Sunday, August 15, 2010

We Are Amazing Teachers

My 13-year-old daughter recently said, within my hearing, "My dad is an amazing teacher."

Is there anything that could be better than that? My very existence usually embarrasses her, yet she said it as we sat around the dinner table with other teenagers present. Josephine has been working in the classroom with me quite a bit this summer. She's not been thrilled about having to be ready to leave with me each morning at 7 a.m., but she's loved working with the kids and, I think, glad to see her dad doing his thing in a place where he's very happy. When she came to class as a kindergardener, she came as an older classmate. When she came as an elementary school kid, it was usually against her will, punctuated with sighs and rolled eyes. After one particularly bad experience, I more or less banned her from the school until this summer.

At the end of the day as we drive home, she tells me about the children. As a fill-in "parent-teacher" in our cooperative, she's found herself, by luck of the draw, often working as "Snack Parent," which is the best place to simply engage children in conversation. She's found that she's particularly fond of the 2-year-olds, regaling me with stories about what they've said and done. Like her dad, she delights in their quirks and obsessions.

This is very good for me. This is the first time I've taught a 2-6 year old class and if there is one thing I anticipated it was the 2-year-olds getting "lost" in the swirl created by all those older, more experienced kids. I was so concerned about it that we gave a special warning to the parents of those kids, urging them to really consider whether or not their 2-year-old could handle it. My conversations with Josephine after class have helped me keep track of the littlest guys, many of whom I hadn't met until this summer. She has a particular knack for observing behavior without needing to interpret it. Her observations have "hurried on" my relationships with several of these kids, giving me hooks I otherwise might not have had upon which to hang our first connections beyond, I like listening to that noisy guy sing songs.

This is, of course, just one of the unique dynamics found in a cooperative preschool, enhanced in this case by the fact that Josephine and I get to intensively debrief each day on the car ride home.

I wrote earlier this summer about how we're experimenting with a larger class size, enrolling 26 students in most of our sessions, but that's not the half of it. By the time all our parent-teachers have taken up their stations around the room, and if you include me, there are 34 human beings in our small space. With 7 assistant teachers at hand, it sometimes staggers me to think of all that we're able to do in just 2.5 hours.

For instance, last Tuesday as Dennis, George and Vivian's dad Terry worked with the kids to build our homemade pinball machine, we also had two messy art projects in full swing, one indoors being managed by Remick's dad Doug and one outdoors being watched by Elliot and Hattie's mom Elizabeth. In the garden, Sylvia and Zach's mom Toby and Joshua's mom Heidi were working with the kids to clear out a couple garden beds, augment the soil with compost from the worm bed, then plant some fall harvest crops. In the sandpit I was keeping an eye on the kids who were pumping water, digging canals, and sending messages to the beach hut via a pulley system. Clutches of kids were sitting on Sadie and Venezia's mom Medora's lap reading books, eating snacks prepared by Charlie L.'s mom Shelly, or playing in the play dough kitchen with Vaughn's mom Susan. Not to mention the half-dozen other more casually supervised stations both inside and out. I might have gotten the specifics of which parent was where slightly wrong, but you get the idea: all of this was happening simultaneously, with the children freely choosing where they were going to play.

Naturally, we strive to stay focused on the kids, but we adults also find spaces of time during which to talk about what's going on. I try to keep myself circulating from station-to-station, making sure to get some face time with each child each day, but also checking in with my assistant teachers to get an idea about how the activity is going, what they're observing from the children, who has been most engaged and how. I learn a lot, of course, from a child's own parent, but the information I get from parents about children with whom they don't live is valuable in that it's less tainted by the bias of history and strong emotion.

I learn incredible amounts from my parent-teachers, each bringing their own unique expertise into the classroom. What a treat it is to have a professional architect, for instance, playing with the kids in the block area. What a luxury it is to have a master garden hobbyist working with the children in the garden. What a difference it makes to have a real scientist working with children at the sensory table. What a comfort it is to us all to have a medical doctor in the room when a child is choking on a grape. What an exciting opportunity to be working clay alongside a parent with a degree in fine arts. And there are always several parents in our community who are former teachers, each bringing skills and knowledge to our days that far exceed my own.

Not to mention how wonderful it is to have a loving mother or father handy to sooth hurt feelings or tenderly tend a bloody owie, instead of having to just rely on a rushed and distracted teacher.

And this dynamic only improves as we're all together for 3 or more years: we're the village that it takes to raise a child.

I don't know how other teachers do it, frankly, without all those extra arms, legs, hearts and souls to help them.

When Josephine declares that her Papa is an "amazing teacher," it swells me up to bursting, but I know I must share that rare accolade with all those parent-teachers who are the real source of this amazing community. We are amazing teachers.

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Missy said...

I am a preschool teacher, too. I was going through a box today that had that had thank you notes from former parents. I cried to think how I have touched so many little children. What is even better when 24 years later, they look for you on Facebook to see how you are doing. TOUCHING!

Kari said...

Wow. I'm blown away by the photos here. Your classroom space is absolutely amazing, and the experiences and activities I see for the children look wonderful! You're so lucky to have the parent involvement and care that you have :)

Unknown said...

You know that is a sincere compliment. What a gift to be able to spend time with your daughter this summer in an environment you adore. : )

Play for Life said...

That's a really touching post Tom. You're a very luck man ... and an even luckier Papa!

Donna :) :)

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I love seeing all of those parents in your classroom. I know it's required of the coop, but how nice that must be that they are so involved. Inspiring!

Let the Children Play said...

You are an amazing teacher Tom!

"I love listening to the noisy guy sing songs" - too funny.

Jason, as himself said...

You make your work look like play.

momma rae said...

i wish i were closer so i could visit your classroom. sounds like an incredible place to spend one's time!

Gwynneth Beasley said...

How lovely for you. To get a compliment from a teenage child is surely a rare thing. And it does sound like you, and your helps, do an amazing job for those children. Heartwarming.

Deborah said...

My daughter is now grown up and living with her husband but whenever I have a special show or event, she always takes the time to come. She brings her camera to shoot some photos and just having her there always brings me joy. As a side job, my daughter coaches figure skaters and she will come home and tell me all the stories of her students and how they learn and how she is teaching them - I just love to listen to her perspective and stories:)