Friday, February 05, 2016

Lifelong Learner

I recently had the opportunity to have it pointed out to me that I'm imperfect. Indeed, that's a sentence I could write at any moment because, to my never-ending chagrin, I'm wrong or behave badly or screw things up at least once a day . . . And that's a good day. In this case, I actually hurt someone's feelings, so it was a big deal, but most often, thankfully, the flaws that are revealed to me are of what most people would consider to be of the more petty variety, the things that reveal some aspect of my personality I thought I had hidden too well for others to notice or, sometimes, things about which I was previously completely unaware.

For instance, one of our school's parents told me recently, over a beer, as an aside in a larger discussion, that I sometimes "bark" at the parent-teachers working as my assistant teachers in our cooperative school. In all honesty, I completely lost track of what else she said as I processed that "bark." Do I do that? Why would any parent put up with sending their kids to a school where the teacher barks at the parents? When she was done making her point which may well have been a compliment for all I know, I said, "I'm really sorry. I don't mean to bark at anyone." She laughed, said it was okay, that she understood, that she knew I was just trying to make the classroom function more smoothly, that she knew I was so focused on the children that I sometimes neglected the adults, that if she ever took it personally, she didn't any longer.

I had almost given upon on the classic preschool "art" project of scissors, glue, blank paper, and old magazines, the sort of thing that is supposed to turn into a collage. I've put these materials out dozens of times over the years, only to watch the children avoid them like the plague. Last week, however, a parent brought in a fresh stack of magazines, so I gave it another go with very low hopes and, indeed, it immediately became a dead spot in the classroom. In frustration, I sat myself down at the table and began cutting pictures, while saying, "Once upon a time . . ." as if telling a story. I don't know why this has never, over the course of 15 years, occurred to me before, but of course children started gathering around as I put my story together piece by piece. Soon every seat at the table was full of children making their own stories. Not only that, but several of them demanded that we "read" their story to their classmates at circle time. When the older children arrived in the afternoon, I tried the same technique with similar results. Even now, even with something so simple and ubiquitous, there is still so much for me to learn.

I wanted to continue grilling her for specifics, but I held back because the whole barking thing had nothing to do with the larger point she was making. 

I don't doubt that I sometimes express myself briskly, perhaps even brusquely, during the course of the preschool day and this parent, as well as the others at whom I've apparently barked, returned the following day despite my barking, so my good points must still outweigh this bad one, but it's a wake-up call nevertheless. I don't want to be a guy who barks at his colleagues: petty to this parent perhaps, but not me.

When I first started teaching, I told the parents that I was clay for them to mold, that as a new teacher I recognized that I was as malleable as I would ever be, that this was their chance to shape me into the teacher they most wanted for their children. I also noted, simply because I'd found that it's the way most humans work, that their opportunity to shape me would diminish with each passing year as I got older, more experienced, and even "calcified." Well, I reckon I now have some evidence of my calcification. Barking, from where I sit, is just one step removed from shaking my fist and yelling at the kids to "get off my lawn."

We always say we want the children we teach to be "lifelong learners." I guess this is part of what it looks like, there are special things we need to learn at each stage. I'm not going to promise to never bark again, but I'm going to work on it.

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Anonymous said...

Haha, a funny post! And loved how you turned the magazines into story time, what a GREAT idea!!

Unknown said...

I understand completely, it's so easy to "bark" when you you have to get kids from point "A" to point "B". I can see it.

Anonymous said...

Whilst studying for my teaching diploma, I read many journal articles about the importance of of strong respectful relationships in ECE - many of them mentioned the importance of choosing one's words carefully but it was Tom's posts here (about the "Language of Command" in particular) that gave me the easiest and most relatable ways to do so. This post is another thoughtful one in a similar vein.
I must admit that when I first started teaching I was somewhat dismayed sometimes to hear myself saying some of the things my father said - some of them things that I'd not really liked as a child either...

Anonymous said...

Yes. I recently spent an evening thinking about one girl who had sat under the art table in my classroom that day, which I took to mean she was frustrated by an activity we had been working on for ages that she couldn't get to 'work'. It was a rare instance of making something that had more or less an open-endedish product, for which I had made a sample. When another teacher stopped by the table, I said, "See, this is why I don't ever do 'crafts' in here. So frustrating!" Which it had definitely become, both for myself and several of the students. I'm pretty sure at the time I said this I was holding the girl's piece in my hands trying to successfully complete one of the steps for her. Ugh, horrible. She had been at the table for such a long time with me, and I'm pretty sure it was shortly after I made this thinking-out-loud comment to my colleague that she ended up under the table, which I realized upon reflection later. The next day I asked her first thing if she knew what the word embarrassed meant. She didn't. I asked if she had heard what I said to the other teacher and she said she did. While scary and humiliating, it felt amazing to hug her and apologize. I have never felt an apology more deeply than that. Such a humbling and eye opening experience, and to think that it's one that the kids have to/get to experience so often together.

Anonymous said...

In my personal experience it is the passion for what we do that can sometimes make us "bark" at other adults. We are putting so much energy into the children and there is so much going on that we are observing that the adults that are around feel like "one more thing" but they are not the focus and so one can maybe speak too brusquely as you put it to them. I used to feel this way anyway until I learned to slow down. I think part of the issue too when I dealt with was that not only was I working with a new class of students, but with a new assistant. Once an assistant has been working with you for a while or doesn't need so much guidance it can also be calmer. That is just my experience. I also think that barking is probably more tolerated if a man does it than if a woman does it.