Last week I had the opportunity to work with a group of teenagers during a symposium coordinated by Operation Breaking Stereotypes. It was the first time in a long time that I planned and delivered a lesson for adolescents where the goals and pedagogy were completely my own. It felt good. At the end of the session, as I was riding a teaching high, the event coordinator said to me, “You still have it in front of teenagers.” He was right, and I knew it. I felt entirely comfortable in my role as teacher. I knew how to “work the crowd.” I knew how to bring rowdiness to focus. I knew when to extend and when to transition. In short, I knew how to teach this group of high schoolers.
Yesterday, the preschoolers shredded that confidence. During the morning as the lead teacher worked individually with the children to complete their projects, I interacted on the rug with the remaining group. At one point, the second teacher in the class took three of the children to the bathroom (when one has to go, the potty train chugs out of the room), leaving me with one of the more challenging children and a pile of stackable “Os” in various colors. I had noticed the teacher helping the child make his stack, and so I shifted into place to become that support for him. At first the game went well; he picked up an O, I helped him maneuver it onto the pile, and he pushed it into place. After we had four in a row, I pointed out the pattern of color and suggested the next color O in the pattern. He caught onto the game, and we continued for two more levels before my shadow joined our game.
My shadow, as I’ve come to think of her, is a cute-as-a-button blondie who caught my eye the first day I entered the 2.5 class and who consistently finds her way to my side, no matter what the activity. I was not surprised to see her slide onto the rug next to me as I worked with this other child. Unfortunately, her presence disrupted his focus, and it upset him. As his angst became more vocal, I tried desperately to refocus him on the task at hand. I held the stack of Os up to him, pointed to the next color in the pattern, and said his name clearly, asking him to find the next color. I used techniques I use with my own son when he gets upset; I mimicked techniques I had used with the rowdy teens the week before.
My focus tricks did not work, however, and the director of the preschool, who was also in the room, came behind the child to rub his back and soothe him. I noted the contrast between her approach and mine. “Was I doing it wrong?” I thought to myself. “Should I be more nurturing, less demanding?” At that moment, my confidence left me. I had no idea how to teach this child.
Ultimately, the boy came back to the task, but it was neither me nor the director that brought him there. Rather, it was my shadow, the young girl whose presence had set her peer into a frenzy. Gently, more gently than I thought would be possible for a not quite 3-year-old, she handed him the next color in the pattern. He took it from her, put it on the stack, and with my help, snapped it into place. Though his cries hadn’t subsided, we repeated the process – my asking for the next color in the pattern, the girl’s handing the O to the boy, and his placing it on the stack – four more times, and as we did so, he quieted. Amazed by the transformation that had occurred in front of me, I moved back from the tall tower, and invited the two children to knock it down. They giggled together as they collapsed the structure and then moved on to other play.
In hindsight, I should have known how to bring the child back to the task. I was humbled by a young girl who knew instinctively that he just needed a little help and a little patience to get back on track.