I believe in being small. I’m a hair under six feet, so it’s not height I’m talking about. As a Kindergarten and first grade teacher for 32 years, I spent a lot of time perched on those tiny chairs, but that’s not it either.
Being small to me means knowing when to stay out of the foreground. Teaching usually means imparting knowledge that you have and that the other person doesn’t. It’s done best by dropping that knowledge gently in someone’s lap and stepping back to watch him or her absorb it. That’s where the patience, the delicate diplomacy, the smallness comes in.
Knowledge makes us all bigger. I learned to reverse that size difference between the kids and me by appearing to be less big than the students as often and as subtly as I could. A new social studies topic, a science concept, a difficult reading word, a tricky math problem? I let the kids show their size first, and to do that I had to listen to an awful lot of wrong guesses.
Now, an adult might think that’s disingenuous, pretending not to know the answer. But I don’t think the kids were ever fooled into thinking I was a dolt because I didn’t really know that was Abraham Lincoln on the penny. I think they were grateful that I allowed them to show their bigness before I logged on. I think they knew I was making room for them, that I
was holding back so they could grow larger.
I also raised two kids, so I had a lot of knowledge about being a parent. But I had thousands of conferences and conversations with school parents where I tried to have the sense to make myself small. That’s because I learned one thing very quickly as a teacher: Don’t tell a mother how to mother or a father how to father. Even so, I frequently had to give advice, some asked for, some not. But it always went down better and had a better
chance of being implemented by the parent if I presented it as a small suggestion.
Now I’m retired, but I still teach, though something much more difficult than letter sounds and arithmetic. I teach people to play the fiddle. A very difficult instrument, the fiddle. I have over 30 years experience playing, and that’s a lot of practicing. You might even say I’m big on the fiddle, or at least medium-sized. But to teach it to an adult who isn’t used to feeling small, I have to work out a way to diminish myself. When someone is really struggling to turn those squeaks into music, sometimes it takes a superhuman effort to hang back and be encouraging. And when the music finally comes, and I’m in my little space over in the corner, I feel pretty big after all.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.