Funding, Stress, and Love

I usually strive to stay optimistic.  But right now, my heart is hurting.  The condition of public education, particularly in North Carolina, is truly disheartening.  Funding for education, particularly early childhood education, is getting cut and reallocated.  Teachers in North Carolina were denied raises for the sixth year in a row.  Thousands of teacher assistant positions are getting cut.  And, to add insult to injury, it is now legal to carry a concealed weapon on school grounds.

I get it.  Right now the US is in a huge budget crisis.  It’s just not feasible for the government to give everyone the funding that they need.  But, they way that our legislation is making decisions right now feels downright disrespectful towards educators.  It feels like they are trying to assert their power in an extremely unhealthy.  We teachers are exhausted.  Because of the lack of salary raises, there is less of an incentive to continue the job.  Now that there are fewer teacher assistants, many teachers are feeling beyond overwhelmed as their responsibilities practically double (yet, of course, their pay remains the same).  Because of the new gun control laws, even our personal safety could be in question. 

This amount of stress is contagious.  If teachers are not feeling validated, chances are higher that their performance in the classroom will be compromised.  This isn’t fair for us, and it sure isn’t fair for our children.  I have seen the way my students react to my stress.  It just snowballs:  my patience is weakened, and I am not able to respond with my usual amount of assertiveness.  My emotions are heightened, my children respond to this with empathy, by heightening their own emotions, or by engaging in a power struggle.  This, in turn, tests my patience, further heightening my emotions.  I can’t teach to my fullest ability.  My children can’t learn at their fullest ability.  It’s no longer really education. It’s dispiriting. 

But, you know what else is contagious? Love. I know that when I see someone going out of their way to act with love, my stress level decreases.  When a child is having a tantrum, and I make a conscious effort to tell them that I love them no matter what, it can change the entire dynamic of the classroom.  Power struggles are diffused, as our community gets back into balance.  

I know that it is time for something to change.  Too many people are hurting right now.  It’s clear that there are some tough decisions to make, but that the current solutions are not sustainable or respectful.  

It seems like it is time to leave problem solving to those who are not involved in using the existing political structure to make decisions.  I wonder what would happen if we looked for answers from our children.  Children have an innate sense of creativity.  They do not feel constrained by “the way things are done.”  They have the magical ability to find equilibrium in the most unconventional ways.  We could learn so much from emulating their unbridled enthusiasm, creativity, and love.  Maybe their love will radiate so strongly that the legislators themselves will feel it, and will channel their power into something that will help us all learn and grow.

“Love is the water that wears down the rocks.”– Brother Sun

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Community of Friends

One of the most important hats a teacher can wear is that of a community organizer.  An early childhood classroom is perhaps the first place a person experiences a sense of belonging, a constructed identity, cohesive friendships, and growth through conflict.  I am fortunate that I get to facilitate some of these things in my classroom.  And even more, I am blessed that I get to watch these things unfold without doing anything. 

I strongly believe that friendship is the glue that holds together any community of any age.  When a child first comes into my classroom, I can see the gears turning in their head as they watch our children playing together.  They seem to be thinking, “Will I have a friend?” Fortunately, my class this year was always excited about getting a new friend.  They would show the new friend where he or she would sit at the group-time carpet.  They would walk the new friend through the schedule.  And most importantly, they would warmly welcome the new friend into their play.  It was amazing to see. 

Another important aspect of community is having a constructed identity.  At the beginning of the year, my co-teacher and I wanted to have a special classroom identity.  We brought this idea to our children, who brainstormed ideas for our class name.  After our vote, we settled on being called The Wolves.  For the next month, we set up our classroom materials and environment to explore wolves.  My children were engrossed in learning about what wolves eat, where they live, and how they raise their pups. 

They explored through the powerful tool of imaginary play.  I watched the community come together as these children experimented with what it feels like to be the powerful Alpha Wolf, or a needy pup always wanting food from its mom, or a ferocious protector of the den.  Through pretending to be wolves, my children were getting to know each other.  They were learning about the play styles, boundaries, and interests of each other.   All my co-teacher and I did was to give them the resources for this kind of play; they formed the pack all by themselves. 

Any community organizer knows that it’s not always this easy.  Yes, there are times when friendships blossom organically, and communities are thriving.  But, part of being a community organizer is working through conflict together.  Conflict has never been comfortable for me.  Throughout my life, I have jumped through hoops to avoid it.  But, conflict is part of what makes a community truthful, so I’ve had to step way out of my own comfort zone.  In any preschool classroom, conflict arises. A child may take the toy of another.  Someone may say something that is hurtful to another. Often, a child does not know another way of solving problems, so he or she will hit another.  In moments such as these, there are a lot of tears, lots of yelling, and the community no longer feels comfortable for anyone. 

Here’s where I need to get over my own discomfort and shine.  These children have not had enough life experience to have the words and the skills necessary to solve these conflicts themselves.  It is my role to walk them through ways to work it out.  To problem solve effectively, it is important for me to remain calm.  (When approaching a particularly heated conflict, I make sure to take some deep breaths.)  I gather information from each child about what happened.  I make sure to acknowledge their feelings, to give a clear picture about the emotional how one’s actions affect the emotions of another. We work together to come up with a solution that will work for both sides.  The children go off to play, and I monitor the effectiveness of their solution. 

At the beginning of the year, I was doing most of the talking.  I was the one that was naming emotions.  I was the one that was offering most of the solutions.  I was the one that had more than 4 years of experience dealing with conflict, so it only made sense that I was the main facilitator.  But, as the year progress, I talked less and less.  Sometimes, all I had to do was to calmly approach a group of children and they would start naming their emotions and developing a compromise.  I love it when I overhear my children saying, “Ok, you can have two turns on the slide, and then I’ll have two turns.”  We have all gotten so comfortable with conflict, that sometimes I will approach a problem, intending to facilitate the resolution, when I am joined by a few children who aren’t involved.  They take over the facilitation, naming emotions, saying “I wonder what we can do about this,” and offering their own solutions.  These children are going to be facing conflict for the rest of their lives, but I think they will be able to work through it just fine.

I see my classroom as a microcosm of the world at large.  To my children, the classroom is their world at large. It is the place where they go five days a week to experience new things.  It is the place where they can see healthy responses to conflict.  They can take risks in building a friendship, knowing that they will be protected by love and respect.  They are learning about the way the world works.  They are learning about the way others think.  They are learning together.  They are working together.  They are laughing together.  Together, we have built a safe, genuine community.

“To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.” -Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach