The Key to Relationships

In my last post I discussed how important it is to form relationships with children when involved in caring for them. It is highly important. It is so important that I spent the better part of this past week reflecting on why it is important and how teachers go about forming relationships with students.

Why Relationships Are Important

Do you remember any of the teachers that you had when you were young? I only remember a handful of my own vividly. I remember my sixth grade teacher because she used to sing “Que Sera Sera” to me (my name is Sarah). I loved it when she did that. It was one of the techniques that she used to build a relationship with me. She also made learning interesting and fun, taking us outdoors for classes and making learning more hands-on than a lot of the other teachers I had did. In fact, I remember my fifth grade teacher for the same reasons – he made our learning very hands on, and I remember a lot of the experiences that I had in that class. But the relationships that we built made me feel safe with these teachers. I felt like I was in a secure place where I was valued.

Have you ever felt like you weren’t valued? Have you felt like that in a place that you spent the majority of your day? That feeling has the power to physically and emotionally drain people. It causes them to lose the enthusiasm for learning and work and to spend all day looking at the clock, waiting to go home. I read an article just last night that said that if a person has a friend at their place of work they feel more satisfied and happy in their work environment. Most children that attend childcare centers are there as long as, if not longer, than their parents are at work. This makes it a full-time job for children. In order to ensure that they will be happy and satisfied with their experiences in childcare, it is important for them to feel like they have a friend or a secure connection with someone.

That is where teachers come in.

A lot of children do have friends in the early childhood setting, but they are still learning how to get along with children and how to communicate with them. These friendships can be rocky and change from minute to minute, depending on the situations that the children find themselves in. Children need a connection that is more stable, one that they can rely on to be constant through the ups and downs of their days in childcare. When we form relationships with children we provide them this constant connection, even as we are guiding behavior and teaching social skills. The connections that we build with children give them a reason to want to come back to school day after day, and when children want to come back to school it decreases the daily stress of drop-off for both the child and the parent. That is a win for everyone.

In my next post I will talk about how teachers go about forming relationships with students.

Thank You For Reminding Me About What Is Important

My first day at work was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that after I wrote my last post I went into planning overdrive. My brain would not stop running. I looked up ideas and pinned a bunch of stuff on Pinterest. But I didn’t write anything down, so at three o’clock in the morning I woke up and could not go back to sleep. I got up and wrote everything down, but by the time I was done with that it was time to get ready for work.

I am at the end of day two and I am exhausted. And I pretty much spent the morning sitting in orientation (which means my exhaustion is from lack of sleep).

I was really concerned about my frame of mind because I knew that it wasn’t right. Here it was, day two, and I was frantic about things that I probably didn’t need to be frantic about. I made the decision to sit down with the director and talk to her about it. And I’m glad I did, because she reminded me about what is really important.

She said, “I know where you are coming from, believe me. You are coming from a place where the lesson plan is the most important thing. But here things are different. Your primary focus right now should be building relationships with the children and learning about them. The lesson plan is secondary.”

The conversation was long and a lot more involved and there were several things that I took away from it, but this was the most important. After all, I have known and have said that relationships are the most important thing before. But I have gotten away from that mentally. I have come from a place where the lesson plans and learning activities are the most important thing. And while I have always had great relationships with the children in my classes, it hasn’t been the focus of my time. The focus of my time has been to teach and ensure that children are learning what the assessments have shown that they need to learn.

No more. It is time to relax and return to the reason why I enjoy what I do so much: the relationships with the children. Sharing experiences with them and being present with them. That is what is most important. I am thankful that I found a teaching environment that will help me get back to that, and I am thankful for the director for helping me gain that focus again.

My New Adventure: Day One

I started my new adventure today, teaching at a new school. I have been wanting to teach at this school for a while because the educational philosophy of the school is very closely aligned with  my own. It has never worked out until now, and I am very excited to be a part of a new school community.

My first impressions of the school were made when I was sitting in the parking lot waiting for the time to come for me to go to work. There were kids already out on the playground, this early! And what a playground it was; this was the first place I visited during my day. The playground has gardens, loose parts, a sand pit, and many other wonderful features. Children are encouraged to engage and explore all of the elements of the playground, and generally aren’t held back in any way. It was a wonderful sight to see.

The classroom was pretty typical, which surprised me. After looking at the wonderful playground I guess I expected more, but the teachers are wonderful. Respectful and calm, inviting and engaging, they acted every bit the teachers that I have been wanting to work with my entire career. The lead teacher and I had a wonderful conversation about how the class flows and what to expect, and she let me know that she is open to collaboration and working together. She also said that she is not that familiar with how to approach the project approach of teaching, so this may very well be a journey that we can go on together. I am looking forward to it.

My New Adventure

In one week I begin a new adventure.

I have been working with the same company for quite a few years now. The work has been rewarding, but frustrating. As a teacher who enjoys self-reflection, I have been jealous of teachers working in smaller atmospheres who are able to better chronicle their teaching journeys online than I am. Not that the change is going to make that any easier; there are still privacy issues and other issues that will make my posts less personal and more general and generic. The exciting part of the journey, for me, is that I will be working in a space that is less white-washed, less corporate, less teacher-proof. It will (judging by my discussions with the director) provide me with an opportunity to bring new ideas to the table, new ways of looking at classroom issues, new possibilities to try, and new collaborations with other teachers.

I’ve never been in a collaborative classroom setting before. A travesty, I know. As much as I talk on this blog about working with others and discussing what is going on in the classroom and how important it is to be in communication with the other teachers involved, I’ve never been in that classroom before. I have wanted it. I have tried to have it. I haven’t been able to find it with any teacher that I have worked with. Maybe because I have tried to hard? Or because the place that I have been working is so teacher-proof? (Do you even know what I mean by teacher-proof? Everything is pretty much planned out in advance, from the curriculum to the activities – there really isn’t any aspect of the system that teachers can “mess up.” Corporate childcare centers are known for this approach. I’ve seen a lot of companies that are a lot worse than the one I’ve been working for, but I’ve longed to be in a place that is not so teacher-proof.)

I am excited by this opportunity. This coming week I get to sit down with the teacher that I will be working with – before I even start working! I’ve never been given the opportunity to do that before. I am really excited about that. I’m worried about being too eager, coming across as too…I don’t know. I’m nervous, I guess. I want this to go well so much, because it sounds like everything I’ve ever wanted in a classroom environment.

I’m putting my workshops on hold, at least for a little bit. I want to fully immerse myself in the experience that I am getting ready to have, to learn from it, and to participate fully in it. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I am in a place where I will be able to learn from my job. That alone is exciting. I have been doing so much independent professional development because there hasn’t been all that much that I could learn from my job lately, and now I feel like I am taking a leap forward into more growth.

It is truly going to be an adventure.

A Clash of Philosophies

Today I went to visit a school. I had visited it before, and came away with the feeling that it was a very nice school. This is a school for early childhood students, ages 2 through kindergarten. The directors are very nice and extremely proud of their school. They should be proud. Their school has a reputation for being one of the best early childhood learning facilities in town.

During my visit I asked the director about their educational philosophy. “Oh, we are very academically oriented,” she stated. “Our pre-k is usually reading by the time they move on to kindergarten.” Indeed, a glance around told me that they are very academically oriented. There are very few toys in the classrooms, and a lot of tables and chairs. I recalled that during one of my previous visits the director mentioned that they only get the small amount of centers materials out to play with when their state consultant comes to visit. During our discussion about educational philosophies the director said, “I know that there are a lot of centers out there that are more hands-on…manipulative-based…” She was searching for a word. “Free play. They are more centered on free play. I have found that a lot of chain centers are like that. Are you like that?”

I said, “Yes, I teach through play. Hands-on, project-based learning. I write workshops designed to teach others how to teach that way as well.”

Her demeanor towards me changed almost imperceptibly after that. It was almost as if she felt that I had been contaminated by them. Those play-based educators who have no idea what they were doing because all they do is let the children play all day. Do their children read? Before kindergarten?

When I left the center, I felt disheartened. I understand that the directors of this center have the freedom to have whatever kind of center that they want, and the parents of the children enrolled there have the freedom to have their children in whatever type of program that they want. However, I know from educating myself on developmentally appropriate practices that children who are in a play-based program develop better social skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and other life skills better than schools that simply focus on academic achievement. The school’s enrollment is quite high; the director said that most of their classes are full, which means that a lot of the parents in this area value the academic approach for their children.

It is all about value, after all. The directors of this school and the parents who enroll their children value academic achievement above all else. And as a culture we have been taught that academic achievement has to be valued in order to have a successful life. But the tides are turning. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are valued more by today’s businesses. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are best learned through playing with ideas, developing strategies through brainstorming with others, and using imagination to create. These skills aren’t built through simple academic instruction.

I remember a boy who was in my class at the age of two. He was bright and precocious, creative and full of fun. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye and a curiosity that ensured learning. He left my class and enrolled at this school. He came to visit a few months after he left, holding a worksheet that he wanted to show us. The sparkle that I had so loved about his eyes was gone. I have never forgotten the change that I saw in that child from just a few short months in a purely academic environment. His parents were proud. I was shocked.

As I said before, it is all about values. His parents obviously put more value in the academic education than the building of creativity, imagination, and social skills that the play-based environment provided. Some parents do. Perhaps most parents do. Our culture has taught them to.

Broken Relationships

Usually when I post about relationships on this blog, I post about building positive relationships. Today, however, I experienced broken relationships in my classroom, which is why I have felt prompted to write about them.

Child: “I don’t like you, Ms. Sarah. I don’t like your kids, either. I’m going away and I am not coming back.”

These are the words that I heard today when I was out on the playground. Now, the child had taken another child’s shoe and wasn’t giving it back to them, even as the shoe-less child was screaming “GIVE ME BACK MY SHOE!” I told her to give the shoe back to the other child. After she did, those were the words that she said to me. 

It had already been a long day before this happened, and for some reason I was extremely tired. I knew this, so I was fighting to breathe and keep my calm through all of the emotional turmoil that seemed to be going on around me today. After all, if the teacher can’t respond to turmoil calmly and consistently, there really can’t be a feeling of safety in the classroom. I had been trying so hard to figure out just why I was so tired and why I felt like I needed to breathe just to get through every moment. I knew I hadn’t slept well the night before, but I didn’t think it would cause the kind of day I had been having.

But I should know better. One of the things that I teach during my workshops is that:

In order to be an authentic teacher, you must take care of yourself first.

Being authentic can mean many different things to many different people, but in order for anyone to be authentic – to be truly them, they have to take care of themselves first. I know that when I sleep at night, I have to have the room cold. If the room is not cold, I will wake up and I will not be able to go back to sleep. I know that I have to have eight hours of sleep a night, or I will have no patience and I will feel bad. And yet I did not check to make sure that my room would be cold. And I didn’t get eight hours of sleep. I didn’t take care of myself first. Because of that, I had a really rough day in which I was tired and low on patience in a room full of three-year-olds. 

Teachers are so busy taking care of everyone else: the children in the classroom, families (if they have them), parents, lesson plans, ideas for the classroom, etc., etc. But it is important for us to remember that, in order for us to be able to take care of everyone else, we have to take care of ourselves first. Even those of us in professional development need to remember that.

I saw a great quote on Facebook yesterday about being authentic: “You actually have to practice being authentic, because the world puts so many layers of ‘should’ onto you.” I saw this quote on the page of Baptiste Yoga. I do yoga a lot. I used to do it in the classroom with my kids. I do it at home in order to make myself slow down and breathe and calm down. It is one of the ways that I take care of myself first. I find that if I do yoga and meditate, my patience level is much higher and I can slow down and think things through better before I simply react. Working with any age requires that you slow down and think about how you are going to respond to situations in the classroom. After all, these children are looking at everything we do. If we act emotional and out of control, so will the children. If we act calm and in control, the children will, too. It is important to be the calm that we want others to be. And it is important that we take care of ourselves first so that we can make that happen.

Tomorrow, I am hoping to repair the broken relationships that were caused by my lack of good, quality sleep. Three-year-olds are pretty resilient, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Plus, we are working on making a zoo and we are learning all kinds of cool stuff about animals. I’m sure we can come up with some absolutely amazing animal activities that will help repair the broken relationships of today.

But for now, I am going to bed – in my cold room.

Thinking About Art

On Tuesday, I am presenting Project: Preschool’s inaugural workshop series: Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom. I am super excited and nervous about it, as it will be the first time that I have presented my own material, outside of this blog. I have no doubt that everything will be fine, because I have spent the past two days making sure that everything is prepared. I even found a huge technical glitch today that I thought had been resolved months ago – I am definitely learning the lesson about checking behind myself.

Over the weekend I have had a thought bouncing around in my brain. It never really rested and solidified until today. I was thinking about children and art. Since the workshop is on creativity (and I am working on another one related to art in the classroom) I have planned for participants to complete an art project. But in the beginning, I had prescribed what they were supposed to create while doing the art. The thoughts that bounced through my head were questions about why I was structuring the workshop activity in this way, especially since I am discussing the points of motivation having to do with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Obviously, prescribing an end that participants should meet would give them a purpose, but I’m not sure that is the type of purpose that I am going for. It doesn’t give participants autonomy, because I am telling them what to create. I guess I could argue for mastery, because participants would get better at creating whatever it was that I told them to create, but to what purpose am I telling them to make it?

If you are confused yet, I am sorry. But the entire thing made me stand back and take a hard look at just what exactly I was calling “open-ended” or “child-centered” art. Of course, sometimes when we do art, we do have to prescribe an end. But for most art projects, simply giving children materials and letting them create at will teaches us a lot about their interests and their character. It also shows us what skills they have and what they need to work on, and gives them the freedom to experiment with tools and materials in ways that interest them.

I’m sure that I will be thinking and talking about this subject more after my workshops. One of the cool things about teaching is that you are able to learn as much as you are able to teach. I am looking forward to learning more from other teachers while we discuss different aspects of creativity, and I am looking forward to diving deeper into the activity that we call art.

Keep Brainstorming

This is the sixth in a twelve-part series based on an article by Michael Michalko entitled “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking.” You can view the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth parts by clicking on the links.

My first idea was to offer live workshops for teachers. It was a good idea, and I am still putting it into action. My next good idea was for online workshops. I have that idea waiting in the wings. I have thought of many great ideas for expanding the scope of Project: Preschool, but since the business is still a baby, it isn’t ready for any of these ideas yet. I have been brainstorming about workshop topics, and constantly making the ones that I have already thought of even better.

I keep brainstorming and thinking about the direction I want the business to go and the ways I can create something tangible for it. Michalko does a very good job in his article listing some of the possibilities that were there for other inventors, but weren’t pursued until later, by other people. The key is to never stop thinking about what is possible, about what directions you can take an idea, and about how you can make your ideas better.

This goes for the classroom as well. As teachers, we should never become complacent about what is happening or what is in our classrooms. Classrooms should be dynamic places, constantly changing to add new experiences to children’s lives. We should always be thinking about how to improve upon what is there and how to tie each area of the classroom to what is currently being learned. And if we get a new and better idea than the one we had before, we should use it, because children deserve our best ideas.

We should also be encouraging children to build upon the ideas that they have. It seems sometimes like they do this naturally, but it is our job to make sure that they never get out of the habit of trying to improve upon the ideas that they have, or to pursue any idea that they have.

Imagine the Possibilities

This is the fifth in a twelve-part series based on an article by Michael Michalko, entitled “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking.” By clicking on these links, you can view the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Possibilities are everywhere, and your mind is capable of coming up with a lot of ideas and possibilities. Michalko urges us not to discard any idea on the basis that it might be too far out there to achieve: “When trying to get ideas, do not censor them or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select.”

In my classroom, I have come up with a million ideas. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…” is how the idea usually starts, and then I brainstorm ways to make it happen. Some of my ideas are way out there and some of them are more low-key, but I always take each one into consideration – especially since I know that any idea can be altered if it has aspects of it that may not work. I have been grateful for the co-teachers that I have had that have been the voice of reason from time to time, and I have learned a lot from ideas that I have implemented that had unintended consequences that I could learn from. Creativity and learning is a process, and censoring ourselves in the middle of that process may mean that we don’t learn as much about what could be as we could have. And it may mean that our children miss out, as well.

We need to pass the skill of brainstorming ideas on to our children in the classroom, too. We need to let them know that it is okay to have some wild and crazy ideas, because through those ideas come the gems that mark real creativity and innovation. We need to respect them enough that we don’t censor their ideas, and teach them how to turn those ideas into methods and ideas that work. This is problem-solving at its best, and the businesses of today are looking for people that know how to problem-solve in these creative ways.

So go out there and imagine the possibilities!

 

Imagine What You Want to Create

This is the fourth in a series of posts based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. Here are the links to the first, second, and third posts.

Your brain has the ability to learn from scenarios that you imagine. In the last post, we talked about how you have to practice being creative in order to do it, and in order to do that you must have vision and determination. According to Michael Michalko, “You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.” This means that your brain can learn from the experiences that you actually imagine happening. This can train the brain to think in relation to that being your reality.

All this time, all of these self-help gurus have taught us that visualization is a powerful tool in realizing our goals. But the way that the brain operates, we can use our visualizations in practicing to be creative. Imagining what we want to accomplish helps build the same pathways between neurons as actually sitting down and working to be creative every day.

So why shouldn’t we just imagine ourselves creative? Because even if we imagine a scenario all of the time, there is nothing like actually living it. We don’t get the same kind of thrill from a visualization because we aren’t there, actually creating something. I have talked before about how addictive creating and working can be. Visualization is the same in some sense, but it doesn’t have nearly the power behind it as the feeling one gets when they have actually created something of value. Visualization is an important part of getting to that point, but it should not be the only way that one goes about working their creative muscles.