Sunday, November 28, 2010

Teacher by Sylvia Ashton Warner

Teacher by Sylvia Ashton Warner

There's even a study guide to the book .  It describes some of her methods.

And here's a Time article about her.

In Spinster, her vivid novel published in 1959, Sylvia Ashton-Warner told of a loving, slightly balmy school teacher who taught Maori children in back-country New Zealand. Herself a teacher for 17 years in Maori schools (but a grandmother rather than a spinster), Novelist Ashton-Warner endowed her heroine with an extraordinary gift for handling young Maori minds in conflict with civilization. Dropping the fictional cloak, she has now expounded her singular methods in Teacher. Published this week... it may well be the year's best book on education.

A Force of Energy. New Zealand's brown Maori children, descendants of proud warriors and seafarers, live by the rules of "take, break, fight and be first," writes Teacher Ashton-Warner.

This was another dime-rack library find. I kept it because her writing style and her enthusiasm about her vocation are energizing to me.   She was apparently one of those teachers that are thought of as progressive, because their methods spring out of warmth and passion rather than out of mere theory.  She reacted to rigid British imperialism as it was displayed in teaching methods. 

She called her method "organic teaching" and thought that teaching had to be particularly centered around the culture the children had sprung from, rather than being imposed from above in a kind of educational imperialism.  (which of course reminds one of Reggio Emilia)

She also thought of what went on in her classroom as "input-output" or "breathe in/breathe out". So she planned the rhythm of the schoolday in a balance of the two --  if you go  here and find the link to Daily Rhythm you can see an example (I can't seem to link directly).

A few quotes:

Truth has beauty, power and necessity.
No other job in the world could possibly dispossess one so completely as this job of teaching. You could stand all day in a laundry, for instance, still in possession of your mind. But this teaching utterly obliterates you. It cuts right into your being: essentially, it takes over your spirit. It drags it out from where it would hide.
Without containment, spontaneity, exhalation and freedom of the mind could seep into license and anarchy, where all day has no shape. A benign routine helps our child to gain responsibility and our school to stability.
The word 'freedom' can never be uttered unless accompanied hand in hand with the word responsibility. It is kinder to keep the lid on the school for a start, lifting it little by little, simultaneously teaching responsibility, until the time comes when the lid can be cast entirely aside and only two conditions remain - freedom and responsibility.
For it's here, right in the first word, that the love of reading is born, and the longer his reading is organic the stronger it becomes, until by the time he arrives at the books of the new culture, he receives them as another joy rather than as a labour.
Do the word experts who assemble these books assume that by putting peaceful books into the hands of children they will be an influence for peaceful living?
I see the mind of a 5~year~old as a volcano with two vents: destructiveness and creativeness.

She spoke several times with horror about the "Plunket method" of bringing up children, which is still around today.   She said it almost universally turned out neurotics.  I don't know what the method was like then --nowadays the organization seems to promote breastfeeding and avoiding corporal punishment-- basically some kind of attachment parenting method, which does not seem horrifying in light of her own attachment theory of teaching.   So I can only conclude that the method originally taught the kind of detachment parenting common to that time period -- a brief historical article seems to corroborate that idea, saying that most the founder's theories of child-raising are not practiced any longer. 

A couple of PDF articles with quotes from her works, and describing her "organic" system of teaching.

Some of her points about "sex" and "death" words being the most powerful ("kiss" and "ghost" would be examples) sounded a bit over-Freudian to me. ... too fixed on  temporal events, no matter how crucial.   But I wonder whether she isn't taking poetic license there, as she did in other parts of the book -- her style in general reminded me of Flannery O'Connor's dictum that you have to beat modern secularists over the head figuratively speaking in order to get them past their complacent view of life.  I'm not implying that Sylvia Ashton-Warner was religious at all, because I have no knowledge either way, but she had that sense of truthfulness that has a Catholic aspect whether you happen to be Catholic or not.


  1. Wow, this is fascinating! How did you stumble upon it?

  2. I found it in the library discard pile -- anything about teachers is worth a read! ;-).

  3. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Truby King, you discover that - while encouraging breastfeeding - he insisted on strict schedules for sleeping, eating, and bowel movements and the avoidance of cuddling. Sounds like it would produce neurotic kids to me too.

  4. Thanks, that completely makes sense -- and was conventional for that time period, I understand.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!