Education Commentary

Somebody To Lean On

By John Morris — October 01, 1992 5 min read

If you happen to walk past my classroom at about 7:30 a.m. on a school day, chances are good that you will hear a song coming from the record player. These are the words you might hear:

    Lean on me,
    when you’re not strong.
    I’ll be your friend,
    I’ll help you carry on,
    For, it won’t be long,
    ‘til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.
    We all need somebody to lean on.

I often play this song when I arrive at school in the morning. It has a great beat, so it helps me get moving as I start to prepare the room for the day. I do a bit of dancing as an antidote to the Oh-God-I’m-not-ready feeling.

Just as important as the dancing are the song’s lyrics: “We all need somebody to lean on.” I need to get that idea up on the front burner of my brain every day. I need to admit that I can’t work alone and that I won’t get beyond all the inevitable failures if I only rely on myself. I need to look for partners with whom I can, as one of my colleagues says, “divide the pain and multiply the pleasure.”

Several years ago, I began to feel that I was in a rut in terms of my teaching, and, as the saying goes, “The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth of the hole.” I realized that I had spent most of my career as a teacher in a self-contained classroom, which meant I had the freedom to create my own classroom environment and the opportunity to do spontaneous and crazy things if the moment seemed right. But the flip side of that kind of freedom and “self-containment” was a growing sense of isolation and loneliness. Feeling more and more buried in my classroom, I realized I had to reach out and form some kind of partnership. I needed someone to lean on. I was fortunate to have a colleague right across the hall who was feeling the same way. After many informal conversations and brainstorming sessions, Judith and I decided to try doing a few things together, just to see how it might work. First, we scheduled storytime at the same time each day and gave the students a choice of listening to two different books. It worked. Suddenly, there was a new chemistry created in both classrooms. Each student had two teachers instead of one, and each teacher had a very different group of students to relate to for part of each day. It was a small step for us to take, but our dance had begun.

What began as a simple experiment blossomed into a much more ambitious attempt at team teaching. Judith and I tried all kinds of cross-grade groupings, multi-age activities, and interdisciplinary themes within the structure of our fullblown primary unit. As I reflect on the results of our four years of teaching together, the specific successes and failures are not the important things to recall. The crucial thing for me to remember is that both Judith and I needed someone to share the work of teaching with. It was like building a mobile: We started with one pair of balancing objects and then worked upward in order to construct something that became more and more complex. Without that first effort, that first careful and tentative balancing act, the thing never would have existed, and I would have sunk further and further into the sands of “self-containment.”

This notion of interdependence is at odds with much of what our culture tries to teach us, especially those of us who are male. All too often in this country, we are trained to be self-reliant and independent, to go it alone and make things happen all by ourselves, to trust no one and compete with everyone. It is this tradition that leads us to celebrate the heroic adventurer who strikes out alone to conquer the wilderness or make a new scientific discovery or battle against all odds to win some victory. It is this philosophy that produces cultural heroes who are “tough” and who can “make it on their own” and who “don’t need any help from anybody.” So, we are encouraged to be like the athletes, entertainers, business executives, military leaders, and politicians who have achieved fame and fortune in our society by relying on their own talents and hard work in order to “make it.”

In this environment, when the concept of “teamwork” does appear, it is usually for the purpose of teaming up in order to beat someone else’s team. It is not surprising that the language of football, business, and the military interpenetrate each other. In these endeavors, we are taught that it is “teamwork” that gets the job done and enables us to compete successfully against our opponent, competitor, or enemy. But what about the notion that teamwork has value in and of itself? What about the idea that cooperation is not a weakness but is at the core of who we are as humans? What about the fact that to be “self-contained” and “independent” is also to be isolated, disconnected, and ultimately alienated from other people? If admitting that we need to lean on someone is perceived in our culture as a sign of weakness, is it any wonder that we have such high rates of chemical dependencies and addictive behaviors? Aren’t they simply the end result of a philosophy that teaches us not to depend on anyone else? Our society produces a lot of rugged individuals, but it also produces a lot of lonely drinkers.

As I sit here in my study thinking about these things, I look at the poster hanging on the wall across from my desk. It is a poster a friend gave me after reading an essay I wrote comparing the work of teaching with the work of Sisyphus, the mythic Greek figure who endlessly pushes a rock up a hill. In one corner of the poster is a quotation from Albert Camus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill one’s heart.” I agree with that idea, and I have felt in my teaching all of the strain and exhaustion depicted in the beautiful line drawing of Sisyphus.

But I am now struck by the fact that the person pushing the huge boulder uphill is all alone. Sisyphus the self-reliant. Sisyphus the independent. But also, Sisyphus the lonely.

Next to this poster is a watercolor painting done by my wife. It is my favorite work of hers. Several years ago, I formally purchased it from her, just so it wouldn’t be sold away from me. The painting is titled “Fred and Ginger,” and it shows two lithe figures, against a background of muted blues and greens, dancing gracefully together. The effort of those two dancers is no less exhausting and will go on as endlessly as the effort of Sisyphus, but how much more wonderful it is to move and work and glide and turn and bend and push and balance together instead of all alone.

We all need somebody to lean on.

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Somebody To Lean On