The Power of Shining Eyes

by Maura Joyce, Head of School | From the September 2018 issue of The Post

As the Post Oak faculty and staff returned to begin the work of the 2018–2019 school year, I shared with them a TED talk I had recently discovered. It was “old” (2008), and I was quickly informed that I was late to the party in hearing the inspirational Benjamin Zander speak. A conductor, composer, and music director, Zander is most widely known as the founder of the Boston Philharmonic.

There were several elements of this talk that struck a chord with me and that provided insight into our work at Post Oak. Late in the talk Zander shares his epiphany of 30 years ago: “The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful.” Our Montessori environments are much the same. Each of our Post Oak teachers is a conductor whose job it is to make the children powerful—to take ownership of their own learning. By showing a new concept, presenting a new material to put in their hands, and by walking away and letting them work, repeat, practice—we are simply waving the baton, so that the students can make the music. And it is indeed a powerful moment, when the students discover on their own, finally “get it,” and enthusiastically want to show their new skill to their peers. This happens over and over again in a Montessori classroom; we watch it unfold daily at Post Oak. Zander also brings up the notion of how he measures his success—how many shining eyes he sees in the audience. “If the eyes are shining, you are doing it.” The Post Oak School mission instructs us to provide: experiences that promote curiosity, inquiry, and engagement. If we do this right, it is a recipe for shining eyes. In my years as a Montessori school head, I have been asked each year by families why it takes a week or two to prepare for the children. It is true that the Primary and Elementary classrooms are intricately set up with hundreds of items in the classroom. It is also true that curriculum design and the schedule at Middle and High School has many pieces and parts. All of this takes planning, time, and work. But the real work, Zander suggests, is how we prepare ourselves. If the eyes are not shining, he asks himself this one question: “Who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining?” Before the children arrived last week, as a staff, we talked about the many ways we create the opportunity for shining eyes—and it starts with us.

Dr. Montessori taught teachers to approach the developing child with both reverence and humility. The relationship between the Montessori teacher and child depends upon the attitude with which we approach the child. We ask ourselves, “who are we being” before we approach them, as we need to be fully prepared and ready to connect with each and every child. We start by having faith in the children and young adults before us. We meet them where they are as they come through the door, but always envision who they will become. This keeps us grounded in trusting that development, growth, and maturity is a long symphony, not a short 8-note phrase. We don’t pretend to have all the answers—we are learning alongside the students, and we walk out each day having gained just as much, or more than we have given. Most importantly, we enter the classroom with our own shining eyes, ready to be surprised and delighted by the students.

We are hopeful that this year’s conducting will be much less chaotic than it was for so many of us in Houston last year with Harvey’s impact on the city and the Post Oak community. (For those musical aficionados out there—our Post Oak music specialist, James Winslow tells me: “Let’s have a year that is more like a Brahms symphony and less like a Berg opera.”) Our team here at Post Oak is looking forward to a wonderfully melodic and harmonious 2018–2019 school year.