Janusz Korczak : The Martyr

“The lives of great men are like legends – difficult but beautiful,” Janusz Korczak once wrote, and it was true of his.

Janusz Korczak (1878 – 1942), was a prolific Polish-Jewish children’s writer and educator who lived and died for his students. Born in Warsaw to a Jewish family he had the flair for writing as a child and wrote for several Polish newspapers.  After his graduation at medical school, he became a pediatrician and worked as a military doctor. Continuing with his flair and passion, he wrote a book called Child of the Drawing Room that gave him literary recognition.  He also designed an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw, where he formed a sort of a republic for children with its own small parliament, court and newspaper. In 1939, when World War II broke out, his orphanage was enforced to an extermination camp. Despite being offered a sanctuary Korczak turned it down repeatedly saying that he could not abandon his children and insisted he would go with his children. On that August day an eyewitnesses described the procession of Korczak and the children to the Umschlagplatz (deportation point to the death camps)

“The children were dressed in their best clothes, and each carried a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy…. A miracle occurred. Two hundred children did not cry out. Two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, Janusz Korczak, so that he might protect and preserve them. Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. Two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar, On all sides the children were surrounded by Germans…. They whipped and fired shots at them. The very stones of the street wept at the sight of the procession”

Janusz Korczak had the chance to save himself, a German officer recognized him as the author of one of his favorite children’s books and offered to help him escape. It was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children and now, on this last journey, he could not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out in to the country, so they ought to be cheerful. Such was the legend: his love for children was so great that he give his own life for children.

Yet as Indians, we have never heard of Korczak, one of the first pedagogues who changed the general attitudes of teachers and parents towards students and children. His general concept was that any child has his own way, his own path, on which he embarks immediately following birth. The role of a parent or a teacher is not to impose other goals on a child, but to help children achieve their own goals.

Kristin Poppo an American educator writes – Korczak’s educational philosophies and writings have given us a great gift in understanding the child and affirming their growth as just and compassionate human beings. It leads us to recognize four ideas that shape the Understanding of the child and hence frame the teacher/student relationship and are the root of his pedagogy. They are…

Understanding Vulnerability

When interacting with children who have often grown quite tough from the conditions of their lives, educators often forget how little power children actually have. Korczak was quick to recognize that even in his toughest kids, their vulnerability had led to both their exploitation and their disempowerment. He often wrote about how children were forced to endure treatment that would be unacceptable amongst adults. This disregard for the child also led to a lack of appreciation for what children had to offer. Korczak recognized that children often have to spend so much time being defensive that they never have the opportunity to show their gifts. Korczak in a whimsical reflection wrote, “All children realizing my faults would be glad to change me, to make me better. The poor youngsters cannot grasp that my greatest fault is that I am no longer a child.”

Understanding Uniqueness

The recognition of the uniqueness of each and every child is key to nurturing children. Korczak kept detailed notes on the physical, emotional, cognitive and moral development of every child in his orphanage. He strived to understand the spark in each child, yet also recognized the mystery the child as well. He had a deep faith in the goodness of children and served as an advocate of juvenile delinquents in Warsaw. He recognized how the harsh conditions of one’s life could lead a child to be angry and distrustful, but he continued to trust that each child had the potential to contribute to larger community. Education’s fault was that its “approach to the child is in: ‘I’ll make a man out of you,’ rather than in the searching question: ‘What are you going to make of yourself, man?'”

Understanding Meaning Making

In step with social and cognitive constructivism, Korczak recognized that children are in the process of making meaning of themselves, their community and their world. Educators have a great influence as to how children understand the world in which they live. Is it cruel and vicious – a war of all against all? Is it a web of relationships where care spins new threads and new connections? Upon graduation from the orphanage Korczak told his children, “We give you one thing – however – a longing for a better life, one which does not yet exist, but which will one day, for a life of truth and justice.”

Understanding Community

Korczak did not lecture about community, he created it in his orphanages. The orphanage community was governed by the children and for the children. Korczak’s one ground rule was that the weak could not be exploited by the strong, and he helped the children create systems where respect of individual could be balanced with the needs of the larger community. Korczak trusted that most children could and would amend their behavior and care for the other if they were given the opportunity to see how their behavior affected the greater community and were able to experience the forgiveness by that community. Much of Korczak’s work focused on the ways in which children could learn to engage in respectful and caring relationships with each other through self-rule. Korczak wrote “I believe that many children rebel against virtue because they have been incessantly trained and overfed in its vocabulary. Let the child discover for himself, slowly the need for altruism, its beauty and its sweetness.”

In each of these understandings, educators are challenged to think deeply about the thoughts, concerns and needs of the child. Who is this child? What is their greatest gift? What do they fear? How can I make them feel valued? In doing the hard work of coming to know and care for the child, the educator not only comes to know that child, but has created a relationship so that he or she feels valued and respected. The child is then able to give back to the community because of the safety, care, and meaning that community has provided. These relationships are the building blocks of stewardship. These relationships teach the child to know and care for the other.

I believe that ultimately inspiring stewardship is trusting in the human potential for all educators to be stewards. Inspiring stewardship is a cognitive, emotional and moral process. It is a process that requires relationships based on compassion and trusts the potential for goodness in each and every child. It does not require training in educational methods, but rather a stretch to our most caring and compassionate selves.

April 2010 – Healthy Schools

7th of April is World Health Day, I wonder how many schools are aware of the important role they play in promoting children’s health and well being.

Recently I was discussing this issue with a dear friend Dr. Jitendra Nagpal who is the senior consultant psychiatrist at Vimhans New Delhi, he does some amazing work in the space of childrens development and mental health. He raised an important concern about the preparedness of schools in our country to handle medical emergencies. He sighted several examples where teachers had absolutely no clue how to handle class room crisis. The news of a girl from a prominent school in Delhi sometime last year made national headlines, a child in Hyderabad had an epileptic attack and the teachers were making her smell shoes as a remedy. There are many other such cases which do not get out of the walls of the schools.

We believe that schools should be proactive and equip themselves to handle for medical emergencies. If we take a cue from the standard operating procedures of larges corporate and companies, it is mandatory for them to assign a few people in every department / building / working floor to undergo training in handling emergencies. They are designated as Emergency Prepared Staff who spring into action if there is any kind of an emergency including health emergencies.

In the months of April & May most schools across the country make it mandatory for teachers to work, they spend this time planning for the coming year. This year it is a great idea to look at the equipping your teachers on medical emergencies. All you need to do is approach a hospital and request them to send their trained medical staff to train your teachers. You will need two address two broad categories of Medical emergencies – Physiological and Psychological.

Once the training of teachers is done you need to set up systems in place so that emergencies are treated as special cases. For eg. You do not need to get a principals permission to send a child to hospital and inform the parents in case of an emergency. It is always a great idea to involve the parents and encourage them to be part of these training programs and ensure that they are aware of the emergency systems in place.

I am really looking forward to April as I would spend most of this month outside India travelling, relaxing, learning, meeting new people and coming back with fresh ideas and insights to add value to our work. I hope that you too take time out of your schedules in April or May and rediscover yourself before you come back to take on the mantle of School Leader for the coming academic year.

May 2010 – Family collage

May is that time of the year when I am away from India visiting different countries, I get to spend on my picking up new thoughts and learning’s. I was in Cannes, Southern France for the media festival, one of the evenings I was walking in the old town of Cannes and enjoying the old French architecture and towns beauty, I saw this little girl on a small cycle coming down a cobbled stone narrow street. I looked at her and gave her a smile, she stopped the cycle looked at me, gave me a sweet smile and said ‘Bonjour Monsieur’, I instantly replied back ‘Bonjour’ to which she said ‘Merci’ and rode away. I was touched by this gesture, here was a little girl who had that much courtesy to stop and wish a complete stranger. I was instantly reminded of a school notice that someone I knew received sometime back that had a list of things that parents must teach their children before they get an admission to school. One of the things in that list read ‘children should be taught not to look at or talk to strangers’.

I stood there wondering, what kind of culture we give our children. We claim to be one of the oldest cultures of the world and we are very proud of it and yet we teach them things that are so contradictory to basic human nature. How often do we hear of parents telling children not to make friends with “such children”. You can use your own understanding to describe “such children”, it could be religious, language, caste, regional, economic or any bias.

May 15 is normally celebrated as the International Family Day. Most of the schools will be in the midst of their summer vacations that time, but I guess as educators and principals you must make that day count for yourself and for your students in the coming year. For starters it’s a great idea to bring your extended family together and celebrate the spirit of being together.

More importantly spend sometime to introspect how you would use your position to influence and enable your students families to inculcate basic values. It would be a great idea to have a ‘Family Day’ in your school. During that day if one of the family members came in front of the entire class and their families and shared one family value they cherish and want the other childrens families to know. Image in every class of your school there would be on display 40 odd family values that are treasured, cherished and importantly alive!!!

School is a place to learn and the biggest lesson we need to teach our children is to live like one big family treating every individual with equal love and respect. If we can teach this to our children, all other learning’s are but a formality.

Happy Holidays!!!

March 2010 – The Last Straw

I spent a large part of January and February travelling across several cities in India and addressing educators, principals and teachers on exam stress and how we could enable children to cope with stress levels. The key point that I was specifying in these workshops can be summed up an age old proverb “the last straw on the camel’s back”. When we hear about the extreme steps that children take during exam times the most common practice is to blame the ‘last straw’ – the kid committed suicide because the schools forced the child or the parents were pressurizing the child etc. We do not look beyond the obvious, what is important is for schools and homes to create pressure vents for children during exam times. Allow them to play for a bit during exams, eat well, sleep well, talk to them about things beyond studies, share a laugh and encourage them to spend some time on their hobbies during exam time. These and many other such small ‘vents’ go a long way in helping children relax which in-turn helps them to perform better during exams.

“These workshops are not for our school, they need to be done in schools that put too much pressure on children.” This was apparently a comment that an administrative head made when our team member went to invite a school in Bangalore for a workshop titled Mission Exams, aimed at equipping schools to handle exam stress better. Over the past decade whenever I have got feedback of this kind from schools it makes me believe that these are the kind of schools that need more help than the others. As luck would have it, last week I get the news that a class 10 girl student from that school committed suicide a few days before the board exams. It is incidents like this that makes us more resilient to continue to work with schools irrespective of what some educators think and inspite of all the negativity around keep marching on to create a generation of children who have a smile on their face and sparkle in their eyes.

Talking about ‘vents’ it is high time that you as educators and principals realized its importance in your own lives. In the month of April or May most schools across India break for atleast a few weeks. If the school takes a break there is no reason why the principals should stay behind. In the coming holidays make sure that you spend some time off your routine doing things that you have always wanted to do – visit that city/country, spend time with that friend/relative, learn something new and so on. If ‘vents’ work in bringing down exam stress in children I am sure that it will go a long way in bringing a bigger smile on your face when you return in the next academic year all refreshed and recharged to take on the challenges you have ahead of you.