Q: (Parent) How was your first day at school?
A: (5-year-old child after 1st day of school) “It was great mum, the teacher talked all day long and I got to think about my favourite animals in my head when she was talking.“
One must admit that at first, I felt a wave of embarrassment move through me as I knew exactly what this child had experienced. The first day of school, so many things to be covered, so many things children need to know about school. Messages delivered by excited teachers and often anxious teachers about the year ahead. I have done this, I still do this but thanks to the insight of this very wise 5-year-old I am now conscious of it and although I have certainly not mastered the concept of child-centred conversations I am better at listening to the little people instead of rambling my to-do list out loud.
The feedback from this child, was not about me directly, but clearly about teachers in general. This comment went on to shape me as a teacher more than anything I had learned at university, professional learning sessions or from any book I had read. This comment by the very insightful 5-year-old could not ever be reversed in my head as a form of accountability on my part as a teacher. After all, in my profession as an educator I am and should be accountable to the student first, then all the other stuff. In reality, if I play my cards right and do my job well and most importantly drop my ego at the door before entering this sacred space that I chose to share with such wise creators (I’m talking about the classroom) then the learning can be nothing but student driven and purposeful.
When the students arrive, just like the guests at a dinner party, they are more likely to notice the experience and the human interaction rather than the matching napkin holders. Certainly there will be admiration for such pretty things assembled in Pinterest Perfection, but that admiration will wear off quickly when the dinner host is cold and resentful of all the effort he/she has put into creating such a table.
I must admit, I am a little sceptical about the rise of The Perfect Pinterest Teacher and the Perfect Pinterest Classroom. No doubt I agree with the need to provide comfortable, organised and inspirational learning spaces. Let’s face it, nothing says I hate my job more than a classroom full of mouldy coffee cups and walls covered with wrinkled student work on display from 1997. But teachers are not interior designers, what looks good may not necessarily be good and it gives our beginning students the impression that the world values beauty and perfection over everything else. Whilst many great ideas were born and shared on Pinterest, a teacher who is not engaged in collaborative and purposeful planning is likely to be picking ‘work’ that looks good instead of planning and facilitating learning that fosters student thinking, inquiry and explicit strategy-based learning for numeracy and literacy according to where the student is at, the individual child’s ‘zone of proximal development’, Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934)
Also, JTLYK the same child replied to this question from his mother on the first day of his second year at school. True Story!
Q: (Mother) How is your new teacher?
A: (6-year-old child) Exactly the same as last year but with a different head.
JTLYK about starting school and first impressions.
I didn’t really think about school as much as you did. I saw it as a place, somewhere in the future that I would go to one day, but only after you told me about such a place. It didn’t exist in my imagination. I never imagined that there was place, a building of some sort filled with children who were all there for the purpose of learning things that mostly adults had decided were important to learn. Before I started school, I didn’t really spend that much time thinking about the future. I enjoyed playing, exploring, talking and thinking about things that I really liked. I spent my time in the present, doing, creating and simply being.
I know that some adults are still very uncomfortable with the concept of student-centred learning because they think that if children are allowed to do what they want and what they like then they will become selfish, ungrateful and not follow orders from important people like adults. However, as a child I think it is really silly for adults to be doing the same thing as other adults even if they don’t like it or even if they are not good at it. For example, some adults are not really good at being teachers or doctors or shop keepers but they still do it and they are really unhappy when they do it. That doesn’t make sense to me. I like to do things that make me happy, things that I am good at. I like to watch and learn from people who are doing things that they are good at like playing the piano, designing a cool game or building an amazing cubby house.
I know for sure that if more adults were actually doing what they were good at and at least liking if not loving what they do, there would be more happiness in the world. If the adults were more happy, then surely they would see that children, at least until they are adults, seek to be happy before they seek anything else. When children and adults are co-creating in a space of happiness, then the need for power, control and ‘battle’ is not required.
When I arrived at school, I was very happy to follow the rules when the teacher took the time to show me and my friends how the rules keep us safe and respectful. I liked it when the teacher pretended to fall over the chair that was not pushed in properly under the table. I also liked it when the teacher from the classroom next to us came in and pretended to be rude to my teacher and then my teacher pretended to be sad. It helped me to think about how other friends might feel. It was also very funny. I remembered that.
I also liked it when the teacher noticed that I was feeling a bit nervous being in a new, big school and when they held my hand to reassure me. I liked it when the teacher noticed that I happen to know a lot about dinosaurs. In fact, some of my friends actually think I am a dinosaur expert and I love it when I get to share the things I know and love. I liked it when the teacher smiled and talked slowly as though we had all the time in the world to explore and enjoy our learning journey together, You know, 5 and 6-year-old children have no concept of time at all so we just feed off the stress and anxiety about time through the adults in our world. It was nice when the teachers could join the children and be fully present in the moment, instead of rushing to finish because they were already thinking about the next thing on the list.
I liked it when the teacher made an effort to really get to know me before deciding who I should be. The teacher observed what I could do before making me do things that I really couldn’t do. It was really nice of the teacher to do that, especially when they noticed that I could not hold my pencil like some of the other children in the classroom. It was a big deal for the teacher, I know, because a teacher is an adult and an adult mind would worry that if I couldn’t hold the pencil properly, I wouldn’t be able to begin my journey as a good writer. But the teacher did not pass that worry onto me. They kept their adult worries to themselves and noticed all the other things that I could do really well. The teacher noticed that I had good ideas when we were sharing things about our learning. The teacher helped me hold my pencil properly, but in a quiet and gentle way so that nobody noticed how difficult it was for me. With the teacher’s patience and belief in me and without a struggle, I learned to hold my pencil and began to write some pretty awesome stories.
When I started writing words, the teacher didn’t cross out the words that were incorrect, instead they put a smiley face on the parts that I got right and gave me ideas about how I could think about replacing the parts I got wrong until I worked it out myself. Most importantly, somehow as though the teacher had some special magic powers, they did it all without even using the words right or wrong. That made me feel safe to try, take chances, discover, learn and grow.
I noticed that the teacher always felt happy when another adult came into the classroom and made a comment about how we were such a good team of learners. It made me feel very proud and I also felt like I really belonged in the classroom surrounded by other people who were equally valued and important just like me.
When I got angry or frustrated and pushed my friend to the ground, the teacher didn’t see me as a bad kid without any respect or manners. They didn’t write a story about me in their mind based on what they saw in just one moment. The teacher did not judge me or label me and tell all the other teachers to watch out for me. They didn’t start a process that would see me placed under a teacher microscope for the rest of my days at school. The teacher didn’t see my actions as an intentional act of disrespect against them or others. The teacher acknowledged that I struggled sometimes to keep my hands to myself when I was feeling an emotion that was overwhelming for me. They noticed, that for me, an unfair situation such as another child pushing into the line was a big deal. The teacher helped me understand what I was feeling and that I had other choices instead of pushing my friend to the ground. They showed me that I could take deep breaths, or shake off what I was feeling, to use my words and tell my friend, “hey, that’s not fair, I was there first”. After all, it was the teacher who chose to be a teacher and when you choose to be a teacher I guess that helping us kids to become the best version of ourselves should be high on your list of priorities. It is not possible for every child to be the same. I cannot be like the student sitting next to me. I’m glad that the teacher didn’t expect that from me, I would have wasted so many years of my life trying to be like somebody else instead of learning (through lots of bad choices and mistakes) how to be the best version of myself.
Anyway, what I liked most about that day is that the teacher made me move away from the other children when I pushed my friend. This showed me that I should learn how to manage myself better. The teacher made it clear that if I was being unsafe, I couldn’t be part of the team. They made me take responsibility for my actions and understand that although my world is all about me, I need to know how to be me around others, because the world is also full of others who are busy being themselves. If we are all better versions of ourselves then we become a very happy ‘us’. A community of interesting individuals, who have different beliefs, talents, challenges, likes and dislikes. A community of individuals who have all come from a different place but here, at school, in our classroom, in our magical place of learning, we are all in the same place. A place where we are all valued as equal and important. In that place it doesn’t matter if my parents are doctors, lawyers, rock stars, unemployed, drug addicts, happy, depressed, angry, content, loving, caring, good or bad parents. It matters that I am there in that place and I have the right and chance to become the best version of me. I have that chance with a teacher who chose a profession because it is something they are good at and something they feel happy doing. A teacher who is able to put aside their adult worries and concerns at least during the time that the classroom is filled with the energy and creativity of little people like me.
Most teachers choose to teach because they love it and they are good at it. However, even the best teachers will be unable to bring the best out in their students if they are in an environment that does not support or value them. Just like students, teachers also need certain things from their school in order to thrive.
Teachers will thrive in schools where they are treated with respect and where their craft is valued.
Teachers will thrive in schools where they are allowed to speak and have an opinion.
Teachers will thrive in schools where professional communication is achieved in an ego-absent environment.
Teachers will thrive in schools that value happiness.
Teachers will thrive in schools that recognise and reward hard work and long hours.
Teachers will thrive in schools that provide ongoing professional learning.
Teachers will thrive in schools that have up to date resources.
Teachers will thrive in schools that are fair for everyone.
Teachers will thrive in schools that are professional and organised.
When teachers thrive in schools, the whole world benefits as every child unfolds into a person, ready to make positive contributions to their community, whether it be local or global!