Sunday, September 4, 2011

Don't you know better?

The start of any year is a rollercoaster - planning, imagining, rushing, welcoming, surprising, soothing, observing, rethinking, orchestrating, fixing, laughing, crying, exhausting.

This year's start is a particularly wild rollercoaster.

I am working in a brand new school, in a public school system that is new to me, where we are creating systems and routines as we go.

I have a large class of three year olds, 23 total. (There are 3 adults - don't freak out!)

I have an all new position - working in a "fish bowl," as "Master Teacher" - I work alongside a Teaching Resident, helping to shape him (yes, a male!!) as a preschool teacher.

Master Teacher means I know better, right?
Don't I know better?

I am most surprised by the many "let me out of here!" moments - times when I've just needed to have the whole scene "freeze," Harry Potter style, mid-motion - so that I might be able to pause and think clearly, to consider what reasonable move to make next, or, even, to have a "do over."
Of course, one doesn't get to pause with preschoolers.

There have been daily moments when I have really botched things up, and I'm just stuck with the mess I've made.

I will dare to share three:

"The Fire Drill Practice."

I have long known that it is my responsibility as teacher to be sure that I have collected each and every one of my three year olds and herded them out the door to safety. Three year olds cannot possibly be responsible for getting themselves to safety in an emergency. For years, I have taken these wee ones outside the building, just before the alarm rings, so that they might hear the alarm at a more "gracious" level and not be completely undone by its sound. I know how to practice fire drills with threes! Yes, I know!

But there I was, readying myself and them, at a whole group gathering, for our first fire drill. My plan was to take them on the walk, to show them the route, hours before the bell would actually ring, to introduce the concept of moving quickly, together, in this new and important way. I was wondering, with this new group of students, who were my runners (my 'flight risks')? Who might run in an all new direction than I anticipated? A practice walk would reveal this.

So, there I sat, with all my threes around me, and I got no further than "Later today we are going to have a practice fire drill..." when one little guy screamed in terrified response, "NO! LOUD NOISE!! NO!! NO!! NO!!" and ran for the door, crying huge tears, repeatedly wailing, "NO! LOUD NOISE!! NO!! NO!! NO!." Two others burst into tears, echoing him - he must know something horrible that they didn't know. And suddenly no one is sitting, everyone is up, talking at once, scared, confused. I try to take the terrified little guy onto my lap, talking soothingly about the process, but it is irrelevant - the Big Cats are on the run, pandemonium is in place. No one can hear me. I am not teaching. I am trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

And, of course, in the midst of it all, I see my principal walk by, giving some adults a tour of our lovely school and our inspiring techniques.


"The Dump Bucket."

We don't have a sink in our classroom. The bathroom is across the hall. I thought it would be a good idea to have a "liquids" bucket next to the trash can, so that children might toss their leftover drinks into this rather than making an unexpected, unnecessary burden for our maintenance staff. This is a simple routine, a two step process - trash into the can, liquids into the bucket. And, of course, after snacks and after lunch, I or my colleague empty the bucket immediately, with one or two preschoolers helping. Threes love to help!

But there I was reading a book to the entire class, all of us but one ensconced on the carpet, engaged in the book. There's always one who doesn't join circle right? It's okay, he's moving about, but - he's listening. Kinesthetic learner, I am thinking.

In a flash, this frisky three year old grabs the dump bucket.
You see it, too, don't you?
"NO!" I shout, loudly, "NO, DON'T!" This is not my preferred teaching voice.

I know better, I know better, I know better,
but I did not empty that dump bucket after snack.

A sea of milk and water pours out over our floor....


I'm the one who called it the dump bucket.

"The Redirect."

My Resident is reading a story to the class as I set out lunch. There, in the midst of the gathered children, one frisky three year old begins nudging his neighbor with his shoulder. She squawks - "Stop it!" and he is fascinated by her reaction, and begins to kick her instead.

I'm thinking - he's a guy that needs to move, he needs a lot of personal space. He is learning to respect classmates' personal space, how to get along with others, but this learning is very, very new to this only child. He is also fascinated by cause and effect. Wow, this learning (and teaching!) is rocky and unpredictable at times.

I'm thinking - I'll support the Resident by redirecting this little fellow, quietly and unobtrusively, so that the story can continue without interruption.

But, I'm not fast enough. The one being kicked begins to cry and yell; I quickly grab the aggressor and bring him to my lap, and whisper, "Let's just sit here together, on the edge." He is so stunned by my unexpected swoop that he looks at me wide-eyed and screams. Yes, he begins to scream at me, wailing, squirming, resisting me! I have startled him in a way that his classmate's reaction did not. I have taken him from the story, I have taken him from his classmates. I suspect he feels violated. (It doesn't help that lunch is late, and therefore his much-needed nap is late, too.)

How did I manage to provoke him in the very way that I didn't want him to bother his classmate? I know children are startled by unexpected sounds and movements.

I now have two very unhappy preschoolers, a whole class of onlookers, and I have brought an abrupt end to the story time. How does one read a story over the wails of a child?


Nothing is automatic in the first weeks of a school year, in the beginning of a school. We are all in transition - children and adults.

I know better, I know better, I know better.

But I still regress. I make mistakes. I jump for perfection and land squarely on human.

I will have many opportunities for "do over." There's always next time....

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