Friday, April 01, 2016

I Can't Imagine Doing It Without Them

We are a cooperative school, which means, among other things, that a parent from each family enrolled in our school is required to serve one classroom day a week as an assistant teacher. These parent-teachers are the lifeblood of how our school operates.

I've never taught in any other type of school and honestly don't know how teachers do it in more typical settings. I'm not always conscious of it, even at times taking all those helping hands for granted, but we've had a few visitors this week and which gives me the opportunity to see what we do through new eyes.

When our 2's class comes together this morning, there will be some 20 children there, along with a dozen adults. A couple of those parent-teachers will be working just outside the classroom, preparing snacks and performing basic cleaning. At any given moment, one or two of these parents might be in the hallway, engaged in a discussion with Dawn, our parent educator, who is on-site once a week to support parents in nodding through their parenting challenges. But most of them will be in the classroom and on the playground with the children and me.

Our room is not extraordinarily large and it can feel quite crowded, especially at this time of the year with the children having grown older and more sophisticated, not needing us as much as they did a few months ago when it was all new. But this is how school starts for most of the children at Woodland Park, with a roomful of mommies and daddies and their children, whole families together like in a village or neighborhood. At least that's how I've always thought of it, going back to when my own daughter was a two-year-old in co-op.

As most preschools do, our room is set up in what we call "stations" and others call "centers." We call them "art," "blocks," "drama," "sensory table," and "table toys," but those are largely just labels more than descriptors. I like to have an adult assigned to each of those stations, there to engage and support the children, to answer their questions, to listen, to sooth, to provide information, and to laugh at their jokes. And yes, I also ask them to keep their areas "fluffed," meaning relatively tidy and enticing.

And of course, nothing can replace the loving hearts, arms, and laps of those mommies and daddies, who are all there for children who are having a hard time or otherwise need extra help with any of life's challenges.

The ratio of children to parent-teachers becomes greater as the children get older. While our 2's class typically enjoys a 2:1 ratio, our 3's is around 3:1 and our 4-5's class and kindergarten enjoy an airy 4:1 or 5:1 mix. I've had teachers tell me that they wouldn't even know what to do with all those assistant teachers and I can imagine that it would seem daunting to come up with meaningful work for all of those capable hands, but having worked exclusively in cooperative settings for going on two decades now, I can't image doing it without them.

(If you're interested in more information about how cooperative schools work, click here. If you want even more information or are interested in starting your own cooperative, I've written a series of articles I call "Cooperative Nuts and Bolts," which you can find by clicking here and reading from the bottom up -- or at least that's the order in which I wrote them!)

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Greg said...

Thanks for your post Tom. What I love about the co-op model is the community building and everyone working together to make it a great school.

Anonymous said...

My daughters attended a cooperative much like Woodland; I assisted once a week in both of their classes. I loved it so much I became a teacher. Now, 14 years later, I have taught both in cooperatives and in more typical preschool settings. Currently I teach 3 year olds on a nature preschool. I have two assistants and a class of 16 energetic children: a 1 to 5 ratio. Our 4-year old classes has 2 adults for 16 children.

I was used to a class of 15, with 6 adults in the room: a 1 to 3 ratio.
I can tell you, it was an adjustment for me! In the cooperative, you have enough hands to provide more choices for the children, to do more gross motor activity for the children, and fewer "rules"--adults simply move with the children, always watching to make sure the room is balanced. I love my current school, but I do miss having many hands to help in the classroom.

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