He refuses to come to circle time and sits in our library corner looking at a book. I watch him surreptitiously as I lead the others through our calendar and weather activities, our question of the day and some songs. He is a distraction to the other students but I know he will come when I begin our read aloud for the day – he loves books.
At the close of recess the other children come the log to sit and get ready for going inside. He runs to the far side of the basketball court but stops when I ask him to. I walk calmly towards him as he waits at the edge of our playground boundary.
I kneel in front of him., “Thank you for stopping when I called out to you. I know that children sometimes run away from grown ups when they want attention. Did you want my attention?” He nodded. “How can I give you attention if you run away from me? Come here, let me hug you!”
And then I go on to say, “Your mommy told me you’ve been kicked out of some other daycare places. Is that true? Well I will never kick you out of this school. We may have disagreements but we are going to talk about them and work them out. I love you. This is your school and I am your teacher.”
Tomorrow we begin week four. He still retreats to corners in the classroom at transition times and threatens to run when it’s time to come in from outside but so far my “come hither” look is winning him over. He’s got a dimple when he smiles.
Friday afternoon I was just settling down to eat lunch in front of my email when there was a tap on my classroom door. I looked up and remembered I had scheduled a parent conference for this time. I scrambled to pull out the student’s file and get paper and pens ready for our chat. It was actually two parents who had come for this meeting, the grandfather and father of a 4-year-old in my class.
The grandfather is a primary caregiver for his two grandsons while his son works on a farm. Seeing the older gentleman prop himself on a table prompted me to fetch an adult sized chair for this older man who walks with a cane. I jumped up to fetch my own desk chair while welcoming his son, who was probably a teenager when his seven-year old son was born, to the table I had spread my documents out on.
I explained the purpose of our parent conferences. The dad was worried about the Ages and Stages questionnaires I had asked him to fill out on his son. “I answered the questions as best I could. Sometimes I didn’t really know.” And that is why we’re together here having this meeting was my answer.
These two men will have information I don’t have about this child and as the year progresses, I hope to tell them all I learn about this budding student and how we can work together to support his education. What followed was a lively discussion. It seems this young father had struggled in school and his father, this grandfather, had often gone to battle for him. I heard tales of woe and a loss of confidence in the public education system. The first grade son seems to have some of the same issues his dad did but the grandfather has already been working to establish a relationship with the teacher. I don’t know enough about this four-year old yet, but what I currently see is a curious and social child, easily engaged in the preschool curriculum.
I always ask parents what they are hoping their child will learn in preschool. Sometimes their responses are indicators of fears they have for their children. The parent of a particularly shy child will want her to make friends; the parent of a flighty child will want him or her to learn to pay attention. Sometimes I learn parents have unreasonable expectations for 4 and 5 year olds. This was the case at this conference. When the grandfather told me the particular academic skills he was looking for his grandson to have at the end of the year, I had to say “whoa.” I was lucky this time. These men listened carefully when I explained what a typical 5-year-old will know at the end of the year. I told them what I had already noticed in the boy and the kind of progress he will make over the next few months. I pointed to student samples in the room from kids who were with me last year. And we talked about ways we can work together to make it all happen.
I learned about the boy’s interest in music that grandpa is trying to support with a small keyboard, as well as his love for taking care of farm animals. I also heard the father say several times how eager he was to have his children be successful in school because he knows it is the ticket to better employment opportunities than he has had.
We talked for an hour and a half, an easy conversation but significant in so many ways. I will need to be in touch with the child’s mom as well, as these two parents have split up and share custody. I’m hoping my conference with her will be as meaningful but I do feel good about the relationship I’ve established with at least two special people in this child’s life.
I got a call last Friday from my teacher’s assistant to tell me her sister had suffered a heart attack and she needed to go to Mexico, at least for a week. “What do I do?” she asked. It isn’t that Susy has never been sick or absent before but never for a whole week and with so much uncertainty.
I am lucky. I was a co-op preschool teacher for about 20 years before moving to a school district and my assistants were the parents of children in my class. I loved having parents work in my class but they had varying abilities of skill in working with groups of children. They were responsible for finding their own sub if they couldn’t come which was a great system for keeping me supplied with classroom help. However, there wasn’t a system for filling in my position if I was sick or had to be gone. Every year I would begin September by getting to know the parents and identifying one or two who would be comfortable filling in for me in a pinch. The year my son was born prematurely in August, the whole group of parents stepped up to the plate and started school for me.
The substitute system in the school district was a blessing I didn’t really think about when I took this job 13 years ago. But the first time I had to call in sick it was such a relief to be able to roll over and go back to bed and work on getting well instead of worrying about how the day was going to go. Likewise, when my assistants had to be gone, I knew someone would be there to do their job so I could carry on teaching class. Of course the day is usually a bit rocky; the children react to a substitute in all kinds of ways, and I have to work to clue the sub into the plans all day long which keeps me on high alert.
Susy has been working with me for about 9 years now. We are a good team. She has received a lot of training to do the job well and she is extremely conscientious. We’ve learned to communicate volumes with just the rise of an eyebrow, the slight shake of a head, the tipping of a finger towards a child or area in the classroom.
It is the second week of school and the students barely know the routine. Subs have been found for her position and have worked in my classroom before which is great – they know me, but they don’t know this group of children.
It will be a stressful week and I will be grateful when Susy returns. I am also hoping everything is going well for her sister in Mexico.
What does it take to have a perfect first day – I think I know: necessary people. There are the parents who show up for orientation, interpreters who come eager to communicate, children who brave a barrage of shepherding by adults they don’t know in a stimulating environment at once tantalizing and overwhelming.
What does it take to have a perfect first day – I think I know: small details. So many materials need to be created and made ready before this one day. I punched and cut 17 stars and labeled them to be the children’s nametags, I made 5 sets of name cards for all the ways the children participate in the room – their jobs, their work places at the table, some with magnets for posting on our question board. Toothbrushes are labeled and racked, a template for creating a family portrait was copied and put with the crayons. I cooked a fresh batch of playdough, poured soapy water in the sensory table and hung aprons close by. I looked through the closets and chose toys for play suitable for the youngest and the oldest attending.
What does it take to have a perfect first day – I think I know: a master plan. There are high expectations for our first day. The parents need to be walked through the parent manual and receive training for pedestrian and bus safety. The children are expected to attend breakfast, learn how to wash their hands and brush their teeth at school. We have to walk through the halls, try not to get locked out of the building or get separated from our class as we move from playground to classroom. I revised my lesson plan at least 5 times, trying to efficiently get it all on one page. I sat down with my aide to explain “the big idea” for the week and the tiny objectives planned within each activity.
What does it take to have a perfect first day – I think I know: patience and attention to a child’s rhythm. A first day has so many pieces to it but in order for it to be successful for a child, it needs to move at a child’s pace, attending to wonder and joy. I am always willing to scrap it all but it feels good when the day meets my needs as well as the children’s.
I think today was that kind of day.