Stéphane Lambiel: "You never know enough"

September 13, 2015
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky

I grew up on Janusz Korczak's novels about King Matt the First, a child prince who was forced to reign at a very young age because of the sudden death of his father. When I got older I learned the story of Korczak's life, and it touched me on so many levels, as an educator who used to work a lot with youngsters and as a Jew who mourns the loss of the Holocaust victims.
Janusz Korczak was always an example of "The Teacher" for me, and that's why for quite some time, since Stéphane Lambiel started coaching, I wanted a "meeting" between the two of them. A few days ago Stéphane and I found time to sit down and discuss Korczak's teaching philosophy, trying to understand together the meaning of his words, and checking how they correlate with our own experiences.

"When is the proper time for a child to start walking? When he does. When should his teeth start cutting? When they do. How many hours should a baby sleep? As long as he needs to."

Stéphane: That's exactly what I feel. Freedom is necessary, but everyone is different and has a different vision of freedom. My [definition of] freedom is different from yours. And for a child it's the same: when a child needs to walk he will walk, when he needs to talk he will talk.
Reut: ...and there is no exact time when he "has to" start talking or walking...
Stéphane: Exactly! The kids I teach come to me and - because I'm their point of reference - ask me at what age I landed my first triple jump. And my answer is always: "It doesn't matter when I landed it, you will land it before or after I did. But who cares as long as you can understand what you have to do. If it's in two years then it's in two years; if it's now then it's now, but you have to just understand it." And that is very individual.

"It is nothing but a mistake, utter foolishness, to imagine that everything which is not outstanding is therefore pointless and worthless. We are all suffering from the immortality syndrome. Anyone who has not managed to have a monument to himself erected in the marketplace would like a side street named after him at the very least, as a perpetual record."

Stéphane: It depends on your ambitions. There are people who are more ambitious and there are those who are less.
Reut: Probably he was also talking about a parent being ambitious for their child; I believe that might be the context here. So for your students...
Stéphane: ...of course I want them to achieve the most that they can.
Reut: But do you need all of them to have their statues in the marketplace?
Stéphane: No. For me it's not important if they become world champions or not. For me it's important that they continue to learn and appreciate the learning process. Because when they're learning, I'm learning too. This is a shared experience. So, of course, I agree that it's a mistake to think that everyone should have a monument in the marketplace; it's such a materialistic approach.

"The child is a foreigner who doesn't know the language, isn't familiar with the street plan, is ignorant of the laws and customs of the land. At times he likes to go exploring on his own; when things get rough, he asks for directions and help. What he needs is a guide who will politely answer his questions."

Stéphane: Perfect. Nothing to add! That's it exactly. And we probably have to learn from the children. Yes, they're not as educated as we are, as adults. We do things a certain way, the way we learned to do them. We like to have an exact plan and we're comfortable with that plan, but we need to learn from children how to open ourselves to spontaneous things, to something new, because it's so nice to discover!

"The child is small - there is just less of him. We ought to stoop and come down to his level."

Stéphane: So that's exactly what I was saying.
Reut: ...that you shouldn't talk to a child with superiority, de haut en bas.
Stéphane: ...you have to be at the same level, yes.

"How often do we feel disappointment when children fail to live up to our expectations? And how often do we feel disappointment at every step of their development? We are their harsh judges, rather than their counsellors and consolers."

Stéphane: That is so true, too. Since we're more experienced, we probably think that we know more. And because of that we think we know all the possibilities, all the goals the child should be able to reach, all his limits. But it's also important that the kid knows that someone has confidence in him and in what he's able to do. Otherwise, it takes a lot more time for them to understand it themselves, until they are confident enough to reach this level. So I think the guide has to have the confidence. He cannot put the expectations too high but has to be confident that the child is able to reach a certain goal, even though the kid probably doesn't feel like it's possible at that moment.
Reut: Not to get frustrated "oh, you couldn't do it", but to be more like "you can do it!"
Stéphane: Yes. To tell him: "This is what I think you can do (shows a certain level with his hand), now you're here (shows a lower level), let's work on this margin, because I think there is potential and we should be able to realize the goal."
Reut: And this is what you do with your students?
Stéphane: Yes. I set high expectations, but they're realistic. I try to be confident about those goals, so that the student feels this confidence too. On the other hand, I believe it's too dangerous to push too hard with difficult things, because then the child gets frustrated, you get frustrated and then it's just frustration all around. But at the same time it's no less frustrating to see the unrealized potential, and a kid who limits himself. In such situations you need to remind yourself not to lose your temper and your patience...

"When I approach a child, I have two feelings: affection for what he is today and respect for what he can become."

Stéphane: Yes, but again there's always this feeling that I know more than the student. And of course as instructors we do know more because of our experience, but we have to ignore it, because knowing something doesn't make us better people. I can already respect a child, not because of the person he will become, but I respect him for who he is now.
Reut: This quote is probably also about that potential we were discussing earlier. Sometimes you see a child and think: "Wow, I'm really looking forward to discovering what he will become". Like it was for me with you, when you were much younger and I saw you and thought: "It will be so interesting to see what he will grow up to be..."
Stéphane: You were curious. I'm also curious to see... For example, I have different students. For some I might think: "Wow, he's so talented; he's probably going to improve quickly in the near future." Then I see another kid who is less talented and I think: "Oh, it's going to take him more time." And then you wait six months and the situation is totally different, because that less talented student was working harder and maybe in a smarter way. I'm always curious to see [what will happen], because I have my own ideas about how it's going to work but in the end the reality is completely different. Life is always open to new possibilities. And I'm curious to see all those possibilities with all the kids. All of the kids I worked with during the last year have great personalities; I was so passionate about them. As soon as I was on the ice it didn't matter what level they were at or how talented they were. I was interested in the personality I had [in front of me]. And it's actually very complicated to combine the work on the technical side of the skating with the personality of the skater. It's not only that you say: "The right arm should be here." Their brain doesn't understand where "here" is, or how to feel that "here". And then you need to look for the right message so he can feel what you want him to feel. The message is always different for every person. And that's what I enjoy the most in teaching.
Reut: It's not boring...
Stéphane: Yeah, it's never boring. You have a certain idea but there will be many obstacles on the way, and as an instructor you adjust that idea to fit the personality of the student in front of you.

"Whatever has been achieved through pressure and violence is unstable, unreliable and incorrect."

Stéphane: Umm, not sure.
Reut: Which part? Do you think violence would be correct?
Stéphane: Both, pressure and violence. I was a kid who really found his stability in pressure and violence.
Reut: You needed violence?
Stéphane: Violence with myself...
Reut: Maybe with yourself, but it looks like he is talking more about violence from a parent towards their child, or a teacher towards their student...
Stéphane: Maybe not extreme violence, but some violence, some action is needed.
Reut: You mean being strict?
Stéphane: I mean sometimes you need to act. You can't just sit and wait and see what a kid will do. Sometimes you just need to take the kid and shake him. And this is violence, but sometimes you have to shake him up, mentally or physically.
Reut: I guess when he was writing this, 80-90 years ago, the violence referred to was actual violence, beating him up.
Stéphane: Well, not violence that leaves marks on your face, but violence in the sense that sometimes a kid should understand that maybe he shouldn't take that specific direction. It can never be too peaceful. I don't think you'll get too far by always being serene.

"Be yourself and seek your own path. Know yourself before you attempt to know children. Become aware of what you yourself are capable of before you attempt to outline the rights and responsibilities of children. First and foremost you must realize that you too are a child, whom you must first get to know, to bring up and to educate."

Stéphane: So, again, be on the same level with a child, yes.
Reut: I think he is also saying that you need to know yourself before you try to teach.
Stéphane: Yes, and also... I already told you that I'm a child, yes? I'm a child, I'm totally this: "you must realize that you too are a child, whom you must first get to know, to bring up and to educate". And that's right, I'm educating myself. Like I said before, when my student is learning, then I'm learning too. And you never know enough, you can always learn more than you know today. So, don't keep your horizons narrow!

"Don't try to become a teacher overnight with psychological bookkeeping in your heart and educational theory in your head."

Stéphane: Explain that one to me.
Reut: I think he says that you can't go to the library, read all the pedagogical books, pass exams and think that you're already a teacher.
Stéphane: True. I thought that I knew how to teach because I had gone through the education. I was taught by so many great coaches, I was able to do all those jumps... But it was only when I started coaching that I started learning how to teach. And probably the practical side of teaching is even more important than theory. You have to know the theory, but the only time you're learning how to teach is when you actually start teaching.
Reut: You know, I wondered how much formal education of theory you'd actually received.
Stéphane: Well, for the technical side of skating I had many, many, many years [of learning]. But then for the pedagogical side not as much.
Reut: From what I saw during the bootcamp it comes naturally to you...
Stéphane: I think it's more instinctive, yes. I've probably learned it from my mother. And it's also natural- you have it or you don't.
Reut: But do you want, do you think of getting some formal education?
Stéphane: I've read a lot of pedagogical books about how to teach kids. Anna Bernauer and I, we did a course about how to explain, how to divide the complexity of each movement, how to execute things step by step. And at home I have my books if I need them, for example if I see a child whom I don't know how to educate or how to make stronger. Then I'll try to understand what my weak points are with this kid, and how I can develop our relationship so he feels more comfortable.
I think it's always important to question yourself as a teacher. Sometimes it's difficult for a child to question himself; he isn't capable of doing that consciously but he has the feeling: "Do I really want to do this? Am I ready?" And then he needs to have a parent or a teacher to guide him to the answers. To help him find the answers himself, and not to answer them for him.
I think as a person you always need to question yourself. And if you don't have the answer, well, just do it...
Reut: You won't always have the answer...
Stéphane: Never. Sometimes you never get an answer, but you have to go on.

"Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be - the unknown person inside each of them is our hope for the future."

Stéphane: That's completely right. Like I said, it's not who they will be, it's who they are already. Even a baby is already a person to respect. I love kids; I can spend hours with kids. It's wonderful when you have all those reactions, maybe sometimes it's still instinctive, but it's a result of their personality, of who they are. If they start to cry, it's for a reason.
Reut: They don't fake...
Stéphane: Exactly.
Reut: Well, it depends. Sometimes kids can be very manipulative.
Stéphane: Also. But who is not? A relationship has to have trust in it, of course, and manipulation can become a game that grows into something positive. It might destroy a relationship but it can also develop into something that will make this relationship complex and beautiful.

"The one concerned with days, plants wheat; with years, plants trees; with generations, educates people."

Stéphane: People are the most difficult to grow...
Reut: But the influence is for generations, you might influence not only this child but also his children.
Stéphane: True... For example, Peter Grütter had his "maestro", mister Gerschwiler (Jacques Gerschwiler, a noted Swiss figure skater and coach, was elected to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame - ed.) I don't think Gerschwiller was ever Peter's coach, but his professor, his mentor. And even though I never met him, this mister Gerschwiler, because of Peter, influenced me too.
He died in 2000, in Geneva. I think he came once to watch my skating in Lausanne at junior Nationals, but he probably fell asleep during my program. (smiles) So yes, he was Peter's maestro and I was also educated by this man I never met.
Reut: ...and then he will have an influence on your students too.

Like I said to Stéphane I was always curious to see what he will grow up to be. He tried himself as a showman, singer, actor. He is a choreographer now, he produces his own skating show. In every field he tried in his career he exceeded my expectations. It was a special experience to see him coaching. And although I don't understand much about teaching skating technique, I know a thing or two about teaching and I can say that his students are very lucky to have him as their coach, friend and mentor.

 






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