"We do not need to know 'how' or 'where', but there is one question that we should all ask whenever we start something: What am I doing this for?'" Paulo Coelho, The Valkyries.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
A (former) teacher’s perspective
I was asked one day at a child’s birthday party how I managed to keep my sanity as a pre-school teacher. I smiled and informed him that I had just resigned. No, being a pre-school teacher didn’t make me crazy but I was close. I had been teaching for four years and I will look back with great fondness over those four years. If I was a teacher for five years, however, I would’ve looked back with much regret.
Teaching affected many areas of my life; it affected my physical, emotional, and financial state. Everyone knows that teachers are not paid well. It became clear to me, after working for two years, that it would take me about ten years to become financially independent from my parents. Emotionally; teaching turned my emotions into a yo-yo. One minute I was being silly and fun and having a great time, and then next minute I was thinking about how to tackle the issue of a 4 year old swearing at me. As a teacher, I was someone who took problem solving very seriously; I needed to find a solution for everything (consequently I have let go of that obsession). I would lie in bed at night tossing and turning thinking about how to help this child or to stop that child from feeling a certain way about school. And then last but not least, my physical state. I can only but laugh when I think back to the number of times I got sick with flu or a tummy bug (including two very uncomfortable bacterial skin infections). Leaving you with that image, I will conclude this paragraph and simply say that teaching is not for sissies.
There is one memory that sticks in my head, and it symbolizes what teaching was like for me. It was a chilly winters morning, about sixty pre-school children ran around playfully. “I’m cold”, I thought to myself, “let me run around and they can chase me, it will be fun.” I ran and looked behind me. Here they come! Suddenly the ground was getting closer; my body was being pulled down. Children everywhere, pulling at me, falling on me, climbing on me...a three year old sat on my head. I heard a crack. “What was that?” “Was it my nose?” No, even worse, it was my new Woolies sunglasses.
The unpredictability of teaching is something I never expected. No predictions can be made. I can be prepared, I can pre-empt situations, I can have a wonderfully hopeful, fun and positive attitude, but ultimately, my fate lay in the hands of 25 three to six year olds. And just like that child had an effect on my sunglasses, during a moment of fun; each child had an effect on my personality, my spirit, in both negative and positive ways.
I walked into my first day of teaching thinking that it would be easy, all I needed to do was put into practice what I had been taught, follow the rules, be patient, be kind and all will be fine. I have never been so wrong about anything in my life. From my first day I knew that kindness and patience were not the only traits I needed. A degree in chaos control, pre-school warfare and child psychology would’ve been very helpful too.
Before I started teaching, I thought that all children were more or less the same. They say cute things, do cute things, listen to their teachers (because surely that is what one does in a classroom) and every now and again there is a small dispute that requires your attention, but no, it is not like that at all. Each child is as unique as every adult in the world. Children, however, lack one important trait that adults (well some of them) have. Children lack the ability to accept differences of opinion. And because of this, coupled with a child’s innate need to always push the boundaries, conflicts arise all the time.
“Conflicts”; a report writing term which simply means “fights”. Conflicts arose daily, between children and between children and teachers. It seemed that in my last year of teaching I witnessed and experienced more conflicts, specifically amongst the boys in the class, than all the previous years put together. This is what forced me to rethink my career. The physical and verbal aggression expressed by the boys in the class shocked me. How could a four or five year old child have so little respect for others? I felt overwhelmed and helpless. I remember a day where I was bitten by a child and all I thought was, “how am I supposed to react? I am the adult, he’s only a child.” I later realised that I hadn’t put up effective personal boundaries and therefore couldn’t respond effectively. I obviously knew that biting was unacceptable but I hadn’t consciously set up that boundary yet. A teacher’s personal boundaries can be very different to the boundaries set up by the school as a whole.
The school I worked at has many discipline techniques, both Montessori techniques and techniques developed by Synergy. They all follow a process whereby the child is given the opportunity to learn effective conflict resolution language and the children (both the victim and the “perpetrator”) are given the opportunity to feel heard. This process also ensures that the consequence (report terminology for “punishment”) is as natural as possible. For example, an unnatural consequence would be if a child drew on someone’s top they don’t get to have a cupcake; the two are not related. The natural consequence would be for the “perpetrator” to clean the top.
I believe strongly in this form of discipline and can see how my daughter benefits from it, but when parents were not doing the same at home, it left me feeling hopeless and doubting whether I can make a difference in the lives of these children.
I could never really know what went on in the homes of these children. I could speculate because of what the child was talking about, the way I would hear their parents talking with them or the movies they reenacted or by their lack of respect for adults. But ultimately, theses were all assumptions. I often felt that I would take one step forward and then after a weekend or a holiday it would be two steps back again. Consistency is a very difficult thing to maintain if the classroom environment is different to the home environment. Consistency in discipline is one of the biggest obstacles for a teacher and a parent, and for the schools discipline technique to run parallel to the parents discipline technique is almost impossible.
Good, effective communication between teachers and parents is a continuous struggle. Educating parents on the educational method of Montessori teaching was a continuous struggle. I soon realised that I see things very much in black and white. “You either get the Montessori philosophy or you don’t”, this was my attitude. I got frustrated when parents would walk in during class time and want to have a discussion about something or simply get an activity out for their child (not asking if they are able to do that work). Moments like these brought out a side of me I hardly knew; the stubborn, impatient and unforgiving side. It was moments like these that made me question one thing; “Do I change myself in order to enjoy my job more or do I change my job in order to like myself more?” Clearly, as mentioned before, I chose the latter.
I leant early on that teaching is one career where you do not know from one day to the next what your day will be like. Did this scare me? After a while, yes, because I have learnt that I want to have more control in my life. Being a pre-school teacher forced me to get to know myself. A bond, a connection, with each one of those children (and the discovery of who I really am) made replacing my sunglasses every three months completely worth it. As I write this, sitting here, a former pre-school teacher, I am happy to say that only fond memories, and my sanity, remain. No regrets. Only lessons.
Posted by Klara at 9:31 AM