I'm missing my former classroom this morning. I was out for a jog and saw a friend from last year's class, in his carseat, in his Mom's minivan. He waved!
I'm on to new things now. I'm mentoring new teachers in DC schools. I am working closely with several teachers, visiting them in their classrooms, observing them in action, being both a support and an energizer.
This exciting, challenging, fabulous new work of mine has made me think about something I haven't really thought about in a long, long time:
What is it like to be a new preschool teacher?
Obviously, I once was one. But, think back about it? Remember and reflect? I think I blocked it out. I think it’s like childbirth, not something anyone seeks to relive, over and over, no matter how beautiful the result.
During those first few weeks of school, the new preschool teacher learns to do many things all at once, including:
- How to create something out of nothing because your school's furniture order is delayed; how to set up in a much smaller classroom than you had planned; how to re-design the classroom overnight because it never dawned on you that the children might paint the wooden blocks, or that they might dump all the manipulatives and puzzles together while sitting at the table…yes, clearly, you need to rearrange the room RIGHT NOW!
- How to lead vibrant, rich, differentiated learning experiences. You will read, write, count, sing, dance, move as the children learn everything! Better yet, you will do this while 1, 2, 3, maybe even 4 children are having total meltdowns in your room. They don’t want to be there! They miss their mommy! They don’t like that book! They don’t like loud stuff! They don’t like!
- How to juggle 15-20 different personalities with varying needs and learning differences. How are they best comforted? You must learn this in a snap of your fingers; you have to know and understand them quickly or else, when they fall apart (and they always fall apart), you will have no idea how to help them. You will find yourself really excited when you manage to get all these little ones to line up together to go to the bathroom, but the thrill will be gone when you realize they need to queue up half a dozen times each day. And, if you are lucky enough to work in a full-day program, you will learn how to get them all to sleep at the same time! Extraordinary!
- How to establish rules in your classroom and translate them into children's language. You can’t simply type up a list of rules/expectations and say “Here, read this, get back to me if you have any questions.” No, it is far more complicated than this. You need to set up your classroom so that children can see what they should be doing; you need to model and role play how they put things away, how they listen to the teacher, how they ask for help, how they need to treat their friends, how they share toys, on and on. No, unfortunately, you can’t simply hand them a list of your rules. But it is essential that you get these social rules across during the first weeks of school - and that you repeat, repeat, repeat them, all year long.
- How to talk to the parents and caregivers. Oh, my, who knew this would be so difficult? It turns out that you have been given responsibility for their most important possession. You must quickly learn how not to be defensive, how to be open to their critiques and questions, how to provide them feedback that makes them feel good about their child, how to encourage them to work with their child, and how to approach them delicately when you are challenged by their child.
- How to team with your assistant. You must learn how to work well together, how to anticipate and support one another, as if you’ve been happily married for 20 years. As you find out on Day One, it is really difficult to get 15-20 preschoolers to attend to what you are saying - and it is exponentially more difficult if your assistant is off in an entirely different direction than you. You learn to be incredibly trusting and considerate with someone you've just met. You depend on each other.
- How to go it alone but give credit and thanks to everyone. That team of colleagues you thought you had doesn’t have time to help you – they are too busy in their classrooms, with their problems. But, your classroom needs to look like theirs, needs to follow the same routines, have the same "buzz." You must quickly assimilate to the culture and routines of your school, make your classroom look like you've been teaching there for a dozen years, and learn how to impress your principal and others in charge, all on your own (and virtually overnight).
Lastly, there's the surprise at realizing - usually mid-way home, hours after your school day has ended - that you have gone the entire day without eating, or using the bathroom.
Thankfully, by your second year of teaching, many needed skills are in place: you know how to set up the room and how to create grouping and other organizational systems so that children behave more appropriately; you feel more confident in how you communicate with children, parents, colleagues, and administrators, offsetting many potential problems; and you know the importance of taking care of yourself, everyday, day in, day out.
These are just a few of the things I've seen new preschool teachers learn, all at once, in the first few weeks of school. New teachers deserve big, big hugs from one and all! We are so lucky that they take on the challenge!