Monday, October 22, 2018

What Are We Going To Do About It?

When our daughter Josephine was young, not even two-years-old, she would complain to this homebody-inclined father, "Let's go do something!" So we would go to parks and playgrounds, the Seattle Children's Museum, the Pacific Science Center, and wherever else we might find other children. Her desire to get out there and mix it up with other kids was so pronounced that I started thinking about preschool. When I floated the idea to the three most important women in my life -- my wife, my mother, and my mother-in-law -- they were each emphatic in their opposition, arguing that she was lucky enough to have a stay-at-home parent, which was better than school. So, we continued to cobble together a social life until one day I met a woman who told me about cooperative preschool. As she explained it to me, "The parents go to school with their kids," an idea that passed muster with my panel of matriarchs. And that, in a nutshell, is how I found my way into cooperative preschools.

And that is also how I wound up, in my mid-30's, without any prior inkling on my part, becoming a teacher. I found that after three years as a cooperative parent, working as an assistant teacher, I genuinely loved working with young children, helping them, supporting them, playing with them, so when Josephine moved on to kindergarten, I stayed behind. I've heard other teachers tell their stories, all different in their particulars, but all pretty much the same when it comes to the why: they love their jobs and the children they teach.

None of us are in this for the money. None of us are in this for the hours. And none of us are in this for the prestige. We do it from our passions, from our love, and because we know what we do is important, but for an increasing number of us, that isn't enough.

We are a profession in crisis, with teacher shortages cropping up right across the country. Eight percent of us will leave the profession this year. Twenty to 30 percent will leave within the next five years. Two thirds of us won't make it to retirement. Pay has fallen and respect for the profession is at an all time low. Nearly twenty percent of us must take part time jobs to make ends meet. For the first time since the question was first asked some fifty years ago, a majority of Americans now say that they would not want their own child to become a teacher. Morale amongst our nation's teachers is low and strikes, some of the wildcat variety, are on the rise. If we were talking about any other profession, we would be moving heaven and earth to fix it.

I've pulled these findings from an important USA Today piece called "Teachers in America." A team of journalists spread out across the country to follow 15 teachers for a day. What they found is not surprising: dedicated professionals who love what they do, but who are increasingly feeling the pressures and frustrations of a society that increasingly undervalues our work.

We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected . . . That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.

I recently wrote a post in which I identified "joy" as a teacher's real compensation, to which some responded, "But you can't pay the rent with joy," a truth that can't be avoided. And while joy will always stand at the center of why we do it, we've reached a point at which is seems that it's the only thing keeping the profession from falling apart altogether. We love working with the children, doing meaningful, important work, but the ground around us has been eroding for the past several decades. It has always been demanding and stressful, but political attacks, meddling, and disrespect, accompanied by depressed wages, are driving even veteran teachers away in droves, while bright young people are looking elsewhere.

We are in crisis. Even joy isn't enough. This won't be an easy thing to correct, but higher pay would be a good place to start.

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Friday, October 19, 2018


Earlier this school year, I was explaining to some of our school's families how "sharing" works at Woodland Park: if a kid is using something that another kid wants to use, we coach the kids to say, "I want that when you're finished" or, in the true language of childhood, "Next!" We don't compel the first child to give up her plaything either right away or according to a timer, but rather permit her to continue using it until she's finished, however long that takes, albeit with the information that there are other children awaiting a turn.

In my description, I was particularly enthusiastic over the power of calling "Next!" which is how we did it when I was a boy growing up on a suburban cul-de-sac. I don't recall being taught to call "Next!": it's one of those things I always knew, copied, I'm sure, from the older children I played with in whatever backyard we found ourselves that day. If the swings were occupied, "Next!" was as close to a sacred agreement as one can have. If anyone tried to jump your claim, you'd say, "Hey, I called it!" and they had to step aside. Indeed, it wouldn't have occurred to any of us to talk about sharing in this context: it was all about who called it first, just as we would shout "Shotgun!" when we were older to claim the front passenger seat in the car.

One of the parents stopped me to say, "But these children are too young and innocent for "Next!" They don't have the kind of experiences you had growing up." She wasn't arguing against the concept, just the short-cut, which she felt lacked the courteousness she wished for her child. And indeed, "Next!" isn't particularly polite, I suppose. It's a word from "the street," so to speak, where children played unsupervised, and in all honesty, most preschoolers today are being raised in their parlors where their street instincts get blunted by constant supervision, so her point is not without validity.

That said, I like to think of our school as a vacant lot. Adults are supervising, of course, but my expectation is that we all step back and trust the children to create a community of their own, one that may not always fit our adult notions of niceness, but that functions for them nevertheless. As preschoolers, the older ones are about the age I was when mom first started sending me "outside," closing the door behind me, leaving me in a world of neighborhood children to figure things out. It wasn't always peachy, of course, but most of the time we solved our dilemmas of limited resources by calling "Next!" or "Shotgun!" or "Me first!" and if we started "innocent," it didn't last long.

For the past several weeks there has been a single tennis ball on the playground. I don't know how it got there, but it has become one of the most sought after items. There is in particular a group of our three and four-year-olds for whom that ball has become a sort of grail, with some of them forgoing their jackets in the rush to get outside and find that ball each day. In the beginning, whoever got the ball would then walk around clutching it as others danced about him, pleading and bargaining for a turn. There was quite a bit of unproductive arguing at first, especially since the person with the ball wasn't particularly inclined to relent.

Of course, the great truth about balls is they're really no fun if you just hold them. At some point they must be thrown or rolled or bounced, and once that happened, all bets were off, which meant that, at intervals, we had a mad dash of bumping bodies chasing after the ball, followed by several minutes of negotiating over who was "next" before another free-for-all that did not necessarily produce results that matched the outcome of those negotiations, instead tending to favor the fleet of foot and sharp of elbow. There was anger and tears and even the threat of hitting. It was not easy to stay out of it to be honest and it did occur to me to just get a few more tennis balls out of the shed, but I managed to stay back in the hope that they would work it out for themselves.

And I was rewarded, although only after things devolved into a back-and-forth of angry pushing. As I moved near to nip the violence in the bud, I heard the boy with the ball shout, "Hey, no pushing!"

"But it's my turn!"

"No, it's not! I got it!"

"But it's my turn!"

Then, before I could do anything, he had his moment of genius, "It's no body's turn! Whoever gets it gets it!"

A friend agreed, "Yeah, whoever gets it gets it!" There were several more echoes of agreement, including from the boy who had only moments before insisted it was his turn. "Whoever gets it gets it!"

With that, the ball was hurled over their heads toward an empty part of the playground and the scrum was on, children shouting, "Whoever gets it gets it!" as they jostled one another, their argument ended with an agreement that would not pass muster in a parlor, but was just perfect for the playground.

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Being A Good Coach

Between the ages of 14 and 35, I coached some 40 different baseball and softball teams, most of which were youth teams with players between the ages of four and 14. During my early years as a teacher, those experiences greatly influenced the way I "managed" a classroom full of kids, and I can still find remnants of that coaching approach in how I play to role of teacher today.

A good coach works with individual players, of course, helping them develop their skills and adjust their attitudes, but the priority of a great coach is the team itself. As the cliche goes, there is no "I" in team. A coach's job is to shape a group of individuals into a cohesive unit that works together toward a common end, which in the world of amateur baseball isn't always winning. That translates into the classroom as "project-based" learning (in the spirit of Reggio Emilia and other play-based models) which relies upon the principles of teamwork.

"Normal" schools tend to focus on individual achievement as measured by grades and test scores, which leads to children competing against one another for those prizes. Team-based education is more likely to concentrate on collective or group intelligence as measured by cooperative problem solving, which is much more like what we find in the world outside of the artificiality of normal schools. I mean, after all, even when I've worked in corporate environments, I would spend most of my days sitting down with my co-workers to noodling out how to solve this problem or that challenge, working as a part of a project team to get things done. Sure, people sometimes competed with one another, but success always came through cooperation, even if an unscrupulous player would sometimes try to steal the credit for his own advancement. And outside the corporate world, cooperative problem solving, teamwork, is the norm, be it running our cooperative preschool, feeding the poor, or organizing a fundraiser.

It's not that I don't concern myself with the individual needs and challenges of the children I teach, it's that I tend to look at those needs and challenges in the context of our community, which is served not just by children who work well together, but also by each child having the opportunity to productively contribute her or his unique talents and perspectives. A great team is not built from homogeneity, but rather from diversity. The success of a coach in a classroom, I think, is measured by how well her team incorporates all the talent from all the children no matter what the outcome. That is why we work so hard on social-emotional development, on the ability to include and be included, on understanding emotions, and to not just make space for those who are different, but to figure out how those differences make all of us better.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A "No Duh" Revelation

As an enthusiastic, new parent, I once made myself vomit from rolling down a grassy hill one too many times. It had likely been a couple decades since my last grassy hill and I'd remembered it as joyful, but the actual experience was anything but. The same goes for swinging. I'll sometimes sit on our playground swings, but anything more than a couple back-and-forths and I'm done.

It's part of growing up. Young children crave swinging, rolling, and spinning. That's because they need it. It helps their nervous system to mature and organize. I've written before about how we've never found a need to make rules surrounding out our swing set, a place where there are often as many as a dozen kids engaged in getting their sensory fix, activating the fluid filled cavities of their inner ears, instinctively developing their sense of balance, finding their centers. It's yet another example of how children, when left to their own devices without the constant direction of all-knowing, all-protecting adults, know what is best for themselves.

Of course, they are "just" playing, and no matter how much science there is behind what they do, the play always comes first. Indeed, it is a failure of or modern world that we feel we must prove play's value with science. Play, like love, like wisdom, like life, is a pure good: that it is supported by science should strike us all as a "no duh" revelation.

One girl was working to go "all the way upside down."

One girl had persuaded an adult to wind her up in the tire swing, "Higher . . . higher . . . higher . . ." in anticipation of a wild, out-of-control ride.

One girl was opting to keep matters under own hand, twisting the chains herself, then allowing her body to more slowly spin-drop until her dragging feet brought her to a stop. They played their spinning and swinging games over-and-over, not vomiting, thrilling at their dizziness.

They were playing, following their instincts, joyfully. It was everything to them. If adults could re-learn to trust children, it would be everything to us as well  . . . Although perhaps not for us.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Childhood Recaptured At Will

Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will.  ~Charles Baudelaire

According to the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, 98 percent of kindergarteners qualify as "creative geniuses." By age 25, only three percent can make that claim.

To me, that 98 percent seems a bit low. I have never met a preschool aged child who is not, in her or his own way, a genius. The three percent rate for adults, however, seems about right. Until I read about the Torrance Test, I figured that my observation and interpretation of this phenomenon likely had more to do with my own prejudices than anything else. I mean, certainly there is genius within each adult as well, left over from childhood, but now simply hidden beneath the layers of normalcy and averageness that come to form the shell of what we call being "grown up."

Every parent of every preschooler I have ever met knows that her child is a genius. Sometimes they are proud of early-onset "academic" skills, but more often they are astonished by genius of the creative, social, emotional, or physical variety. "She can climb to the top of anything!" they might enthuse or, "He cries when another child gets hurt!" or, "She makes friends everywhere we go!" You hear genuine astonishment in their voices, the way one always does when one is discussing genius.

Cynics might say that I'm not writing about genius as much as the doting adoration of parental love, but from my perch as a teacher in a cooperative school, I've spent decades listening to parents being equally astonished at the genius they see in other people's kids. Indeed, I've long felt that one of the most powerful aspects of the cooperative model is that it gives parents front row seats to not only their own child's genius, but also that of others.

The sad truth, however, is that the adult world tends to only reward certain types of genius, those we typically file under "academic" in school settings, then "economic" in the years afterwords, but even then only after pounding it into more traditionally useful shapes. That, I expect, is why genius is so rarely seen in adults: it's there but relegated to the ashcan of uselessness because it serves neither academics or commerce.

As havens set aside for the preservation of genuine childhood, places like the Woodland Park Cooperative School (where I teach) are free to celebrate genius in all its forms whether or not it can pass through the infinitely fine sieve that sorts useful from useless. This is perhaps the greatest sin of our tradition of schooling: it is in many ways a decades-long process of pounding down the nails that stick up as we increasingly value conformity, order, and normalcy. The child with a genius for whistling or comedy or climbing onto the roof of the school is typically shut up or shut down as we seek to force their genius into the molds of usefulness, of averageness.

Genius is quirky, unusual; it may seem insane or even dangerous. Most of the time it is "useless" because we can't grade it or pay for it, but it is genius nevertheless. We all have it, then we outgrow it. I don't think Baudelaire was wrong: the genius is the one who has remained passionately connected to her childish self.

I sometimes try to imagine what it would do to the world if we raised an entire generation that could recapture childhood at will. It would be a world in which our institutions, like schools, would exist not to create standardized products as if off an assembly line, but rather to fill the world with one-of-a-kind humans free to pursue their highest potential according to her or his own genius. It would mean that we spend our lives playing because that is obviously the soil in which genius best grows. I suppose a world of genius would present it's own problems, but in a world in which play stands at the fore, I like our odds of being able to solve them.

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Monday, October 15, 2018

The Mother Of The Cedarsong Way

photo credit Niki Buchan

On Friday morning I sat down to breakfast with my friend Erin Kenny, founder of the internationally renowned forest preschool Cedarsong Nature School. We were together at our hotel in Reykjavik, Iceland where, by a quirk of crossed paths, we have spent much of our face-to-face time, despite the fact that we live only 15 miles apart as the crow flies, she amongst the forests and farms of Vashon Island and me in the urban density of Seattle. On the surface, we could not be more different, but whenever we're together we find ourselves connected through our respective lives' work, teaching and learning from young children.

When Shakespeare wrote "though she be but little, she is fierce," he could have been writing about Erin, a powerful, smart, tireless advocate for children, not just through her first-of-its-kind forest school, but for children around the world. I long admired her from afar and am honored to have gotten to know her as a compatriot and friend over the past couple years.

Erin is sick, having learned that the cancer she has been battling for years is nevertheless progressing quickly. Her doctors tell her she has only three to six more months to live. She is surviving these days on a diet of yogurt and fruit juice as her body is betraying her robust spirit. On this Friday morning, the rest of the participants from the Play Iceland conference scattered, our conversation swung from the physical to the metaphysical. Erin spoke of her son, her community back home, and of the plans she has made for them in the eventuality of her death. She talked of the reports from those who have experienced near death and the light and love they felt there. We also discussed the idea that eternal life is found in the stories people tell about us after we're gone, of which she said, "One of the good things about this is that I'm getting to hear what people will say about me when I'm gone."

They are things that are better said before you are gone, Erin, whether that day comes tomorrow or many decades from now.

sculpture by Einar Jonsson

I love you, Erin. I love who you are and what you have meant to our profession and to the children both in your own backyard and around the world. You have opened my eyes, you have made me think, you have inspired my own practices, and you have single-handedly pushed us all toward the deep understanding that humans, if we are to survive and thrive, must re-connect with one another and with mother nature; that this is the source of everything that is good about humanity. That has been at the center of your message to the world and will be the core of the stories that will make up your eternal life. Your profound influence has been both local and worldwide, with people from all corners of the globe seeking you out, calling out for you, clamoring to learn more about the Cedarsong Way, practices that will continue to spread like ripples from a boot stomped in this mud puddle of a world.

You have touched me not just through your work, but through your being. I will never forget that you reminded me, despite the pain and exhaustion that was exacerbated by our travels, to fill my lungs with Iceland's cold, clean, glacial air as we crossed the tarmac together to board our plane home, nor will I ever be able to sit on a beach without thinking of your poetic description of the black sands and salt air and fresh winds that you found in Iceland. I will always cherish having seen waterfalls and volcanos and oceans with you.

We have cried together, both in sorrow and joy.

You will always be with me in the pure peace of a Northwest forest.

You will never be gone. You live and you will live. I want you to hear this now. I'm honored to be your friend and ally. We have traveled our different roads, but they have brought us to the same place. I want you to hear this now, because now is what we have. All of us will be forever grateful for your magnificent life and work.

You promised me that you would meet us all again. It's a promise to which I will hold you, my dear friend, protector of nature, champion of children, and mother of the Cedarsong Way.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Where Compassion Grows Best

Several years ago, I was passing a table at which four boys were eating snack. They were discussing a classmate, a boy with sensory challenges that often manifested in ways that disturbed and even hurt his classmates. One of them said as I passed, "He's a bad guy." That stopped me in my tracks.

"Yeah," a friend replied, "He's a real bad guy."

And another, "He hurts me all the time."

The poor boy had one defender in the group who added, "He never hurts me," but his opinion was overwhelmed by the prevailing sentiment. As I stood there, they came to an agreement that they weren't going to pay with him any longer.

As a teacher, it was upsetting to hear. Yes, he had hurt these boys and others. They had every right to be wary of him, even to shun him. That said, this was a preschooler with a diagnosed condition, one that caused him to behave impulsively. He wasn't a "bad guy," of course, but there was no doubt that he frequently did bad things, things that hurt and frightened other people.

I went home that day knowing that we adults needed to do something. There is always going to be a little hitting and shoving around the preschool, but obviously, despite our best efforts, we had not succeeded in keeping the other children safe from this particular boy. Because of that, the kids, or at least the four boys I'd overheard, had decided to take matters into their own hands, labeling and then shunning, "natural" consequences that come right out of our hunter-gatherer past. But obviously, this was a natural consequence we could not allow to stand, not in a school setting and not amongst children.

Ultimately, our "solution" involved the kind of transparency that is one of the hallmarks of a cooperative school. Since all the parents work in the school as assistant teachers, all of them were already aware not only of this boy's behavior, but the underlying condition that caused it. We had already been attempting to mitigate things with a plan of action, but it was clear we were falling short, so after much discussion, some of it tense and tearful, we decided the best thing to do was to extend our transparency to the children, to share this boy's challenges with them, to explain how he wasn't a "bad guy," but that his brain sometimes made him do bad things, like hurting other people. And instead of having these discussions at school where we feared they would have the affect of shaming the boy, we placed the responsibility upon each family to talk about this boy and his challenges with their own children at home. We provided resources as a fallback, but we left it to each family to find their own way of discussing it.

This was, to say the least, a challenging emotional process for the parents of the boy who was not a "bad guy." His mother shared some of her feelings with us, but I can only imagine her private anguish. It was often crushing for her to sit in those parent meetings where we discussed her son's behavior hearing from her peers what the other children had experienced and what they were saying at home. It was almost unbearable to hear her own beloved child being labeled "bad guy." Yet, she understood it too, he had done "bad" things to those other children. She later shared with me, however, that the process had also been cathartic. She had often worried about what others were saying about her family behind closed doors, but now, with it all out in the open, she had found compassion where she had feared accusation.

As the weeks passed, families had their discussions at home, helping their children understand and how they could help him. Things got a little better. We coached them to be firm with him, even proactive:

"I don't like that!"

"You can play with me if you don't hurt me."

"You are hugging me too hard!"

"Don't knock down my building."

The hurting still happened, although perhaps not as much as before. But more importantly, the children began to show more compassion toward him when he was impulsive because we had helped them actually understand their classmate beyond the cookie cutter label of "bad guy." Sure, they still yelled at him, got angry, and cried, but they were far less prone toward shunning. I'll never forget one girl saying to him, "I know it's hard for you to do, but if you don't stop pinching me, I'm not going to play with you." It was a kind of perfect balance between compassion and self-preservation.

This process would be a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do in a traditional school where "privacy" and "confidentiality" concerns override those of transparency, but that doesn't mean that parents' hands are tied. The school may not be able to be transparent, but parents can be. We found that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal was one-on-one play after school, at homes where a calmer atmosphere made the boy less inclined to his impulsivity, where the children could form a different kind of bond than was possible at school, where they had the opportunity to make deposits in the "good time bank," so that when problems arose there was a balance to fall back upon. But perhaps most importantly, it gave the parents a chance to get to know one another which is where compassion grows best.

In other words, it all came down to relationships and it started with adults of goodwill because that's where community begins.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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