Pathways to Academe

Kathleen Harris

Don Herold (1926) stated, ‘Work is the greatest thing in the world, so we should always save some of it for tomorrow.’ The Man Who Planted Trees is the story of Elzeard Bouffier. Bouffier is portrayed as a man of great determination who lives a very simple lifestyle. After losing both his son and wife at an early age, Bouffier travels to Provence, in southern France. His only possessions being his sheep and dog, Bouffier builds a stone house to live in and embarks on a new vision, a significant mission which is to plant one hundred perfect and fine acorns a year. This mission takes a lifetime which allows the reader to manifest and watch as the character makes a transformation of this region over several decades. Like a father, he works hard and nurtures to bring new life into a region which was once barren, cold, dark, and lifeless. Each time I read this piece of literature, I find myself as the character gently planting acorns. I see my roles as a pre-school teacher, a catechist, a professor, and a mother in so many ways throughout the story.

For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years (Giono, p. 3). In so many ways, Bouffier brought light to the darkness by planting and caring for the acorns he planted. He carefully observed their growth and watched carefully as all of these seedlings turned into a forest.  In my career as a preschool teacher, it was exciting for me to see the positive influence I could have on young children’s lives by observing the progress they made day by day.

Just as acorns are first planted when they are very small—but will grow into oaks—young children are natural, vital human beings who haven’t had much experience in getting along with peers. Young children are strong willed and self-centered, as well as affectionate and trusting. Throughout my teaching, I’ve worked as a supportive ‘educarer’ for young children, respecting and honoring the child’s strengths and unique capabilities. Just as Bouffier had to cultivate care when nurturing his seedlings, so does an educarer need boundless patience, good judgment, character, and maturity to exercise the balance of control and latitude that young children require. But the skills of nurture must be learned. You have to know how to select the right acorns for planting, the right weather and soil conditions. For me, that meant acquiring a solid knowledge of child development and curriculum pedagogy from several avenues including a community college, liberal arts Catholic college, and research university.

One of the most valuable lessons and gifts of education is the love of learning. During my preschool career, I took time to listen to children’s ideas (although at times, it was hard to listen to fifteen three-year olds all at once!). I also loved to engage in conversations and laugh with them, because I might learn as much from them as they might learn from me. Early childhood author and teacher, Mimi Chenfeld (1993) believes young children invite us on a journey to our individual beginnings when the world was fresh and waiting to be discovered.

My classrooms were a place where laughter and bear hunts occurred daily. You didn’t need a ticket or money to ride a special magic carpet or to take a train ride on the Polar Express. Each magic carpet was personalized and could take you anywhere. I was the star polisher making sure all my shining stars felt happy, safe, and could be the shiniest stars in the heavens. The world would be a better place because of them. My goal was to make every aspect of the preschool day an experience to rejoice and find joy. I would do this by using childrens’ interests and strengths to develop emotional, social, cognitive, physical, and spiritual domains to their fullest. And I did this by using compassion.

In order for Elzeard Bouffier to bring new life and hope to people who lived in his community, he had to work with compassion for the mission he was committed to. Though that mission was simply planting acorns, it was the care he had for those acorns that made the difference. Compassion works hard to make today’s real world tomorrow’s better one. Elzeard Bouffier did this by transforming a barren town into one with beauty and hope for the future for those who lived there. Teachers do this by providing a service—one that lifts up, carries us to safety, and provides shelter.

Service leadership has always been a passion of mine. During the past twenty-five years, I have been active with many organizations that have contributed to my teaching profession. While I attended college, I served as a Vice-President for Pi Lambda Theta Educational Honor Society, and Vice-President of Affiliates for the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children. These roles gave me opportunities to empower members to use their talents and strengths to participate in service projects for the community. I believe leaders must have clear values with a vision. These professional development opportunities gave me opportunities to grow stronger as a professional teacher and also ignited the flame of inspiration for future teachers to become tomorrow’s leaders. Edith Wharton states, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” I worked to do both as a visionary and servant leader.

My greatest honor was to receive in 1999 the OAEYC Early Childhood Award for the State of Ohio. This award recognizes an Ohioan in the field of early childhood education who has made significant career contributions to the field which have had an impact on the needs, rights, and well-being of children throughout the state. The honor is awarded based on the recommendations and testimonials of the families who have been affected by the nominee.

“It is the joy she projects and the love that she shares with these children that truly distinguishes her as a teacher. She fosters an environment where our son is safe to explore, encouraged to experiment, and challenged to learn.”

“I have come to appreciate and learn from her. I’ve learned how certain activities help to develop “eye-hand coordination,” how scrapes of paper are not trash but… confetti, and how much “fun” glitter really is! Mrs. Harris is not only my daughters’ preschool teacher, she’s my teacher as well. She challenges us, the parents, to be good role models and first teachers for our children. And most of all, to have fun!”

But there are always more acorns to plant. Shortly following receiving this honor, I completed my undergraduate degree in early childhood education and psychology and began a new journey towards a graduate degree in early childhood education and doctoral degree of philosophy in special education.

I’m sure along the way, Bouffier ran into troubled spots during his course of yearly plantings. Bouffier made sure the land he planted was on community land. Conditions of the soil and rough hilly areas may have been a problem for Bouffier when he did his yearly plantings, and also weather conditions may have been unfavorable during spring plantings with either too much rain or not enough. Similarly, in any career there are critical incidents which are unfavorable, but which can lead us in new and important directions.

In my late twenties, after having a healthy pregnancy for nine months, I lost my first child. Who would have ever thought the moment of birth and death would happen so close together within a 24-hour period? This troubled spot during my late twenties made me realize that life isn’t always sunshine and roses. During these moments I tried to count my blessings, reflect, pray, and pick myself up to travel the journey, finding the positive moments and laying low focusing on the negativity. Within these moments of change, difficulty, and taking risks, I found new hope and serenity of spirit to travel on. I did my best to focus and live in the moment; and this brought peace and joy to my soul. In addition to the philosophical and spiritual awakening I experienced during this troubled spot, I was aware that it was time for me to make a change in my career and follow my passion in life which was to teach young children. I always wanted to be a teacher. To satisfy my love for teaching, I taught catechism religion classes on the weekends. After taking time to grieve and move ahead with my life, I decided to start taking classes in early childhood education and volunteer with professional organizations.

As an early childhood and special education professor, teaching with compassion encompasses the way I teach classes, conduct myself as a professional, build relationships with colleagues and students and embrace the mission of our university culture with spirit and pride. Compassion brings light into the darkness. Just as Bouffier brought life and light into a once lifeless and barren community, so I also want to be a teacher who brings light to the darkness by sharing my light to my college students and my love of learning. This beautiful story is practical for all of us in a society where everyone wants to achieve more and become better at a new or current career. It proclaims to the reader: you can do it! The story of Elzeard Bouffier offers a reflective and practical formula for following our dream, and allows each of us to dream where there are no limits because all of us have the possibility and power to make it happen.


Chenfeld, M. (1993). Teaching in the key of life. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Giono, J. (2005). The man who planted trees. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Keller, H. (2011). To live, to think, to hope: Inspirational quotes by Helen Keller. Matthew B. Gordon.

Don Herold Quotes. (n.d.). From


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Voices of Practice Copyright © 2021 by Kathleen Harris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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