I've been receiving a lot of questions lately about cooperative preschools, how to start one, and in general asking for more insight into how cooperatives work. This is the third post in a series that I hope will address those questions. In that first post I gave my best shot at what I think would be the first steps to starting your own cooperative preschool. In the second post, I described the specifics of how our school works, especially with regard to the parent role. In this third post I'll talk about the nuts and bolts of how I, as the teacher, work with parents in the classroom.
If you're entirely unfamiliar with our model, please take a look at my Cooperative Manifesto in which I attempted back during the dawn of this blog to provide a sort of socio-economic-political context for what we do. And if you include this post, I will have now written 46 pieces on various aspects of what it's like working in a cooperative preschool, which you can find by either clicking on the "cooperative" tag in the right hand column under "Teacher Tom's Topics," or just clicking here. So, there's plenty of further reading should you really want to delve into what I've had to say on the topic so far.
Working with all those parent eyes on you every day . . .
From a teacher's perspective, it can be quite intimidating having 7-10 parents in the room with you at any given time. Although I'd been a parent in a co-op for the preceding 3 years, I spent my first year as a teacher barely making eye-contact with parents, especially during circle time, because it "threw me" to suddenly be made aware that I was being so closely watched and judged. I remember the sense of cool relief each time I had an excuse to slip into the storage room for a moment, or during that 10 minutes during which I was alone outside preparing for our transition to out there.
I've obviously by now made my peace with that. In fact, I've come to understand that having all those parent eyes on me all the time makes me, every day, the best teacher I can be. I'd like to think that even without parents in the room, I'd give it my best at all times, but having them in there is a kind of guarantee against letting up, even for a moment. Lord knows, parents have had complaints about my work, but no one has ever accused me of phoning it in. And I've also come to understand that parents are doing a lot more than judging me. In many cases, I'm observed as a kind of role model, especially when I'm trying to deal with challenges similar to those they have at home. And most parents, most of the time, are simply working their butts off to support me, to make me "right" when things appear to be going wrong, to leap in with the idea, the part, the missing link that makes the difference between a big miss and a project that really flies.
These people with whom I get to work each day are so much more than parents, of course, even if that's the role in which they first show up on Woodland Park's doorstep. I value that as a teacher in a 3-year cooperative program I get to know them in their roles beyond parenting. These people are, every one of them, accomplished, thoughtful, talented folks who have powerful contributions to make to the lives of young children. It would be a crime for me to let that pass without at least trying to take advantage of them. They are artists and contractors and gardeners and merchandisers and teachers and musicians and museum curators. They've lived all over the world, understand quantum physics, and live on the beach. This, and the love that each of them brings into the room each day, is the stuff that more than compensates for any lack of pedagogy or formal education training.
When I look down the work schedule each day to see which parents are assigned to which stations that morning, I'm always looking for ways to take advantage of these special things I know about them.
What about the pedagogy?
There was a time when I was more protective of my own teaching philosophy and ideas, when it made me cringe and whinge when parents, following their own instincts and inclinations, would leave the farm: when an architect mom, for instance, would take over the block area and manage the creation of a building that was clearly of her own design, or when a father would turn his station into pig-pile wrestling. I wouldn't want these things happening every day because I most things should be child-directed, but at the same time, I can hardly complain when the kids, for the next two weeks, are including "flying buttresses" in their buildings, or when the door is now wide open to meaningful conversations about when, where, and how wrestling can happen when that particular dad is not there.
One of the core principles of progressive education is that the teachers are learning right alongside the kids, that each day should be an experiment. This is a big part of how that shows up in our cooperative preschool. It's not always great, but it is always an experiment. And when it is great, it's better than any other place in the world.
In other words, if you are going to invite parents into your classroom, you must be prepared to invite them all the way in, even if that means challenging the purity of your pedagogical approach. I try to inform parents about how I want things to happen during our monthly parents meetings, via this blog, and in hallway conversations, but I cannot, nor should I, expect them to become "mini-mes." The strength of parent involvement is that they get to be regular-sized "thems" even if that sometimes bumps up against the regular-sized me.
I am in the room every day, all day long. Perhaps my most important role as the teacher in a co-op is to serve as that consistent thread through the children's days and years. Whatever individual parents do, even if a parent one day shocks us all by yelling at the kids, through me and the parents who have been working with me for a long time, that crucible of progressive, play-based pedagogy remains as the container of everything we do, and serves as the context within which the children learn that sometimes even grown-up lose it and yell.
Whether your school is a cooperative or not, if you're going to have a vital program of parent involvement, the most important thing is to having meaningful things for them to do. And understand that most parents are there, when they're there, to interact with the kids. There is nothing worse than to give up free time to show up in your child's classroom and to then be left to stand around or to spend an hour cutting out heart shapes for a project that will take place three weeks from now. Parents show up wanting to be involved.
On the flip side of the coin is the idea that if the teacher is going to plan a meaningful way for parents to participate, then she's going to need to be able to count on those parents actually showing up at the time and in the numbers she's expecting. There is nothing worse than putting the effort into planning a parent-lead activity only to have to abandon it when the volunteers fall through.
A cooperative solves this second problem by requiring on-time, reliable parent attendance as part of the price of entry. In a non-cooperative, it would likely be best to identify your most responsible parent volunteer and assign her the role of scheduler, letting her be in charge of rallying the troops in a timely manner. A staff person might be able to take on this scheduling role, but frankly, I've found that parents will tend to be more responsive and respectful to "one of their own."
As far as finding meaningful ways for parents to be engaged, that has to be up to the teacher. In our school, the bulk of parent-teacher time is spent on managing the stations I wrote about yesterday, both indoor and outdoor, which are nice, meaty parts of our curriculum that are typically flexible enough to allow parents the room in which, along with the children, to make it their own.
It's true that some parents who are just starting out in our Pre-3 program sometimes struggle with their role, especially as it seems to conflict with their manifestly more important role as parent, but like with anything, there's a learning curve, steeper for some than others. Fortunately, the Pre-3 class tends to have an abundance of parent "floaters" (those not assigned to a specific station) who can pitch in, and since typically about a third of the enrollment in that class are returning families, there is a great deal of experience in the room to teach these parents the ropes so that I don't need to take a lot of time away from the kids. I try to do most of my own in-class parent-teacher training via role modeling, which allows me to stay focused on the children. On top of that, our parent educator is in the classroom at least once a week to work with parents on their roles both inside and outside the classroom.
By the time these families have moved on to our two-year 3-5's program, they are all veteran parent-teachers.
Tomorrow I'll try to wrap up this series by tying up the lose ends and answering specific questions any of you may have . . . so if you have any drop them into the comments.