The start of the new year has a way of getting you thinking about beginnings and endings. Recently I’ve been thinking about my work in early childhood education, and an experience during my first year of teaching.
I worked in the lab preschool of the college where I earned my undergrad degree. The center was located in the basement of my former dorm (many ECE programs are set up in the bowels of buildings – go figure). I’d moved into a nearby apartment, a brief, fifteen-minute walk from campus. I’d done all my student teaching at the preschool. It was a familiar, welcoming place and a wonderful first teaching job. My salary was lousy, but I didn’t feel poor yet. Besides, my student loan payments weren’t due for another six months.
I was a co-teacher in the 4-5 year classroom. My co-teacher was a talented and experience teacher — a genius, really, and the consummate model for me. She graciously took me in as a much less experienced partner. We got along famously.
We had a delightful group of twenty 4 and 5-year-olds that year. One of the 5-year old girls in our group, Maria, struggled with many aspects of classroom life, and she had difficulty making friends. Her strong personality and limited skill negotiating relationships (as if that isn’t hard enough for all young children) caused her to be involved in frequent conflicts.
Typically, children with healthy strong personalities show the beginnings of leadership skills. Other children are drawn to their charisma and simply enjoy being around them, as if hoping to soak up some of their energy. They willingly follow their lead in play and respond to their ideas and suggestions.
This was not true for Maria. Her interruptions of peers’ activities, efforts to change the course of play, and steady child reports (ECE-speak for “tattling”) was moving her to the edge of the group — a dangerous place to be in an early childhood setting, because once a child is rejected by peers, it is a challenge to ease her back into the fold. We had worked hard to prevent this, by focusing on her gifts for language, attentiveness, and her interest in stories. Another important part of the process was to convey trust and acceptance in our interactions with her. Nothing would be gained without that.
Maria and I developed a nice connection. She greeted me with a hug each morning upon her arrival, enjoyed sitting beside me during circle time, climbed on my lap for stories, and often reached for my hand as we ventured outside.
One morning we sat together at the writing table so she could dictate a story, which I would write down for later dramatization with the class. This was a very popular activity, and an important one for a child who could benefit from some practice collaborating with peers in a creative activity. As she concluded the story, and I jotted down the last words, she said to me, “Sheila, you’re my favorite teacher of all the teachers here.”
Taken aback, I stammered, “Well, that’s nice. But you probably like all your teachers the same, I bet.” Placing her hands on the table and leaning in close, she retorted, “No! If I like you, I like you!”
Cue wrong-answer game show buzzer.
Was this the immaturity of a first-year teacher? Discomfort of being a favored adult? Embarrassment that an unpopular child liked me?
And was there a dark little part of me that smugly concluded I’d done a better job than my more experienced counterpart? All of the above?
Maria appeared unaffected by this exchange. She’d spoken her piece and moved on. Our relationship was unchanged. That was fortunate, because she could have moved in the other direction, given my corrective response. She matured over the course of the year, making inroads with several classmates. It was a successful year for her. And that’s the point.
Well … one point.
Children are refreshingly unfiltered. They call it as they see it. I couldn’t appreciate that at the time.
Looking back on this now, I realize I’d respond differently were Maria in a class with me today. Thank goodness for some time in the saddle and a dollop of insight. If she said the same thing to me today, I’d look her gently in the eyes and answer, “Thank you, Maria. I’m glad you like me. I like you too.”
Take a cue from a kid. Enjoy the compliment. Respect the connection.
In that way, the child is parent to us all.