What Qualities to Look for in a Buddhist Educator

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What Qualities to Look for in a Buddhist Educator

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Summary When hiring teachers for a Buddhist school, credentials are not necessarily the most important thing—nor is being a "good" Buddhist. Here's what to look for instead.
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What Qualities to Look for in a Buddhist Educator

by Neil Amas

When I was hiring teachers for a Buddhist primary school a few years ago, I was not very interested in their qualifications, teaching methods or techniques. Equally, I didn’t want to know if they thought they were a ‘good Buddhist’ – or even a Buddhist at all. My interviews tried to get to the candidate’s personal qualities and, most of all, their willingness and openness to learn and keep learning. A teacher who knows it all is unlikely to want to learn more.

When visiting another Buddhist school in Thailand as part of my research on Buddhist education, the head of school there proudly told me the vast majority of his teachers had not been to teacher training college. This partly reflects the inadequacies of the national education system, but his point was that he preferred to recruit people from different walks of life. He sought inspirers, creatives, out-of-the-box thinkers, and dedicated practitioners. As long as they had a genuine interest in the Dhamma and were open to learning, teacher training could happen at school, in-house.

Mainstream education’s fundamental flaw is that it confuses knowledge – the accumulation of facts and data – with wisdom – the application of knowledge with benevolence, skill and discernment.

Writing in the 1930s, Japanese Buddhist educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi said:

“What then is the purpose of national education? Rather than devise complex theoretical interpretations, it is better to start by looking at the lovely child on your knee and ask yourself: What can I do to assure that this child will be able to lead the happiest life possible?”

According to this approach, a teacher’s main role is not simply to impart knowledge, but to teach her students how to live. Mainstream education’s fundamental flaw is that it confuses knowledge – the accumulation of facts and data – with wisdom – the application of knowledge with benevolence, skill and discernment. Teachers are largely expected to focus on the teaching of bare knowledge in the belief that this will be enough to create a successful life and a better society. But, just as a shrewd investor can defraud his clients as easily as make them rich, knowledge can be used for ill or for gain. A Buddhist education approach focuses on the teaching of knowledge for wisdom. It defines a successful life as one which takes us away from suffering and towards the happiness of ourselves and others. This is the kind of wisdom which leads to the happiness of the child on our knee.

What, then, are the qualities of a teacher? The building block for this kind of pedagogy is the cultivation of metta – invariably translated as loving kindness, benevolence or unconditional goodwill – and its three partners in the core Buddhist teaching of the Four Immeasurables: compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

Building Trust

A teacher who earnestly seeks her students’ happiness will naturally build unconditional trust, respect and safety in the classroom. The often-quoted advice to new teachers in the West, ‘Don’t smile until Christmas!’ – in other words, be unfeeling and fearsome until your students’ respect has been ‘won’ – is as misguided as it is harmful. The very first thing a teacher should do is build a warm, caring relationship with her students. It matters very little if you are right or wrong if putting your foot down will damage this growing, but still tender, sense of trust. What matters is connection, confidence and that your student feels safe, listened to and open to learning. What matters is putting the relationship first.

We often don’t understand why children do things; like adults, a sudden outburst could be the result of the flashing thought of an argument that happened hours or even days ago. When we assume the best, children are more likely to live up to those expectations. Assuming the worst has resulted in a long and catastrophic history of damage and failure.

Just as the practice of bodhisattva is supported by a profound faith in the inherent goodness of people, as teachers we must always assume the best of our students. We are aspiring bodhisattvas, after all. Students don’t set out to ‘push our buttons.’ Why would we assume they want to make us unhappy? We often don’t understand why children do things; like adults, a sudden outburst could be the result of the flashing thought of an argument that happened hours or even days ago. When we assume the best, children are more likely to live up to those expectations. Assuming the worst has resulted in a long and catastrophic history of damage and failure.

With the unconditional wish for his student’s happiness as a building block, the educator will naturally understand that his job is to release the wisdom potential that lies dormant in his students. Teaching one’s students how to learn and igniting a love of learning for its own sake will lead them to wisdom. This thirst for learning, wisdom and truth is known in Pali as chanda, and might be likened, in educational terms, to intrinsic motivation. Because chanda has to come from the heart and cannot be ‘taught’, the best we can do is create opportunities for children to develop their own passions and interests; to help them reflect on how it feels when they put good effort into achieving something, even though it may have felt difficult or boring at the outset. This leads them to generate further motivation.

Teaching by Example 

The other key factor is generating a love of learning is the teacher’s own passion for learning and wisdom. When teacher and student become partners in the process of discovery, fired by a genuine love of the subject, the desire to learn will naturally be ignited in the heart of the student.

Sincere effort to learn and improve is conveyed from one human being to another, from teacher to student. Consequently, a teacher’s inner growth, her earnest wish to be a kinder, wiser, more rounded person, will directly contribute to her students’ happiness and educational success.

As adults caring for children, we are always modelling. We are modelling enthusiasm, kindness, preparedness, resilience, authenticity, empathy and, when things are not going so well, the opposites of those! The crucial thing that our students need to see is that we, just like them, are works in progress. It is a lifelong learning journey and we are putting in our best effort. A school lives or dies on the extent to which it has successfully developed a culture of personal growth. Sincere effort to learn and improve is conveyed from one human being to another, from teacher to student. Consequently, a teacher’s inner growth, her earnest wish to be a kinder, wiser, more rounded person, will directly contribute to her students’ happiness and educational success.

The Buddhist path is fundamentally aspirational. As travellers, we are not expected to master the teachings very easily and quite probably will not in this lifetime. But to take to the path requires effort, resolution and a dedicated willingness to learn, grow and improve. It is lifelong learning in the truest sense; a personal development programme that carries over into every aspect of one’s life: study, work, play, family.

These qualities of a teacher are not to be achieved through a shift of perspective, through personal philosophy or accrual of knowledge. And most likely not through teacher training college. The inner growth of a teacher in a Buddhist school must be sought through Buddhist practice. The most beneficial professional development training I have encountered is a week-long Buddhist meditation retreat for educators, led by an experienced dharma teacher. Undertaken at minimum once a year by all staff, such intensive heart training will support the development of metta and chanda authentically and sustainably, untethering the shoots of innate wisdom. These qualities are deep and profound and, as such, can only be cultivated through in-depth inner work.

The fundamental task of Buddhist education – and all education for that matter – is to ensure that what is taught in the classroom serves to further the cause of human happiness, wisdom and peace. Education is a noble mission. Those who dedicate themselves to this mission are truly worthy of our respect. Being a ‘good Buddhist’ is optional.

Photo by Akhila Katuri

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