In September, Saskia, then just 19 months, began spending three mornings a week at the Sunnyside Child Care Center. This is a dreamy spot: at the end of a road, perched above sloping woods, not far from the path beyond Paradise Pond at Smith College. Picture a comfortable and large Victorian structure surrounded by play areas. In the Younger Group’s room there is always so much to discover, from picture books in the shelves by a low seat to a table filled with cool stuff such as dry pasta or rice or flour—and toys. With tables and chairs at toddler height, there’s such an overriding sense of the space existing in service to young people. For all the ways parents cater to their children, we generally can and do not create a pocket of the world at their level.
We were very relaxed about Saskia starting school. Her brother, Remy, logged four lovely years at Sunnyside (and her eldest brother, Ezekiel, enjoyed one summer there during his preschool years). Remy had had—and loved—one of Saskia’s teachers, John. Going in, we already knew Sunnyside was bound to become a favorite place for Saskia.
Although she was very used to being around other children (youngest of four, in a bustling, social household), Saskia is accustomed to being the smallest. Even her two closest family friends, Arella and Amartya, are both just a bit older (by a year, by nine months), enough so that they were always ahead, crawling when she was in arms, walking when she crawled, talking as she walked. So, the tumble of kids her age and up to a year older in the room was… new.
Resourceful little girl found her route to landing in this new place; she attached herself, almost literally, to “Johnny,” and held on tight. For the first weeks there, she repeated, “Johnny. Johnny,” all morning long, unwilling for him to be out of sight. She loved him up. He loved her right back, patient and warm and kind and willing to take her cues as she got comfortable and increasingly curious and eager to explore her new environment. Over time, she was, according to John, in the thick of everything. He said, “Although she’s the youngest, she is able to do everything the bigger kids do.” When I pick her up and we walk and stroll home, I ask what she did today and she almost always begins by answering, “Johnny/Sammy (Sammy’s a good pal).” Then, I hear something like, “Had bagels,” or “Jonah hit me.” John taught by being receptive to Saskia’s needs and in so doing, he facilitated a gentle landing into the new world of school.
What makes a teacher great? According to an article that focused upon Teach for America’s methods of screening candidates and assessing success in the Atlantic, perseverance is one determining factor. Another is the teacher’s “life satisfaction.” In essence, teachers who are happy—and including, presumably, happy being teachers—transmit more energy and enthusiasm and are better able to focus than unsatisfied teachers. Okay, I’d buy both of those observations. No doubt that patience and determination along with enthusiasm and buoyancy are all essential ingredients for successful teaching.
With my kids’ teachers, I’d add one more quality that pushes good teachers into that vaulted amazing category: an ability to tune in, to empathize.
We had a mini case in point this week, mini, because the incident was not particularly big, but gigantic because of the sea change it represented—for Remy. I can’t swear to all the details; I wasn’t a firsthand witness at school and the frenzied complaints of a distraught first grader may or may not be completely accurate…
As I understand what happened, though, some math work done in class had Remy partnered up with another child, one whose preference for double checking work and struggles to produce the writing of the actual numbers on the page frustrated Remy greatly, because the boy’s pace meant that the duo did not complete the work in the allotted period of time. Remy complained, “O and A had time to read three books, and I could have finished and three read books, too! Easily!” Adding insult to injury was this ominous consequence, said Remy, “We have to stay in for recess! To finish work I had finished!” He capped his litany with that famous seven year-old refrain, “It’s totally unfair!”
I think I responded as most parents would: with sympathetic clucking noises, and then venturing a few assurances such as, I’m sure you won’t have to miss all of recess and it’s really hard to work with partners sometimes. I offered to talk to the teacher. “That never works!” he cried out. Then, he added, “Kids aren’t supposed to complain.” I countered with the idea that although I didn’t know exactly what Ms. Perkins’ response would be, I was pretty sure she wanted to know when he was frustrated, and that I was also pretty sure she wanted to help him feel less frustrated.
He replied, still gruffly, “She’s not even there anymore. You can’t talk to her.” I said I could email her. “Yes,” he said, “email her.
First thing through the door, he asked again that I email her. It’s important to note at this juncture in the story that with other frustrations (he’s at times a cranky guy, so this was decidedly not the first) he has not wanted me to make contact with the warm, receptive, sunny Ms. Perkins about his upsets (and when he’s caught me bringing them to her as an aside during the bustling choice time that begins the class’ day, he has chided me more than once for doing so).
She got my heads-up email. That morning, she explained to me, “It’d take about five seconds of recess, not missing recess and not a punishment.” I could reply that for Remy, missing any recess sounded like and was experienced as a punishment, regardless of intent.
At school, she and Remy talked it over, and—this is one thing I love about first grade teachers—she told Remy she’d changed her mind about the recess thing and miraculously, they finished the work in class and no one missed any recess. That afternoon, having gotten an email from her midday that Remy’s morning had been hard, and when she talked to him about the math assignment, he was tearful in response, and that he was struggling over the poem he was writing, I really worried that I’d have a grumpy, grumbling Remy on my hand. He was totally cheerful though, walking home with his pal, Emily, and half an oatmeal cookie in hand. I asked how the math had worked out after he and Ms. Perkins talked. He answered, “Perfectly.” He said the day was “great.”
Well, the poem has continued to vex Remy over the weekend. More importantly, though, he got himself into the weekend peacefully and generally contentedly.
Remy’s tenure at the school will include lot of partnering work, some seamlessly, some involving frustration. Saturday morning, his sixth grader brother, Lucien, invited Remy to help build a house from cube blocks, an in-school assignment Lucien missed because he was home sick on Friday. Lucien explained the parameters and the objective and side-by-side they constructed would-be buildings. (Quick aside: Lucien’s fabulous teacher, Tom Weiner, has enthusiasm for teaching and learning spilling out from him through the classroom, into the hallway and through the annals of the school’s history). As I watched older brother, so practiced in partner work, bring younger brother to the building process I remembered that each older brother had experienced frustrations along with way with partner work (and, knowing Remy, he’ll experience more frustration with it than either of the older two). Ms. Perkins’ willingness to hear Remy out represents such a critical moment in the learning process: she was able to hear—and hold—his dissatisfaction and he could be heard—and held.