I believe it was the German Orff teacher Wilhelm Keller who said something to the effect of:
“ The best teacher becomes progressively unnecessary.”
The aim of education is to pass on the necessary lore of the culture, the vital skills, the defining visions. If you structure your classes in such a way that the students are constantly asked to re-create the information in their own way of understanding and doing and creating, then you endow them with the power of becoming increasingly independent. Like the chicks in the nest, they gain confidence and strength and the necessary things to launch them out of the nest and fly on their own. That’s Nature’s way and that’s human culture. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie took Miles Davis under their wing, then Miles in turn took John Coltrane and Coltrane in turn took McCoy Tyner and so it goes on.
In my beginning 3-year old classes, I’ll ask each child’s name in turn and show a way to clap or pat the rhythm. After about five or six kids, I’ll ask the next one, “Can you think of a way to play the rhythm of your own name?” If not, I’ll happily do it or let another child volunteer to do it. It just means they’re not ready yet to figure it out without me—but I know they will be soon. Likewise, I can conduct a singing time and initiate a song with a breath and then ask the group if they together can take the initiating breath or one child come up front to be the conductor. Much further down the path, 8th grade to be exact, I might play a recording of a jazz tune, ask the kids to figure out the melody and supporting parts and put it all into a simple form and leave the room for 20 minutes. A risky experiment that must be carefully prepared, but when it works, imagine the excitement as the kids take on that responsibility and the pride in how much they were able to accomplish without me.
The goal is progressive independence and it simply is the story of how we evolve. From the first tentative toddler steps away from the mother to the first trip alone to the grocery store to the first time driving alone to the parents dropping the kid off at college to renting the first apartment (“Dad, can you believe I have to pay money for water and gas?!!!)
So my colleague Sofia wrote to me about the opening day ceremony of school yesterday, one of the first that the teachers did without me. It’s one of my babies, an idea and structure that I initiated many years ago that many contributed to, but I continued to oversee and emcee various parts. Her report:
“Fabulous opening session! Teachers happy, children happy, strong presence of the interns. Eugene did a great job with the water ceremony and so did Laura. Talia (my daughter) represented you so well in the teacher meeting afterward…”
How did this make me feel? 99% fantastic! As I knew they could, they all carried on fine without me. My work in crafting these ceremonies and make them an indelible part of school life that others will continue when I am gone achieved its purpose. I have become unnecessary. Isn’t that great?
Well, yes. But I’d be less than honest if I didn’t confess the 1% “Dang! I have become unnecessary!” It’s not healthy for anyone to hang on to being in the spotlight, to keep people dependent on you so you can feed your false identity, to resist passing on the baton and wanting to do all four legs of the relay yourself. To become unnecessary in the right way is a glorious victory indeed. Hooray!!!
But I’m still coming back there to teach on Tuesday!