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Stretching into the First Six Weeks of School

September 10, 2009

starting school - stretching ourselves in new ways

starting school - stretching ourselves in new ways

Many of you wrote with comments and observations on back to school. It’s a ritual that evolves slightly for each of us, but seems to evoke many of the similar emotions no matter our age.  Change is hard on all of us, even when it’s welcome change.  I’ve noticed this year, that the change into the school routine was initially easier on little folks than it is on big folks.  Then as the routine begins to feel real, the little guys have a temporary dwindling of energy and enthusiasm – which often seems to parallel adults exhalations and realizations that they have a little more time on their hands.  Slowly this process levels out and we are in our groove.  In school, we call this period the “first six weeks” – a period of introductions, connections, and learning which sets the tone for individual, class, and school-wide growth for the duration of the year.  I love this time of year. It’s like opening a present and seeing the magical potential it holds.

Last weekend I had time to really consider the first six weeks because last spring I was persuaded by a colleague to run in a half marathon and the big day was upon us.   I was not a runner by any means, so this was a big change for me.  The training  process and the event forced me into a routine and structure,  provided a sense of purpose, enabled me to take risks, and to learn more about myself.  At different stages of training, my basic needs of belonging, significance and fun were met, so that I could take those risks and grow.  Sounds a little like the goals of the first six weeks of school where those basic needs are met while learning about each other, the classroom, and our school community. So in between the local bands on the race course, I found myself comparing training to the start of school. It also kept my mind off the aches and pains knocking at my bones and joints.

The routine and structure of my training was sometimes welcomed and sometime not.  Similarly, most of us feel conflicted about the start of school. We are sad that summer fun is coming to an end and excited about new school shoes, pencils, friends, and fun.  Nearly every time I run, I know that the first 20 minutes will make or break my run. I’ can either grumble in my head or focus on whatever else I “should be”  doing, or I can choose to persevere through the first phase and hit my stride so I can go for a while. That old “self talk” about goals, self confidence, overcoming challenges can beat down excuses most days.  As I met with parents in our welcome conferences or talked with fellow parents, I found myself saying similar things to them:  The beginning of any new routine is hard. Consider your child’s needs and your families priorities and set a schedule. Then stick to it. Do not waver.  It takes 3 solid weeks to establish any new habit or routine. I often think days 7-10 of school are the hardest and if you can stick  to your routine and keep a positive outlook, it will carry you further.  Make it to day 14, and you’ll really see the benefits.  Be honest about the challenges, but affirm the positives and stay focused on the goals. Celebrate achievements. Create rituals.

My sense of purpose for running and this half marathon was deeply personal and forced me to put myself ahead of some things and people I normally defer to.  But I was clear about  why and how I would accomplish this goal and communicated that with those around me. I had to manage my time more efficiently and that’s always a good thing.  In turn, the folks around me respected my commitments, supported my efforts, and sometimes chuckled at my ability to procrastinate.   Understanding the mission and purpose of a school and the values of each family are essential in building a relationship of trust and respect  between home and school.  Identifying reasonable goals and expectations and communicating those honestly and directly helps further that relationship.  Although perspectives, skills and needs may vary or even conflict, in an effective home school partnership, the sense of purpose is always grounded in doing what is best for each child and for the class community.  That can be harder than running 13 miles, but it’s always the goal. Keep focused on the purpose and stay honest. Respect others and be as supportive as you can.

School is about taking risks and learning about oneself and the world. Many adults keep this energy and outlook their entire life, but it’s hard to really step into the shoes of a child and start something  new that’s watched by others.  For me, the subtle social pressure of sharing with others my goal and running with more experienced runners reminded me of  what it’s like for children to take risks in a classroom.  I knew intellectually, folks supported me, but there was still a little voice of uncertainty in my head.  For many kids, that voice squeaks infrequently, but for others, it rages loudly every day.  My job as a teacher is to quell those worries and let them see that anything is possible when we work together.  When we learn something new, we learn more about our own strengths, our peers, and our world. That’s the real joy in teaching – helping kids see the vast potential and all the world has to offer.

On the morning of the race, I truly felt  I belonged there with the other 15,800 runners.   Not that I am an elite nor fast runner, but I had worked hard to be in my corral and was ready to go.  Small, small fish in a big, big pond.  But I was standing next to a great colleague and friend who shared my excitement and nervousness.  We both knew we were there to finish and it didn’t much matter how we got to the boardwalk finish line.  It was a significant accomplishment that taught me to be a better runner, a more balanced human, a more understanding, empathetic teacher and parent.  And man, was it a fun morning!

As for my children, we wrapped up day six in preschool today.  We’re learning our routines, our friends’ names, how to explore and learn from all the amazing stuff our classroom and world offers.  It’s hard work to be three or four and be at school all morning. We’re a bit more tired than we were the last week. Sometimes we cry, but each day it gets easier.   Our routines are becoming more internal, we are practicing how to use materials and make transitions.  We are working with parents to communicate the purpose of our program and to learn about their values and hopes for their children.  As we lay the groundwork which will enable each child and family to feel a sense of belonging and significance, the risk taking and learning will naturally unfold.  The process is not a sprint but a half – or maybe full – marathon.  It will require  loads of practice, have its joys and challenges, draw on the strengths of all involved, and rely on the shared sense of purpose to make this an engaging year as our littlest learners stretch themselves in new ways.

finish line

finish line

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