Confessions of a Preschool Teacher
A few years ago, frustrated with my attempts at a writing career, I decided to try and get a job as a preschool teacher. With my children starting high school and middle school respectively, I knew such a job wouldn’t interfere with my responsibilities as a mom. I’d been teaching Sunday School for twelve years (at my then-Anglican church) and I loved even that once-a-week experience working with kids.
Happily the Catholic preschool five minutes from my home had an opening for a teacher for its “twos” program and I was hired. Four mornings a week from 9 till noon, another teacher and I would be looking after two different groups of two-year-olds, one that came Mondays and Wednesdays, the other Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I looked forward to planning out the mornings with circle time, individual play time, arts and crafts, recess and snack. The prospect of choosing books for different themes was appealing, and I began to make lists of the songs I’d sung with my own children.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the seriousness with which the parents took this program. Don’t get me wrong. Every parent leaving their children at preschool should want them to be well cared for and treated kindly by responsible adults. But it went way beyond that.
To kick off the year, there was an informal reception in the church hall for teachers and parents. I remember being taken aback when a sweet young couple whose two-year-old was scheduled to be in my class asked what the curriculum was. A curriculum for two-year-olds? Mind racing, I told them my approach would be to make it a play-based program primarily focused on getting children used to interacting with their peers. That seemed to go over well, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
What prompted this post and brought back these memories was a book I mentioned in a recent post, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, by Dr. Leonard Sax. The main thrust of the book is that parents have ceded their role as authority figures, and the vacuum left is being filled by their children’s peers. He believes that modern parents in general care far too much about being liked by their kids and as a result often fail to instill basic concepts of right and wrong, and to enforce rules regarding acceptable behavior.
Sax writes that teaching those basic concepts of right and wrong, of sharing, of waiting your turn, and being respectful to adults was once considered the primary job description of early childhood educators. For many baby boomers, that’s what preschool and Kindergarten were about. But no more. Modern parents want their little ones immersed in academics.
So back to my two-year-olds. With the approval of the higher-ups, one of the fathers took it upon himself to supply, install and set up a computer in our little classroom. I assume his goal was to be sure his child and her classmates would be prepared for real school and get a jump start on being computer-literate. In retrospect I wish I’d had the guts to speak up and say that in no time flat all those children would be spending more time in front of computer screens than he could possibly imagine. And that children take to computers like fish to water and he needn’t worry about preparing them. In the end the little munchkins were much happier with their noses pressed up against the fish tank, speaking of fish, than the computer screen.
I also vividly recall one particular parent-teacher conference day. From across the hall I heard the father of one of the four-year-olds literally screaming at the teacher because his child didn’t understand graphs well enough. I am not making this up.
I learned many lessons that year, including some about over zealous parents who think pushing academics on preschoolers will increase their chances of getting into Harvard.
Let the children play. And as Leonard Sax suggests, in the process teach them how to be good little citizens of their preschool classrooms. Those are lessons that will last a lifetime.