“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…
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.”
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.”
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.