Saturday, September 09, 2006

Catch a CLUE about Kindergartners

There are as many different perspectives as there are people and animals in the world, right?

Which makes what I've been pondering for the past few years frustrating: how do people (leaving other animals out of the equation for the time being) reach agreement on "big issues" so that we can best function and work toward a common goal? Let's use education and teaching for this examination.

There are at least twelve different grade levels in the public school system. There are different developmental stages that most humans experience (and observe others working their way through) over the course of a lifetime. Most teachers and other adults acknowledge and generally comprehend which differences exist between a kindergarten student and a fifth grader, between a second grader, and an eighth grader, between a seventh grader and a senior in high school, thanks to Vygotsky, Piaget, heck, even Freud and the college professors who introduced many of us to their findings and assertions! Curriculum materials, social scripts, vocabulary are all supposed to be geared in an appropriate way for each age group or grade, and there **are** differences to be found in all of the materials offered up to students in grades very near to one another. First graders build upon skills learned in kindergarten, second graders build upon skills developed in the first grade and kindergarten before that, etc.

But many teachers, administrators, parents, and politicians tend to blur the lines when it comes to what they (teachers et al.) want from and expect of children. Students are now expected to reach A.Y.P. no matter their age or grade. To quote a former student of mine, "Teacher, how come the principal keeps telling me about L-M-N-O-P?" Yes. "L-M-N-O-P." The response that popped into my head was "Because Honey, the principal has no clue what kindergarten students think, see, or feel, because if she did, she wouldn't be wasting your time with fifty dollar words and abbreviations that make no sense and are of no relevance to how you perceive your school experiences." No, I didn't say it. I had some other, more developmentally appropriate answer for her that 1) reassured her that she wasn't in trouble and that she'd understand when she was older (because yes, she appeared concerned that she had upset the principal) and 2) kept me from jeopardizing a nice letter of recommendation for future use.

Number crunched data obtained from students in abnormal testing situations once per year (or MUCH more often!), or obtained from a computer program that cannot and does not take a student's personality, needs, quirks and feelings into consideration are considered very accurate and reliable indicators of who and what those students are. Of what they are capable, of what they "need" in order to make L-M-N-O-P. So tests and computers are the most utilized "tools" in schools now. And all children, regardless of age or grade, are expected to use them efficiently and accurately, as well as operate within the school's own set of rules and expectations. "Accomplish NOW." "A magic sprinkling of perfect-walking, perfect lining-up, perfectly-quiet-in-the-hallways, perfect potty-flushing, perfect indoor-voices, perfect test-taking, perfect social-skills" dust has been dumped on your heads as you walked in the door. No matter your age, your previous life experiences (or lack thereof, after all, some of you are only five years old), your cultural background, your socio-economic status, or your gender, you WILL be PERFECT. Because I said so. And if you're not, I get to yell. A lot. Or blow a whistle at you. Or berate you and your teacher for not making sure that you behave PERFECTLY. Oh, and hey, YOU obviously didn't try hard enough, and neither did your parents because YOU are part of the sub-group that made US fail to meet L-M-N-O-P." No pressure. And don't you find the message oh-so-appropriate for children of all ages?

This type of message wouldn't work for any adult in any workplace- in fact, it would be considered abusive. A lot of employees would quit, transfer, or, if forced to stay in the job by financial need, would do the bare minimum each day and dread every moment he or she had to spend on site. How do people in the arena of public education, those guides for our children, allow who and what children ARE to be replaced by percentages and data sheets? Relationship building, once so important, and necessary for helping keep students IN SCHOOL and keeping parents and families involved, has been thrown by the wayside. So in walks the discrepancy that has been frustrating me for a while now and that makes me wish I could say the following things in the following situations:

"Excuse me, but your students aren't displaying appropriate audience behavior."

Response: Thank you for noticing. Appropriate audience behavior is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed over time. Obviously my students have not had such practice before coming to my class this year. Have you noticed how eager they are? Behaving as all NORMAL children do when thrust into a new situation? They're looking, they're expressing themselves verbally, they're stimulated by all of the new faces, sounds, the decor, and it's all hitting them like a freightrain. And somehow you expect them to sit quietly, eyes forward, and participate in choral responses they've never heard before. Hmmmmm...... we'll be WORKING ON IT.

"Your student wouldn't answer me! So I told him/her that I was going to talk to his/her teacher and we'd get this straightened out because I expect all students to respond to me appropriately and follow our school rules!"

Response: Thank you for bringing me your concern. And please, let me tell you what realm kindergarten students are in when they see an adult, who is a stranger, coming down on them like a ton of bricks.

1) If the child is from a large family, where using loud voices is probably the only way he or she is heard.... or where parents have to use loud voices to get the child's attention because of the mayhem in the house... that child is going to NOT HEAR YOU, **OR** WILL TUNE YOU OUT JUST LIKE HE/SHE DOES TO HIS/HER PARENTS. It's not a conspiracy. I promise. Most five year olds don't wake up each morning thinking "Oh yeah, I think I'll mess with the third grade teacher today- she thinks she's got authority over me, but when that bell rings at recess, I'll show her who's the MAN." Stop taking it so personally. As much as you hate it, you're not that important a person to my students. Why not? Because **I** am. Most parents and adults who deal with young children understand that kindergarten students still occupy their own universes. Learning to share resources, toys, and a teacher's attention requires each child's acceptance that he or she is no longer the king or queen of his or her domain. Yep, it's a real "stage." Developmental even. **I'm** lucky to have been given permission to wear the crown! As a result, I too, live in the ME-ME-ME world: My students will respond to ME. They will watch ME for my signals, for my facial expressions, and will work primarily toward obtaining my acceptance. See, it's really MY world (wink!)! Put down your whistle, take a deep breath, count to ten. Eat some chocolate.

2) If the child has never experienced some stranger (yes, YOU, even if you wear a name-badge, even if you walk in the same hallways that we do each day- you're a STRANGER) telling him/her what to do, demanding behavior of him/her, and forcing a consequence on him/her for behavior and skills still being learned and fine-tuned, the child will be scared. Terrified in some cases. Which is apparently what many teachers are hoping for. They want to scare children into "behaving." Most kindergarten students will not be scared into "behaving." They will be scared of YOU. They will be scared of school. And they will dread the thought that if they're "good at school" and finish kindergarten, first, second, or whatever grade, they get YOU as their next teacher. Nice going. Way to get those kids happy, involved, eager to please, and performing optimally for your L-M-N-O-P. Oh and by the way, you turn me into their defender, instead of their guide and teacher. Thanks so much for building an aura of fear into a place where children are a captive audience for at least twelve years. I'm sure they'll want to fulfill your expections (and become healthy, productive, life-long-learners) just the way you want. Yes, that would be sarcasm.

3) By the way, would you EVER let another person speak to you the same way you spoke to and about my student? Yes? Then get a spine and the voice to back it up. If you wouldn't, then why on Earth would you ever consider speaking that way to a child who lacks the emotional coping skills to deal with what you are saying and how you are acting? Hellooooooooo, McFly! How would you feel if a teacher spoke that way to your child? Your niece or nephew? Your grandchild? If it wouldn't be okay for them, it's NOT okay for anyone else (hello Golden Rule!), whether you're in a grumpy mood or not. Oh and by the way, if it WOULD be okay for your child or any of your other relatives? Your parenting skills aren't the only ones out there. Some parents will NOT appreciate your approach. And they would be correct. And yes, you'll have to respect their input and directives when they correct you, even though you won't agree with it. And you'll have to compromise. You're a grown up. Do it.

4) Were you aware that there's a great big world out there? Full of different cultures, different languages, different abilities and disabilities? As you raise your voice with my students, I hope you remember that yes, to some, you really ARE speaking Greek! To others, you're moving your facial muscles in a really interesting pattern, because hey, they can't hear you. For some of my culturally diverse students, your insistence that they look you in the eye, or refrain from moving backward as you invade their personal space is considered MISBEHAVIOR in their homes. And no, being five year olds, they're not used to discriminating between home, family, and school yet, though I can guarantee that they're certainly developing a strong bias against YOU. Ever heard of ADD? Autism? Auditory or visual difficulties? How about speech and language delays? Learning disabilities? Of course you have. Now, tie into your professional knowledge the following reminder: my students are only five years old. Not thirteen, not twenty-three. Not forty-five. FIVE. They do not, and will not have the skills to self-moniter or self-accomodate in order to address whatever their individual needs might be. Right now, they're still trying to remember that it's okay to leave the blocks center to use the bathroom in enough time to prevent an "accident."

5) You are a role model. And you're modeling horrible behavior. You've just taught my students that grown ups tattle after throwing their own hissy fits. You want my students to "know" you're "right." Well, you've taught my students that you will threaten them, and no, they won't think you're "right" to do it. Because little kid logic is an element in and of its' own. You want a kindergartner to think like you? To walk around in your shoes? Dream on Baby. YOU need to get down on your knees and crawl around in the classroom, the hallways, and on the playground, not because I'm trying to make you submissive or punish you, but because you need to see the world through a five year old's eyes. And remember, you're still probably half a head taller than my students when you are on your knees. You have a lifetime of experiences and coping skills (kind of) that they don't. That they won't for years to come. Who knew the ceiling was really that high? Who knew the teachers were really that frighteningly tall? Who knew the water fountain was so hard to operate with such tiny hands? Who knew how hard the walls were when older and bigger students pushed you into them? My students will not learn how to put themselves in the shoes of their friends, their teachers, or anyone else in two weeks' time. Get used to it. And by the way, put yourself in their shoes. Regularly. You'll be a better teacher and person if you do.

I belong to a profession whose members can't make up their collective minds HOW to "be" with students. With children. These are smart, highly educated adults, professionals. Who read the journals. Who read the articles. Who attend the inservices. Who share the books and recommend educational authors. Who have forgotten that the children they serve are human beings, and not numbers to crunch. Who have themselves, broken every appropriate rule when it comes to building trust, encouraging imagination, and helping the whole child and their families, emotions and all. Who then look at children today and say "I remember when students were well behaved. I remember when kindergarten students knew the rules. I remember when...." all the time.

Here's a hint to educational old timers, teachers, administrators, politicians and parents alike: When you start saying "I remember when" phrases with negative follow ups about your students and mine every day, it's time for you to quit. You've lost the big picture, you're burnt out, and you, yes, you, are doing more harm than good. You're not a failure, you're just DONE with this part. Time to regroup. Move on. Solve the problem, shift the paradigm. You know, the way you expect all children to be able to do. Right now.

And of course, most of you won't quit. You need your retirement. You need your paycheck and it's too difficult to "start over" again. Or, you're too lazy. Hmmmm.... now you've taught the kids that it's okay to do a bad job. To settle. To hurt others because of your own lack of initiative. And you wonder why children behave the way they do. I think the kids have gotten the message loud and clear, and frankly, I'd appreciate it if you'd keep your mixed messages to yourself. Please stay out of my room, stay out my students' faces, and let me, and my kids, do our jobs. Safely. Emotionally and physically. Effectively. On an appropriate timeline, not your ridiculous one-size-fits-no-one model. If you'd like some recommended titles or authors to help you reconnect with the mindset of young children so that you can return to your days as an effective and respected teacher, let me know. But stop with the bullhorns and barking. I for one, am NOT scared. I for one, know better. I know the truth and the bottom line. And it's not "A.Y.P."

It's "L-M-N-O-P."

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