Thursday, July 30, 2009

Seeing The Forest For The Trees

The world would be a poor place if there were nothing but common sense in it. --George Eliot

Common wisdom holds that a preschool class of 20-24 children is too big. With only one or two teachers, it’s easy for quieter children to get “lost”, as teachers are compelled to put their energies into oiling the squeaky wheels. And as children suffer from a lack of teacher contact, a sort of “law of the jungle” community tends to emerge in which the development of social skills gets short shrift and the “weak” are dominated by the “strong”.

As a cooperative preschool, however, in which parents are expected to work alongside the teacher as assistants, Woodland Park regularly enrolls classes of this size.

In our 3-5’s class, we maintain a ratio of 1 adult for every 3 children. Our Pre-3 class’ ratio is 1 adult for every 2 kids. It may sound like a full classroom, and it is. It may seem like it would make for a noisy classroom, and it does. And it may feel like a recipe for chaos, and occasionally things do go that direction, but we’re talking about preschoolers here – chaos is in their DNA. Anyone who claims they can always control a couple dozen of them is using methods not approved by civil society!

As a cooperative teacher, I have the luxury of knowing that no one is getting “lost” in the classroom because there are so many adult eyes and hearts in the room with me to make sure needs are met, petty frustrations are handled, and learning is taking place. And while I love nothing more than to be down on my knees huddled over a picture book with one or two kids, or talking a child through a challenging puzzle, I also have the daily freedom to stick my head up over the “crowd” and take in the big picture.

While my several assistant teachers handle the physical and psychic bumps and bruises, I can be on the lookout for children who either chronically separate themselves from the group or who seem "frozen" to a spot. One of the primary goals of our preschool is for children to learn to engage with the other people, so self-isolation is a concern.

I'm not talking about a child who takes himself aside for a breather -- that's healthy. Almost every day, for instance, my friend Elliott would take a moment under the loft to thumb through a few books on his own. My friend Sarah would often request that she be left alone when she was upset, then rejoin the group a few minutes later – again, healthy behavior indicating a strong sense of self-awareness.

What I'm mostly looking for is behavior that tells me a child is afraid: afraid of the other children, the adults, the noise, the activities, the songs, Teacher Tom. Of course, fear is an adaptive emotion, but it often become a habitual response to specific stimuli; a response that has outlived its usefulness. Just as the book Go Away, Big Green Monster teaches us that we have the power to tell the monster to "Go away!" we can do the same for most of our preschool fears, but we need help. (In fact we almost always need help, throughout our lives, when it comes to dealing with fear.)

Another thing I watch for are individual behaviors and attitudes that we all know will be an impediment to forming good relationships. We can't expect to have a lot of friends if we have a reputation for hitting, screaming, or destructiveness. For those things the community has its rules and techniques for dealing with them.

What often gets overlooked by teachers who are occupied with squeaky wheels are the just as detrimental, but within-the-rules behaviors like whining, bossing, and excluding. We all engage in these behaviors at one time or another, but again, it's when it becomes habitual that it's a problem for both the child and the class. I like to try to nip those behaviors in the bud and teach alternatives, because the longer a habit has to become ingrained, the harder it is to alter.

And finally, and perhaps oddly, I'm often concerned when the physical "balance" of the classroom is out of whack. I'm probably just revealing a neurosis here, but I like to see children spread out around the room. Maybe it's related to my background as a coach: in most team sports it's important to stay spread out, covering the whole field, court or pitch. It's not always even a conscious thing, but when one part of the room gets too crowded for too long I find myself trying to lure children into underutilized corners of the room.

It’s important to me to be able to step back like this and actually see the forest for the trees on a daily basis, and it’s a luxury many teachers do not enjoy. A large, free-flowing classroom suits both my personality as a teacher and the cooperative model. But most importantly it serves the children.

Common wisdom is a fine thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

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Jenni said...

I don't like to see clumps of children either and I have found that, for the most part, clumps come when there is only ONE or TWO interesting activities for the children. That's when more activities that are just as interesting need to come out so that they aren't clumped together.

The other culprit, which is still on the same line, is when the classroom is mundane every day and the teacher only brings out interesting activities once in a while. The children then are SO excited about the activity because they are basically starving for stimulation.

There definitely must be engaging activities constantly. Lucky you to have so much help in the room!

Teacher Tom said...

Good points.

I usually have 6-7 stations in the room and I try to make each one exciting, but some things that work one year are duds the next. Each station is staffed with a parent with the instructions to go to plan B if the kids aren't getting it.

And sometimes a "dull" station becomes interesting once Teacher Tom is there. =)

Often the clumping comes from a particularly exciting parent. That's the kind of clumping I like!

Benny said...

Lovely encounter with Bill at Starbucks downtown this morning. I had all 7 of my kids with us on Christmas Eve along with my mother in law. We were taking up most the space in the store so grandma had to offer her chair and of course the conversation began... We got the fast version it seems but not without grandma asking Bill if he needed a girlfriend! That proposal truly left HIM speechless in Seattle