New York City, NY

Ode to an Early Childhood Educator

Laura Head

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Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

I have a friend who's in deep as a private preschool educator in New York City. To her credit, she's pretty comfortable with the chaos that normally ensues in an early education classroom.

In her classroom, they have two teachers with a bachelor’s, and one with a masters. One teacher is commonly out, leaving the two of them to their own devices, along with a floater, and 12 two-year old children.

Last year in her class, each of the twelve were at a varying degree of stability in the classroom. Some were independent; resourceful; autonomous. Others needed considerable direction and redirection in order to not start fires (figuartive or literal) on the carpet.

Consider too that one of the twelve was a New Kid. She’s what we call phasing in - She comes in for a short period of time every day just to get used to the classroom, typically accompanied by an adult.

They juggled the classroom of personalities as they implemented curriculum. As educators, they're held to high standards; their students need to use their years to build a strong foundation that will later serve them in their academics. To the untrained eye, it may look like play, but the twos class is in fact about prompting patterns, developing language and communication skills, sharing and socializing, and kinesthetic awareness. That means that morning and afternoon, teachers are busy developing loose parts of curriculum, evaluating physical development, potty training, and facilitating conversations with twos that will help to develop their vocabulary and cognition.

I'm thinking that at a couple points in time they have considered hiring octopi teachers, as their superior prehensile skills would be an asset to the multi-tasking that is a given in an early educator's day to day.

She did it anyway, with pride. There was a time in her life, my friend tells me, before the realities of 2020 set in, that she lived in blissful ignorance. She went to work and led rigorous learning to twos, threes, fours, and fives, as they like to call them. She wiped runny noses while teaching basic addition, correcting oral motor mistakes, and intervening on conflict resolution. She sat high and mighty, with just the right amount of self-righteousness that her day job was not a conventional to-do list of autonomous tasks but a superhuman host of chores far too long for one person to get done alone.

Then COVID hit.

All teachers and at least 50% of the children must wear masks at all times, except that the two-year-olds don’t have to wear masks on Tuesdays, or when it’s the day before Thanksgiving break, or when the city chancellor wears green. Every material that enters a child’s mouth is to be immediately bleached and returned to its proper place. Toys from home are positively barred, except for if it’s 10:35 on the 2nd day of the third week of the month, or if it’s made out of synthetic nylon. Teachers cannot provide one-on-one support to students, except during conflicts, to our new kids, and to any child who has been glued to his late-to-work mother.

Forget developmental gains. Forget potty training. Forget learning. Everything is putting out COVID fires now.

I can’t decide which would be more exhausting: COVID regulations keeping me from teaching, or the cognitive dissonance of capricious rules and regulations.

It’s not just her, either. Behold, some words from my other pre-k teacher friends:

My co-teacher had to translate for someone at the hospital, and our school told her she had to quarantine for two weeks. Now I’m virtually by myself with 15 three-year-olds every day.
I’m constantly informed that ‘I can handle it’ when one of my co-teachers is out. But keeping up with the demand for cleaning, mask monitoring, and child safety all while trying to satisfy curriculum requirements is unreasonable.
I had to bleach a bunch of blocks in another room, and a child opened one of our gates. My co-teacher couldn’t leave the rest of the children to run after her, and another teacher was already writing up an accident report. The child slammed into the wall...we’re lucky there wasn’t any blood.
How was I supposed to stop James from breaking that glass? I had ten children on the rug with me while my co-teacher was in the bathroom with another child. And all because we couldn’t get help that day since we were understaffed!

Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs

"Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a basic tenet of virtually all student learning. As educators, we always aim to meet physiological and physical safety first - we then use the pyramid as a way to guide our empathy to students, the construction of the social-emotional skills, self-actualization, and our own prioritizing of rigorous learning."
Says my pre-k teacher friend. "But COVID really threw a big wrench into the pyramid."
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A quality of education requires the fulfillment of all five needs on Maslow's Heirarchy. It used to be that in most school settings, the basic needs were more or less a given. Kids come to school, have a roof over their head, a consistent schedule ahead of them, and a lunch to get them through the day.

But in a New York classroom during a global pandemic where the ratio of two-year-olds to adults is 5:1, these needs are the only thing you can guarantee.

On behalf of educators, I look forward to a future where school leaders can aim again for better than basic safety, and instead to realizing their educational philosophies, their commitment to health and wellness, and building a nurturing environment that furthers the whole child development of the entire school community.

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Passionate educator writing insights on learning, sharing travel thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.

New York City, NY
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