My philosophy of education is that we start from a place of loving children. My own counseling theories, informed by the work of psychologist Carl Rogers among others and honed over more than 15 years of experience counseling students (and also as a mother of six), always have been very “person-centered.” I believe in getting to the root of children, and as with all of us, recognizing and understanding the complex, multi-layered individuals they are.
When I work with children, it is their individuality that most powerfully resonates with me. No two children are alike. One may think like an artist, the other like a mathematician. Sometimes both! And children today are bombarded by so many different influences. How are they to navigate their experiences of the world around them in order to self-actualize in a healthy way? How may we, as educators, help them come to know the very best version of themselves? That is our sacred task, one we accomplish little by little on a daily basis, in a process that takes patience and time, but eventually yields rich fruit.
I have found that the key is to approach children with compassion and empathy, putting oneself in their shoes. When we stop and listen with empathy, we give the other person the space to release what’s inside. As Michael P. Nichols, Ph.D., writes in his book titled “The Lost Art of Listening,” “Empathy is energizing. Being listened to releases us from brooding self-absorption and mobilizes us to engage in the world.” It’s like that aha! moment you get after you say, “I’m just talking out loud,” and then reach a conclusion or decision without the recipient of your monologue having said a word. When given the chance to do this, children feel valued while also learning to think and problem-solve.
I have seen walls come down so many times when a child or teenager feels it is safe to open up and share with me who they are and what they are experiencing. Listening to a child without preconception, judgment or expectation means one understands them and can say, “I see you. I know who you are.” When children know that you’re listening you get past their walls. Not just in terms of getting them to open up about their challenges, but also their passions, interests, talents, hobbies and all of the wonderful, interesting things about them that make them the delightful people they are. When you reflect back to them, they discover they want to know more about those things if you give them the space to do it. By sitting with them and helping them process in this way, children are given a valuable tool with which to get to know themselves.
Children want to learn and understand the world around them. What we model to them daily, and what they internalize, becomes the source of their character development. In an environment where learning is student-centered, teachers are mentors who guide, rather than “experts” who tell. In an open and friendly classroom, a tone of trust and support develops, and we have the joy of giving students a happy space in which to add their individual strengths, personalities and interests. What and whom they discover in the process is so exciting to see!
For this alchemy to occur, relationship building is critical, and it can begin each morning at the front door. Arrival is a wonderful opportunity to connect with students simply by being present, greeting them with a big smile, and looking them in the eye. As we say “Good morning!” we can find a way to check in with them, remembering to ask about something they’re doing, or noticing something about which we can follow up with them later. For children at every age, it’s that first moment of being acknowledged that lets them know “you are important to me.” A happy face and cheerful hello says, “I welcome you to this day with a full heart and so much joy.” It sets a positive tone for the day and tells students how much they matter, while establishing a relationship built on the knowledge that we love them, we are listening to them and we believe in them. And through that relationship they get to know themselves!
By Michelle R. Hoch, MS Ed
Michelle R. Hoch is the director of Counseling and Student Life at Westchester Torah Academy.