Actions Speak Louder than Words-Appreciating our Teachers

Alright, I admit it, I am burnt out.    Burnt out on spending at least nine hours every day with toddlers.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do but have you met a toddler? They have runny noses and they will actually run over to wipe on your pants (or shirt, hair, back…whatever is available) They need lots of physical affection and often go about accessing it in the most interesting ways (today for example a little girl put her finger in my ear!? Yep).  Also, they cry….a lot.  I’m comfortable with crying, showing emotion and even encourage it but…it is LOUD sometimes.

I’m burnt out on teaching.  Burnt out on working in a less than supportive environment.  All of the above wouldn’t matter if I was working in a situation where  I had proper support.  Staff development, meetings where we were able to discuss questions and concerns we have about particular children.  Paid time off and the ability to call in sick all would be helpful.  I wish I could say that my current center is out of the norm but unfortunately it is not.  There are far more centers like mine, with exhausted teachers out of time and money to continue professional development.  Frustrated with their lack of professional or personal fulfillment they take things out on the children.  Teachers who aren’t well supported don’t make good teachers.  They either leave the profession or they start to care less.

Luckily I am on the path to personal and professional renewal as I leave my time at this center.  What about everybody else? During this teacher appreciation week I couldn’t help but think about all of the other teachers out there.  Working moms, working students, caring people who probably should have had the pleasure of retiring years ago.   What do we really need to do to show our teachers we appreciate them? Do Starbucks cards and flowers really get the point across?  I admit this is better than nothing at least for a second we feel as if we are appreciated.  Day after day, year after year it just doesn’t cut the mustard.

In their book Professional Capital Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan argue that what we need is a fundamental change that allows for a community of educators to emerge.  This is as true in early childhood education as anywhere.  In some cases I would argue even more so.  Early childhood educators are in the unique position of laying the foundation of our children’s emotional and educational future.  Teachers don’t have the luxury of being able to just ‘phone it in’ ever.  Even if we don’t feel like it how we act and speak is constantly being absorbed by our littlest friends.

I know this question is bigger than this post.  I also know I am not alone in feeling overworked, underpaid and just plain exhausted.  As more and more children start ‘school’ before the age of one and private care/preschool programs move ahead in a largely privatized and practically unregulated manner what can we as teachers do to change the tide? What role, if any, should our society play?   What type of movement will it take to really place educators at the forefront of our country (as they do in Finland)? What are the consequences if we continue the way we are?

Thanks for reading as I vent! 🙂

Melissa

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Toddler Tug-of-War; Why the toy is only half the battle

Two tiny toddlers make circles around the table, clomping in their oversized heels.  Around and around they go until one’s heel slips off.  The other one curiously leans over and picks it up, clomping on.  Upon noticing the loss of their shoe the other one throws her self on to the floor in tears. Out of curiosity the clomping buddy returns only to inadvertently begin a loud, tear filled shoe tug of war.

What exactly are toddlers looking for in this situation? What do they need from us as caretakers?

Many of us have been in the middle of a toddler tug of war.  More often than not we operate on instinct doing what is ‘right’ in an effort to keep everyone happy.   We often become right fighters, taking toys away or labeling children with abstract words like nice, friendly, mean etc.  Particularly with toddlers these attempts to impose what we see as socially accpetable behavior leave them confused.  The actions we hope will teach them confuse them often leaving them feeling deeply misunderstood.

So what are toddlers looking for from us when they are embroiled in an emotional tug-of-war?   They need us to stay calm first and foremost.  This can be really difficult if you see what seems like an egregious act of toy stealing.  We have to remember that toddlers are always examining the world and with it all manners of cause and effect.  What we see as “mean” or “aggressive” is simply a toddlers expression of their curiosity.  It may also be an outward manifestation of a difficult to manage emotion.  In any case all toddlers involved in the situation deserve to be heard and respected.  Our job isn’t to fix the situation but rather to help both children get back to a state of emotional equilibrium.

In a broader sense we have the responsibility to use these opportunities as teaching moments.  We can do this by talking through what we see.  By avoiding judgements and narrating the scene in front of us.  In the moment it can be hard to let the judgements go especially if one of the children is your own.  Everything inside of you screams “That was so mean! He was playing so nicely with that! How COULD you?!?” But if cooler heads prevail you will be able to give your child, as well as the other child, a better sense of how to properly handle themselves in future situations.

You will find that what toddlers really crave is to be understood.  If you can reflect back what happened to them and how you think they may be feeling this can calm the storm faster than grabbing a toy and handing it back.  When they are on either side of the emotional turmoil what they really want is for you to speak what they are feeling.  Not give them a toy. 

What the Mamma Taught the Teacher (2 of 2)

A little while back I wrote a post on how my expertise in early childhood education has been able to help me as my mother-self begins to emerge.  While it is true that there are many advantages to having such a history with children every mom knows there is nothing like being someone’s mom.  I had never before been so connected to another.  Never had I see the world so clearly through someone else’s eyes.  I can feel my own childhood through my son and I can feel everything he feels as he grows.

Yes, teaching informed my mothering but becoming a Mamma shifted my internal compass.  When I first starting teaching I had little to go on except my intuition.  I used a combination of culturally accepted ways of viewing children, ingrained models of parenting practices and what remained of my early childhood education (which I hardly remember but strongly feel affects me to this day).  I was gentle, I was kind but I was also overly set on order and control.

Here is what I have leared (so far!) :

  1. Control is only an illusion (and power struggles aren’t worth your time)  Very quickly after my son was born I was hit with the realization that he was his own person.  Complete even in his soft, floppy, newborn-ness.  Never would I be able to make him sleep, make him eat or make him stop crying.  I could do my best to set the environment most conducive to calming and sleep but the task was up to him.  As he has grown I have been shown that team work is what works.  In my classroom the children (remember they are only all of 18-20 months old) are my partners.  We work together to clean up, help our friends, calm our bodies for nap.  Raising my voice backfires every time, and even when it works it is so very short lived.  Letting go of control is difficult for me but I am not in this profession to be ‘in charge’. I am here to supplement the lives of the little ones in my care, here to help them be them.
  2. Crying is okay! Yep, I said it.  Children were not born with the ability to express themselves.  They were born with one tool of communication and it is crying.  When I was a teacher (pre-Mammadom) I felt it to be my job to “Shhh”, quiet or otherwise ‘fix’ every child in my care.  This is simply unfair to children, plugging emotions up only cause them to leak out elsewhere.  Instead, now I offer empathetic touch and verbalization.  Perhaps a child may cry harder when I comment on how difficult it is to see a parent leave but more than likely the rest of their day will be free of such distress.  Overstimulated babies often need to be gently held while they diffuse all of the goings on of the day.  I’d like to clearly state that I am not an advocate of cry-it-out or leaving babies to cry alone.  Now I see crying as communication and expression that deserves to be listened to.  You can not really know a child until you can sit with them in their most difficult moments and come out the other side.
  3. Children are who they are (despite their parents efforts)  This relates back to what I said in number one.  Your child is not a possession to be controlled.  They are individual human beings with thoughts, feelings and intrinsic motivation from the very beginning. I know we are all guilty of holding specific wishes for what our child will be, how they will behave or what type of temperament they will show us as they grow.  As teachers and parents our aim must be to know the child we are working with and adjust to the paradigm he sets before us.  Let your child guide you to where they need to be.  In the classroom this is reflected by rules that are flexible depending on the needs of the child. Contrary to what one might think, all the other children do not expect rules to change for them.  If they feel their needs are met they have no problems with other children getting their needs met, in fact they encourage it.
  4. Punishment is of no value  In the classroom it is my job to teach.  To guide children to where they desire to be.  Help them to understand society’s rules and structure while they learn to operate in it.  As a Mamma I have the same goal.  I do not desire to frighten my child into submission.  Punitive measures like time-out or yelling are frustrating and unhelpful to all parties invoved. In our home we have a harmonious environment where clear boundaries give Collin the ability to explore the world without fear.  In the classroom I attempt to build the same feeling.  Children know what is expected and they rise to the occasion.  Acting out (hitting, biting, etc) is treated as a learning experience.  In the case of significant behavioral issues there is always an underlying cause, always.  Children are not born bad, we just haven’t figured them out yet.
  5. Everything is a phase  Sometimes children go through phases that we won’t ever understand.  There may be a bout of biting, a period of time where someone doesn’t want to eat lima beans or wakes up every hour of the night.  As a parent it has been helpful for me to remind myself (often) that this too shall pass.  They will continue to grow and change.  This reminder makes it easier for me to support my son through any developmental phase he (we?) may encounter.  Maybe I will never know the why but I know the how and I can support him in this moment.  In the classroom I am significantly more aware of children’s phases.  It is easier for me to be supportive of a child who may suddenly become excessively whiney when I can put it in the context of a phase.  Sometimes I can narrow down the reasons (mom out of town? nearing a develpmental milestone?) other times I can’t.  It just helpt to know that what they need is support, not puishment.

I realize many of these theories overlap.  The major change for me has been my view of the child.  My respect for what a baby, toddler and preschooler can accomplish if given the proper support has multiplied daily as I watch my son grow.  The gift of parenting drives me to know all children like I know my son.  I know it is not possible to know their hearts as deeply as I know Collin’s but I also know that they deserve a teacher who tries her hardest to understand them. All children deserve the love and respect of someone who accepts them for who they are and while I would hope most children get this at home I will do my best to offer it at school.

As always thanks for reading! Teachers, Mammas please share your knowledge below.

What the Teacher Taught the Mamma (1 of 2)

When you are a preschool teacher with no children there is a phrase you hear on a regular basis. It is not said with disdain but it is said with confidence. Uttered by the mothers (and fathers) we work along side, the single teachers among us hear the phrase and secretly think they know better. It goes something like this…

“It is different when it is your own child.”

I admit that when I heard it I always thought something along the lines of “Yeah, but I’d still never let my child do [fill in the blank with some undesirable/socially unacceptable action]” but guess what? It is oh so different when it is your own child.

Years and years and YEARS of teaching preschool, directing preschool, nannying and babysitting couldn’t ever prepare anyone for becoming a Mamma. Being a Mamma isn’t being pregnant, it isn’t setting rules or just wiping noses and buns. It is so much more and no one else will ever be able to be your child’s Mamma.

As I grow into my Mamma self what I thought I knew has fallen away like a discarded cheerio. My teacher self has grown alongside my Mamma self as I view the world of children in a new, brighter light. There are large parts of my teaching history that have informed my parenting thus far and my parenting style has begun to change my teaching for the better. This is the first in a set of posts where I will attempt to reflect on the major ways each side has influenced each other.

What the Teacher Taught the New Mamma:

  1. Environment matters and it matters a lot. The Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy calls the environment the third teacher. I respect that notion in my classroom and my home. From the youngest age children need a simple selection of open ended toys that they are able to access and work with towards mastery (of the toy or a particular skill they are working on). When setting up an art activity, sensory exploration or playing with play dough keep in mind how easily the children can reach the materials to be used. Do their feet touch the floor, can they adjust themselves easily? How are materials presented? Try to imagine everything from your children’s perspective. Things like lighting, noise, and temperature of a room can enhance or interfere with a child’s experience. This goes for all times of day or parts of your child’s schedule. Calm music, dim lighting and a warm room go a long way to a relaxed sleeping baby.
  2. Modulate your voice Using your voice properly can be your best parenting or teaching tool. Speaking in a soft whisper can inspire a room of twenty two year olds to gather, stop and listen quietly. Or it can inspire your own child to focus and listen more closely to what you are actually saying to them. Turning directions into a song can get shoes on more quickly and children out the door. Firmly and evenly expressing that a behavior is inappropriate has a much more meaningful effect than yelling ever could. If you are yelling in a effort to get your child(ren) to calm down it usually has the opposite effect. Children feel before they listen. If they feel heightened energy in the room they will respond in kind, if they feel happiness they will join in the activity (even if it is cleaning up!) if they feel calm they will slowly calm down too.
  3. Children need structure and flexibility and they need them at the same time. Structure or schedule without the room for a little extra time spent chasing an ant up a tree or finishing a block tower puts limits on a child’s natural desire to follow their curiosity, learn, explore and play. All children, however, deserve an environment that (on most days at least) is predicable, safe and helps meet their needs. I see it as schedules without stress. Let your child guide you, they will show you if they need an earlier nap, are hungrier than usual or if they are learning so much from digging in the sand they need an extra ten minutes.
  4. If you feel like something isn’t working, its not You carefully plan an art activity but your toddler would rather throw collage materials on the floor. You sit down for snack and your child repeatedly asks to get down, smooches food around and throws it on the floor. If something is too hard, stop it. Let it go. Give up your idea of how things should have gone and give it up quickly. There is no point in trying to convince a child they are hungry or trying to get them motivated to do an activity they are not interested in. Move on or in the case of an activity let them show you what the activity was supposed to be in the first place.
  5. Actions speak louder than words Whoever first spoke these words was most likely working with children. If you tell a child from across the room to clean up while standing still, hands on hips staring at them its likely you’ll get the same in return. If you begin walking towards the toys and hand them a box to put them in they’ll start throwing toys in. You need to put yourself into action. Speak with your body, your eyes and your heart.

While we try to teach our children all about life, Our children teach us what life is all about. ~Angela Schwindt

Happy New Year, Happy New Focus

Ahhh…We can all breathe a deep sigh of new 2012 air.  The dust has settled from the holiday melee, children are back to routines that help them organize their sleep, emotions and expectations.  We (mostly) have cleaned and begun the reorganization that comes with piles of lovingly selected new toys and activities.  Along with the new year comes the feeling of new starts, a new you!, or a new waistline.

Pretty much every year, at least every year that I can remember, I have made a resolution to lose weight.  Yep, my whole life.  I will jog every day.  Lose 20 pounds.  Yoga four times a week…etc. This year as the calendar page flips to 2012 (and reeealy its 2012? I remember when that seemed so futuristic to me) I have new goals.  Goals that come from my drive to grow as a mother, wife and teacher.  Goals that are not just promises to myself or habits that need breaking.  Instead these goals are a reminder to myself to do the work emotionally that needs to be done, to keep growing, learning and becoming the *me* that I can be.

Study and Practice Nonviolent Communication:

In my former life, before teaching, marriage and my boy, I studied social change.  In fact I taught a seminar called “Nonviolence and the twenty-first century” as my senior capstone project in college. The Ghandian idea of nonviolence is not simply refraining from involving in physically violent acts. Standing idly by as someone is abused or marginalized is a violent act.  In other words it is not the abscense of an act.  Nonviolence is a concsious act in and of itself.  You need to make a choice, contribute to violence or contribute to peace.  I choose peace.

I know that during certain conflicts I lose my ability to hear others. Being right can become ridiculously important to me and often I can’t see past my own feelings into the heart of the other person.  Words that hurt are easy to throw around, often easiest to hurdle at those we love the most.  As our family grows I find myself looking back on how we have grown together.  How we truly are turning into a family.  Learning a dance of emotions, needs and responsibilities.  Trying to support each other as individuals and strengthen our relationships while recognizing that our needs may sometimes be at odds with one another.

As a mother I feel the onus is on me to raise a child who is able to express his feelings in a way that is gentle but clear.  Equally important is to raise a child who is able to really hear what others are saying.  Even if it means listening through anger, aggression or pride.  I know that the only way to effectively teach anything is to model it.  To this end I have begun reading (or sort of re-reading, as I started it before with about 5 other books and never finished it) Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD.

As stated on the center for nonviolent communication’s website nonviolent communication is”the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart”.  My goal for this new year is to engage myself in the study of a new type of communication that will help me relate to my son, husband, co-workers and students in a more loving, open and effective way.  I will not throw words around as if they don’t matter or hurt.  I will be conscious of where the other party is coming from.  I will stop, slow down and (try my hardest!) to step outside myself to see the conflict from the outside.

Focus on the study of Child Development and Early Childhood Education and Parenting:

When I first started this blog I didn’t really know where I was headed.  I know what I do, what I like, how I spend my days and I figured if I started writing about those topics I would find my way.  As the days have passed I have become connected to some amazing (and admittedly intimidating) bloggers.  Crafts sites, cooking sites, engaging anecdotes about their daily lives, crunchy eco moms who don’t use toilet paper (!?!).  I just can’t compete.  How do you take such adorable and informative pictures of your toddler doing an art activity (with no mess?) while supervising? Cooking a meal and remembering to take beautifully framed pictures of each step along the way? SO NOT ME.  Maybe someday, maybe another resolution, but not now. I know now what this blog is.

This is me, teaching, parenting, parenting while teaching.  What fires me up is child development.  Learning how children learn so I can support them the best way they can.  As a teacher, parent or friend.  This platform holds me accountable.  In this new year I will support children for who they are. I will advocate for them and their parents.  In our world today there is more help in a hug than in years of starndardized tests.  I will be true to myself  in this new year.

What about you? What are your goals for yourself? Goals for your family?

Happy 2012!

Simple Sunday-Some simply great sites

As I have begun this foray into the blogesphere I have found many sites that have given me information, challenged my thinking, filled my planning book with new ideas for actvities and shown me I am not alone in a love for play and respect for the child.

Below are just a few of these great sites:

1-Janet Lansbury:Elevating Childcare  (informational, full of deep respect for the completeness of a child from birth, based on the teachings of Magda Gerber and honest posts on her journey as a mother)

2-Childhood101 (everything is here from parenting, ideas for playful learning to eating and organizing your home)

3-Teacher Tom (what can I say!?? I just love him, all his posts and what he brings to the table…check it out!)

4-Play at home mom (this is a popular one, if you haven’t ‘liked’ them on facebook go ahead join the club and do it.  You’ll get regular ideas for fun, opened play ideas that are fairly inexpensive and easy to do at home)

5-Aha! Parenting (this is such a resourceful website for information on connected, positive communication and discipline, Thanks Dr. Laura Markham!)

Simple Sunday – Child led exploration

I have become increasingly aware in the past few months that even though Collin’s time is mostly child directed, free play it is very much contained within the structures defined by our center.  We must be out on the yard by a certain time, move children around classrooms to stay in ratio, eat and nap together (check out my post on how nap has been going…) and be all cleaned up and done at a specific time of the day.  Not to mention he is rarely alone.  I do consider him to be someone who plays independently but that time is spent with other toddlers in pursuit of a interests not always driven by his independent thought.

I don’t see all of this as bad.  In particular I have seen his social understanding blossom far beyond most children of his age. However, I have been making an effort on our days off to offer him time that is completely his own.  Time for him to choose his direction, take his time and be free from the threat of another child imposing their wishes on him.  In short, simple time to just be.

Here was our walk today, it began as a leaf hunt and evolved into a berry hunt/smoosh session. Then we discovered dandelions in the wet field as the rain fell.   He gently touched the damp flowers, giggled as raindrops hit his silky blonde hair.  Collin found this to be amazing and you know what? So did I.

Let them climb!-Risk taking in early childhood

Among the other teachers that I work with I occupy a strange role.  I am the teacher who doesn’t worry.  If a child climbs to the top of the slide and stands up smiling, I wave back.  If a group of kids find a pile of sticks I sit down encouraging exploration.  When another teacher comes over and quickly takes one out of someone’s hands I feel a pang of sadness.  Balancing on the edge of the sandbox? No worries.  Running while holding someones hand? No prob.

I am a firm believer in modeling and I don’t see it as effective to critique another teachers style right in front of the children.  However, in this case I don’t see my modeling going anywhere.  In many cases I think that other teachers may see me as being unaware of what the children are doing or even lazy for not rushing to their side.  I don’t blame them.  It is in the job description to protect all of these chubby flush-faced little people.  If they fall or scrape themselves we need to comfort them and clean them up, a job that isn’t always quick and easy.

I guess the reason teachers don’t seem to pick up on what I am doing is because it doesn’t look like I am doing anything.  No one notices as I take a few steps closer as I wave to the boy on the slide.  No one catches it as I gently ‘save’ a special stick for a little girl before she goes running off, but after she has had time to really check it out.  They also can’t see the quick evaluation I go through as I see those kids run off together.  What are they running on, near or around that could hurt them? Or is it really just fine that they run off laughing holding hands until they collapse, even if one of them may get a little scrape in the process?

I have noticed less and less swings on the playgrounds at schools, new schools (especially preschools) are rarely built with them due to safety concerns.  Inside there are clean floors, bleached tables and toys in neat boxes.  Glass is hidden far away along with scissors and anything else deemed dangerous. I know these other teachers think they are being helpful by stepping in to save them.  Save them from themselves and possible danger, but are we really helping them?

Starting from birth we all try, fail, and try again.  It is an innate trait in all of us that helps us stay motivated to learn to crawl, walk or hold a crayon.  As these children explore their world I see it as my job to guide them but not stop them.  To allow them to climb and fall.  Learn about their bodies but also learn about perservance.  To allow that innate desire to discover the world around them by their own power.  An article by Jackie Sinnerton states “It’s vital for emotional development that they are allowed to trip up, pick themselves up and learn from the experience. They need to build up resilience.”

The world our children will enter upon adulthood is not one of safe clear boundaries and constant protection.  To the contrary they will find a world of gray areas, amorphous relationships, virtual professions and vague job descriptions.  It is not as simple as letting them take whatever risk they want.  There is a delicate dance performed between me and the kids.  They know I am there to help them stay safe, but they also know they are free to try things and I will understand. They need to be allowed to takes risks, fall down and have someone there when they need help getting back up.  The amazing thing is a lot of the time if they know you are there that is enough for them to pick themselves up.

Patience is a virtue

Yesterday was rough. It was rough for me mostly. Collin was getting over a cold but mostly happy. For whatever reason I just couldn’t get myself into my ‘happy teaching’ place. Most days I feel I am calm, like a ship smoothly sailing in a sea of toddler emotion. Just gently guiding them along. Not yesterday. It was rough sailing all day.
I’d like to say the kids didn’t notice but I believe that they are deeply sensitive to our moods, body language and demeanor. I’m sure they could feel it. I’m sure it played a part in their extra neediness (as in “oh oh…something is upsetting her, better make sure I’m nearby lest something really weird happen”).
My brain tries to tell me all of the proper things. It tries to remind me where they are developmentally. It tries to get me to model the right behavior instead of snapping at them to stop. Usually the brains win but let me tell you my emotional side was putting up a good fight.
For my part I tried to be respectful of myself and the kids. I simply told them I wasn’t feeling well today. I needed some extra hugs and cuddles like they do sometimes. I don’t feel trying to ‘fake’ it through the day is fair to them. How can I expect my son to grow in his
emotional intelligence if he has a mother who always pretends everything is okay? Or worse snaps at him out of the blue as a way to relieve her own stress.
I have worked in enough classrooms to know I am not alone. Teachers are human too. We have busy lives, families and stresses like the rest of the world. When you think of the amount of time some of our youngest citizens spend in full time care by the time they are even in Kindergarten, that amounts to lots of confusing adult behavior. Especially in less-than-quality care situations.
Most reputable schools will talk about how they help a child grow socially and emotionally. They talk about how modeling is the best way to teach. Yet at the end of the day I bet many moms and teachers alike feel like we did a better job of modeling manners than emotional expression.
Isn’t it just as important to teach a child how to deal with stress as to be a good friend? How to verbalize when they are disappointed?
How do you guide your little ones through your rougher waters safely?