Tag Archives: early childhood educators

Can You Really “Teach” Preschool?

preschool-teachersMany years ago, my husband was having a conversation with a co-worker. They were getting to know each other, and were discussing each of their families’ dynamics. The topic of what their wives did for a living came up.

At the time, I was a lead teacher in a preschool classroom, and coincidentally, so was this co-worker’s wife, at another program. “My wife’s a preschool teacher,” my husband said. “She loves it, and she’s pretty good at it.” “Mine too,” the co-worker said. “But then again, can you really TEACH preschool?” He put air quotes around the word “teach,” and finished his statement off with a condescending smirk and a laugh.

Now, I was not witness to this actual conversation, only to the description of it my husband gave me later on. Considering my passion for quality early childhood education, it’s probably a very good thing (for my husband’s former co-worker, at least) that I wasn’t! But it got me thinking—just how is our profession viewed by the rest of the adult world?

I have always been proud of what I do for a living, knowing that working with children between the ages of birth and 5 years is some of the most important work there is. But as my career has progressed I have witnessed the reaction I get from others when they find out for the first time what I do for a living. Sometimes I get, “How do you do it?! I could NEVER be around little kids all day!” Other times it’s, “Oh, that sounds like so much fun! I wish I could color all day and get paid for it!” And then there are the times when I actually get the brush off. I have witnessed people’s facial expressions and body language change noticeably in ways that indicate they have very little, if any respect, for what an early childhood educator’s job entails. And therefore, for me.

Those of you who have been doing this for any length of time know just what I’m talking about. In fact, recently I came across a video of an interview with a fellow preschool teacher who put it this way… “When I’m in a room and I’m asked what I do, I just say ‘teacher.’ Because if I say ‘preschool teacher,’ then all of a sudden I’m less intelligent because, clearly, I’m just a babysitter. And they have no clue how important my job is.”

Even though the concept of early childhood education has been around since the early 1800’s, and numerous child development theorists such as Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Maria Montessori, just to name a few, have developed well-respected, foundational ideas about the science of how young children learn, the reality is that the job of educating and caring for young children is often still viewed in a somewhat simplistic light. Even the terms people frequently use to refer to this field are often thrown around without a second thought to the negative connotation they may present. This article from the Huffington Post is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Whatever your role is in the field of early childhood, you matter. The children you work with everyday need you. They look forward to seeing your face smiling back at them, to hearing a word of encouragement or support coming from your lips, to feeling the touch of your hand on their back when they’re struggling with accomplishing a task. Keep showing up. Keep doing what you do. Keep loving it. The adults may not always get it… but the children always will.

What playing with children does NOT mean

Play is essential to children as eating and breathing. Hundreds of books and articles have been written for teachers and parents on the importance of playing with children. There’s no doubt about it, playing with children is important, but there are also some things it doesn’t mean.

Playing with the children in your care is very important!

For example, it doesn’t mean you have to make playtime something that must be done on schedule, like brushing your teeth or cleaning up the classroom at 11:45 every day. The minute you think you have to play with children you risk turning play into work. Children pick up on those feelings, of course, and fun becomes less and less of a possibility for both of you. It’s best to play with the children in your care when you’re relaxed and interested, not when you have to force yourself or make it so much of a routine.

On days when you’re out-of-sorts or tired, help the children in your classroom get started on something. Then take a minute to observe the environment and the children as they interact with other children. Sometimes what children really want is a feeling of being connected with you. Responding with specific comment and eye contact when the children show you something can provide that comfort.

It doesn’t mean you have to constantly plan new activities. Let children become comfortable with the environment and enjoy some of their favorite activities that have been introduced within the classroom. Have you ever painstakingly organized materials for a craft project and then discovered that the children are totally uninterested? It can make you feel like you’ve been left holding the short end of the stick. (And, what’s worse, the stick is probably dripping with glue!) Sometimes it’s fun to enjoy a special activity and plan. That is what teachers do best. Consider what a child’s day is like when they attend an all day program or have been on the run all week with busy parents. Sometimes, children like predictable, ordinary play with familiar toys.

It doesn’t mean you’re responsible for preventing boredom. In fact, a little experience with boredom can be invaluable. Children are often busy with school, scheduled activities, and play dates. How often do they get to set their own agenda or figure out their own pace? It’s true that boredom can make them uncomfortable, but it can also nudge them into developing some planning and decision making skills. Boredom can give children an opportunity to learn how to entertain themselves, be open to possibilities and to find out what they really like to do.

It doesn’t mean that you as a teacher must always play with them. It’s true that playing with children can help them acquire new skills, but so can playing alone. Playing alone can also be the foundation for creativity, for understanding new ideas, or for recreating an experience through pretend play. Children need some time to play things out on their own without anyone else interpreting or guiding the outcome. Being available to respond or lend a hand when asked, can be just as important to children as being actively involved in their play.

Looking Ahead

A few weeks ago, I delivered my baby daughter to college. Despite the fact that she’s the youngest of three, I’m still wondering, where did the time go? We were both excited and sad, and there were even a few tears… mostly from me. Many children have just spent the last week or so making a transition that can seem as big as moving away to college! Some children have left a certain classroom, their primary caregiver or even moved on to a new school. It’s important to recognize how difficult this can be for them, and for us!

Surprisingly, it’s often the small, everyday things that are the hardest to say good-bye to. In my years working with early childhood educators, parents and children, there are a few memories that survive to the college years and beyond.

  • For parents, knowing that the greeting they receive from teachers each morning is personal and special. You and your child are important!
  • Seeing children revel in the changing seasons, pulling dandelions or enjoying the first snow of the year.
  • Children encouraged to share their feelings over the death of the class hermit crab or guinea pig.
  • Parents make a difference! Even if they’re only donating margarine tubs and cardboard tubes.

Teachers are there at the toughest of times, like settling down for a nap on a child’s first day in a new classroom. These little moments are big in the scope of a child’s social and emotional development.

Saying good-bye to what we’ve known doesn’t mean we’ve moved on. Our memories continue to shape our experiences. When a child goes to a new school or encounters a new situation, everything they’ve learned goes with them. The same is true for parents and early childhood educators, as well. When you say goodbye to children as they move to a new classroom, to preschoolers as they transition into kindergarten, remember to take your memories along. They’re a valuable collection, and one you’re sure to keep adding to with all of the children who’ve just come to you!