Saturday, September 8, 2012

One By One

“You cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do is like a farmer create the conditions under which it will begin to flourish.”
Ken Robinson

                School has been in session for three weeks now-well, actually, eleven days, due to Hurricane Isaac and Labor Day. It is September, and I have been waxing nostalgic about the earliest days of my teaching career. I love what I do now and would never want to actually go back. My high school students are a joy and a blessing every day. But there is a particular magic about working with small children that is difficult to explain. Their innocence, their wide-eyed wonder at the newness of everything, their spontaneity, their unbridled joy, their uninhibited expressions of feeling and emotion that are by and large repressed by the time they are six-these are the things that make the magic. My first teaching job was in a daycare center, and I wouldn’t trade those four years for anything in the world.

                A question that students often ask me is, “How and when did you decide that you wanted to be a teacher?” It was a rather involved route, and I was dragged kicking and screaming part of the way, and I am so glad that I didn’t have to make the choice on my own. God did it for me.Deep down, though, even though I told myself that this daycare job was only a job, that I was not cut out to teach, that this was not what I would be doing forever, I think I knew. I knew from that first day. In fact, I knew long before that, back in first grade when I was assigned to help other students, when I babysat the neighbor children beginning at age eleven, when I helped teach Sunday school and Vacation Bible School…God was moving, stirring my heart.

                My assignment as a rookie teacher’s aide at the Children’s Center was to be a “floater” and then,if I did a good job, I would be given whatever position was available and suited me the best. I quickly discovered that infants weren’t really my cup of tea, although I did fine in the infant room and didn’t exactly hate it. I just preferred children who were a bit more mobile, verbal, and social. The babies were adorable, but the funny thing is that even then, I was more drawn to older kids and was never the kind of person who wanted to pick up every baby I saw. This worried me for awhile and I feared I would be a terrible mother, but I was assured that it would be different with my own and it doubtless would have been. I never had the opportunity to find out, since my youngest child was five when she came to live with us, but I did recall my mother saying that she was concerned about me when I was little and had no interest in dolls. She, too, was afraid I lacked maternal instincts, but then she read somewhere that children who love animals usually grow up to love children, and, since I brought home every stray dog, cat,and turtle I found, she relaxed. She was not particularly surprised when I ended up being a teacher.Not as surprised as I was, anyway.

                What ultimately happened after I made the rounds of the various age groups in the daycare was that I became a morning aide in the Toddler 2 class and an afternoon aide in the preschool class. On my first afternoon, I had baptism by fire as the minute I walked in the door of the preschool classroom, the teacher thrust some books into my hands and practically ran away, so anxious was she to go on her break. I had never been alone with such a large group of children before-there were eighteen in all, ranging in age from three to five-and I don’t know who was more terrified, them or me. I suspect it was me. They were seated nicely in a circle on little squares of carpet labeled with their names. I had been introduced to them briefly as “Miss Chris, our new helper”, but a few of the smaller ones could only manage “Miss Tiss”, or, tragically, “Miss Piss”.  I went around the circle and asked their names and even now I remember most of them. Christy, Stuart, Lauren, Colin, Julie, Brooke, Laura, Jonathan, Justin, Mitchell,Eric, Wade,Courtney,Michelle, a few others I cannot recall. I read them a book that had been a favorite of mine when I was small. It was called Four Puppies and was all about how four little collie pups learned about the changes in the seasons and how every season had things that were good and fun. At the end they were big dogs, not puppies anymore. The only problem was that, living in South Alabama, it was a bit difficult to explain snow or even  clearly defined temperature changes. Fortunately, most of them had seen enough television to get the gist.

                Something that I had learned long ago about reading to very young children is that you cannot make it a passive activity; you have to keep them involved and engaged in the story. This means not only reading with expression, but pausing to discuss the pictures, ask questions, and get comments from the kids related to their own experience. It means trying to keep them anticipating what will happen next. I am sure there is some fancy name for this type of pre-reading, language-building instruction, but I didn’t know what it was and still don’t. It’s just what my mother and father always did when they read to me. Thus we discussed the four seasons and what holidays and weather patterns were related to each, the habits of squirrels as a squirrel figured prominently in the story, and what kinds of animals the children had at home or had seen at the zoo. We talked about how it was now fall and what kinds of foods made us think of fall. We talked about scarecrows and owls and I remembered a song about pumpkins that I had learned back in elementary school, so I taught it to them. I was no longer scared to death; I was having fun. When the teacher got back into the room fifteen minutes late, expecting chaos, she found us all quite happily getting to know each other. By that afternoon I had a job. The Director said, “I have gotten glowing reports from every room you were in today,” and that was that. My Beginning.

                It was just a little church daycare with about thirty-five children and a tiny but caring and dedicated staff. During my four years there I learned much about life, about people, about race relations, about how children grow and develop, and about how simple it is to give children a Christian understanding of life without brainwashing or terrifying them.  When people came in to view the Center they often commented on the sense of love and community, the respect and independence that the children had, and the way they seemed to learn with very few formal lessons. Indeed, we were on a list of centers that best prepared children for kindergarten, yet we did almost no worksheets or direct math or phonics instruction. Nearly everything was hands-on and experiential. Our days were structured but not regimented. Nevertheless, all of the kids who graduated from our center were adept at self-help and social skills and could work on tasks independently. All could write their names; most could tie shoes and button buttons and sweep a floor. Most of them knew the alphabet and numbers; a few could read and add and subtract. They knew lots of stories and songs and poems and a lot about God and Jesus. They knew about animals and transportation and weather and rocks and how to stay safe and keep your teeth healthy and eat a balanced meal and to not be afraid of the world, but to be imaginative and curious and ask good questions. They could use scissors and usually color inside the lines and give their phone numbers and addresses in case they ever got lost. They had all grown at least one lima bean seed into a plant and painted at least one picture that Mom and Dad would keep for always, and they could prepare simple snacks and wipe up the mess afterward. Mostly, they knew how to love and be loved.

                To me, that is REAL education. The goal of education is not, I think to cram as many facts into a child’s head as possible so that he can impress the heck out of Mom and Dad’s friends . Nor is it merely to create “useful” citizens. Our kids left our center with the beginnings of a work ethic and love for God and country and an understanding of flag etiquette (they asked that the school’s flag be lowered to half-mast when my father died, and we complied).All of these things are wonderful, but the true goal is to produce compassionate human beings who will not just impact the world, but help to transform it. If that is the goal at every level, and we begin by nurturing those early seeds of compassion and honesty and creativity, then one by one, we will produce true world-changers. If I did not believe that, I could not teach.

                If you are a parent, then you are a teacher. If you are within a child’s grasp, within his sphere, then you have the potential to help change the world, too. Whether a neighbor, friend, grandparent, Sunday school teacher, coach, babysitter-if you are part of a child’s life, then you are a TEACHER.-and  it matters.


“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

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