Teacher Tom says ‘Let the kids play’ as he joins Athens school

The usual breaktime mayhem was in full swing in the Ippocratous Street school playground in central Athens. Tom Hobson, or Teacher Tom – as he’s better known in the United States – had joined the kids and was actively participating in their activities. It wasn’t long that he’d been in the Greek capital, where he had been invited by the Dorothy Snot private preschool, but he was already getting along famously with the children.

“At first I was a bit bewildered because I don’t know how to say anything other than ‘thank you’ and ‘please,’” he told Kathimerini. “But then I started playing with the kids and as you know playing is a universal language.”

Hobson is hailed as the best preschool teacher in the world. His motto is “Let the kids play,” and at the acclaimed Woodland Park school in Seattle, where he is based, classes are not conducted in the traditional manner.

“Play is the class,” he explained. “Play is the tool that will light their flame, that will make them curious about the world. The idea that children are empty vessels simply waiting to be filled suggests that children are not complete individuals. I can’t tell a child what to learn. Our job is to keep them safe, to love them, to observe them and to give them a little push so that they can learn the things they want to learn.”

To back his philosophy, Teacher Tom draws on the myriad experiences he’s had in 14 years of teaching.

“Some children learn to speak at 18 months and others at 4 years old; the entire range is normal,” said Hobson. “Who am I to say what one child or another ought to have done by a specific age? Some children can read when they’re 2 and others don’t even know the alphabet at 5 but they are geniuses in making new friends. Why do we worry so much when they will all have reached more or less the same level by the time they’re 10? Why should we rob them of their childhood?”

Hobson has developed his own teaching technique based on experience, an empirical approach. Working as a baseball coach until the age of 40, he didn’t get involved in teaching until his family moved to Seattle, where his wife accepted a well-paid job and he assumed the role of stay-at-home dad for their 2-year-old daughter. There in Seattle he came across Woodland Park, a preschool education facility that is run by the parents, who, depending on their skills and abilities, also work as teachers and in other posts. Hobson was so good at what he did that when his own daughter “graduated” after three years, the other parents begged him to stay on.

At Woodland Park, parents may be paying the fees, but it’s the kids that run the show.

“The kids decide what rules they’re going to follow over the course of the year, such as ‘no biting,’ ‘no swearing’ etc. There has to be unanimity,” explained Hobson. “This year there was one kid who wanted to change one of the rules. He wanted to be able to resort to name-calling. The other children did not agree, so his ‘amendment’ did not pass. Then one day he came to me with a note. It was the first time he had ever written. It was badly spelt but it said something like ‘Erin picks her boogers.’ ‘I didn’t break the rule,’ he said to me. ‘I wrote it; I didn’t say it.’ He learned to write just so he could break the rule.”

According to Hobson, this is what teaching is really about.

“Most people worry about whether children will learn to read and write, and whether they’ll learn the basics of math. But there are so many things for kids to learn in this world. Especially now, when all the key dates and historical events are just a Google search away, the only thing they need is for us to imbue them with a passion for learning so that they can go around the world asking themselves questions like ‘Why is this wall red?’ This is what our society needs more generally,” argued Hobson. “This is what businesses need and what democracy itself needs: people who question authority and pose questions.”

Hobson is also a firm believer in the educational value of making mistakes.

“I remember a little girl trying to build a castle from toy bricks, which kept collapsing. I was itching to tell her that if she distributed the weight differently the structure would hold, but I didn’t. She left. Two days later she came back and did it correctly right off the bat. She learned when she was ready to learn. This was knowledge she attained, not something she memorized in a class,” remembered Hobson. “If you don’t make mistakes, you’ll never learn. If you’re scared of making a mistake, you’ll never accomplish anything. Success can only come through failure and persistence.”

I asked him whether he feels successful.

“I always wanted to be surrounded by smart people and life suddenly put me among kids. So yes,” he replied.