Thursday, March 18, 2021

Partnering With Parents

By nature, I consider myself an introvert, so when our daughter was born, I happily stepped into the role of stay-at-home parent. Of course, I looked forward to the "parenting" part, but I equally, and a bit secretly, embraced the "stay-at-home" aspect of the job title. As I held my newborn, I imagined our cozy life, snuggling, puttering around the house, eating snacks, reading storybooks, and playing in the garden. My homebody self imagined a kind of utopia effectively walled-off from the rest of the world where my wife, the extravert, would go off into the world to slay the dragons, while the two of us nested, unmolested, at least for a time, by the stresses of being out in the world.

And it was something like that at first, but among her first sentences were, "Let's go somewhere" and "Let's do something," a clear indication that she was her mother's daughter. I took this to mean that she was asking me for preschool, but when I ran the idea by my wife, she said, "No. She has a stay-at-home parent. Why would we send her off to be raised by strangers if we don't have to?" She had a point, but just in case, I ran the idea of preschool by my mother, who said, "Why would you do that? She has you. Besides, once their gone they're gone. Keep her at home as long as you can." Another compelling argument, but I there was still my mother-in-law, but she too gave it a thumbs down and no wise person defies the three most important women in their life, so it was on me, the introvert, to cobble together the social life our 18-month-old clearly craved.

This primarily involved going to lots of neighborhood playgrounds and other places where young children gathered. One day, I got to chatting with the mother of a son who was only a little older, and I shared my story. She said, "I know how you feel. I'm a stay-at-home parent, but we've enrolled in a cooperative preschool two mornings a week." It turned out that instead of dropping him off, she attended preschool with him. That's all I needed to hear. When I ran this idea by my triumvirate of beloved women, they approved, just so long as we both went.

And so I discovered cooperative schools, places where the families own the school and serve as assistant teachers. For the next three years, we went to school together, and where I got to work alongside a master teacher by the name of Chris David. When it came time for our daughter to move onto kindergarten, Chris urged me to consider staying behind and become a cooperative preschool teacher, and that's when Teacher Tom was born and where I've been for the better part of the past two decades.

Every preschool becomes a community of children, but a cooperative, in a very real sense, becomes a kind of "village" organized around the all-important project of raising children, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and caretakers brought together in the context of community. It reminds me as much as anything in the modern world possibly can of the neighborhood in which I grew up, a place where parents sent their children outside to play, confident that they would create their own social lives simply by living amongst the people, both old and young, that we found there. The kind of place where we learn to teach, care for, support, and love all the children, and to, in turn, trust the other adults in that role with our own children. It's not an accident that the parents at Woodland Park are refer to it as "the community" more often than as a school.

As a teacher, I might have valued my cooperative community more than I did as a parent. At any given moment there were 5-10 of these "amateur" teachers with me, bound together by a culture of learning and care that we were creating together day-after-day. I cannot imagine doing this preschool thing any other way, surrounded by parents who are my colleagues, supporters, and allies: a village raising children.

This isn't the experience of most educators. Indeed, too often parents show up in preschool settings as adversaries instead of allies. They show up as "customers" and critics, mettlesome dilettantes, and people whose phone message, "We need to talk," sends our hearts into our throats. Others come off as disinterested and dismissive. This is not how it should be. Parents and educators are natural allies in that we all want what is best for the children, yet we too often find ourselves feeling that parents, at least some of the parents, are in the way or behaving in ways that undermine our good work. They challenge us about such bedrock things like play-based education, discipline, risky play, mess, and a host of other aspects of our professional work, often demanding we do things that we know are not in the best interest of children.

For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts this tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how to make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to learn more.)

Most of us don't live in the kind of villages envisioned by the proverb, but that doesn't mean our children don't need them. We may never again be free to send our children out into the neighborhood to play, but we can do the next best thing by making our preschools into places not just for children, but for families. This is how we make the villages our children need. 


It takes a village to raise a child. In this 6-part e-course I share my best practices to enable educators to make allies of the parents of the children they teach by bringing parents to the center of our work in the spirit of community, the kind of community every child needs. For more information and to register, click here. Act now to receive early bird pricing!

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