Archive: Teaching in a Circle

February 1, 2001
By Laurie Leahy

This post has been moved from its original location at and archived here, so you can continue to access it.

This month's story is submitted by Laurie Leahy, a teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA who sent us this email about her experiences. It's a wonderful tale that speaks for itself. Thank you, Laurie.

If I imagine a huge circle made up of all the students I've taught, there would be over five hundred people in this circle. It would glow and sparkle and hum. This circle does exist, scattered as stars, and it contains magic and grace.

I teach young children, and they teach me. They have taught me how to teach, and they help me learn how to live.

Every September, for all my teaching years, my class begins with a circle. This becomes a pattern we expand through the year, for meetings, for discussions, for stories: each others' and our own. Sitting on the carpet, side by side, room for all, everyone equal. I have come to sense increasingly the value and gifts of our circle, and I believe my students sense them too. The circle is a symbol, acted out daily, of the community we form as our year together unfolds. The circle is where we find out that no question is silly, that even the boys can hug, and that tears--including the teacher's-- are respected.

Last September, first day of school, a student new to our school joined our class. Danny had just suffered a tragedy, the accidental death of his mother, a few weeks earlier. Danny asked me to tell the class about his mom's death when I introduced him, so I did. Our very first circle grew hushed, eyes widened, all typical third grade fidgeting stilled. I suggested maybe we would like to hold hands a moment. I was right, we did. After a moment, one voice, belonging to a girl who had been labeled "oppositional-defiant", was heard: "Nothing can ever replace Danny's mom, but maybe if we all help him we could each be like a little part of his mom for him." And for the entire year, they did and they were.

A different year, it doesn't matter which, we were discussing the biography of Martin Luther King Jr. which we'd been reading. We grew somber as we got to the part about the children's march in Birmingham, and I became teary as my students asked me, a white woman, to explain how white adults could have been so hateful to black children. Jasmine, an African-American child who was sitting clear across the circle noticed my tears, and asked, "Mrs. Leahy, are you crying?" I told her that, well, yes, just a little bit, I guess I was. She rushed across the circle, put her arms around me, and proclaimed, "It was NOT your fault!" I, who had been ten years old at the time of the Birmingham marches, experienced a healing.

A few years ago our class included an emotionally troubled child who had the dangerous habit of fleeing. Out the door, down the hall, onto the playground she ran, leading the staff on a number of pursuits. She was making strides in curtailing this behavior when one day she told me she just liked to "run free." She asked me if she could do this if she stayed in our room. I told her I thought it might be okay, but since it would impact her classmates, she should probably check it out with them at circle time. Maintaining the control needed to manage her impulses, she waited and at circle time asked the other kids. The third graders responded with insightful questions: "Will you be careful not to bump into things and hurt yourself or us? How long will you run? Are you sure you will stay in the room? Do you want us to close the door?"

The questions were soon answered to everyone's satisfaction: She wouldn't bump anything or anyone, she would run for two minutes, and yes, she said, closing the door was a good idea; it would reduce temptation. One child, who asked to be the timekeeper, told her, "Ready, set, GO!" and off she went, zipping artfully around the circle, a glorious streak of unbroken foal in her. Before her time limit ran out, she ran to her place and sat down. The class applauded and praised her for staying within her limits: "That was really good! You did everything like you said you would!" One boy commented, "It was fun to watch her run. I liked how her hair blew back in the wind, like a horse's mane!" She never felt the need to run from (or in) our class again. The circle is a safe container.

Our circle has done some amazing things. We have sent anonymous surprises to other classrooms with treats the children bring in themselves, written notes of condolence to students at a neighboring school when their playground was vandalized, and sent letters to corporations which have contributed to rainforest destruction. So our circle has moved outside of itself, a strong web that can expand. The circle has also literally moved outside, as in times when we've collected autumn leaves and sat around them on the grass, and when we've very carefully made a fragile circle of snow angels, twenty-four of us simultaneously flapping legs and arms in a field of January white. Nature teaches about circles everywhere.

Of course it is not the literal shape of the circle that creates community-- though it helps. What I think is truly formative is an openness to one another that makes connecting and learning possible.

I think I have always been fairly adept at walking in my students' moccasins: I was a third-grader once myself, after all. What has gradually changed for me has been an increasing openness to allowing them to walk in my shoes. When I've listened closely, I've heard them ask for this, for an experience of an authentic adult, with uncertainties and mistakes and hurts as well as triumphs and joys. So I bring myself to circle, and I am in the circle, one who is among them, not hovering some unreachable distance above.