And he held up his hands with his two index fingers pointing at each other with a small space between the fingertips. “What happens in that space between teacher and a pupil is all that matters,” he said, “if there’s love and intelligence and creativity and wisdom at that point, then everything will be fine. Then the money, the buildings don’t matter, the school will be fine.”
Sarah: How long were you principal for?
Gilbert: Well I was appointed in 1989 and then I retired in 2015, so 26 years.
Sarah: What did you do before you were a principal?
Gilbert: I was a lawyer for about ten or twelve years. It filled in the time before someone asked me to become a headmaster.
Sarah: Finally, what’s the most important lesson that you learned as principal?
Gilbert: The first lesson I learned when I started teaching children was to be myself. Nicholas Debenham was very inspiring to me so at first I tried to be like him. The problem with that is there’s only one person who is the perfect Nicholas Debenham, and that’s him. Trying to be him didn’t work for me at all. So I was standing in assembly one day, doing a brief mindfulness exercise with the children and teachers that we used to begin and end all the activities in the school, and I suddenly realized in a moment that I’d been trying to be someone I wasn’t. In those brief moments I decided that I couldn’t be Nicholas Debenham, and when I wondered who I could be, I realized in an amazing flash of inspiration that I could be Gilbert Mane. I was actually quite good at being Gilbert Mane. And when all I did was try to be that guy, then things fell into place.
Sarah: Can you talk about what you discovered about the absolute basics of education?
Gilbert: The easy way is to go to master teachers, the sources of timeless wisdom, and find out what they say. One of the great sources of wisdom is the Upanishads. There’s a short passage that talks about education and it says you need four things: The Teacher on one side, the Pupil on the other, Knowledge between those two, and Discourse, meaning discussion and communication, joining them.
So first you need a teacher, second you need students, third you need some form of curriculum, and then the fourth thing you need is communication or flow, a method for delivering that knowledge to the students. If you’re missing any one of those four, then you don’t have education.
So, for example, a teacher walking down the street going shopping, without any students, is in fact, at that moment, not a teacher. They become a teacher when the students turn up.
And a key factor in all of education is love. Obviously a teacher has to have practical teaching skills. But most importantly, in primary, elementary teaching, you’ve got to love the children. The teacher has to like the children in his or her class, and the children have to be fond of the teacher as well.
Another key piece is the children have to respect and trust the teacher. One of our master mentors said, if the pupil doesn’t respect the teacher then nothing worthwhile can be learned. Luckily it comes naturally to children to respect and trust their teachers. So one of the key features of the Communication, the flow between the Teacher, the Pupil and the Knowledge, is mutual love and respect.
In high school that love in the classroom shows itself a little differently. If the teacher and the pupils are too fond of each other it gets a little creepy. What they have to both love is the subject. In high school the teacher has to love poetry, or physics, or sport, or history, and has to bring the students along so they learn to love those subjects as well.
With all children, but especially the young ones, the teacher has to create the circumstances in which the pupils want to learn. There’s so much learning that goes on in the very, very first year or two of life, when the child is with his or her parents. Think of it, just learning to walk, to master the complexities of language, of behaviour, of values and principles. Then, at school they’ve got numbers, and letters, and nature and history, quite a lot to learn, and how to get along with others, to follow the rules, to think and to solve problems. After a few years that absorption of knowledge actually begins to slow down. But in the early years of school up until about the age of seven, then to the age of ten and twelve, there’s a lot of learning that needs to happen.
But again happily a child is naturally ready and eager to learn, so the crucial question is, what do you teach him? The first answer is basic principles of life – kindness, tolerance, courage. These are the biggies and you’ve got to get them in early.