Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bringing Their Own Mojo

I sometimes neglect to remind readers of this blog that many of the cool things that happen at Woodland Park happen because we are a cooperative preschool. If you're not familiar with this model of early childhood education, I urge you to click through, but essentially we're a school owned and operated by the parent's whose kids are enrolled. As the teacher, I'm the only paid employe, while parents take on all the other jobs required to run a school from administration, purchasing and fundraising to maintenance and cleaning.

In addition, and the thing that makes cooperatives such a powerful way to educate children, is that once a week, a parent from each family works in the classroom as an assistant teacher. I've shared this before, but it bears repeating: that means in our 3-5's class we maintain a student-teacher ratio of 3:1, while in our Pre-3's class that ratio is typically 2:1.

Sometimes I describe us as a bunch of families who have decided to homeschool their kids together, and I don't think that's an unfair characterization. If you've read here at all, you know I have a pedagogical perspective that most of our parent-teachers seek to carry through in their interactions with children, but all of them also bring their own mojo to the table, which I think is one of the greatest strengths of the co-op model.

For instance, as the new school year gets under way, one of the primary focuses of our Pre-3 class will be on dealing with separation anxiety as many families begin to experiment with leaving their 2-year-olds "on their own" for the first time. Now, as a cooperative, there is no requirement that a child be left without her parent -- I fully understand that this is one of the reasons many families, including my own, choose a cooperative in the first place. That said, one of the primary educational objectives of a 2's program, I believe, is to give children the opportunity to learn to first trust, then begin to master, the world beyond their immediate families, something that's hard to do with the immediate family, well . . . so immediate.

Naturally, some kids handle the separation with a kind of backhanded wave and don't seem to contemplate mommy's absence until she returns at pick-up time, but most, at least in the beginning find this transition challenging. Learning takes us out of our comfort zone, it challenges us, and is sometimes frightening or even painful, and it shouldn't surprise anyone when that manifests itself in the form of tears, even tantrums. I simply have no idea how teachers in traditional schools with 1 or 2 teachers and a classroom full of kids manage it, but in a co-op this is one of those circumstances in which we take full advantage of having all those loving adults in the room. Typically, the tears subside in less than 5 minutes, usually in the arms of one of our parent-teachers, then we're off to our school day.

But even when the tears are more persistent, we have the "man power," and perhaps more importantly the pedagogical/temperamental/experiential variety, within our teacher community to give that child's concerns full attention until they're ready to get their feet on the floor and their hands and minds engaged in something other than missing mommy. No one can sooth every kid, no one is gifted with every technique or approach, so as the teacher it's a real blessing to have all these skilled resources at our disposal. If need be we can designate a parent-teacher to be that child's buddy for the entire morning. Or, if one parent-teacher is at her wit's end, there is always someone else who can step in, bringing a whole new set of talents, skills and insights into play. I can honestly say, we have never failed in our quest to bring a child through to the other side.

Of course, that doesn't mean the anxiety doesn't recur, sometimes as often as each morning -- for some children the learning process is a longer one than for others. In most cases, however, we and the child, working together, figure out how that particular dance works and come to master it. (Last year, for instance, we learned that River would cry until I picked something up, looked at it with disdain, and said, "Oh, brother! Not again!" Then we would laugh through the tears and get on with our day.)

Most parents opt for the quick-kiss-and-goodbye technique of getting out the door, but many are either unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, and in a co-op that's okay too. Often parents will remain at school with their child every day for weeks or months. In a few cases they stick around for the entire school year. Most typically, these families are striving toward a gradual separation period, one that goes at the child's (and frankly, the parent's) pace.

Several years ago a mother came to me saying that her daughter would, upon awaking each morning, ask, "Are you staying at school today?" If the answer was "no," she would spend the rest of the morning anxious and teary, objecting to school altogether. It was a situation that seemed to be getting worse rather than better, so I suggested that she just take that option off the table altogether: "How about just telling her that you'll be coming to school with her every day?" Fortunately, I knew this mother had the time to do this. In the beginning, she would work her station on her work days, but when it wasn't her work day she'd sit in the classroom reading a book, available to her child, but also giving her just a tiny bit more space than on other days. As her daughter, day-by-day, began to yo-yo farther and farther away from mom, I began to give the mother "jobs" like filing kid's artwork, that required her to come and go from the classroom. We'd leave the door open and it was quite touching when her daughter would occasionally break from her play to go peek out the door to check on mom. Soon I began sending mom on short errands, then longer ones. It was a process that took most of the year, and by the following year the little girl was unabashedly joyful about school, an attitude that her mother reported carried right over into kindergarten.

This method, I think, would have been a real burden in a traditional school. In a cooperative it was just part of the way we roll.

And it goes beyond the walls of the school. Cooperative families tend to form bonds with one another that extend to childcare exchanges, play dates, and date nights. Often, when a 2-year-old is struggling with separation, the best method is to pursue friendships with classmates outside of school, because whatever the kid thinks of Woodland Park, Teacher Tom, or the other adults she finds there, it's ultimately her friends that make it worth getting out of bed and dressed in the morning.

That's the way it is for all of us.

(If you're interested in more reading on cooperatives, click here. I've written several other posts on how we deal more specifically with separation at Woodland Park. Here are a few of them if you're interested: It's Hard Work For EveryoneEven In The Land Of GiantsCaution Cones.)

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1 comment:

Sarah H said...

Every kid is different and all we can do is keep working at it. I had one wee girl who initially settled easily, but as the year progressed she started to get more and more anxious. She had friends, she liked preschool, but she didn't want Mum to leave. Mum DID want to leave, she needed some time off, so we tried dozens of approaches, but it only escalated. It wasn't until I attended a workshop with the Gordon Neufeld Institute that we had a break through. The defining bit of advise was that children need an alpha figure in their life. They need to know and trust that their parents know what's best for them and they will make the best decisions for them. When I relayed the info to Mum she had an "ah ha" moment. She shared that because her daughter was an only child, she usually gave her free reign on choices as it made no difference which restaurant they went to, or which bed she slept in as long as her daughter was happy. Mum thought choice equaled happiness. Turns out to be too much responsibility for a 4 year old. Once her parents figured it out and made some changes, their daughter thrived. All she needed was to feel safe, safe in her role as a kid.