My Confession

My way of ringing in the New Year has always been to look back on the past year and figure out what I can do in the next year to improve upon it. Rather than just picking out some random things that I would like to do and creating resolutions or goals to that end, I think about my journey thus far and the next steps that I want to take to further that journey. For example, I started writing my book in 2014. For 2015 I am planning on scheduling my time and creating goals for completing my writing because I am not getting as much accomplished on that front as I’d like. It wouldn’t make much sense to me to create a goal having to do with going to the gym because that isn’t a passion of mine. If I just started doing it because I think I should do it, I wouldn’t get anywhere with it. I’ve proved that with that very goal for several years; this year I am being smart enough to not join a gym. It all goes back to my belief (that has become stronger in the past couple of years) that life is a journey, and you need to focus on the road that you are taking. Once you focus on the road, when you come to a fork you will be able to better decide which direction to take.

One of my big accomplishments in 2014 was graduating with an associate degree in Early Childhood Education. Ever since I graduated I have been contemplating my next steps for educating myself. I’ve discussed options with my director, and thought a lot about what I want to do but the thing is, the answer has been in front of me the whole time. For a really long time, actually.

Ever since I was in high school, I have wanted to study psychology. People fascinate me. Why they do what they do fascinates me. But my fascination has become a lot more specific since I began studying education, because a lot of what I have been studying has a lot to do with psychology. How people learn fascinates me. How they think, what they think, how they solve problems, all of that fascinates me. The brain fascinates me. How infants and toddlers learn so much so quickly fascinates me. Not the fact that they learn so much, but how they learn so much. All of that is a big, wonderful puzzle that I am dying to uncover.

In all of my conversations about furthering my education that I have had with other people (except for the ones with my fiancé), they have told me that it would be hard to get a job if I study psychology. But I don’t want to just be a psychologist. Psychology is a vast area of study with many different branches. I want to study educational psychology. I want to study how people learn, how different people learn differently, and I want to apply the knowledge that I gain in a classroom. That is what I want to do. That is what I’ve wanted to do for years now, and it is high time that I stop listening to everyone around me and do what I really want to do.

This whole thing reminds me of the Sir Ken Robinson video that I passionately share with anyone I encounter who is at all interested in education; in it Robinson states, “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that.” That is pretty much what every administrator I have talked to has said about my ambition to study psychology. The problem with this advice is that they don’t know that I won’t get a job doing that, they don’t know about my absolute passion for the field and how long I have been holding this passion, and their goal is to have teachers in their building with the highest level of ECE education that they can get. Their goal shapes the words that come out of their mouth, and their goal is different than mine. My goal is to learn how people learn and how they think. For once I need to be true to myself, that self that has long wanted to study psychology, and do what I really want to do. And that is one of my goals for this year.

Connecting With Myself

For eight years I have chased down all of the knowledge that I could about my chosen field: early childhood education. I have an impressive library of education themed books, some of which I haven’t even cracked open yet. I also have a huge Amazon wish list of even more books that I would like to own. To me, knowledge makes the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher. I have used my classroom as a way to try out ideas and find out what works and what doesn’t, and I have counted myself lucky that I have worked in environments that celebrated that rather than tried to stifle it. And I have used this blog as a place to chronicle the journey as I have gone through many different phases in my teaching career.

Through most of these years the pace I had set for myself was frantic: I was constantly stressed out and worried about doing well, learning enough. I even used my vacation a few years ago to go to a conference. I wouldn’t trade the experience of that conference for anything in the world, but as I sit here today and look at all of that hectic energy I have to ask myself, “How did I do all of that? And more importantly, why?” Because just in the past month my demeanor has become a lot calmer. I still have all of the books, and the desire for knowledge is still strong. But the frantic pace is gone. The desire for the frantic pace is gone. At least for now.

I remember when school would let out for the semester and I would try to dive back into the independent research that I had been doing. It never worked. It seemed like my mind needed a little bit of down-time from the craziness that was school before it could focus on anything else. I learned to take that time to catch up on some shows that I hadn’t seen in a while, or catch up on my house cleaning, or play some video games that I hadn’t had time for. After a month or so my brain would be ready to tackle the books and the theories and the blogging and the frantic out-of-school activities that I had for myself.

I haven’t been in school since May, and I left the job that was causing me all sorts of stress in September. In October I took the first real vacation that I’ve had in years – I didn’t do any work at all during that vacation. I had planned to do some work, but all I really needed was the down time. My long Thanksgiving weekend was spent playing some mindless singing monster game that my daughter wanted me to get into with her, along with some other video games. I read some books, but not the technical, early childhood based books that I have glutted myself on for so long. I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with myself. Teaching can leave you feeling so stressed out because you are constantly taking care of others. There have been some days when I have threatened to change my name because I have been so tired of hearing it when children need something from me! I have tried to reconnect with me and feel myself here. For so long I have felt like just a brain – that may sound funny, but when your primary purpose is to educate yourself and gain knowledge, it can feel like the only part of you that matters is your brain. You forget that you are a person and you have other needs and wants and hopes and dreams that may exist outside of the classroom or the books on your bookshelf.

I thought that when I got my degree things would change. I thought I would have a little more credibility in the field and be taken seriously as a teacher. I was wrong. The degree has turned out to be just another piece of paper, and that fact has made it hard for me to justify going back to school to get a higher degree. Especially since I have all of this knowledge built up from all of my own work that I have been doing. Credibility comes from action, not from a piece of paper. When I take myself seriously, I am taken seriously as a teacher. I have to recognize that the education that I received is for myself and not for everyone around me. And I will continue to educate myself, but because I am recognizing that my education is for me and not for everyone else I can choose what I want to educate myself about. I can take charge of my own education.

But enough about education and school. This post is about connecting with myself and recognizing that I am more than just the brain that I have been filling with knowledge. It is time for me to reconnect with myself first of all, and all of the things out there that I want to learn about. There is an entire world out there to explore, and only one life to explore it in.

In my last post I talked a lot about values and defining what your values are. The last time I sat down and defined my values it was for my classroom. I defined my purpose as Exploring Natural Curiosity, but that purpose wasn’t for me; it was for the children that I had in the class. I am naturally curious about a lot of things, and I think that we all are. Throughout our lives we tend to say, “I want to do x, y, and z,” but then we never actually go out and do it. We get caught up in jobs and life and that dream passes us by. And then we grow old and wish that we had done those things that we said that we wanted to do. It is time to reconnect with our selves and the passion that lives within us for life.

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.

Training Your Brain to be Creative

This post is the third in a series based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. You can view the first post here and the second post here.

Whenever you are in the process of learning something, you are training your brain in that area. New connections are made between neurons in your brain, strengthening your ability to accomplish the tasks that you have been practicing. While we think about practicing in order to increase our ability to do things like play sports or musical instruments, it also helps to practice other skills that we want to learn – even being creative.

Like a lot of people, I used to view myself as someone who isn’t creative. I looked at things that other people created with envy, wishing that I could be that creative. It took me a very long time to realize that I could be creative like that. The two keys that I found: a vision and determination.

I started out with a vision. Because I have done so much independent research into learning, thinking, education, and creativity, I felt that I could offer my knowledge to others. I created a vision of what it would look like to offer workshops to other teachers so that I could pass on my knowledge to them. I broke down the vision into pieces and tried to figure out what I needed to do to make each piece happen.

Then came the determination.

I had to MAKE myself do something toward realizing that vision. Every day. I couldn’t skip a day, or I would get lazy. My brain would stop coming up with ideas. I would stop trying to figure out how to implement them. I would stop imagining the end result. I would stop dreaming. And working.

I set a goal every single day, and set out to accomplish it no matter what it took. Some days were harder than others. Stress gets in the way sometimes. I have two kids, a full time teaching job, and I am going to school part time, so finding time to plan workshops gets tough. But the motivation is there. I love the vision and the knowledge that I have. The idea of sharing that knowledge with others inspires and motivates me. Working every single day toward realizing that idea and that vision has made it easier to do. I am now in the marketing phase for my first workshop, to be offered in a face-to-face (as opposed to online) format. Every time I hit a new phase, I have to push myself again. Each phase is harder than the one before, but each phase brings me closer to realizing my vision.

It takes work and determination to put forth the effort to train your brain in anything. Many of the people who have written about creativity say that creating a routine is essential. It helps to train your brain if you have a routine, and it helps keep your brain involved in the process if you take time to be creative frequently.

Everyone has the capacity to be creative. The key to training yourself to be creative is to find your passion, and then use your vision and your determination to work on that passion.

Creative Thinking Is Work

This post is the second of a twelve part series based on a post about creativity by Michael Michalko.

I saw a very interesting video last night. In it, a boy named Jacob Barnett gave a TEDxTeens audience some insight into how to be creative. In his very young way (he is 14), he told the audience to stop learning and start thinking. Now, this is a boy who was put in special education when he was younger. His parents were told that he was autistic and would probably never talk. Since he had that diagnosis and was put in less restrictive learning environments, it gave him time to think about other issues. Now he is filling out college applications and having Princeton physics professors trying to disprove the work that he is not only doing, but publishing research papers on.

There is a disconnect between what learning is and what thinking is. This disconnect is caused by the nature of our education system. Jacob Barnett encourages teens and others to stop learning for twenty-four hours and start thinking about something that they are passionate about. He recognizes the motivators: the ability to autonomously think about something that you are internally motivated by because of passion. 

He told a room full of teenagers to stop leaning on others for their knowledge and start thinking for themselves.

Doing this is hard work, especially if you haven’t done it before. However, once you begin to allow yourself the time and  attention that it takes to immerse yourself in your passion, it spreads through you like some sort of disease – only much, much better. Your brain begins thinking and making connections, and it is an exhilarating feeling to know that your brain has the capacity to do that much, to make that many connections. It is addictive; I would rather spend any vacation time that I get working on the ideas that I put forth in this blog or researching other ideas to put forth or present than do anything else. Because of this addiction that I now have, I am working harder than I have ever worked in my life and am busier than I have ever been in my life.

Creative thinking is work. It is hard work.

I have created many things. Many workshops, many blog posts. Most of the workshops that I created before were not that great. Some of my blog posts aren’t that great either, but I keep typing away because it is what I am passionate about. I work hard every day to create a workshop that will be inspiring and will allow participants to learn in their own unique way. It takes a focus and a passion and a patience that I didn’t know that I had. But I do, and you probably do, too. Find your passion and the rest will come with it.

This same type of focus and passion are necessary for an effective creative classroom environment. I am constantly changing things in my classroom to find out what works and what doesn’t. I work hard to apply the concepts that I discuss here in the classroom environment to make sure that they work. I have to be patient, because sometimes results don’t come right away. I have to be flexible, because sometimes the children have a different agenda than I do. And I have to be focused; I can tell when I didn’t plan very well. The children can tell, too. There is not a moment in my classroom when I am not working. Even when the children are sleeping, I think about incidents that happened throughout the morning, what they mean, and how to extend learning because of them. I think about individual children and what I need to do to help them learn. I think about class projects that I want to do. I plan how I need to change materials around the classroom to help them learn different things. Teaching, like learning and thinking, is dynamic. It should always be working and evolving, never sitting still.

Creative thinking is work. I am working harder now than I ever have in my life, but I love every second of it.

Building Positive Relationships: Teachers Make Mistakes, Too

I read something about mistakes and consequences the other day that made me think back to an incident that has happened countless times in my classroom, usually at lunch or snack time. I will be pouring milk and I will inevitably spill some on the counter or the floor. After this happens, the children start going nuts, talking about how I made a mess.

Of course, this all comes back to stigmatizing mess and mistakes. Everyone makes a mess at some point, and if you are anything like me, you make a mess several times a day. But the key is to clean it up and move on.

So I model this for the children. If we make a mess, we simply clean it up and move on. Since I have been working with two-year-olds, messes happen on a continuous basis. We simply clean it up. They clean up their messes. Sometimes they even clean up messes that aren’t even there. One child was wiping a wall in the bathroom, and I asked him, “Are you cleaning the wall?” To which he replied, “Yes, I am wiping your clean wall.”

Recently I helped out in a different classroom and a child spilled their milk. It was treated as a capital offense, and the child lost it. I instructed her to get some paper towels to clean up the mess, and she cried for half an hour. Over spilled milk. I haven’t seen anything like it in my classroom, so it was a bit unnerving to watch the process of this child go through what looked like humiliation over a cup of milk. I never want to see it again.

Messes happen. All of our lives we will be cleaning up messes. If you are anything like me, your house has several messes that need to be cleaned up right now but this blog post is a convenient way to postpone the inevitable. Teaching children that messes are a part of life that need to be cleaned up in order to move on is a life skill that we should be cultivating. Messes should not be treated as a punishable offense; if they were, we would all be punished, because we all make mistakes. What we should do instead is teach children the skills needed to make less mess. Pouring proficiency only happens with practice. Depth perception is only cultivated if we use the skill. Hand-eye coordination happens when we practice. And we can all use this practice. After all, teachers make mistakes, too.

Five Things Learners Expect From Their Educators

I ran into this article about what learners expect from their educators. In light of what has been mentioned about motivation and creativity on this blog in the past two months, it is interesting that a lot of the ideas fall directly into the line of what is necessary for creativity. I urge you to read the article and see the connections for yourself:

5 Things Learners Expect From Their Educators

Is Early Childhood Education a Dead End Job?

This semester I am taking two courses on administration. They are required for my major, but I have been eyeing an administration job for a couple of months now – something that I once said that I would never do. Never say never. You never know where life will take you.

Anyway, I ran into an interesting thought while completing a homework assignment for the course. Apparently, childcare is viewed as a dead-end job by many people. The whole idea of it is funny to me, because I have never viewed it that way. Sure, the job doesn’t pay very much, but it really is one of those jobs that you have to love in order to do it effectively. I’m sure that if you don’t love it, it can be one of the most miserable jobs in the world, especially since it really doesn’t pay.

However, the main reason why I am surprised at this view is because there is so much that goes into the idea of teaching children and education in general:

  • The psychology of how children learn and how people think is intimately tied to Early Childhood Education. If an educator does not understand the basic principles of learning and thinking, it is very hard to be effective in the classroom.
  • Psychology is also involved when it comes to classroom management and the way that children behave. Not understanding the basics of what makes us act the way that we do can make it very hard to maintain control of a classroom of that many children.
  • Philosophy is necessary when a teacher needs to define their beliefs about teaching and learning. Basic knowledge about the nature of man and how one views man in general is key to how we treat children while we are teaching them.
  • Knowledge of child development is necessary so that we don’t overstimulate, over-challenge, or under-challenge children. This fits right into the psychology category, as well.
  • In some cases, a basic knowledge of interior design is needed to be able to create workable spaces for children to learn in. I have seen many, many spaces that have been inspirational to me, and have studied what other people have done that they say works – and what they say doesn’t.

The list of the knowledge requirements for being an effective teacher goes on and on, and there is so much to explore and learn in the quest to be an effective teacher that I have never viewed the field or the job as dead-end. But, as I said at the beginning of this post, it is something that you have to have an active interest in and love doing before doing the work that is required to learn the aspects of education becomes enjoyable.

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.

Best Year Ever!

For a lot of teachers out there, the school year is just beginning. I work in corporate care, so my school year never ends. But in honor of those teachers who are going back to school, I want to post this article I found on Edutopia this week. The article is about having your best teaching year ever, and it has some great advice about how to make that happen. I have applied these principles in years past and have had several great years. I want to see this school year be my best year ever as I venture into a new classroom and a new journey! Who’s with me?!

Teachers: Preparing for Your Best Year Ever by Elena Aguilar