Gentle Teaching

I recently had a conversation with a colleague who is involved in an organization called  “Gentle Teaching International,” founded on the work of Dr. John McGee.  “Gentle Teaching”, as described here,  (, “… is a practice that focuses on being kind, nurturing and loving toward marginalized children and adults – those who have been pushed to the edge of family or community life.”   In this practice there are four things that caregivers seek to teach those they are caring for:

“You are safe with me.”

“My hands will never harm you!”

“My words will never put you down!”

“My eyes will never look at you with disdain!”

The hope is that these lessons will provide a deep sense of being at peace with the caregivers and this peace will eventually spread to others around them.  It requires the caregivers to change their own reality to be more warm and loving rather than focusing on changing those they care for.  It also requires them to have patience with the lengthy process of change, to have deep commitment to the healing power of unconditional love, and to refuse all behavioral uses of reward and punishment in controlling others.  In other words, their commitment to gentleness becomes a cross they carry, a self-emptying or suffering.  Gentle teachers hope that those in their gentle care will come to know that it is “good to be with one another, good to do things with one another and good to do things for one another.” What better lessons can be learned in this world?  These are lessons in learning to become a person.

When I read this description I wondered why Gentle Teaching is only for the marginalized.  What if every teacher focused on teaching these lessons?   St. Seraphim said that you cannot be too gentle or too kind.  He also greeted everyone he met with the words, “My joy!”  He saw all coming to him as the icon of Christ.  He learned this from Christ, the most gentle of teachers.  May our eyes be on the faithful of the land (these saints of gentleness), so that their perfect ways will serve us and dwell within us and save us.  (Psalm 100:6)

6 responses

  1. Thanks for this reflection, Kim. Gentleness certainly is an important aspect of teaching for all students, at all levels from pre-school to grad school. What always surprises me is that every generation seems to have to re-learn the importance of this quality in dealing with students.

    As Nick Wolterstorff reminded some of us this week, John Calvin in the 16th century argued that God created the world so that we can not only use but also enjoy His creation: the beauty of flowers, the loveliness of ivory and marble, the comeliness of clothing, and the delight of good food and wine. And then it was our task as humans to express our awe and gratitude to God for having given us these things. His right-man hand in establishing schools in French-speaking Europe, Mathurin Cordier on this basis promoted moderate discipline and a pedagogy that began with the simple and gradually moved to the more advanced. Education “was administered with gentleness and regular breaks for supervised recreation.” Cordier’s Latin text, based on such pedagogy, was used by schools all over the western world for three centuries, and he is still known as the father of Swiss education.

    And then the educator we hear about more often, Comenius (1592-1670), also considered how schools could strive to be Christian through their pedagogy. He wrote about stages of readiness and how to make learning attractive and interesting. He insisted that the classroom atmosphere should be encouraging and pleasant. He rejected the value of the then-common blows, coercion, punishment, and threats. He believed that, as he said, “He who takes little children in his arms may be assured that he takes angels.”

    Both Cordier and Comenius opposed the common harsh education of the times. Sadly, the gentle education they promoted did not endure, neither in Europe nor, later, in North America, except among some individual teachers. And today, while we no longer use harsh discipline or corporal punishment, gentleness that encourages students to flourish is still often missing. I’m not talking here about not having clear boundaries for students, or not demanding the quality of work of which children are capable. Rather, I’m speaking of the gentleness Jesus showed towards children as well as to sinners like the woman caught in adultery: “I do not condemn you. Now go and sin no more.”

    Harro Van Brummelen

  2. Thank you for your comment, Harro, and for the reminder of our heritage with regard to gentle teaching. Maybe we wouldn’t have to relearn gentleness so much if we had more practice keeping our eyes on the faithful. Education has a progressive bent and we often see ourselves as individualists, alone in the classroom, and alone in working out our practice with a focus on change. We have ideals but we don’t have presence. We forget that we practice in the midst of presence. But maybe it is also true that gentleness is easily lost in this world, through our experiences, and we all have to relearn it at some point. I think our students can often be our teachers in this regard.

  3. I am researching and writing on how Christian leaders and schools responded to children with special needs and so gentle teaching might also be seen in special needs education and how Christians opposed and condemned the culturally embedded practice of child abandonment.

    Childhood came to be an honoured state that needed to be taken seriously and so early Christian doctrine presented the view that misfortune or disease is neither a disgrace nor a punishment for sin but, on the contrary, a means of purification and a way of grace. At the same time disabilities such as deafness and or blindness had theological explanations too. Amos Yong (2007) notes that “links between ‘disability’ and evil spirits are clearly established in the gospel narratives”. Nevertheless, on the whole it was widely accepted that children with disabilities were appreciated by the religious as blessed children of God who needed care, love, and protection of the church (and society).

    One particular defiance to the poor treatment of children with special needs was Christianity’s openness to receiving the deaf and the blind. Hugh Cunningham (1995) observes that the Christian belief in the need of every human being for salvation immediately implied a higher status for young children…in contrast to the Greeks and Romans, Christians acted on the behalf of children and their protection.

    The LORD gives sight to the blind (Psalm 146:8)
    How did Christians perceive those with special needs? Jesus told a parable that challenges our tendency to serve only the more proficient students. Jesus said that when we give a dinner, we are not to ask our friends, those that are family, the rich or well esteemed, rather when we give a feast, we should invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind (see Luke 14: 12-13).

    For Christian educators, schools are gentle places for those with special needs.

    • There are also spiritual understandings of the parables you mention, Matthew. We are all deaf, blind, bent over, enslaved to evil spirits….which may speak to why we ourselves have to learn gentleness in order to be gentle.

  4. Kudos to Kim for initiating and my other colleagues for continuing this conversation and the hearts that prompted the comments. I agree that these principles certainly should not be limited to marginalized persons.

    I suggest to my first year students that the best teaching decisions are based on sound psychological principles applied with enthusiasm and tempered by a love of teaching and a love of students. This applies to ALL students and requires that teachers nurture inviting inclusive classroom communities.
    In order to be professionally inviting, teachers must be personally inviting (see the work of William Purkey and John Novak on the subject of Inviting School Success). These characteristics and principles, I believe, resonate with what Harro noted above and what Nicholas Wolterstorff was sharing at his lecture yesterday: that aiming to teach is an act of love (beneficence).

    I would also suggest that to love some one or some thing spawns a desire to know more of that person or subject. Therefore in order that teachers nurture inviting and inclusive classrooms as part of their praxis I believe they must bring into confluence head and heart and hands; teacher-educators, therefore, must work together to develop each of these facets of their future teachers if those teachers are to ultimately engage in “Gentle Teaching”.

    As a footnote to Matthew:
    Recall John chapter nine where the disciples presumed the congenitally blind man’s disability had resulted because of sin (his parents or his), and Jesus’ rebuke of their myopic worldview. Could it be that such a false view of disability (marginalization) persists in the Church and thereby explains why Christians seem no more inclusive than those who do not profess to be followers of Christ?

    • Thanks for your response, Ken, and application to teacher educators. I’m grateful to have such gentle colleagues to share this task of educating gentle teachers with gentleness!

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