Friday, January 10, 2020

Hard Work And Suffering

Teaching preschool is hard work. It is physically and emotionally demanding. At the end of a day in the classroom I'm done.

This is not a complaint, but rather a statement of fact. In almost any other job there are times, even entire days or weeks, when it's possible to just phone it in, but that's not an option for preschool teachers. The routine physical demands of up and down, of playing, of lifting and carrying, being on your knees all day, day-after-day, take their toll. I don't know any teacher who has been at this for any length of time who doesn't experience back and joint pain. And it's even more taxing emotionally. At any given moments we're listening with our entire selves, consoling, counseling, coaching, or otherwise supporting highly emotional people through what for them is a crisis. We pour ourselves into these children because it is our job, but also because we love them. More often than not, I finish a classroom day buoyed and proud by the work I've done, but I'm also wrung out in a way that nothing else wrings me out.

I love the work. We love our work. It's hard work.

Earlier this week, I wrote about people who worry about the children we teach. They worry that if we leave them to educate themselves by asking and answering their own questions through their play that  they will never learn about hard work. This is BS of the highest order, of course. Indeed, I've never seen a playing child who was not working hard. They show us they are working hard in the intensity of their concentration as they try to add one more block to the top of their tower. They show us their work ethic as they fully engage in the intense back-and-forth of negotiations over who is really going to be the queen. No one works harder than a child who is struggling with a puzzle or with balancing along a curb or trying to summon up the courage to take a leap. They are always working hard to process the confusing world around them through their dramatic play, their storytelling, and the strong emotions they wear on their sleeves.

No, children who play show they know everything they will ever need to know about hard work. What they may not know about it arbitrary suffering. It occurs to me that this is really what people are saying when they "worry" about play-based education. Life is hard, the reasoning goes, it is full of all sorts of things you don't want to do, but you must do them nevertheless so, in the name of teaching this lesson, we must require young children to suffer at least a little by commanding them to do things they don't want to do. What's missing in this argument is that children, just like all humans, are already doing plenty of things they don't want to do. We don't need to go out of our way to create arbitrary, even punitive, suffering, like say (for many of us at least) algebra, in order to "teach" this hard lesson. Our first communications are cries of pain or hunger, of suffering, of experiencing life as suffering. It's such a self-evident lesson that even infants know it. Manufacturing lessons in suffering strike me as unnecessarily cruel. 

As a preschool teacher of a certain age, I don't necessarily want to squat and lift. It hurts my knees, but of course I do it because some amount of suffering is required to do this thing I love to do. Hard work and suffering are built into life no matter what. The answer is not to "get used to it" as the worriers would have it, but rather to play, to spend life doing things you choose, things you love, because that's the only thing that stands against the suffering.

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