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Mentoring Lessons from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men
By Heidi Schulz
At the end of Little Women, Jo and Mr. Bhaer talk of establishing a school for boys.On the surface, Little Men is merely a sweet story about their school, Plumfield, and the children who live there.However, a closer look reveals it to be a rich and inspiring guide filled with lessons on mentoring and teaching.Today, I will focus on three of the lessons I have learned: Teach the Individual, Morals are Key Lessons and Love Your Students.
Note: I have chosen to use the words mentor and student to describe the teaching relationships I am referring to.However, parent and child could just as easily have been used.Please keep this in mind while reading.
Lesson 1:Teach the Individual
Both Jo and Mr. Bhaer knew that they were not teaching a group of children, they were teaching individuals.Even in group settings, they were careful to teach in such a way that they could reach each child.They also took the time to really know the children they cared for: their hopes and dreams, aspirations, faults, passions and desires.This knowledge helped the Bhaers to tailor individual lessons in ways that would benefit the individual child.The following passage illustrates this lesson:
“Emil was… quick tempered, restless and enterprising, bent on going to sea… [Mr. Bhaer] promised that he should go when he was sixteen, and set him to studying navigation, gave him stories of good and famous admirals and heroes to read, and let him lead the life of a frog in river, pond and brook, when lessons were done.”
After all this preparation, did Emil go to sea?I don’t think it matters.The point is: Emil grew to love learning because he was allowed to learn what he was passionate about.Should his passions change, I’m sure the Bhaer’s would be ready to set him on a new course of study.
A student who knows that he is listened to, understood, and cared for by his mentor is one that will work harder and achieve more than one who is merely told to “do lesson 3 and report back when you are finished”.
Lesson 2:Morals are Key Lessons
Rules at Plumfield were “few and sensible”.One would think that few rules might result in anarchy, but that was hardly the case.This was due to the heavy emphasis the Bhaers gave to moral instruction, even more so that that given to academics.
“Boys at other schools probably learned more from books, but less of that better wisdom which makes good men.Latin, Greek, and mathematics were all very well, but in Professor Bhaer’s opinion self-knowledge, self-help, and self-control were more important, and he tried to teach them carefully.”
Accountability was also important at Plumfield.Jo kept a notebook where she would record observations, both good and bad, of each boy’s behavior throughout the week.On Sunday evenings, she would meet with each boy and show him his page.
“If it is bad, I am sorry and disappointed, if it is good, I am glad and proud; but whichever it is, the boys know I want to help them, and they try to do their best for love of me and Father Bhaer.”
My parents once told me about a neighbor who was getting rid of his sofa.He put it out at the curb, with a sign marked “free” attached.No one even gave it a second glance.After a week or so, he changed the sign to $10.Someone stole his sofa that very night.
The point of this story is that no one will value that which we do not.By placing a heavy emphasis on moral instruction, even if it comes at the price of excluding some academic time, and by taking the time to hold accountability meetings, mentors are able to convey to their students the deep importance of such things.
Lesson 3: Love Your Students
Jo believed that “the small hopes and plans and pleasures of children should be tenderly respected by grown up people, and never rudely thwarted or ridiculed.”In other words she actively loved and respected them.
You can hardly go one page without evidence of the Bhaers love for the children under their care.Most touching to me is the way they love Dan.He is a boy that is perhaps both the most difficult to love and at the same time, the one who needs it the most.He come to them from the streets and is filled to the brim with anger and bad habits.He swears, fights and causes general mayhem in the house.After one particular instance, Asia, the cook, hopes he will get what is coming to him, but Mr. Bhaer instead gives him the task of repairing some of the damage he has created.
“Then Mr. Bhaer shook hands with him, and Dan went down more tamed by kindness than he would have been by the good whipping which Asia had strongly recommended.”
When Dan’s behavior reaches the point where he is far too damaging to the rest of household (teaching some of the other boys to gamble, smoke and drink), he is sent away from Plumfield.However, even this terrible consequence is done with love and the hope that he will one day return.When it looks as though the Bhaers have failed and Dan is lost forever, they refuse to give up hope.Ultimately, it is this love and belief in Dan’s inherent goodness that helps him to find his way back.Through this love, he is inspired to change and become more than he was.
Loving your students is by far the most important lesson in Little Men, and the one that makes the others effective.It’s like the old adage, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”It is very difficult to inspire anything: learning, behavioral changes, growth, without love.
It is love that makes it possible to know and teach individuals.It is love that changes moralizing to teaching morals.Love is the key to powerful and effective mentoring.
I have been trying to apply these three lessons at home with my own child and in other areas where I am called to mentor and teach.As I apply the teachings of the Bhaers by focus on loving, knowing and teaching individuals with a strong emphasis on morals, I am already seeing a shift in my mentoring relationships.It appears to me that Plumfield may have turned out another successful student.
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Read more of Heidi at Frantically Simple.