The most important teachers are the pupils

By Johannes Greiner, September 2015

I had my educational key moment with a piano pupil who had great difficulty in making any progress with the piano.

Photo: © pixelputze /

The importance of the educational eye

She was not even able to remember the first note of a song. Yet I was making use of every trick and teaching technique that I knew. I explained the keyboard as a sequence of twins and triplets (black keys), drew the corresponding pictures and so on. Hardly had she got home, she no longer knew where she should start and came back the following week without having practiced.

I quickly noticed that she had a dyslexic tendency. She kept confusing her right and left hand, could not remember the numbering of the fingers, was only able to read with difficulty and write with even greater difficulty, and musical notes meant absolutely nothing to her. She was small for her age – as if she had been left behind. It seemed that her mother did not have a high opinion of her. She spoke about her as a “nipper” who had to be told what’s what. When month after month passed without any noticeable progress being achieved, it became clear to me that I would have to ask a colleague whether she could take the girl on. Yet this failure preyed on my mind.

I kept having to think about my educational failure – after all, I was a piano teacher with more than 18 years teaching experience. That hurt. Was I really not able to do anything? Did I have to give up? My thoughts kept returning to this pupil. I asked myself how anyone can be that bad. How is that possible? Was she really incapable of anything? I could not believe that! There must be something she was good at! I resolved to be alert to her abilities.

At the next piano lesson I became aware of things which I had never before consciously noticed although they had always been there: the small girl always looked me straight in the eye when she greeted me! That is something special! Many people avert their eyes and at most give you a brief look. She always looked at me clearly and at length when she gave me her hand in greeting. In addition, I observed the care with which she placed the homework booklet and song book on the piano. She did it as if they were very precious things. And yet she could hardly read the notes and words. Yet nevertheless such dedication and care in her actions! That touched me! For about three or four weeks I simply observed these two things which she did in such a beautiful and special way. That was something she was good at! Then a miracle occurred: suddenly the blockage became unblocked and she began to learn. She made up in three months what she had not managed in a year.

Trust in abilities creates abilities

I had not done anything differently, neither educationally nor in terms of teaching methodology! I only saw her in a different way. And in doing so I gave her the opportunity suddenly to be able to do something. She came out of her shell and the flower was able to blossom! And it happened because someone saw her in a way that sought what is good and beautiful.

I owe more to this girl than to all the books about education I have read. She opened my eyes to something important: we can develop in the directions in which the eye of the other person leaves us open or, indeed, encourages us. If a teacher is convinced that a pupil is incapable of doing anything then this is mostly what happens. Such a way of seeing erects walls which the pupil cannot surmount. But the reverse also works: trust from the teacher gives the pupil wings to learn something which they could perhaps not manage if left to themselves.

In recent years, I was able to observe in the two Rudolf Steiner schools in which I teach how the preconceptions of the teachers affect the learning success of the pupils. This can be seen particularly clearly in mathematics: if the teacher is convinced of the lack of intelligence of the pupils then they cannot understand anything. A helpful fellow pupil can sometimes explain and teach in half an hour what the lesson was unable to communicate. But this phenomenon can be seen in all subjects.

Our eye is powerful

If we look at someone with lack of trust we erect walls. Many pupils and also teachers are locked behind them. The task is to overcome such walls through practising removing our preconceptions and displaying a loving interest in the strengths of the other person. We have to learn to pay attention to the way we see people. Our eye is powerful. With it we influence how the other person develops. We can prevent them from developing or we can inspire and encourage them. Nothing is more effective in education than the way we look at someone. When the pupil is perceived by the teacher then they can develop. Pupils who are not perceived by anyone suffer educational abuse. They are taught in ignorance of their being. That is doing them violence.

It is necessary for me to become so honest as to admit to myself that I cannot teach a pupil whom I cannot see. If I have no eye for their being I can only put obstacles in the way of their development. We can only teach if we keep searching for the other anew each time. Many things we think we are, we are only through others. Many things we can formulate only come to mind because someone has asked us about them. We become aware of many things we can discover and train in ourselves through the mirror of another person’s eyes.

Those other eyes who want to see us help us to become ourselves. The ears which hear us help us to find our words. What we are is also due to the other person. And there is no power which can lead us to ourselves with such strength as the love of another person. A person who looks at us in a loving way becomes the midwife in the process of our becoming. We are because others see us.

It is difficult to see the other when it is dark around them

It is not so difficult to see a person if they shine brightly. It is more difficult if they are not well and have to fight with inner or outer adversity. Then it is all the more important not to lose sight of them, to see them despite everything. Perhaps it is just our belief in what slumbers in them which is the only hold they have and without which they would topple into the depths. This is about having loyalty in our eye which means that we keep linking anew to the bright image of the person we saw.

The anthroposophical psychotherapist Annemarie Richards found an apt image for this: if we are walking through a city with a person and lose them, we will – if we do not have our mobile phones with us – naturally go back to the place where we saw them last. They will also do the same at some point. In that way we will find one another again. The same applies when people lose their way or become alienated. If we want to help in a healing way, we have to return inwardly to the situation in which we last truly saw the person. That is where we must start. In that way we call them back to their own archetype.

We need outside help to overcome the Minotaur

There is an image from Greek mythology which can also serve as a guiding principle in education: Theseus und Ariadne. Theseus entered the dark labyrinth to find the angry Minotaur at its centre. Overcoming the Minotaur inside the labyrinths is also dealing with our own abyss. Theseus is guided on his way from the periphery to the centre by the shining crown of the goddess Amphitrite which he had received on his journey from Athens to Crete. With the help of the gods, human beings enter their labyrinth which leads them to individualisation and coming to terms with their shadow side, the doppelganger.

But Theseus would not be able to find his way out of the labyrinth if Ariadne did not maintain her connection with him. A thread connects his hand at the centre and her hand at the periphery. She is waiting outside for him. She believes in his victory. She cannot follow him into the darkness but always holds out her hand ready to help when he wants to return to the outside. We can also become Ariadne for the young person in this way if we wait patiently and with trust, and are truly there for them and help them find the way back to the light when such help is needed. Theseus finds the way in with the help of the gods. For the way out he needs human help. Here the power of the gods works through the helping human being.

When other people can see us in our striving, our strength can grow immeasurably. When we seek the divine spark in the other person, we help them to become aware of what they could not find without us. The eye with which we see the other person contains a power of which we will only gradually become aware in the future. Nothing is more constructive and nothing is more destructive than the way another person looks at us. They way in which we look at another person can inspire or shackle them. With our gaze we have a gift which can lead to the highest or the lowest.

About the author: Johannes Greiner studied music (with piano as the main subject) and eurythmy. He works as a piano teacher and as a teacher for singing, orchestra, choir, eurythmy, history, art history and music history at the Birseck and FOS Muttenz Steiner schools. He has been on the council of the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland since 2005.