forward thinking of the behavioural sciences to bear upon child-rearing, to elicit a necessary change in the way children were regarded. The key to a happy and useful adult life lay in childhood; hurt the child and you hurt the adult. While in London in 1912 where he spent a month visiting schools and an orphanage at Forest Hill, he admitted to having learned the real me aning of charity work.
Working in the slums of Warsaw and observing those in London gave the author proof of his conviction that the future of humankind lay in a happy and nurtured childhood.
“For a son I chose the idea of serving the child and his rights”. His life seemed like a straight line once the mission – championing the rights of children – was defined. His pursuit never veered, however numerous and trying were the obstacles he had to face. And there were many. Remarkable, extraordinary, unique – these were the adjectives, I muttered to myself upon learning the bits and pieces of the difficult and complex puzzle of his life story.
He seemed way ahead of his time with his children’s republic. His orphanage became a laboratory, a scientist’s dream. A dream, in the sense that the focus of his attention and concern – the child – was all about him. He was right in the middle of things. He lived with his charges. There was nothing Skinnerian in his “method”, no experimentation in the strict sense of the word. He relied heavily if not exclusively on direct observation, learning from and about his subjects first hand: who said what to whom under what circumstances; who behaved how toward whom; what were one’s likes and dislikes: what gave pleasure and so on. In short, one could describe the doctor-scientist’s chief research method as ethnographic data collection; fine and detailed collection of descriptive data to try to get as close to the truth as possible in order to better understand the child. He studied children at work, at chores, at play, while they slept, when they were sick, singly and in groups, at outings in the countryside and in solitude. If he experimented at all, it was by instituting the children’s court and a children’s newspaper – both serving the purpose of instructing the children in the nature of responsibility, trust, respect, and cooperation, and both run almost entirely by the children themselves.
The years sped by; the teens, the twenties, the thirties. He observed, studied and learned from the children. A method began to emerge, not so much a formula, but a general way of behaving towards children. What we identify today with Maslow’s theory of self-concept, this writer was practising in the twenties. His children ran the orphanage They had jobs to perform and schoolwork to do. They took care of one another, drew up a code for living, ran the children’s court and newspaper, and disciplined themselves.
“Life threw me these children like sea-shells. I didn’t ask where they came from or where they were going. I only wanted to be good to them, so that their hatred toward man wouldn’t harden into stone.” I read this with a certain uneasiness; for these are words to raise a lump in the throat of the toughest person.
Other books followed. I had a sizeable vacuum to fill. It was like being drugged. In ‘The Child’s Right to Respect’ a disturbing, yet gentle, clarion call to parents and teachers, and indeed to anyone else concerned about the child’s well being I found a distillate of all his thoughts and work. “A child is a butterfly over the seething whirlpool of life. How can one give it steadiness without weighing down its flight; how can it be tempered without tying its wings?” He was no less than a poet. This was clear. And, if that weren’t honey and sweetness enough: “We must cut through the thicket of wrongs, guilt and error, and retain a calmness of sprit so as to soothe, heal and forgive with always a smile for life and man.”
The writer himself tried to appreciate every side of a given situation. His own life had taught him this. There was a strong streak of the universalist in this man. He thought globally at a time when the world thought in local terms. There was a saintly quality to his thinking and living that became most evident in his last writing, a diary he kept while imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto with his children. In it he writes of compassion and forgiveness toward the ‘enemy’ instead of hatred and vengeance.
Letters to a Young Teacher 2nd Series Warsaw 7958
It seems like a long time since I immersed myself in this writer’s thoughts and like others who are seized with Plato or Shakespeare or Tolstoy let myself be stunned by his words. Yet he is deep inside me now, riveted, anchored, all around me in my office, in my study at home, in classes. I cannot shake his thoughts loose nor do I try. They seem always before me passionate, glowing, strong, supporting, encouraging and so disturbingly clear. I share him with students. I feel a teacher can’t go wrong with him, can find strength in him and be guided by him. Strength comes from knowing, understanding, and appreciating.
This writer helps give fresh insight into the child’s mind, points to the obvious that is easily overlooked. Yes, fresh even after fifty years! Maybe this has to do with his use of words, his super-developed sense of observation, his critical insight into the feelings of the child. One cannot come away from discovering this man’s life and his writing unaffected – enlightened, touched, deeply moved. We learn from people’s lives. We need models. We seek to use them in our instruction.
Here is a model worth pointing to. “Our words have only so much worth as we impart to them by our own behaviour”, he once wrote, long before his tragic end. His whole life was an affirmation and declaration of those words. Knowing about this man can only make us feel good, deep down inside, and maybe even help us to be a little better.
‘But who is he?’ a student asked one day in class “Janusz Korczak from Warsaw, Poland.” “Yanoosh who-o-o” came the rejoinder, one I am used to by now. No matter. You will learn his name, learn of what he did and wrote, how he lived, what he fought for. “And what is he doing now? Is he still writing?” “No, he’s not, He’s gone with his children. Two hundred of them. He didn’t abandon them. They were gassed together in cattle cars on a railroad siding somewhere, cremated together in the ovens in Treblinka in I942.
A war got him in the end – the fourth he had experienced in his sixty-four years. The last: the worst. It seems that not enough people had read his books. It might have helped. There’s still time though. There ought always to be time for Korczak. After all, a man who could walk toward the darkness, who could reject all offers of personal rescue rather than abandon his small charges some two hundred of them – in the ghetto orphanages, has something to say to us today and every day. “…I exist not to be loved and admired but to love and act. It is not the duty of those around me to love me. Rather, it is my duty to be concerned about the world, about man.” This is from the last writing of his life, his ‘Memoirs’. They were saved.
A teacher, on becoming acquainted with Korczak, cannot remain unaffected by his words and thoughts. It’s like a hand fitting into a perfect sized glove, such a match it is. Without fail, textbooks used in preparing teachers include a chapter dealing with the need for a philosophy of teaching and usually this chapter comes off sounding very much like a high school pep rally extolling virtues, praising ideals and emphasising the words and nobility of teaching. This is not an easy chapter to cover with groups of would be teachers; somehow it never really seems to come off the attempt at ready formulas for ways to save the world, to help people. For this is really the stuff and substance of teaching. Maybe this is why these chapters are passed over quickly, if not uncomfortably.
“The best way is to learn by doing,” thinks the teacher. “Words, words, words”, intones the student.
It’s ironic as well. For without a philosophy, without that something that gives meaning and purpose, scope and direction, that brings inner contentment and satisfaction, teaching never becomes more than a routine, a job, a time-motion exercise in which neither the teacher nor the learner benefits. As a teacher working with young people over the years, I have always felt this. But along came Korczak, and – like an explosion at epicentre – this idea became alive with electricity, white-hot, a living dynamo. “What is our teacher’s role?” asked Korczak once to a group of teacher trainees in a role not unlike my own.
Our area of interest? A watchman of walls and furniture, a policeman to keep children from doing mischief, from annoying adults in their work and pleasure; a checker of tom pants and shoes, and a miserly steward of bread? A shopkeeper of admonitions and concerns, a huckster of moral platitudes. A public house of diluted knowledge which only constrains, confuses and stultifies, rather than awakens, animates and delights? Agents of cheap virtues who have to force on children respect and submissiveness and simulate warm feelings? To build a solid future on a few pennies, to cheat and conceal that children are a number, a will, a force, a la w..? Let us demand respect for those clear eyes, those smooth temples, that young effort and trust.
It doesn’t matter that Korczak wrote these words in I929. They will make as much sense in I989 or 2009, as long as there are children and adults, learners, and teachers.
“But that’s philosophy again,” says that same student, relentlessly. He is a would-be teacher, reluctant to give in, because it sounds too good, because it may be the closest he’s come to such a truth. He is on the verge of admitting and acknowledging it to himself and he knows all the while that he will, that it’s the only way for a teacher. But it seems too transparent; it ought to be more complicated, more difficult.
“I guess your right,” the teacher responds, patiently but firmly. “But it’s a philosophy tested by Korczak. That’s the key.”
There can be no doubt, no question. Korczak helps to make my work preparing young men and women to become teachers easier. Words, ideas, advice, suggestions, rules, directions – all that one may tell a novice takes on a distinct ring of truth in the afterglow of Korczak’s presence. He is a bright star, a beacon, with his sparkling blue eyes; eyes sad, but full of hope and love at the same time. One always feels in the presence of his words the need to be better, more sincere, more honest. It is far easier knowing that there was someone who matched his words with deeds, as did Korczak. So one tries at least, and this must count for something too.
Harvard Educational Review Vol. 59
No. 3 August I989
“We don’t like it, when a child who has just been scolded, keeps mumbling something under his breath. Because in his anger, he might let slip what he really thinks of us. Which we may not be too keen to hear.”