Our Actions Speak Louder Than Our Words

In 1991, Ruth Charney, co-founder of Responsive Classroom, wrote a book that impacted K-8 educators all over the world, Teaching Children to Care. A reflection of her 20-year teaching career as well as the stories and observations of colleagues, her practical and empathetic guidance has inspired teachers for decades and in turn has impacted the lives of thousands of children. Adapted from the conclusion to the 2nd edition of this beloved book, Charney’s words are a reminder of the powerful role teachers play in creating classrooms and schools that are places of respect and joy…

Teaching is an extension and projection of a person, not just transplanted skills or acquired methods. Every day we reveal ourselves—our manners of organizing, habits of dealing with frustration, entrenched patterns of thought and interest. Just as we aim to teach the whole child by responding to affective as well as intellectual development, so we aim to teach from the whole teacher—the cognitive, social-emotional teacher. The inner resources of the teacher register deeply in the climate of the classroom and the consciousness of the students. Schools as they currently exist often stultify and stunt the passions and dedication of their teachers, battering them into indifference and silence.

If teaching is to be infused with conviction and joy, the best hopes and creative powers of teachers need to be nourished. In the last fifteen years, I have met with many teachers in workshops across the country. There are some who come only because it is required by their system or for the credits that affect income differentials and promotions. But so many others attend out of sincere interest in their work. They are a mix of all types of teachers, young and old, new and experienced, from public and private schools. I particularly recall a group of teachers in Maine, sitting in a warm, dusty classroom, two days after the end of their school term. They were full of humor and laughter, eager to learn a new way to do science or blocks only days after school let out in June. Whether their hands were covered with “oobleck” or they crouched on the floor erecting sturdy buildings, their stamina and exuberance for teaching were apparent and contagious.

How do we hold on to that exuberance? How do we keep it at the center of our teaching? It is certainly an essential resource for our children, and it can’t be falsified. I believe it will survive and prosper where there is permission and potential for authentic teaching and for authentic teachers to teach. Because authentic teaching is founded on our acceptance of limitations and vulnerabilities, it allows for our unique strengths and passions as well. Authentic teaching permits individuality and personal style to emerge. We share our love of birds or history or photography with children. We reveal and share our personality—humor, playfulness, concentration, quietness, investigation. We share much more than skills. We share our passion for learning in our own unique ways.

Some teachers have a quiet and soft-spoken manner, while others are more emotive and dramatic. One teacher in our school is known for the force of her “glare,” another for his booming voice. Some teachers thrive on organization and detailed planning; others are more spontaneous and flexible. Some of us tend to be more directive, others more nondirective. We may be more playful or more businesslike. We may love to sing with children or to invent puzzles.

I don’t want to imply that our style must be one thing or the other—organized or disorganized. A style is composed of many shades and attributes. I happily copy and repeat what I learn from colleagues, but it is filtered through my voice and perceptions. The virtues of sound teaching—patience, attention, the capacity to structure, the flexibility to individualize—are conveyed through a multitude of styles. But affection and respect—for children and for ourselves—are conveyed only when we are willing to trust ourselves.

We cannot teach authentically without the capacity to like children as they really are. One day my friend, a kindergarten teacher of fifteen years, collapsed into the nearest kitchen chair, saying, “I don’t understand how some days I just can’t stand it, and other days, I feel so good.” To like being with children does not mean ignoring or dismissing the frustrations and failures. It does not mean denying those rainy days, pre- or post-Halloween days, or just hellish days for whatever reason, when classroom survival is a dubious proposal; it doesn’t mean denying those times when our own worries and preoccupations—with family, the world, or self—have depleted our mental and physical resources. It doesn’t mean denying times when we feel like a pincushion, poked by children, punctured by parental criticism, prodded by administrative fiats.

To like being and working with children, we must acknowledge the difficulties. It takes humor, patience, stamina, conviction. We can preserve our authenticity by confessing the irritations while maintaining our care. This care for children is both a burden and a gift of our spirit.

Authentic teaching requires and encourages personal authority. This authority is not so much an office as it is a way of acting. We stake a claim—in the classroom and in the larger context of schools and systems—to what is personally, intimately known and felt. Personal authority means that perceptions and values are not easily repudiated or pushed aside because others—even those with official authority—disagree. Disagreements may spark investigation and spirited discussions, but they can’t force denial of our thoughts and principles. Authenticity involves accepting our personal authority—and the risks that go with it—so that we can be agents of the changes needed in our schools.

We raise our voices when we find courage, not in certainty but in the authenticity that springs from belief in ourselves and our task. When we teach children through our own disciplined and caring actions in the world, we take an authentic stance. We use the most basic and fundamental principle of teaching: our actions speak louder than our words.