I promised myself this school year I would live by the mantra ‘no such thing as bad weather’. We would spend as much time as possible outside. We would let the children go outside in all weathers. We would let them be the judge of when they wanted to be outside or in.
This week was the first real test of our resolve.
We had no horrid heat in the early weeks of the year. Even with our late afternoon timetable, the summer classes enjoyed balmy days.
This week, after Samhain, as the leaves fell from the trees, a cold wind blew in from Antarctica. Temperatures fell. And today it rained. And rained and rained.
We did not push the kids to go out. We are starting inside. When the first child asks to go out, one of us goes to0, and a few (most) usually follow.
Today, they were not asking. We were all inside for a long time.
But eventually someone did want to go out. So we found jackets and coats and gumboots. A lot were not very well equipped. They had coats, but not raincoats. They had no gumboots. But it was not really all that cold. The rain was steady, but light. Inside was warm and dry, and everyone had a change of clothes.
Nothing to be afraid of.
I was just a little worried about their shoes. There were puddles. Muddy ones. I could change their pants, but I could not do anything to fix wet shoes. So we decided that people who wanted to walk in the puddles had to take their shoes and socks off first.
Most of the children gave it a go. Even one who had gumboots. Then they dried their feet and put their shoes back on.
I just wish we had worked out a system for recognising socks before we let the children strip them off.
A friend linked me to this song by Dawud Warnsby. She used to use it with students of early childhood education.
It is lovely. It vividly illustrates the idea that children should be allowed to see the world in their own creative and honest ways, and not be locked into stereotypes.
I am sure none of us would recognise ourselves in the teacher that insisted flowers can only be red.
Early childhood educators in Australia are pretty strongly wedded to the idea that we want to foster creativity in children. We are quick to produce the right language about child centred practice, about process art, about individuality.
The song is a reductio ad absurdum. It is easy not to sympathise with that stern looking teacher and her silly rules. We would never be that teacher.
But how good are we at seeing all the other ways that we are involved in institutionalising children?
And how good are we at questioning them?
We are used to educators whinging about having too many students. Lamenting a small class is not so common. But that is my problem now.
I am used to teaching 22 students. At 25, I get a bit stressed. 18 is great. 15 is ok. Even 12 at a pinch.
But at the moment I only have 5. And it is not enough.
After I have set up some activities, dealt with the separation anxiety, done some intentional teaching and had some quality interactions, I feel like I need to back off a bit and give them some space. I don’t want to be in their faces all the time.
So I write a few obs, and twiddle my thumbs for a while until somebody needs me.
The thing is, I know there are educators that are geared to work with 4-5 kids all the time. I have these kids for 2.5 hours. I don’t know what I would do with them for a whole day, like they do in FDC. The rhythms and patterns of their work are another world to me.
I suppose it goes to show how our habits and skills are particular to one setting (or age group or timeframe) and do not automatically transfer.
January 1 might be New Year’s Day, but January always feels to me like no-man’s-time. The long summer break when I forget what day it is. Camping and beach holidays. Heat waves that make it ok to spend all afternoon watching Buffy reruns.
The year really starts tomorrow, when I go back to work.
Tomorrow I will stand in the middle of an empty class room and re-imagine the space. I will negotiate with my colleagues, move tables around, position bookshelves, build platforms. I will place everything pleasingly, then realise I have only found a home for 70% of the furniture. I will place enough tables for everyone to sit for lunch, then feel I can’t cross the room without bumping. I will pace around trying to get a feel for how the traffic will flow, testing turns and pathways. I will look at the room from different angles checking the sight lines.
Tomorrow I will check the garden for deadly nightshade. I will sweep paths and shake leaves off the sandpit cover. I will pull spades and buckets and mobilo and tricycles out of the shed. I will check for mouldy gumboots and spiders in blocks. I will arrange planks and A-frames into a climbing course, and test the ropes on the swings. I will pick up windfall apples, and pull out lettuce that has gone to seed. Perhaps I will find some ripe tomatoes for my lunch.
Tomorrow I will label lockers and write questionnaires and search for enrolment forms and set up filing systems.
Tomorrow I will get everything ready for the children who start the next day.
And tomorrow night, I will go to bed with a knot in my stomach, convinced I have forgotten how to teach.
Someone in a chat room passed on a question from a supervisor. The gist of it was ‘How do I control my staff? How do I get them to do what I want?’
I think they were asking the wrong question.
When we teach young children, we believe they work best when we give them freedom and choices and autonomy. When we learn about behaviour management with children, we don’t get encouraged to read children the riot act and insist that they toe the line. We are encouraged to create a situation where they will want to do the right thing.
Somehow, these lessons get lost in translation to working with adults. Educators who become bosses seem sometimes to forget that much of what they have learnt about children are lessons about human nature.
Adults are people too. They are not so different from children. People who have some control over their own situation behave more responsibly than people who are told what to do.
So my answer to the supervisor asking how to control her staff is:
Stop trying to control. Negotiate. Give staff a chance to work out their own ways of working. Figure out what is essential so they know what the parameters are. But leave them room to move. Let them come up with suggestions that you receive with a genuinely open mind. Given them patches of autonomy.
You want your educators to be creative, enthusiastic, committed, responsible. These are not things that can be demanded. They are gifts. They must be freely given.
Give them freedom.
I am convinced they will give more in return.
The Sunday Age this morning ran a piece on a school that set up a program for kids who are not quite ready for the first year of school. I have actually thought before that this would be a good option to add to the mix – not at every school, but here and there. According to the article, this school has been told by the Education Department that they are not allowed to continue the program.
There are some illogicalities in the story. We are told, for example, that people want this option because childcare and kindergarten cost too much, but also that this will push families into private schooling. That can’t be right. Private school fees cost about the same as childcare, and kindergarten is considerably less*.
Our system of early childhood and care has evolved over time, with various levels of government and other organizations involved. It is crusty and barnacled. Parents have to negotiate a foolishly complex set of institutions and processes.
I can see why we would not want a sudden rush of younger kids into primary schools. A huge effort is being made to properly equip all early childhood settings with well educated staff and the best approach to early childhood learning we know how to give.
I can see why we would not want that undermined by a rush of early enrolments at school. But the kids in this program are technically old enough for school, and have had their preschool year. I might prefer other ways to address this problem – like a Prep program that has the flexibility to cater to a wider range of learners, or play-based learning across the whole Prep. But that is not what this school offers in Prep, at the moment.
If the school judges some of their students need an extra year of play-based learning, where is the harm?
This looks a bit like a demarcation dispute. Is this really how we manage child-centred education?
* Costs of young children’s education and care in Victoria
(From memory – haven’t checked these facts recently)
Sessional kindergarten (preschool)
About $1200 per year, in four instalments, for 10.75 hours, usually in 2-3 sessions. Free for health care card holders. The cost in sessional kindergarten lies in the difficulty of juggling working full-time, not the fees per se.
(ie long day care intended to free parents up for the working day)
Around $70 per day, but subsidized through the tax system, so the amount you pay depends on household income. Creches are usually open 5 days per week, but many children attend part-time.
Early Learning Centre is the name generally given to a kindergarten attached to a private school. They typically run 4-5 days per week, and full attendance is expected during school hours (ie about 9.00- 3.00). Fees are set at a similar level to crèche.
Family Day Care and a private nanny are other models, but I don’t know how much they cost.
State primary school
Technically free. Schools issue fees – in the order of a few hundred dollars at the beginning of the year – but they are voluntary. There are no penalties for non-payment. Subsidised families get an Education Maintenance Allowance, part of which is paid direct to the school.
Private primary school
Last I heard they were around $5,000 for the early years. Fees rise as the children get older. Some schools catering to particular tight-knit communities are considerably cheaper.
School starting age
Children in Victoria can start primary school at 4 years and 9 months – ie the rule is that they must turn 5 by 30 April. They must start primary school by the time they turn 6, unless an exemption is granted.