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Listen and Learn

September 1, 2011

Despite Mother Nature’s efforts to disrupt the start of school this past week, we are off and running!  There was a smidge of disruption  behind the scenes – a few more plants in the classroom would have been nice, a few more library books keenly displayed in the room, uniforms would have been ironed if we had power, staff meetings were condensed or postponed – but we made it through earthquake and hurricane.  The attitude of doing the best with what you’ve got certainly prevailed.  The forces beyond our control also served as a solid reminder that while a lot of the scurrying, prepping and planning one might do for the start of school is valuable, what really counts is establishing a positive and satisfying relationships with the children and families with whom we’ll spend this year.

In preschool, we start the year with a letter to each  child and family, followed up by short conferences and an abbreviated visit  in our room.  This meet-and-greet format may seem simple, but the true purpose is for each of us to listen and learn and to set the tone for on-going dialogue.   As teachers, we have the experiences and perspectives on child development and curriculum.  Parents and grandparents are a child’s first teacher and know that individual child far better than we do at this time.  Just like with students, parents need to have basic needs met before they can take risks (i.e. send their child off to school relatively stress-free).  Adults need a sense of belonging, a feeling that they are significant and an understanding that this new envirnoment will be fun and engaging. Most families also come to preschool with a long list of thoughtful questions ranging from the mundane (“Does my child need a folder?”) to philosophical questions (“How do you handle discipline?”), so this meeting also serves an important need to cover the nuts and bolts that allow busy parents to check a few tasks off their lists.

Once we answer the important mechanical questions, it’s time for me to do more listening and learning.  I love asking parents to share the first three words that come to mind when they think of their child. Some chuckle, some break into a smile, others pause and think for a bit.  The follow-up question is “What are some of your child’s strengths?”  There’s often a longer pause or a larger smile.  After just three years together, parents often recognize traits that will stay with a child a life time  such as “thoughtful,” “playful,” “inquisitive.”   Other times, the adult comments reflect the classic hallmarks of a three-year-old  like “wants my attention or approval,” “loves stories,” or  “attached to…(specific everyday items).”  These observations not only provide keen insights as to who the child is at this moment in his/her life, but also help me gauge how much information the family will need and/or want  in terms of child development and parenting.  I love hearing parents talk about their children, whether it’s a slow metamorphosis from reserved dialogue to a relaxed, proud sharing of this little person they love so dearly or an enthusiastic and unequivocal campaign speech of their child’s personality, strengths and life outside of school.  I learn so much from these meetings about the child’s interests, the parents engagement with school, and how we can best work together to support individual children, families and our program.

Just as these parents expect that their children will learn from their teachers and school, I expect to learn from these families and their children. Already, I’ve learned these four of these children are bilingual in three different languages.  Some have traveled or lived overseas. Some are raised by nontraditional families or  live in diverse cultures, while others are first or fourth in a family.  Each and every one of these wee ones came into the classroom with a certain level of comfort, but in just a few short hours became more engaged in the environment and with adults and peers.  It’s a slow unfolding that I am fortunate enough to help facilitate, yet respect that much of their development and growth will unfold precisely when each child is ready.  To best serve the child’s needs and to honor the unique personality of each,  all the adults in each child’s life will need a strong partnership.  This is just the beginning.   Like standing on the high on a mountain or along the shore of the beach, the first days of school offers so many lessons and provocations when you take the time to listen and learn before embarking on a long, fulfilling  journey together.

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