The space of the classroom may be viewed as an inert rectangle filled with other rectangles. Left alone it is a space which is defined by silence. The other rectangles of the classroom – windows, books, doors, desks, carpet, and computer screens – all collaborate together in stillness and anticipation.
And yet when anticipation reaches its breaking point, there enters into this bounded space vitality – children, teachers, noise, ideas, music, movement, community. And here the space has its meaning and we can see Charlotte Mason’s pillars of education realized – atmosphere, discipline, life, science of relations. This once inert rectangle now fairly buzzes and hums with activity of the mind, heart, and body.
If we were to look into this welter of persons, books, and things, what would strike us? Being of Charlotte Mason mind, we would probably focus on what the students were doing. After all, this forms the preponderance of her life and work. We are here to re-vision the true work of the child as engaging the world of ideas. Fair enough. ‘All education is self-education,’ Mason would remind us. ‘Leave the child mind to itself.’ The innate power of the child to interact, to schematize, to make sense, to flourish as fully a person is indeed the child’s birthright. And it is more than mere redress that we should think this way.
But a closer look bears out another personage in the classroom – the teacher. As I delved deeply into the archives in Ambleside and into the lives of those trained to unfold Mason’s pedagogy, those traces and voices spoke clearly to me of the person and work of the teacher in the life of children. It is fairly certain that Mason placed a great valency upon inculcating young preservice teachers with her universalizing model of teaching and learning. She wanted nothing more than to bring out the personhood of the teacher as well, engaging her very identity in the process. Young women went in unsure and untested to Ambleside, but after two or so years, many (certainly not all) came out annealed and zealous to teach. “It was an educational faith we had, not simply the ‘how to do this, how to do that’ teachers get now… Miss Mason’s philosophy took us by the heart and mind… and it changed us forever” (Elizabeth Quinn, CMC, 1947).
So in our haste ‘for the children’s sake’ of placing our children into a large room of life and ideas, we might possibly ignore the role of the teacher in the lifework of the classroom. If Mason spent time and energy training teachers, then there must be something there for us to consider. Indeed her model fell to pieces partly because preservice teachers went elsewhere for training after World War Two; the training college dwindled until in 1960 it was absorbed into the State system.
The issues I would like to put before you now are these – what do you find in Mason’s writings that describes the role and work of teachers in the relationship of teaching and learning? What tensions between the nature of the learner and the role of the teacher do you most often find? What antidotes can you offer to these tensions? When Mason says things like [quoting Comenius], “Whereby teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more,” what is really going on?
To get you started, may I offer another quote from an Old Teacher? This time, we hear from Miss Nancy Williamson (CMC, 1929), who not only graduated from the College, but also took as a life vocation both classroom teaching using the PNEU method, and then later lecturing at the college until the 1960s. Nancy was 96 at the time of this interview in 2002.
“What Miss Mason made was… a pattern that started with the child being seen as a person and then building her curriculum on that one single thought…. As teachers in the College we were part of that pattern as well…. The children’s curriculum… was our curriculum – from nature walks to pictures studies and musical appreciation, Shakespeare and living books – we got it all. We were shaped according to the pattern of the philosophy, its timetable and syllabus.”