I listened with interest to the President’s State of the Union speech the other night and was thrilled when I heard him call for quality preschool education for all children. My wife of 39 years and I both started out in the field in preschool education — she was a preschool teacher and director of several schools with her masters in early childhood and I occasionally joined her between other jobs, as a talented amateur. We spent many years teaching the basic goals of society to two, three and four year olds.When I “taught” preschool most of my time was spent singing with, talking to, reciting to and listening to children.
I believe fervently that this is the exact way we should approach the problem of restructuring American education — from the ground, or just a few feet above the ground, i.e. the height of a small child, up.
Eventually I left my first field, archaeology, and re-entered education and gained professional status.
A third of my career was devoted to teaching kindergarten. As an eleven year veteran of that kindergarten teaching I saw the progression of an ever-widening gap that appeared between children who entered school ready to learn and those who had little or no clue as to why they were there. I left the teaching of kindergarten some years ago, pleading wobbly knees that made floor sitting a relic of my past but I have continued to watch with keen interest each new school year’s arrivals and after discussing my observations with many colleagues I can definitively say that the gap is still growing.
In my current iteration as a part-time retiree I spend parts of four days a week working at the school where I retired from the classroom. My hats are many but one thing I do is escort excessively disruptive children from their classroom. I am called in when they are bringing the whole day’s work to a standstill. (You know, it would be kind of like taking Tea Party Republicans out of Congress so they could get something done.)
What do I do with these children? If there aren’t two many, I simply talk with them. Not at them, but “with them”. I get their side of the story, ask them what happened, we discuss what they did, and if we are lucky we try to get at a solution for the next time. Often they simply say, “I got angry.” Invariably I ask them, “Is it ok to get angry?” You’d be surprised to hear how many say, “No.”
“Yes it is!” I always say, “everybody gets angry. It’s what you do when you get angry that makes the difference.” Then we spend some time talking about alternatives to just melting down or striking out.
I believe this highlights one of the crucial problems we face in our rapidly-changing society, nobody’s talking to kids. It’s not that they are being ignored purposely, they just get lost in the shuffle. Most families today cannot survive on one income, I know that when my wife and I were raising our kids we had trouble making it on two teacher’s salaries and my part-time jobs. Things are even worse now.
Which brings me back to my original premise. The President calls for quality preschool for all children. Research shows such a thing would go a long way toward preparing our children adequately for what they need to do in school. But who funds it?
If we just tell people “Put your kid in a good preschool.” and leave it there then nothing happens, most families are already struggling to make ends meet and they won’t have the resources to go out and find that good program much less pay for it.
And what constitutes a “good” preschool program. Well I can tell you what it is not, it is not academics, it is not seatwork and it is not listening to adults do all the talking. It is singing, it is moving, it is playing and learning how to share. It is internalizing a routine that helps you learn what the expectations are for you to successful as a member of your community. Most of all it is a language-rich environment that builds vocabulary, meaning and understanding. 1)
Do parents have the time to find such programs? Some do, but not all.
No, if the President is serious about this, and I believe he is, then we must provide quality preschool education as part of the public school system, we must recruit teachers, well versed in developmental theory and practice to staff those preschool classrooms and most importantly we must pay those teachers well and fully fund their programs to keep them in that classroom.
Oh, and while were at it, we might want to extend these same ideas to the entirety of our educational system.