Friday, 6 January 2017

Beyond behaviour

I have never asked a child under six to talk about his or her feelings. 

I just had an 'A-ha moment'! Now I don't expect that everyone will agree with what I'm saying, because it goes against what I've been taught too. In thirteen years of working with young children I have never asked a child to talk to me about his or her feelings because my instinct told me that it didn't feel right. There are so many things that I have never done in thirteen years for the same reason. I now understand this instinct to be a great gift, because when you work in a profession where the choices that you make have the potential to affect people's lives in profound ways, you don't want to look back and feel that you got it wrong.

A child who is displaying negative behavior is a child in pain, and I've never seen a child in pain and felt that he or she wanted to sit with me and talk about emotions. And this has nothing to do with my discomfort. Emotions are my specialty. I'm more than comfortable talking about them with adults, and singing about them, and (sometimes to my detriment) expressing them in public places.

And I'm not sure that we always want to talk about our feelings either, which is why I've never been to a counselor. Being analyzed by a dispassionate observer never felt like my cup of tea. Most young children certainly haven't developed the kind of vocabulary for this kind of activity. It's quite possible that in asking them to engage in it, we're adding to their stress rather than soothing it.

So what do we want if not to talk about our feelings? We want to be loved! Yes, I'm talking about the L word again. Yesterday I was listening to a TED Talk by Marisa Peer. She was talking about how she had helped so many people, saved their lives even, by teaching them this simple phrase, "I am enough". This is what was missing from their childhoods, "I am enough". Once they had trained their minds to accept this idea they were healed, mentally and physically.

This is what we need to give children. We need to see beyond behavior to the person in pain, the person who needs love and unconditional acceptance. We need to honour the core of the person that is not a bunch of 'feelings', but is a soul that longs for connection with others, that longs to be seen.

This could mean sitting together, playing together, reading together. It could mean hugs and cuddles. A child's body language will tell you if you've made the right choice. If they can see that they are valued recipients of our time and attention they will learn that they are enough. The wounds of childhood don't disappear unless as adults we learn to be loving, comforting, unconditionally accepting arms for ourselves. Easier said than done. Young children can't be expected to be able to do this alone. If we can help to provide this foundation for them, they may never need to.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Five year-old self

I've often thought that if you looked back at your five year-old self you would find all the answers that you're looking for.

A few years ago I taught a beautiful little boy for two years. He was quiet and not particularly social at three and a half. I have since come to understand that even quiet children become much more social between four and five, and so it is almost never necessary to be concerned about this before four years of age.

I was often advised to be concerned about this child because he was solitary, timid, and found it difficult to bond with adults at that time. I knew that his home life had been difficult. To me this was enough of a reason to justify his behaviours. I think it's so important to respond to emotional issues before looking for developmental ones.

I felt that this child was in desperate need of unconditional acceptance. I've never met a child I couldn't bond with so that was the easy part. His mum and I also bonded. She was in desperate need of unconditional acceptance too. She believed that her child was perfect and I believed that he was perfect, and that's how we approached everything.

I'm a big believer in physical contact with young children, but not all personalities like that or need that from you. Children's body language is clear on this, and should be respected. I bonded with this child by taking an interest in the things that he was interested in. When I had time I would sit on the a-frame next to him and he would tell me about the pick-up trucks, and the container trucks and the forklifts next door. To this day I wouldn't have known the difference between them if he hadn't explained it to me.

I often borrowed books from the library for the children. I would borrow books about trucks and tell him (on the quiet) that I borrowed them especially for him. Every child needs to feel that they have been picked out of the crowd, and I do my absolute best to find a way to do this for every child. Parents love to know that you've taken special care as well.

This little boy spent most of the second year constructing with Lego with his new best friend. The social motivation had come with age, and because by then he had learned to trust people. People questioned whether I should allow him to spend so much time on one interest and with one child. His constructions were impressive, and he was relaxed and happy. I went with my instinct and allowed him to make his own choices.

It's impossible (as an educator) not to question your decisions. You can never really know the end result. Fortunately, as his younger brother continued in care, I was able to follow up on his progress. His mum's feedback was consistent over the next couple of years. He was doing well at school, he was happy, and he had friends. I was so happy to hear this.

She also said that when he was not at school he would watch YouTube videos of complex Lego constructions and replicate them by himself. Imagine if we had stopped him from engaging with what he was most passionate about. How would this have affected his already fragile confidence? Imagine if we had not seen this child's uniqueness as strength. How much stress might this have caused his family? This stress would have rubbed off on him too.

I hope you will always look for the strengths in a person before you look any further. Unconditional acceptance can work wonders. I wonder what incredible things this little boy will grow up to accomplish. I wonder if he will look back at his five year-old self and find the answers. They were always there.


Saturday, 5 November 2016

I have a dream

It feels like young children are being pushed, prodded and even punished based on their preschool experiences.

I didn't stand out as a brilliant student. I was above average but I always thought my sisters were smarter than me. I went through public schools all the way. I didn't always have the best teachers. I was never pushed or prodded. I spent most of my time outside of school hours doing whatever I wanted. I was asked to do my best and I did, because it came naturally to me to want to please people by doing as I was told. I averaged about fifteen minutes of homework per night during high-school.

I talked early because my parents talked to me and sang to me. Reading came easily because my parents read to me. The motivation to learn to read came from seeing my parents reading. Relationships and travel took priority over financial security. Through osmosis I learned how to think, rather than what to think.

Knowing that I could make decisions about my learning gave me the motivation to persist with the things that I felt were valuable. Nobody told me to continue to do piano exams to grade eight level, to do a Bachelor of Education in three and a half years instead of four, to do my masters while working full-time, my research project while working two jobs, or to spend the last two years working at being the best classical singer I could be. This comes from experiencing the value of learning, having confidence in yourself as a learner, understanding your own strengths and way of working, and realizing that persistence is more important than being perfect.

Language and literacy are the foundation of children's school-based education. Typically-developing children are capable of acquiring all the skills that they need as long as what we expect from them is in line with their developmental level. All the research is there and we know why children are struggling. This is not a judgement on families, but is a fact often spoken of by teachers and academics. There are parents who don't talk to their babies enough. That crucial first five years is when language develops. Children need to hear adults talk, and as much as possible. There are parents who don't read to their children. Children don't see their parents reading so they don't understand the value of reading, and so their motivation to learn to read suffers.

So what do we do with these children? We put them into prep and sit them beside children like, well..me. We give them group instruction and worksheets so that they can learn phonics and sight words. They fall behind, they get lost, and they lose their confidence in themselves as learners. My Dad works one-on-one with children who are still struggling with reading at ten years old. They never got it (like me with algebra). We failed to address the gap that came before. We rushed them rather than trusting that they were born learners. You only have to trawl through the early childhood forums to see that this is breaking the hearts of teachers and educators all over the country.

This is my dream. I dream that we will welcome children into prep without any expectations whatsoever. I dream that every bit of time that we expect children to focus and concentrate during prep will be used for reading. I dream that we will come together as a community to support our children, that schools will recruit all the parents, grandparents and volunteers that they can find so that children in prep can have the most one-on-one attention possible. I would have classrooms full of books that children could borrow and bring home to share with their families. I would have volunteers reading to children in small groups, on couches, on the floor, in the library, under trees, wherever they were happiest.

English is not a particularly phonetic language so children learn to recognize words mostly through memorizing them, as they do with spoken language. I would have the volunteers pointing to the words as they read and emphasising the sounds, as we do in kindergarten. I would not ask any child to read and I would not test any child on any aspect of literacy for the entire year. The aim would be to bridge the gap, build children's confidence, and develop in them the joy of escaping into the known and imaginary worlds that books can provide. I would aim to have all children hooked on books before they begin formal learning.

I would have the rest of the day consist of free and guided play. Children need this for well-being. Without physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being, children won't be able to successfully learn. I would have teachers available to answer questions, make suggestions, and act as examples of how to solve problems, make calculated decisions, how to wonder, how to hypothesise, how to think, and how to express their thinking (as we do in kindergarten).

Children are learning that education is difficult, a chore, something really hard that they look forward to escaping from. It doesn't have to be. This belief is likely to stand in their way of pursuing higher education. They will fear failure, they will fear being compared. Learning shouldn't be about fear. Learning is natural, it is part of why we are here on earth, it is the motivation that keeps us going throughout life. Most of it happens outside of the classroom, it is lifelong, it is an internally-driven process, it is a source of joy. Imagine how it would feel knowing that our children could experience this for themselves, with joy and without fear.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Don't give up, childcare needs you!

Have you ever worked as a kindergarten teacher in a childcare centre?

Mum and Dad were singing in their choir at a fete held by a childcare centre on the weekend. Because the centre has such a great reputation Dad talked me into coming and having a look. The director told us to go on in and spend as long as we wanted. I've spent the better part of the last twelve years working in childcare centres. It looked great, but it was nothing new to me. Mum was quite fascinated. I realized that she'd never been inside a childcare centre.

Until the year 2001 I had never been inside a childcare centre. The concept wasn't even in my consciousness. I certainly didn't predict that this would turn out to be my niche for twelve years. If you are a kindergarten teacher and you want to work full-time, childcare centres are your best choice. Kindergarten teachers in childcare insist that their programs are as good as those in sessional kindergartens, and they absolutely can be. With the government encouraging women back into the workforce, kindergarten programs in childcare centres are imperative, and must be the way of the future.

I've found that childcare directors can be wary of hiring teachers who have previously worked in sessional kindergartens because they struggle with the conditions and often don't last. Putting teachers in childcare probably seems like a great idea, but I'm not sure that much time was invested in thinking about how it would work. I know that many teachers feel isolated.

I have never known a kindergarten teacher who had any motive other than to do the best job that they could for the children and families in their care. This is a relatively low paid, high energy job. You have to try to keep children, families and your co-workers happy. You have to train staff, mentor students and collaborate with support staff. There is a very high turnover of educators in the industry, so you have to learn to work well with many different people. Conditions often restrict what you can do which means that you end up donating a lot of extra time in your efforts to do your best. For me this is normal and is just what I've come to expect work to be, but it's not for the fainthearted.

Overwhelmingly, my experience has been of being accepted as part of the team. Starting off at workplaces as a room leader before moving on to kindergarten teacher roles probably had a big part to play in this. Playing down my abilities and even pretending that I didn't have higher qualications helped too. This was due to my own lack of confidence and caused me a lot of distress. I have always felt underestimated and under appreciated. In other words, this tactic didn't really work well for anyone.

Earlier this year I heard Anthony Semann speak at a conference, and he said that he was shocked to realize that many of the women who work in the childcare industry are very low in confidence. I would say that the majority of women that I've met in my life are low in confidence. Some cover it up better than others. As a teacher in childcare you are already more qualified than everyone else, whereas this would never be an issue in a school. Less secure educators may worry that you're judging their practices. It pays to be aware of this so you don't take their behaviour personally.

Completing a degree takes discipline, drive and determination. It's easy to forget how hard it was and to take it for granted. I always do. For less secure people obtaining a degree could seem as impossible as flying to the moon. They may try to prove that your degree means little so that they can regain some control of the power dynamic. I've seen educators go out of their way to find fault with the kindergarten teacher and to take delight in sharing their views with everyone in the centre. Typically kindergarten teachers are not strong, tough, confident people. They are kind, nurturing, caring people. This kind of thing can be soul-destroying. I've seen it happen to my friends. I've seen it happen to myself.

There is a high likelihood that you will be more qualified than your boss. This is the structure of the workplace. There's nothing you can do about it. A great manager will see this as an asset. Unfortunately, many see it as a threat. I'm sure that anyone from any industry would be able to tell you why this workplace structure is not ideal. I have heard that less secure directors prefer to hire graduates for this reason, so your choices may become narrower the longer you stay in the industry.

I'm pretty sure that I've just about outlived my welcome in this industry. It's ironic that it's taken me until now to feel confident that I know enough to be able to fully stand behind the decisions that I make on behalf of children and families. Nothing is ever wasted, however. I have learned so much from working in a variety of positions, with lots of different people, in different states and countries, and within a variety of demographics.

Don't do it my way. It's been a trial by fire, and there have been far too many tears. Don't hold yourself back to fit in, trust your instincts, express yourself, don't be isolated. Network, network, network! Go to lots of professional development days on your own so that you can meet other kindergarten teachers who work in childcare. They are all in this less than ideal situation, and chances are they are experiencing similar challenges. At its best this job can be fun, creative and very rewarding. What you do can change someone's life forever.

This industry will take time to work out what to do with you. Studies around the world show that teacher quality is the highest indicator of educational outcomes for students. We are following the examples of the highest performing early learning centres around the world, the ones that are prioritizing teacher education and qualifications above all else. This industry needs you to pave the way for better practices and to show the government that young children's education is worth investing in. Don't give up.

Friday, 7 October 2016

What do you remember?


Have you tapped into your memories of your early school years to help guide your practices as an educator? 

Reception /Prep, South Australia







I have very few memories of my early childhood, but most of them are from out of school. I have two memories of year one - two memories! One was a horrible memory of not knowing that I had to hand my worksheet to the teacher. I was made to stand facing the blackboard. I'm not sure for how long. I only remember standing there crying. I was as quiet as a mouse then. I never did anything wrong on purpose. I think it's very sad that that's my only memory of my year one teacher.

Visiting my old classroom at Port Elliot 
My other memory was of the day I did my ballet exam. I felt so proud coming back to school with my hair still in a bun slicked down with gel. 

Ballet exam with my best friend Ella




I started year two when we moved to Wyreema in 1988. I have so many memories of that year. We went to the fire station and the Weis factory, and lots of other places. I remember enormous slabs of lamington which were cut into chunks for us to eat, sitting looking over the range from our teacher's backyard. There were masses of plants in the room, big sugared Easter eggs, and personalized cards at the end of the year.

Year Two, Wyreema State School
I remember absolutely nothing from year three - how sad. 

This year our company decided to implement permanent excursion forms so that with the permission of families we could take the children out of the centre whenever we wanted, and with the same ratios as were allowed within the centre. We started with one adult to every two or three children. Pretty soon the three of us were taking twenty-five children to the wetlands and the park. We also took them to the train station and watched the train go past. 

My coworkers were amazing. We took the children out eight times in the six months before I left Melbourne. We started a bush kinder in the wetlands. The children swung on trees, climbed fences, patted some huge but friendly dogs, and came back with their arms filled with sticks, their pockets filled with rocks and feathers, and their heads full of stories to tell their Mums and Dads.

On St. Patrick's Day I put a green top hat on and told stories about leprechauns while the children ate sandwiches under the trees in the playground. These are the things that I will remember. The joy and excitement that can't be contained within the confines of the four walls of a kindergarten room. 

Routine bored me when I was a child. I would wish for something unexpected to happen - anything. Sometimes I would wish for a fire alarm, just to break the routine. 

I only remember the teachers who noticed me, the ones who boosted my confidence by helping me to see who I was and what I could do. I barely remember the others, even through high school and uni. 

Every child is different and has different needs. I'd love to hear about your experiences and how they inform what you do in (and out) of the classroom. 


[This blog is completely non-commercial. I hope it's okay to include the above photos]

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Your reputation matters

A professional is a person who understands that learning your craft is an ongoing process and that there will always be more to learn. 

I was home alone the other night and leafing through Mum's movie collection. I ended up watching 'Mona Lisa Smile', which strangely mirrored just what I had been feeling and thinking about. A teacher comes to a new school hoping to make a difference. She does with the students, but comes up against opposition all the way by the influential families who control the college curriculum from behind the scenes. This is frustrating and tiring, but she continues to do what she believes is right. In the end she moves on, but with her ideals intact.  

I didn't come into this profession by an organized plan. I don't live life that way, which is why I'm constantly surprised by the way things turn out. Having always believed that my time as a teacher was temporary, it never occurred to me to be concerned about the legacy that my teaching practice was leaving behind me. Hindsight has shown me that temporary can be a lot longer than you think, and I don't regret that. I'm sure that was the direction my life was supposed to take up until now. There have been very few easy moments, but that's the nature of the game.

In 2009 the Early Years Learning Framework left lovely spaces free for innovation. They said "We're not done yet. You the educators will develop the rest of this document as you work with it, come to understand and share its language, talk to each other, test it out". That's what I was told in early 2010. A curriculum document is a political document, and politics blows around like the wind, influencing schools and parents, influenced mainly by economic priorities.

Remember, we're helping to prepare children for a world that doesn't yet exist. Technology and the political climate will probably be unrecognizable from how they are now. Children will need skills that are transferable, as job roles will be transient and evolving. Knowledge is not enough. They will need to be able to apply it in multiple contexts. This will be impossible for them if they believe that there is one right answer, if they are too unsettled by change, if they lose their confidence by not being allowed to explore and express themselves, and if they believe that they don't know how to think and create.

Families will come and go, opinions will vary, economic factors will influence educational settings. Your professional reputation will follow you wherever you go. It will live on in the lives of the children that you teach. People will trust and respect you if you are true to what you believe is right, and can back it up. If you bow to pressure to lower your standards to please the occasional parent, you will probably end up disappointing others, and yourself. That practice will become part of your professional legacy.

There is nothing like education, with its propensity to move with trends and times. Don't ever expect to feel comfortable, or completely sure of what you're doing. I'm too hard on myself. We should try not to be. Remember, its the nature of the game. A job that makes a difference. The children of the future need us to believe in ourselves, so that they can learn to. They matter, and what they will grow up to do matters. 

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Shyness

Why must we try to change children's personalities?

Have you ever heard people say that they must encourage 'push' children to talk, project their voices, be more social? I'm talking about little ones, younger than five. I heard it a couple of times the other day and it just didn't sit well with me. This is not one of my theories. This is personal.

I was that child. That child hated to be pushed. That child had a will of her own. She knew what she needed. Dismissing what she needed and drawing attention to her so called shortcomings made her feel misunderstood, undervalued and anxious. Social anxiety is something that you grow to overcome, in your own time, by your own will.

That child is observing. She is collecting information about people so that she can learn how to interact with them. As a result she may grow up with a deep understanding and appreciation of people. She may become a great listener and a wonderful friend.

I wasn't pushed but I did suffer as a child from being constantly labelled. I was shy. By the time I was a teenager I became 'quiet'. Until I was about seventeen that was pretty much the sum of my identity outside the family. I took this identity on and felt that I had the most boring personality in the world.

It's been a long journey since then. That child is still there. I'm particularly aware of her at the moment having just started a new job. Now I acknowledge her, breathe, and move on. No amount of pushing will teach a child to navigate life. It comes from inside.

I am constantly exceeding my own expectations. I find it amusing and surprising that I often find myself doing things that many extroverts would find challenging. I have sung before hundreds of people and spoken to groups of twenty-five parents. I acted in a play a few years ago.

The other day I turned up at a childcare centre unannounced and requested to speak to the owner. We sat down and had a long discussion, where I explained to him that I couldn't accept a permanent job there as I felt that the education system that they had chosen was so far removed from what I believe is best for children's learning. I alerted him to the poor practices that were happening there and implied that it was impossible that those in charge could not know what was going on. I walked out of there feeling quite weird, thinking "who are you and where did you come from?"

Leave these children alone. Let them create their own identities rather than imposing identities on them. Let them imagine all the possibilities for their lives and watch them exceed their own expectations. Never underestimate children's capabilities. Encourage their strengths instead. They will show you who they are.

(The hidden gifts of the introverted child, Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., 2005)