7 Lessons Bonsai Has Taught Me about Life and Teaching

7 Lessons Bonsai Has Taught Me about Life and Teaching

By Brandon Herwick


Many forms of art get me excited about life and inspired to grow my teaching.  The emotional connection and storytelling of musical theater, the organization and exploration of cooking and baking, the improvisation and wit of comedy and the vision and wonder of the moving image are chief among them.  Lately, it has been the art of bonsai in which my hunger to learn has taken root.  

Bonsai is the combination of two Japanese words, ‘bon’ and ‘sai’, and literally means “planted in a container”.  The artistic aspects of bonsai are found in caring for, growing and helping shape the trees to grow “in a miniaturized but realistic representation of nature in the form of a tree.” (Source: bonsaiempire.com)

Bonsai is a living art form that in the most amazing examples can span generations. To care for a bonsai is to form and commit to a daily relationship with the growth and development of the tree.  It encompasses design, planning, research, reflection and maintenance and in many ways reflects teaching. Below are some lessons I have learned from caring for my Chinese Elm bonsai tree that I use to help improve my relationship with my career as an educator.

  1. Health and Wellness is a Daily Pursuit


 The watering, positioning of the tree to the sun and the general well being of the tree depends on you and your ability to read the signs the tree is giving you. The tree grows based on its environment and helps inform the decisions you make on how to best care for it. Our relationship with our career is very much the same. If we don’t regularly check in with ourselves to assess general well-being, reflect on ways to improve and plan for future success and growth we begin to decline or stagnate. Maintaining health in our bonsai and in our teaching requires us to invest, observe and frequently care for its needs. 

2. Balance of Energy is Key to Growth


As trees grow branches of leaves form and become opportunistic as they seek out and move toward the source of sunlight. In nature this often results in several strong branches with leaves growing further out from the trunk. In bonsai trees, we want to use wire to shape the branches and reduce leaves on branches in which the thick foliage may block out access to sunlight reaching more internal branches and leaves. This is very true of our professional balance as well. I know I have often focused on the stronger, more well developed aspects of my teaching and in turn have inhibited the growth of some of my newer or less experienced areas of growth. Awareness and purpose in where you put your energy is important to achieve fuller more well balanced development. 

3. Others Will Want to Flourish in Your Success

Success attracts those who want to learn, grow and encourage your success as well as those who want to solely use your success to bolster their own without any interest in the effect it has on you. In bonsai this can be seen with pests. I recently bought a vibrant Brazilian Raintree bonsais in training. When I bought it the tree was full of new growth and very healthy. Shortly after I took the tree home, I realized that my verdant tree was full of a population of aphids. These tiny bugs were eating away at the leaves, laying eggs in the new growth and making use of the tree to better their growth with no care for the detriment they were having on the tree. By having lady bugs eat the aphids, and by removing them myself from the tree we advocated for the health of the tree without impeding it’s growth. In teaching there are many instances in which a lot is asked of us.  I encourage you to identify those who want to drain you and remove them, as well as those want to help you grow and surround yourself with them. 

4. The Soil in Which You are Rooted Matters


An organic soil including wood-chips.


A clay based soil called ‘akadama’.

For a bonsai tree to live and thrive it must have the right soil. This soil should contain nutrients, structure for which the roots to grow in and provide enough drainage so that water flows through it but does not sit in excess, which could result in root rot. The same is true of our teaching. The environment in which we teach, consisting of individuals, facilities and communities, needs to provide structure, positivity and have a system that filters out negative things that build barriers and impede on growth. Some of the aspects of this environment are out of our control, but the systems, individuals and culture we have in our schools can be directly and positively created and influenced by us, our efforts and our purpose. 

5. Trends of Design and Technique Change but Fundamentals Never Do

With the emergence of new technologies to craft cutting shears, shaping wire and soil compounds the methods to maintain and care for a bonsai have advanced throughout time, but the fundamental needs of the trees and aspects of the art have remained the same for centuries. This is also true in pedagogy and the art of education. New terms, methods, tools and resources have been introduced over the years, many of which are simply new iterations of old practices, all aiming at help teachers be their best for their students. I encourage you to use the tools that work best for you.  Remember it all comes back to identifying what your trees and students really fundamentally need. Trees need water, sunlight and nutrients and our students need skills, connections, guidance and support. If we provide those things in a positive setting, regardless of the techniques we use, growth and prosperity will result. 

6. Growth and Development is Unique and Situational


Although many trees look the same, are of similar heights, widths, shapes, colors and designs all trees are different and undergo unique journeys based on their care, experiences and distinct attributes. This is also true for each of our teaching careers. Despite being put in similar situations we are all unique and will grow and develop in different ways. President Theodore Roosevelt once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”.  I find this to be very true. To compare one tree to another or one person’s teaching career to another is unfair and denies the celebration of the wonderfully unique aspect of both trees and careers. It is far better to learn and grow from observing others and thus positively benefit the journey of both than to stunt the growth of either with comparison. 

7. Growth Takes Time, Observation and Reflection

Some of the oldest bonsai trees have lived for centuries and have undergone many different designs, repottings and living conditions as they have been passed from one caretaker to the next. This is also true for Health and Physical Education. Throughout time we have shifted our focus from gymnastics to calisthenics, then to a sports model, adventure and now physical literacy. All of these changes and decisions have been based on the needs of the time and the climate of the culture in which they were taught. There have been times of success and failure in both bonsai and teaching. Despite these changes a few constants remain. They include the repeating cycle of planning, implementation, observation and reflection. These foundational components have led to the continued growth, development and existence of both the art of bonsai and education. 

Whether it be music, acting, cooking, baking, painting, architecture or bonsai I encourage you to identify the aspects of art that move you. Reflect on them, learn from them and then use them to make your teaching stronger, more vibrant and full of life and purpose. I have learned both from trees and from people that no matter how old you are or how many years you have been training, growth and development can persist and flourish if cared for. 

Jorge Rodriguez