One of my students has taken to asking me if he can be my hero. All he means when he says it is that he wants to do a great job. It started because one day at clean-up time, I turned around to fill out the snack count and when I turned back, the class had the entire room cleaned-up perfectly and had done it like it was second nature to them. I told them they were my heroes.
But what I mean when I say that is a lot more. They are my heroes because they show me every day, year after year, that early intervention works. If you show up ready to help them learn and grow and overcome, they’ll show up too. If you believe in them and make them feel loved and valued, they will believe too. If you ever dreamed that teachers could actually make a difference, they are all the evidence you need.
And there are selfish reasons too. There is probably no better job for someone who actively resists a lot of the conventions of growing up than that of a pre-kindergarten teacher. You get to spend all day with little humans who still dwell in the magical realm where the lines between what is real and what is imaginary are perpetually blurred. You get to push onward into the double digits of age and still read children’s books everyday. You get to act out stories and remember the reasons that play dough and paint and glitter and crayons are amazing. You get to create and giggle and dance and laugh at jokes that barely make sense on a regular basis. The world and all its rich experiences never lose their spark because you get to constantly discover it anew through eyes that still see in ways many of us forget as we grow-up. They are my heroes because they keep me connected to all that’s best about life and being alive.
But I worry more each year that we, the grown-ups, are not being their heroes. I teach 3-5 year olds, the vast majority of whom qualify for the program through special education services, speaking a different home language, or living in a low-income household. I am not in any way opposed to assessing or monitoring their progress in meaningful ways or working with them to build developmentally appropriate academic, social, and emotional skills. I am all for raising the bar and challenging them to reach just a little farther.
But I am against pre-packaged curriculums as mandates rather than resources, developmentally inappropriate assessment tools, and instructional practices that may look superficially effective in the short-term but don’t hold up in the context of a life-long love of learning or even continued successful achievement. When they reach farther, when they work their hardest, I also want them to care. I want them to be invested and excited and proud. I don’t want them motivated by artificial benchmarks. I want them motivated by curiosity and a sense of accomplishment. That only happens when we set-up a classroom environment where creative freedom exists. It only happens when students aren’t afraid to jump because they know if they fall their teacher will help them dust themselves off rather than criticize them for failing. It only happens if they know that the risk of trying something new or giving their all is worth the experience or the accomplishment, the kind of tangible and intangible rewards only present in real learning.
The first of the articles linked below contains the quote, “That which we learn without joy, we will soon forget.” Grown-ups, as we’re busy worrying about what matters most in education, let’s not lose sight of what matters most to those we’re supposed to be educating.
The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland, Tim Walker
An Open Letter to America From a Public School Teacher, Michael Mau
Is There Hope for a Return to Common Sense in Early Childhood Education?, Laurie Levy
The Vast “Uncounted Underground” of Teachers in the U.S.
A Tough Critique of the Common Core on Early Childhood Education, Valerie Strauss
Green Spaces Make Kids Smarter, Olga Khazan
Joy: A Subject Schools Lack, Susan Engel
National Association for the Education of Young Children
National Institute for Early Education Research
CDC Developmental Milestones Checklist
Easter Seals Developmental Milestones Screener
The 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time
Goodreads Children’s Book Lists