Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What New Kind Of Teacher I'll Become

I used to have this terrific co-teacher I taught with at the old space up on Phinney Ridge. We worked quite closely together for 9 years, intimately I'd say, if I weren't a married man. It wasn't perfect, of course, no relationship is. Oh, I had my gripes about her, and to her credit she changed for me where she could, but there were places, it turned out, where she simply couldn't change, wouldn't even try, and that's where, if I was going to make it work, I had to change for her.

In a very real way, the old Woodland Park classroom shaped who I am as a teacher, having been the only school in which I've ever worked for more than a year at a time. The Reggio Emilia model of early childhood education considers the environment to be the "third teacher" (as part of a three-legged stool that includes classroom teacher and parents) and I've really been made aware of this during this summer of transitioning to our new space at the center of the universe . . . And we haven't even used the indoor part of the school yet.

My new co-teacher is bigger, more functional, and, frankly, more attractive than the one with whom I've been working. And the kind of teacher I've become while working with my small, quirky former colleague isn't going to be the teacher I can remain while teaching here. This summer has been a process of working through some of that; at least coming to understand what and where I need to adapt, but also figuring out where I'm going to have to ask her to change for me.

For one thing, I can see that my "bouncing off the walls" teaching style (a descriptor I would have never used to describe myself except in hindsight) can't work the same way here -- at least not outdoors. One of the things I'd unconsciously come to love about our cramped little space was how easy it was to "make the rounds," to get some real face time in with each of the kids every day, to cycle through all the activities and games and conflicts, to really have my finger on what was going on in every nook and cranny. I still want to achieve that, but this is a new dance partner; I'm definitely not going to be able to do it to the old rhythm. Most days this cool Seattle summer I've spent in a literal sweat as I've instinctively tried to force her to do things that she's not capable of doing. I'm going to need to slow down and take things, I think, at her pace.

I'd also grown accustomed to having my co-worker in my ear at all times, right up there next to me, chattering about every little thing that is happening. Newcomers often commented on how loud the place was, how they could sometimes barely hear the person right beside them, but that's the kind of teacher she was, small and echoey. And say what you want, I'd come to count on her inability to keep secrets. Without even knowing it, I'd come to expect this, to be able to discern the various strains coming through the hubbub, to detect certain qualities in the din.  I could turn my back on the room, yet still always pretty much know what was going on. This was even true outdoors where the walls surrounding our courtyard bounced the sounds. Now, in the new space, it's possible to be so far away that a child's voice doesn't reach me. Several times I've turned to look to the top of the hill where the gate is, and spotted one of our youngest children standing there calling for mommy. My old co-worker would never have allowed that to happen.

After this week, the children go home for a month, leaving me and the third teacher alone for awhile to kind of noodle some things through. I'm glad we had these weeks together, co-teaching, a kind of trial by fire to see where we are with one another. There have been some struggles, but also some moments in which I've seen glimpses of a brilliance to come. There are some changes I can already see she's willing and able to make, and I know there are some I will have to make as well, both in terms of style and curriculum.

Many parents have offered to help me during these next few weeks and they've already helped a lot, but right now I'm inclined to decline. It's a hard thing for me to do because, after all, we're a cooperative, and the parents are the "first teacher" in Reggio parlance, so they'll need to get to know her as well. But still, before that, I need my time alone with her, at least for the next two weeks. It might make for some dull blogging as I dive into the minutiae of storage, furniture arranging, and space usage, but I'm really looking forward to getting to know her better.

And I can't wait to see what new kind of teacher she'll help me become.

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Jeanne Zuech said...

My. Favorite. Post. Of. Yours.
Thank you for this reflective, honest lens regarding the significance of the environment and the dance required, the give-take required, and in turn the gift of becoming a different teacher. Rock on, Tom.

kirstie said...

Actually, I would really be interested in knowing how you organise some of the dull things. Clear up is something that I never quite know how to handle. I want my children to be responsible for their own environments, and I don't want to clear away every den/play scene they create on a daily basis.

However, organising the environment so that it is an interesting, inspirational place to play, not clogged up with toys and projects that have been abandoned, seems to necessitate a lot of adult control and input.

What do you do?

Teacher Tom said...

@Jeanne . . . Wow, thanks!

@kirstie . . . Gosh that's a good question. It's an ongoing balancing act for me too. It probably is for everyone with a play-based curriculum. And I think it has a lot to do, frankly, with the third teacher. If we were holding class on a big, old farm somewhere, it would be easier to let things ride for awhile, even if apparently abandoned, because there would be so much else space to spread out into by way of cycling back to it. I try to let things run a week or so, but it's got to be a pretty intense and engrossing activity to survive over the weekend. This may be even more true for me in my new space because some of it is shared space -- meaning others use it when we're not there. Those rooms will always need to be packed away . . . Maybe that means the other rooms won't need to be packed away so frequently . . . Hmm . . .

Juliet Robertson said...

Well said Tom!

Spaces come in all shapes and sizes and the intimacy our own and others relationship with a place is an eternal dance that vitalises us and keeps us alive with the joy of being.

On the tidy up front, I've been blogging a lot about Cowgate U5 Centre recently. They have a funny wee notice in their cloakroom area which says "We believe the hanging of coats should be an aesthetic experience. No coat should ever be left crying on the floor."

Males in Early Childhood said...

So you post this reflection only a couple of days after I posted my 'Reflecting on Reflections' post. I would definitely included this one if I could just fool around with time. What the heck! I'll add it in a comment.

Anyway, you had me in the first paragraph. I thought you were actually talking about a person, but that was your aim I guess & I fell for it.

Great reflection, both personal & professional!


Aunt Annie said...

You know, Tom, because I work as a casual I'm constantly 'dancing with new partners', both human and environmental. It's just as you describe it. I have to work with what I've got... and often adapt myself, as others are slow or unwilling to change... but first I have to understand what I've got in each new environment.

I love the way you give me a new way of thinking about old problems; thinking of each centre as a new 'teacher' in itself will definitely give me a different perspective. Thanks.