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.

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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.

Building Positive Relationships: Our View of Character

Yesterday I posed the question, “Are children good or bad?” Today I want to explore how the answer shapes our teaching practice.

The way we interact with the people around us centers around this question, for the question isn’t necessarily “Are children good or bad?” but “Are people good or bad?” The way we answer this question stems from years of experiences that we have had in our past, everything from the way we were treated by our parents, our friends, and our teachers to the basic nature of our temperament. It stems from the lessons that we were taught growing up about the nature of man and how we integrated these lessons into our knowledge of the world. And as we grow and learn more about the world and the people around us, our view of people naturally changes. I know that I have a much different view of people now than I did when I was young, because I have dealt with more people in many different capacities.

Because everyone’s character is different and everyone’s experiences are different, people deal with individual people in different ways. I do not interact with my readers in the same way that I do with my boss, and I interact with my children in a completely different way than either of them. In a Brain Pickings article entitled “What is Character? Debunking the Myth of Fixed Personality”, Maria Popova quotes Philip K. Dick: “A person’s authentic nature is a series of shifting, variegated planes that establish themselves as he relates to different people; it is created by and appears within the framework of his interpersonal relationships.” I’m not sure that I agree that our authentic nature is comprised of these planes; rather, it is our shifting personality that comes out in these cases. Authentic nature is related more to our natural temperament, in my mind, because how we are with ourselves comprises our true nature.

So we come back to the question of how we view character and personality, especially in children. Anyone who has worked with children knows that no two of them are alike. I was just ruminating with a mother of two (one of them a newborn) about how different two children of the same parentage are. How we view the character of children in general will, for the most part, dictate how we handle these differences in character and personality. And how we handle these differences in character and personality will dictate how these children view and deal with people for the rest of their lives.

The importance of the question of how we view children can best be summed up this way: If we view children as “bad”, we will spend our entire teaching effort trying to make them “good,” but what is good? We have to force our own subjective view of what “good” is on the children in our class, and the children will not be able to express themselves in terms of their own unique personality and character. On top of that, we may miss out on what their unique personal experiences can bring to the classroom because we are so busy trying to make them be “good.” On the other hand, if we view children as “good,” we can allow their own personalities to shine in the classroom and become a part of the teaching process, because we recognize that every child brings their own unique personality into the classroom. When we allow all of these unique personalities to interact with each other, true learning and collaboration can take place.

*I do want to let my readers know that the subject of the nature of man is a huge, deep philosophical issue that runs deep into our beliefs about the world, and affects how we view everyone around us. It is a hard subject for me to write about because of how deep it runs into the core of our beliefs about the world we live in. Not everyone believes the same thing about the world, and not everyone believes the same thing about the nature of people. However, in this rapidly changing world we are required more and more to develop the skills necessary to network and collaborate with people around us. It is important to our teaching practice that we pass these skills on to children, and in order to do that we need to look at the issues that may keep us from doing so. This is one of those issues.

Building Positive Relationships: Developing Entrepreneurship

I made another interesting Twitter find this week: the American Society for Innovation Design in Education, or ASIDE. The ASIDE blog has many ideas for innovation in the classroom. This week they have featured an article about teaching entrepreneurship, an idea that was brought up by the International Society for Technology in Education’s LinkedIn group. The ASIDE blog post for August 10th addresses the question of whether or not entrepreneurial skills should be taught in schools.

This question is important to building positive relationships because autonomy is one of the hallmarks of interest and motivation as it relates to being creative. Being an entrepreneur relies heavily on one’s ability to do things for oneself and being responsible enough to handle the freedom of being autonomous. Entrepreneurship requires all of the skills that we have been discussing, and is another strong argument for creativity in the classroom.

ASIDE blog – Entrepreneurship and Schools

 

Building Positive Relationships: Motivation in the Classroom

Do the children in your classroom motivate you? They should. They are full of wonderful ideas, and are curious about everything around them. I look at the children in my classroom and my brain buzzes all day long with ideas of different activities that we can do based on what they are already doing. Sometimes our day goes in an entirely different direction than I had planned on. Actually, that is probably most days.

On the other side of the coin is the child. When the teacher brings their creativity and motivation to what the child is doing, it motivates the child to do more and explore more. It pushes them to new limits. Just as Dan Pink talked about in his TEDTalk, it brings mastery and purpose into the classroom: mastery because children work toward understanding of different concepts related to their lives and interests, and purpose because the teacher gives their exploration more relevance and purpose with their involvement. The type of motivation that is at play between the teacher and the child is cyclical in nature, with the teacher feeding off of the motivation of the child and vice versa.

One of the things that I especially liked about the Sir Ken Robinson talk about Changing Education is pointing out that, when you strip education down to its bare bones it is nothing more than the relationship and interaction between a student and a teacher. When these two motivate each other and feed off of each other, magical things happen in the classroom and a mutual respect is built up between the two. As the teacher sees just what the child is capable of and the child sees that the teacher cares about their ideas and helps them expand on those ideas, a partnership in learning is formed. Children begin to learn about how to learn, and teachers learn to appreciate the little things that go on in the classroom – the things that can motivate them.

Classroom motivation isn’t just about motivating the students. As teachers, we sometimes need a little motivation ourselves. Taking a moment to observe the children and what they are doing or talking about can be just the reminder about why we are motivated to teach that we need.

Building Positive Relationships: The Three Areas of Classroom Management

The other morning I was going through a brainstorming session, wondering what to write about next. I have been doing a lot of writing about observation lately, and because I use observation for so many different aspects of the classroom I began to think about it in terms of classroom management. And then I began to think about the big picture of classroom management.

Let me first just say that I hate the term “classroom management”. I only use it because that is the going term these days within the education community for how to get the class to accomplish what you want to accomplish with the least amount of behavior problems possible. I prefer the term “Building Positive Relationships” because that is what I do. I don’t necessarily manage. I hate feeling like I am “managing” the classroom. The children don’t seem to appreciate it that much either.

So what do I do? Well, a few years ago I realized that there are several elements that are involved in dictating a child’s behavior. These elements work together to define the atmosphere of the classroom, which helps define the behavior of the children in it.

1. The Teacher

The teacher is probably the biggest factor influencing the behavior in the classroom. The way that the teacher reacts to behavior, how she/he conducts lessons, and how she/he interacts with the children sets the tone of the classroom. If the teacher is very overbearing and likes to micro-manage children, this will affect the mood and tone much differently than if she/he is more easy-going and flexible in the classroom.

How the teacher views children is usually evident by how they handle these different aspects of the classroom. In workshops and in talking to colleagues, I strongly encourage teachers to take a step back and really think about how they view individual children, as well as their class as a group. The attitudes that we feel about the children manifest themselves in our actions and reactions in the classroom, and impact the tone and mood of the class.

2. The Child

We all know that children come into the classroom with their own temperaments, their own baggage, and their own way of wanting to do things. Kids are kids. Kids like to move around, question everything, and experiment with life. These are things that we need to remember when we think about behavior in the classroom. I am actually working on a workshop right now that talks about the nature of children and how we view them. Want to see what I have so far?

RESPECT

 

It really is another post for another time, but it outlines different aspect of not just children, but people. All people have these different needs or qualities about them, and we need to remember that children have them, too. These different needs and qualities enter the classroom with the child, and every child has differences in the degree and kind of these needs and qualities. The mix that results is different in every classroom, and teachers need to be aware and structure the environment and atmosphere accordingly.

3. The Environment

I mentioned in a previous post that I do not view the classroom environment as a static entity. This does not mean that I move desks or tables around once a week – although that does help. The exploratory items in the classroom – from the manipulatives to the art selections to the blocks are ever changing and evolving to fit the interests and needs of the children in the classroom. This helps keep the calm as children explore new things (although the first few minutes of excitement over new items is kind of crazy) and keeps the children engaged. Playing or working with the same items over and over again in the same ways can get boring – we all know that – so we should change things up in the classroom, or provide new ways to experiment with old items.

These three areas can always be broken down into smaller elements, such as how the different areas of the classroom can be arranged so as to stimulate curiosity and excitement, or how to react when a child does X, Y, or Z. This post is intended to be an outline to get teachers thinking about the big picture and how it all works together. Sometimes I think that it is important to step back and remember the big pictures in the classroom, and reflect on our place in that big picture.

Building Positive Relationships: How Observing Children Strengthens Relationships

My post yesterday about Six Uses for Observation really got me thinking about how I use observation in the classroom. Observation seriously is one of the foundations of my teaching practice. There are several reasons for this, most of which are outlined in yesterday’s post. But one of the most important reasons is that it can change the way you look at children. Sometimes it isn’t even the way you look at children in general. Sometimes it is the way you look at one specific child.

I recently wrote a post about how we as adults are slow to change our views about something. We think we know it all because we have been around a while and we take that knowledge for granted. We forget that sometimes it is important to slow down and try to see things from a different perspective. This is where observation comes in. If we just take a moment to slow down and observe a child in action, we may see something that is contrary to our previous view of the child. We may begin to attribute positive intent to the child’s actions rather than negative intent. If we open ourselves up to the possibility that there may be more going on with the child than we are presently aware of, we may find that to be the case. And if we find that to be the case, our view of that child can change dramatically.

I know a lot of teachers out there shake their heads and roll their eyes when I say that children don’t do things without a reason. But the reason why I say this frequently and with authority is that I have done enough observing of children to know it to be true. The only way that we will be able to know or try to understand the intent of a young child is to observe for ourselves. And even older children may not tell us their intent because they are more worried about getting in trouble because of their actions related to their intent. Observation has allowed me to truly be able to decipher the intent of children and come up with productive ways to deal with behavior in a non-punitive way.

Let’s put this in context: Let’s pretend that you decided to try a different format for circle time because you felt that it would hold the children’s interest better than your current format. Your administrator walks in and wonders what the heck is going on and tells you in no uncertain terms that she does not like the new format and she doesn’t want to see it again. And doesn’t listen to your explanation of why you did it. How would that make you feel? The administrator paid absolutely no attention to your intent, only to your actions. That is what we do with children when we do not try to figure out their intent.

I have had children display physical behavior simply because they want to play with other children but do not know how to approach them. I have had children hit or even bite others because they have issues with personal space. There are a myriad of reasons why children behave the way they do. And this isn’t just about children’s behavior related to other children. It can be related to the way children use materials, as well. I have had children drag chairs into the block area because they have built a television and want to “watch” it. I have had children bossing other children around, only to find out that one is pretending to be a baby and one is pretending to be a mommy, or – even more amusing – one is pretending to be a dog and the other is pretending to be the owner. I have had a house that the class built in the middle of the floor turn into a swimming pool in an instant, and everyone’s shoes and socks become strewn about in order to wade in the pool. I have had countless scenarios happen in the classroom, and the only way to sort it all out without hurting many feelings and tapping into my punitive side is to slow down and observe what is going on.

So how does this strengthen relationships? Well, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, it changes the way you look at children. You begin to see what they are thinking about, what they are interested in, what they need to learn on an individual basis (as opposed to what the class is learning as dictated by the lesson plan), and you simply get to know the children in your class on a more personal level. If observation happens frequently enough, it helps to form a direction that the class can take in order to achieve the maximum amount of learning possible, because the ideas of the children are present – because you know what they are. In short, it helps you to get to know the children in your classroom better. And that helps you to deal with the children in your class positively, which strengthens and enhances your relationship with them, and their relationships with each other.

strengthen relationships

Building Positive Relationships: How Being A Facilitator Changes Relationships

Building-PositiveI feel like I have been beating the concept of facilitator vs. teacher to death, but the practice of learning with children instead of teaching to them has so many positive benefits, one being an increase in creative thought, that I can’t let it go quite yet. Writing about this topic has had me picking up books that I haven’t read in a while. And the idea of a facilitator has ramifications for more than just education. The website that I quoted from in the last Reframing post was directed toward business leaders, meaning that businesses can benefit from this approach as well.

The website itself discusses the reasons that businesses can benefit from this approach:

Facilitation offers everyone in the group the chance to express their ideas and to feel as if they are part of a team. Since the group arrives at a mutual conclusion, it’s easier for individual members to carry out the group’s goals and to feel less inclined to work on individual agendas. A facilitator helps individuals build on their skills and learn new ones. Facilitation serves as a positive way to resolve conflicts and clarify misunderstandings among a diverse group of individuals.

In Developing Constructivist Early Childhood Curriculum, the authors define a key principle of constructivist education as that which creates a “cooperative sociomoral atmosphere in which mutual respect is continually practiced.” (36)

Being a facilitator in a classroom instead of a teacher changes the nature of relationships because children and teachers work together to solve many different types of problems, including social and moral issues. They are not pitted against each other in a struggle of power, but work together to keep the classroom safe and productive.

How does this happen? When have you ever seen teachers and students work together? It has been rare that I have seen it, but I know that it exists. And I know that a classroom that runs this way is more respectful of the needs of every member of the class, because the teacher is respectful of every member of the class. A class that runs this way evolves into a close-knit family, one in which each member can positively contribute – and they know it.

Building Positive Relationships: The Role of a Teacher in Creative Classrooms

I really enjoyed the videos for Gever Tulley’s school. It was refreshing to see a teacher letting children create. But just as children need the time, tools, and tolerance from teachers in order to create, they also need to know that there is a right and a wrong way to do something. Seven-year-olds would not have been able to create a mini roller coaster without the knowledge of what it took to accomplish that task.

So what, then, becomes the role of the teacher? If we simply sit children down and talk to them about the mechanics of a roller coaster, we can’t really be sure that they understand what we are talking about enough to build one for themselves – we have taken learning out of the context of the real world (similarly to how I learned math). If we simply stand back and let them do their own thing, they are liable to hurt themselves for lack of information about the tools, materials, and mechanics involved in building a roller coaster.

What is the middle ground? How can we ensure that children have the freedom to be creative and the information they need to be safe and know what they are doing?

The key is to become a facilitator. A facilitator is someone who coordinates and leads the work of a group. If the group needs information, the facilitator finds means to get it the information it needs. As a leader, the facilitator is responsible for ensuring that the group understands what they are doing in order to be safe. From a teaching stand point this may mean modeling and explaining the use of tools and designing peripheral activities to experiment with mechanics and ideas related to the physics of a roller coaster. The point is that the teacher needs to be aware of any misunderstandings or misconceptions that the children may have, and do whatever they can to help clear up those misconceptions. And when children are working within the context of real life and the teachers are able to hear and see the children talking about their topic, it is much easier to spot misconceptions. When a teacher functions primarily as a lecturer, misconceptions are harder to spot because the children are not speaking about what they are thinking.

The role of facilitator is a much more general role than lecturer. It requires diligence to the ideas of the children. This is why I wrote this topic under “Building Positive Relationships”. When you become more focused on pinpointing misunderstandings that a child may hold, it requires you to hold the children’s ideas in a different light. The ideas of children hold more value, and you find yourself working with them in the context of their ideas. When you are simply a lecturer, you are working for them – and in some cases in spite of them – but not necessarily with them. This slight but dramatic change of focus also changes the level of interest of everyone involved. Everyone from student to teacher becomes dedicated to the task of figuring out how to safely and successfully complete a project. One of the most poignant moments of the roller coaster video for me was the end, when we hear Gever Tulley celebrating the accomplishments of his students with them. These kind of celebrations don’t happen in a classroom primarily composed of lecture. The accomplishments are smaller and less noticeable, and while the class usually comes together to celebrate, the celebration is about something less tangible, or even negligible, in an atmosphere where a teacher is a facilitator (such as behavior).

In education, we talk about fostering a love of learning in children and helping them become lifelong learners. Children won’t have a teacher in front of them lecturing their entire lives. They won’t be able to call one up and ask them to come down and give them a lecture any time they have a problem that needs to be solved. At it’s root, teaching is showing children how to live and how to think, how to work and how to grow.

Building Positive Relationships: Helping Children Connect the Dots

Any time the children in my class make a mental connection, I celebrate with them. A while back, the class was absolutely enthralled with the book Owl Babies by Martin Waddel. One day a child was upset and told me that they wanted their mommy. I said, “Don’t worry, mommy is coming back.” Another child thought for a moment and said, “Just like the owl babies’ mommy!” I was very impressed with this connection and Owl Babies became our flagship book for remembering that mommy always comes back.

Children make connections like this all the time. The challenge for us, as teachers, is to not get so caught up in our own agenda that we miss the children trying to tell us about their connections. Any time I hear a child insistently calling my name – no matter what we are doing at the time – I try to answer and give them a chance to talk. It takes some practice and some patience, but I have found that the connections that the children make are much more visible to me.

There are two aspects of teaching this way that I want to discuss further. The first is, as I said, our own agenda. We all have a lesson plan that we must follow every week. We have activities planned that we know the children will enjoy and that will help them grow in the areas they need to grow in. The children keep trying to tell us something, but we don’t have time to listen to what they have to say – they need to be quiet so that we can move on to our next activity. Have you felt like that? Like there is too much distracting you from fulfilling your agenda for the day? Like they just don’t want to listen to you, and don’t they realize that we have a lot to do today?

SLOW DOWN

Your agenda, in the grand scheme of things, is not that important. What is important is that this young child, who is still learning about and experiencing life, thinks highly enough of you that they want to share a piece of their life with you. This piece is so important to them that they will do whatever they can to get your attention so that they can share it.

WITH YOU.

Wherever this piece of their life leads you – to a different learning experience or a play idea that you hadn’t thought of before – pursue it for them. I promise you that whatever was so important to you can be reworked into the idea that was so important to them. And I realize that not all of the ideas that they have can be pursued. But this brings me to point number two.

Respect them enough to listen to them. Sometimes we get so caught up in thinking about them as children who need to be taught that we forget that they are people who have feelings, just like us. I know that when I am bursting with a new idea or have made a connection or have a celebration to share, I seek out the closest person I can find who I think will care. It can be a little deflating to try to share something with someone, but you can’t because that person can’t or won’t stop what they are doing for two minutes to listen to your news. It makes me think twice about sharing with them next time. If we don’t give children an chance to share their lives with us, how excited are they going to be to share with us when we want them to at circle time or any other time? How can we build connections with them if we don’t let them share with us? And what are the consequences as far as their self-esteem and their confidence if we don’t allow them to share?

What are the consequences to the classroom? If their inability to share leads to frustration, they may take that out on other children. If it leads to sadness, we may find ourselves dealing with a moody child. Neither option is ideal when working with a class full of children.

“Exactly,” I hear you say. “I have a class FULL of children. How can I possibly listen to the stories of every single one of them?” Well, the good news is that they won’t all have news to share at the same time. But the bad news is that many times the story of one child will trigger a thought in another, who will have to tell you their thought right then. This is a good opportunity to teach how we take turns when speaking. I have heard of several different ways to teach this communication skill, including giving a set of cut-out lips to the speaker and cut-out ears to the listener. My favorite, however, is simply to tell the children whose turn it is to talk. They typically understand, especially when they are told that they will get a turn as well. This even works when the teacher is trying to talk. Informing them of whose turn it is helps them to learn the mechanics of conversation.

The point is that nothing in anyone’s agenda is more important than the thoughts of the children. And the thoughts of the children can lead you to learning opportunities that you never dreamed of. Taking a moment to listen can be the greatest thing you, as a teacher, have done since making a lesson plan.