Afew days ago I took a job as a substitute teacher in an elementary school’s preschool program. I had a great time over all. Preschool children aren’t my favorite age group, I really LOVE high school kids and will be earning my certification to teach high school English, but there is something to love about every age group. The discouraging thing I experienced was the mentality of most of the other teachers. One in particular I really wanted to back slap. Not that I would have, mind you, (bad example and all) but I imagined myself doing it and took great joy in the fantasy. I had taken my class out earlier in the day so they could play on the playground ( a pleasure that is – alas- unavailable to high schoolers, though I for one never got to old for the swings 🙂 and found that if I squated down or sat on my bottom and engaged the children they were more then willing to allow me into their play time. They loved me getting involved actually. One little girl told me so ( “I love you” she said)! OMG… I LOVE YOU TOOO!!! I was so happy and over whelmed. Totally geeked out about it! It was adorable. Just by sitting down and engaging in their interests I drew about five children around me. No worrying about if they were safe. I knew they were because I was talking to them. There were at least three other teachers on the playground with me. And about ten other students. Had all of those teachers been doing the same, playing with the children, I swear, there would have been no need for the locks on the playground gate. And everybody gained so much from the interaction. They are after all three feet tall, why do we lord over them at full height? If you get on your knees or sit on you bum they actually come over and start talking to you. Even at three and a half years old, eye contact is important. It shows people you care about what they’re talking about. It’s the number one way to engage ANYBODY. And it worked on the play ground. I had a bunch of interesting conversations about pretend; little boxes they’d built out of plastic pieces that they stuffed with the wood chips and sticks they found on the playground yard. It was “mail” for me. They found a heart shaped sticker that they proudly gave to me! They could use the boxes they’d made as seats to sit and talk with me. And there they were, little ones too busy to sit still, choosing to sit still because I’d bothered to engage them. It was so much fun. But I could tell the other teachers thought I was weird. Nobody said anything and we went back inside.
Ican’t help but interacting with children. Face it (especially as a substitute teacher) if you don’t, the day goes by REALLY slowly. What are you supposed to do? Just stand over them barking orders? Unfortunately that seemed like what most of the regular teachers did on a daily basis. Our second trip out to the playground turned out much different. Another class, with it’s real teacher at the helm, was sharing time with us. The first thing she did was bark at an assistant for not placing the make-shift double lock over the gate (it was a bungie cord, which, quite honestly, I felt was a really bad choice for an added safety measure). Then she returned to her conversation with another teacher. I sat down on my wood chips, in the same place I was before, to reconvene my little conference with whatever student wanted to engage, if they wanted to engage. And there she was, instantly “You have to get up”. “Why”? I asked. She sort of stuttered. “Be- Because you can’t be sitting on the playground. Parents can’t see you doing that”. What Parents? It was 12:30, parents weren’t coming. And why couldn’t parents see me playing with their children? I’m their teacher! That’s what teachers are supposed to do, engage children, not lord over them. We are not wardens for christ sake, set to crack whips and dish out orders. We are there to facilitate learning and you don’t do that by barking instructions, you do that through interaction. At any age. I’m not going to play with high schoolers on a playground, but I am going to get into the middle of their class room, look them in the eye when I speak to them, call them by name, facilitate conversation, play devil’s advocate to encourage debate, listen and respond to what they have to say instead of smacking them with some predetermined script. Interaction. Engagement. They’re keys to great teaching. You have to connect with your students. And if that means I get on my knees so I can be eye level with a three year old, well that’s what it means. Or if I sit on a swing to play a game, that’s what it means. Or if I jump in on a four square game, that’s what it means. Instead of standing on the perimeter talking to my colleagues and occasionally looking up just to bark out a rule to pretend I was paying attention all along. And then I realized, that’s what most “teachers” do. They find really good sounding rules that are really hidden excuses for them to not engage their students. They’re usually disguised as rules on “safety” or “decorum”, which are important things, but they’re A LOT more basic then the long lists of them would imply. Keep the children safe. Okay. If you’re engaging them then you know they’re safe because they’re with you involved in an activity. Rules of decorum? Um… don’t sleep with your students, don’t do drugs and drink with your students, don’t be a pedophile, no child molesters allowed; pretty much covers it. But a teacher should ALWAYS be able to engage their students, in age appropriate ways. It’s that simple. Really. It is simple. We complicate things to make ourselves feel like we’re working, when we’re really not. Teaching is a REALLY simple job: it’s just not an easy one. Systems will complicate it because they are designed by people who want it to be easy. So they complicate things by over simplifying which always involves making lists and doing studies so in the end, no one really understands it, so that anyone or most people can facilitate it with out anybody realizing they’re not doing their job. Teachers will learn this ridiculously intricate list of rules in a meeting or classroom removed from real students and then bark them out in a classroom of real students (where they don’t work) and pretend to be doing their job. Because once you are a certified teacher you work for the state (even if you are a private school teacher) not the students. You have to put the state’s requirements first, not the students. And even if you know that what the students need is not something the state has foreseen and mandated, you have to bark out state rules instead of engage your students.
So, (even though I’m not certified yet) I stood up. I wouldn’t argue with this woman in front of the children. I did not tell her that maybe she should be sitting down with the children and sharing in their exploration of their environment, or sliding down the slide with them. Nope. I stood up and gave her an evil eye. And I wasn’t proud of myself for it. Because I should have schooled her. And that’s a lesson I’ve learned. Because here I am three days later still thinking about it and had I just said what I needed to say, something I not only had a right to say but an obligation to say, then I would have been able to let it go by now. This is something I have to improve. I have to SAY WHAT I NEED TO SAY. I have to stop filtering so DAMN much. Because I’m afraid of confrontation or what? She couldn’t have gotten me in trouble for disagreeing with her. And maybe, had I said something, she would have realized what I was doing instead of just assuming I was “sitting down on the job”. The point is I don’t know her motivation and I never will, because I avoided engagement with her instead of diving in. And I do this a LOT with other adults. Not with the kids. I find a wonderful acceptance in their openness, in their position as students. What I fail to realize is that EVERYBODY is a student, at all times in their life and you have to engage them in order to be a productive member of society. As a society we spend too much time disengaging. Usually out of fear of disapproval, rejection, or punishment. Sit down, shut up, do what you’re told. That’s what we learn from day one in school. And it’s a horrible lesson, taught to us by people who have been disengaged the same way. And so we follow their bad example and perpetuate their “drone” mentality- counter productive lesson and everybody stays in line, not thinking for themselves, asking questions, or ENGAGING others, their world or themselves. Sad. And unacceptable. I have a lot of work to do to UN-do my unwarranted submissiveness. It’s been a problem for years and it’s begun to eat me alive. Because I’m not a submissive person by instinct. I’m a leader. And If I don’t stop backing down I’ll never live up to my full potential. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be keeping others from living up to theirs.