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The Elders Teaching the Youngers

My plan was ingenious. We’ve had Dolly, our mixed-breed collie-ish dog, as part of our family for about five years. She is, objectively speaking, what one would call a good girl. She stays on the porch, piddles outside, doesn’t bother our chickens, and can speak on command. Over the years, Dolly did so well, in fact, that we thought we’d add one more dog to our growing family. 

Here was the brilliance of the plan: Dolly would lead the new dog through the inner workings of our family. She could teach him where to sleep, how to tolerate our sons, and why messing with the cat is a bad choice. 

However, when Doc, a sweet two-year-old hound dog, came home one with me one summer afternoon, it was clear that he was not a star student. He immediately ate his food too fast, threw up on the carpet, chased the cat outside, and in the process somehow managed to get a nasty cut on his rear so large that we had to take him to get stitches — all on the day he moved in. And to be honest, he never caught on. Doc was – bless his little canine heart – set in his ways and no amount of dog-to-dog coaching was going to change that. 

I had made a significant error. You see, Doc and Dolly are dogs, not humans. And that’s where I went wrong. For more than a decade I have been an educator. And for four of those years, I have had the privilege of teaching in a Montessori classroom. A foundational tenet of the Montessori philosophy is that children learn best within multi-age classrooms. That is, students will remain together in the same classroom with the same teacher for a cycle of three years. Each year the oldest group ages out, moving to the next class cycle, while a younger cohort joins in. In this way, each child has the unique opportunity to be both the youngest in the group and the oldest. 

It was a simple miscalculation that a multi-age doghouse, as it were, didn’t function like the classrooms that I have been fortunate to be a part of. I have seen Montessori classrooms in action, and they can be quite a sight to behold. In the early years, elders, or the older students of the class, are pivotal for helping their younger classmates in a multitude of ways, from zipping up jackets, to working with classroom materials, to understanding the general expectations for doing school. Even in the later years, where my middle school students are hard-pressed to balance school work and socialization, the influence of more mature peers can be the difference between a surface level discussion about Lady Macbeth’s futile handwashing and the deeper conversation about regret, forgiveness, and the nature of guilt. 

This system of varying ages, which runs counter to clear-cut delineations of traditional schooling, fosters a mutual respect for everyone involved.

Younger children look up to their elder classmates as mentors, helpers, and extended support systems. These newer students are encouraged, in fact, to seek assistance from their peer network before they rush to the aid of the omniscient Adult. Meanwhile, older students, who tend to relish this helper role, must practice the complex skills of empathy and problem-solving, essentially being required to remember how they too felt confounded by the same challenges just a few years ago. 

The beauty of it all is that the implications flow out of the classroom and into the world around us. By recognizing that ones older and younger than us have valuable experiences, students begin to see the value in all humans. This is significant. Culturally speaking, America hasn’t done a great job of caring for its elderly. Quality health care for seniors is hard to come by, care facilities are being increasingly scrutinized for their ability to offer safe services, and in general, the wisdom that comes with advanced age is too often dismissed as moth-eaten chatter.  

But when from a young age we are encouraged to consider experience as an asset and empathy as a standard, we are pushed to look outside of our own experiences. We were all young once, and we will all age. Though our current experiences may be different, collectively we live a universal existence of birth, growing, and aging. So shouldn’t we teach our children to recognize the value in the experience (or inexperience) of others? It’s certainly easier to educate our kids about empathy while they’re young, enthusiastic, and receptive to the world, and every child should be encouraged to consider new perspectives. But, lest we forget, we are not old dogs, and we too can learn new tricks. 

Thankfully, we humans are a tad more complex than dogs. So even though Doc may never learn to eat slowly, and despite the fact that my cat may currently be running for her life through the woods, there is still hope for us people. Let us encourage our children and ourselves to heed the lessons of the myriad teachers in our lives. Especially those with wisdom to share or wide-eyed wonder to impart.

Written by Daniel Sprinkle