18 Jan Preschool Evolution
Last week the N.Y. Times published an article entitled “Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?” Nursery school teachers have been dismissed as glorified babysitters, paid low hourly wages with few other benefits, and expected to put up with chaotic working conditions. After all, they were only teaching preschoolers. They had no need for academic expertise in any field.
Perceptions have changed. First, brain research done at Harvard with Project Zero showed the importance of early education: young children are capable of complex thinking. 80% of the neural connections in the brain are formed by age 3 and 90% by age 5. Second, long term studies showed that children who had good pre-school experiences tended to do better in school, were more likely to attend college and get jobs, and less likely to have teenage pregnancies, commit crimes or require public assistance. In general, connections have been made between good preschool experiences and the quality of a child’s future life.
For children in low-income areas, a strong preschool experience can make a huge life difference. These children may not have access to lots of books, extracurricular experiences, or enrichment activities like visiting a library, museum, or going on a family trip. Preschool experiences can give them the vocabulary and skills to be on an equal footing with more economically fortunate children when they get to elementary school.
How are preschool teachers to handle this enormous responsibility when, according to the article, the majority lack college degrees, are poorly paid and overworked? How can preschools with high turnover among their employees provide consistent, reassuring and enlightening educational experiences for the children who need it the most?
Various early childhood groups have determined to professionalize early childhood education by setting higher education goals for teachers and requiring them to earn associate or bachelor degrees. The theory is that when preschool teachers become more educated and professional, they will receive better pay and benefits, and be more committed to staying in their jobs. The experiences they provide for children will be more educational and effective. Aside from questions about how the teachers will pay and find time for these studies, the NY Times article questions whether degrees alone will result in better outcomes for children.
Of course, it helps to have knowledge of how children learn, of how to recognize a child’s progress or lack of it, of how to create classroom experiences that help children think and problem solve, experiment, form theories and act on them. But after my years as head of a nursery school, I feel there is more to being a good teacher than higher education. There are certain invaluable attributes that I have observed in those I would call “child whisperers.”
The first quality is to listen to children more than talk at them. By listening, we understand so much about each child, his interests, and how to use them to teach. We learn to understand what drives behavior. We show them that we respect and value their ideas. The better a teacher knows a child and his family, the more she cares about them and the harder she works to help the child be socially and intellectually successful. Each child in her class feels appreciated, safe, and ready to learn.
The second is a corollary of the first. The teacher has to be willing to relinquish control and follow the lead of the children. Not insisting on sticking to a pre-conceived plan, but going with the flow, being flexible, seizing a teaching moment when it occurs. Understanding that children shouldn’t be made to do activities that don’t interest them. A great teacher is primarily an encourager of children, not a reprimander. When things go wrong, she involves the children in finding a solution.
The teacher in the NY Times article had a high school education and a CDA (a 9 month child development course), a salary of about $28,000 a year, and very chaotic working conditions. She lived and worked in a poverty stricken neighborhood. But she also had many qualities of a good pre-school teacher. She cared about the children. She listened to them and engaged them in problem solving. She tried hard and kept trying. She established a respectful relationship with each child. Early childhood education experts need to ensure that when they raise educational requirements for teaching, they don’t force out dedicated teachers like this one.
Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years of experience in working with young children.