The JV and varsity basketball players in my high school were expected to serve as coaches for the 5 – 8 grade intramural program. It was one of my first experiences as a teacher, and after coaching both the 5/6 graders, many of whom had never held a basketball before the session, and the 7/8 graders, most of whom had played in the 5/6 porgram, I knew that being a high school teacher was the route for me. “I want to refine skills,” I told my mom, my teachers, and my counselors. “I have no patience for teaching the basics.”
Spending time in preschool this semester has changed my thinking. I think I could, in fact, work with 3- and 4-year-olds on a regular basis without losing my grip on sanity, guiding them as they develop basic skills that will help them to succeed in school and in life. The persona I’ve developed as a preschool teacher has helped me talk to children; it has made me comfortable in situations where I wasn’t before; and it has increased my patience – both with my teaching and with my own children at home. In the last two months, I’ve grown to believe I could actually do this: I could be a preschool teacher.
And then yesterday I entered the 2.5 year old class, where I was reminded of basketball intramurals and why I preferred working with the older kids.
The morning began with green play dough, but unlike in the older classes, where children played freely with self-selected toys, the “Lambs” all gathered together around their classroom table. The children obediently smashed and rolled, cut and tore the dough with the teachers encouraging them to “use those muscles.” My realization last week that play dough serves as an important tool in fine motor development helped me understand this morning routine.
I noticed immediately, however, that even though there were two teachers and only eight students, the smallest ratio I had yet seen, the adults had their hands full. In fact, as the morning progressed, my mentors never stopped moving, constantly and physically guiding the children to stay focused, stay in line, and stay on task. As we worked collaboratively to create a large rainbow, gluing colored squares on a 4-ft-wide arch, the children helped eagerly. The teachers kept the project moving with quick hands and focused directions. As we selected colored pom poms to throw into the parachute during the “what color do we have” song, the teachers moved with lightning speed to keep small fingers from taking too many pom poms. As she read the story during circle time, the lead teacher called attention back to the book on nearly every page, using her voice and her hands to settle the children whose attention started to roam.
On the play yard, I noted the differences between recess with this group and the older group. When I have watched the older children on the playground, I chat with the teachers, who only occasionally intervene in the children’s play. At this age the children need much more attention, and for a good portion of the recess, one of the teachers engaged them in a 2.5 year old version of tag.
Though independence is encouraged and supported, the tots have trouble controlling their id and following the rules. “You are a wrangler!” I joked with my mentor as she expertly steered three children, one right after the other, back into the line in the hallway. She laughed, obviously at ease with her role. I thought of the 5th grade basketball players, moving without plan or skill in packs or independently across the court, and I knew that the teachers of the 2.5 year old class had more patience than I would ever be able to muster.