Monday, April 1, 2013

Finding the Joy

Leaving the very small, loving community that was my last preschool was tough. And as I become more involved with the public schools, I realize how truly special it was.

Why do I teach preschool? It is not a well paying job. I have to spend my own money on occasion to perform my job. There is an enormous amount of work involved, and my job doesn't end when the school day ends. I get kicked, spit on, bitten, pinched and scratched; I have to change clothes covered in pee, vomit and worse. I come home from work sometimes so tired that I can barely be a loving parent.

Yeah, my job sucks. I need to quit.

But I LOVE my job. The absolute joy I feel when I connect with a young child is hard to describe. The giddy excitement I feel when a child makes a discovery makes every time I get a mouthful of an uncovered sneeze worth it. I am helping these little tiny people learn to navigate their world; teaching them how to be wonderful human beings and enthusiastic learners.

Working in this new environment has exposed me to people who don't find the same innate joy in their profession as I do. Which leads me to this question I constantly ask...

If you don't love teaching, then why do you do it? It is not a lucrative position....

I overheard a conversation between a couple of colleagues a few months ago. They were discussing a student who was challenging in the classroom. "I just hate him" one preschool teacher said to the other.

This conversation made my heart hurt. How in the world is it possible to hate a preschooler? Yes, they can make you crazy. Yes, certain behaviors can drive you nuts. And certainly the 1000th time you say "use your words" to the habitual biter makes you want to head straight to the nearest bar. But hate? In my world, never.

The behavior of a preschool aged child is learned. The behaviors they bring into the classroom are what they have used in their home to get the attention they crave. Good attention, bad attention, at age 3, 4, 5 (and older...) is all the same to a young child. To work under the assumption that a young child is just being a pill just to bug you, or to make your life difficult, or to ruin your well thought out lesson plan is ridiculous. They are three, and they are behaving the only way they know how. It is up to me, their preschool teacher, to figure out where the behavior is coming from, and then teach them how to behave appropriately.

But, there is that word, "appropriate". What is appropriate? I really shouldn't toss that term about, because it really should be directed at the adults in the preschool classroom.

A teacher of young children needs to adjust their expectations to abilities of the current group of children they are teaching. The group dynamic is different every year, and what works like a dream one year may be a miserable failure the next. Embrace the challenge.

So...that child that makes you crazy. That you may even "hate" (ugh, it hurts even to type that word); figure out why. Many times, the expectations that have been set out for him are unattainable, and he expresses his frustration the only way he knows how.

Maybe he lives in a busy household, and the only time his grown-ups acknowledge him is when he acts out. Acknowledge him for his good choices and ignore the wrong ones. Praise him for even the smallest victories (good job not hitting your friend in the last 2 minutes, woo-hoo!!)

Maybe there is turmoil in his home life, and the only way he can deal is acting out at school. Make school a respite for him. Create a safe and loving environment where he feels comfortable and happy. Let him know the minute he walks into the classroom he is cherished and loved, and his day will be one of discovery and fun. Sometimes, this child just needs to be held. Hold him.

Maybe he is bored. Figure out what interests this child. Challenge him. Boredom is huge. If your students are running around like crazy people and refuse to make good choices, the problem is your classroom, not the kiddos. Change it up.

Maybe there is something misfiring in the way his brain processes sensory input and information. Early intervention is key to helping children with these types of challenges. Although, I hesitate to throw out this as a reason for challenging behavior. It is important to understand that the inability to sit still for long periods of time is not necessarily a sign of ADHD or autism. It is usually a sign of being three.

Every year I have a child who comes to me with challenging behavior. My secret to effectively teaching and engaging with this child is to find the joy in that child.

Every child has joy in them. It may be the way the crinkle their eyes when they smile. Or the way they understand my dry sense of humor. Or how they approach every activity with their entire body. Or how their face lights up when they make a discovery. Or simply the way they grab my hand when walking to the playground.

I find the joy, concentrate on it, and soon I am able to find the joy in every part of that child, even the parts that drive me nuts. The child knows that I care for them, no matter what, and a relationship built on mutual trust is born. Even when a bad choice is made, they know (because I tell them and show them) that I will always care for them. We work together to learn from mistakes, and how to make good choices.

And truth be told, as much as I try to teach them, those kiddos with the challenging behavior teach me so much more. And my most challenging students are the ones who find the biggest place in my heart.

Early childhood educators who see a child with behavior issues as a problem instead of a wonderful opportunity of mutual growth are missing out on one of the very best things about teaching young children.

Love my job.