Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why have parents in the classroom?

This blog entry is a rather lengthy piece I wrote sometime ago, regarding the merits of a cooperative preschool. I hope you enjoy it!

In a cooperative preschool, teacher, parent, and child work together to create an educational community. The teacher receives incredible insight from observing the parent with the child. The parent’s skills are enhanced by the role modeling of the teacher and seeing the child at play with peers. And the child benefits from the rich interplay of the parent and teacher.

I believe teachers gain from working directly with parents on a daily basis. But let me begin with a word of caution here – teaching in a cooperative classroom is not for the faint of heart. You are operating in a fishbowl, your every action is seen, considered, reviewed, and, sometimes, “played back” to those who were not present.

Why have parents in the classroom? Parents help teachers to “get” their to approach, how to comfort, how to reach. Their worries and concerns, their praise and devotion, their pleasure and bragging – all help the teacher in understanding their little one and channeling his exploration, his development, his education. Parents hold a unique key to unlocking the magic of their child’s education.

I am passionate about the value of parents in the preschool classroom. I have years of anecdotal data to support this. I chose a cooperative nursery school for my oldest child some 18 years ago and the education I received from the marvelous, gifted women who taught him and his brothers cannot be exaggerated. They taught me to be “present” with my boys. They demonstrated the value of observing how my boys played, how they learned. Watching my boys at play in a room with their peers, I saw the reality of multiple intelligences – how uniquely everyone learns. As I participated in their early education, I learned tremendous things about how to support their educational experience and how to advocate for them.

Now, I am an early childhood educator in a cooperative preschool; I teach three year olds. Working directly with parents on a daily basis, my teaching becomes dynamic skill – I am stretched to see things from more than just my own perspective. I must know why I do what I do, I must be able to explain why and how I do what I do, I must create believers of my parents. Parents keep me humble, as do the children, because it is obvious when something doesn’t work and I must keep a sense of humor about that. (And, I wonder, isn’t that a terrific message to send to both the parent and the child – sometimes things go wrong. That’s life.) Teaching in a cooperative classroom challenges me to “start and restart” – I am thinking of those inspirational words by Maya Angelou: I did the best I knew how to do. And when I knew better, I did better.

Teachers in this environment should share the conviction that parents belong, that parents have a voice, that parents have much more to offer than simply sweeping the floor or changing a diaper. Certainly, parents keep me current on books, music, tv, and games for the preschooler. More importantly, we teachers are laying the groundwork for parents to participate in their child’s education – how should they speak to teachers? How might they help out? What should they look for in their child’s education? Teachers should be respectful of the innocence of these parents – many preschool parents have only been parents for a couple of years –teachers are in a position of great influence.

There’s that old adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” a cooperative classroom, there are so many wheels. The best teachers do upfront preventative maintenance to ensure that their many wheels are well-lubricated – in other words: tell parents exactly what you hope for their role in the classroom, explain their value to you and the children, document and show appreciation for these efforts in your room; otherwise, the one, loud, squeaky voice of opposition will come seemingly out of nowhere and require lots and lots of extra tender loving care to “fix.”

Teachers should ask themselves – what happens in your classroom that reflects your belief in the value of parent participation? Consider – having parents run projects and games; having parents share their passions, hobbies, skills; be sure to greet and include parents (and to have all the children greet parents), at circle and other discussions – sending the clear signal “we are one community.”

Parents have so much to learn from being in an early childhood classroom with their child. There is no better way to get perspective on their little one – watching your child at play in a room full of peers, you will see how he engages, explores, learns. This young style of learning – it is his very soul, something that will drive him always. The child who taps on everything and sings his way through the morning may well have a guitar in his hand, unwinding at the end of his high school day. The little one whose attention gets easily diverted by his stimulating friends may need to study for his AP test all by himself, after he gets home from presiding over Student Government. Being with your child at preschool doesn’t tell you how it will “all turn out in the end,” but it provides a window to the future, if not a door and a clear path to consider.

Parents in a cooperative preschool are partaking of an educational laboratory. To some extent, they need to take off their “parenting hat” and challenge themselves to see the child from another person’s eyes. Try to simply observe their child’s interactions with peers and adults at school– and prepare to be amazed. Watch your child fluorish under new rules, expectations, and tone of voice. A teacher that you might find “cold” may not make your child flinch – in fact, you may very well watch your child stand strong, work hard, speak up, soar. A word of caution for parents – please understand the weight and power of your critiques. In such an open classroom environment, these are not simply “influential,” but can actually derail.

A parent learns many “tricks” from teachers – how to redirect a child’s attention, how to encourage personal responsibility, how to unwind. And the fun stuff – how to make gak, the wonders (and unexpected sensory importance) of shaving cream and glue, painting benches with water, running with plastic bag kites.

I believe children benefit from seeing their parents in the classroom. I marvel at children watching their parents at play in the classroom with the larger group. We often begin the year with the three year old child clinging, shadowing, holding onto his parent. As the year unfolds, that same little one dares to let go, to play with others, to play with his parent with others – what a share that is!

When you observe a child in a cooperative classroom setting, with a family member assisting in the class, you see how the family bond or dynamic affects the child. Often you will note similarities (or cause and effect) of personalities – how an excited parent might have a jubilant, frisky child or a worried parent has a clingy child (or conversely – how a clingy child creates a worried parent). These things often defy genetics – the adoptive parent who is calm and intellectual has a “bookworm” child. I like to consider the power of nurture over nature or – as an educational tool - how environment itself plays a definitive role in a child’s success.

Teachers should ask themselves – what reflects the value of family in the classroom, from a child’s perspective? In my classroom, we have a family book – a great source of comfort when a child is having a bad day, because it contains their greatest strengths – their families. We have photos displayed throughout the room, all year – their families engaged in the classroom. We make a big deal of who is co-oping each day. The last words I say to the child of a co-oper at day’s end – “thanks for sharing Dad (or Mom, or Grammy) with us.” The child receives a powerful message when he sees his loved one co-oping: I am valued, education is fun, I am loved.

All three parts add up to one terrific educational community – parents and teachers working together with children.

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