E and his Pegs

E is almost three.  Today was by far the most I have heard him talk.  Us adults can never know for sure but I think a big factor in this milestone was that a number of louder kids weren’t in for various reasons.

Most days with us he does not say a word. The one exception has been “no!” if someone is taking one of his toys.  That said, he does communicate fairly well with facial expressions, eyes and fingers.  Anyways, today he was fiddling with some pegs and fit three together.  He tapped me on the shoulder to show off his handiwork and raise his eyebrows as if to say “check this out.”  I responded “you put those three white pegs together… that’s pretty cool E.”  Wondering what he would do with more pegs, I then went to the shed to get a lot more and offered them to him.

He said “wow!” and then proceeded to fiddle and experiment with them until he made this.

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I sat down next to him and he told me.

“It’s a truck.  It’s smashing!  It’s fast”

As he moved it up and down he explained “It goes up and down.”

If it fell apart he would exclaim “woah! uh oh!” and then work on putting the pegs back together.  He spent a good deal of the session playing with these pegs in a variety of ways.

I am bored of unpacking the learning and development inherent in this play but I am beginning to realise it’s part of my responsibility as an Early Years person in a country where early childhood is little understood or respected.

  • gross motor – pinching pegs for the amount of time he was is strengthening his fingers, hands and arms for future writing.  (Just writing this feels like I have to justify his play as some sort of down payment on future school).
  • oracy – a young “EAL” boy feeling confident enough to communicate his observations and interests in a setting away from his parents is significant, to say the least.  In the weeks and months prior to today I could see how much he wanted to communicate in his facial expressions and eyes. Vocabulary gap, disadvantaged two year olds, blah blah blah.  (Would he have communicated this to a speech and language therapist who he doesn’t see 5 times a week?  Can’t say for sure of course, and it is absolutely different for every kid but it is my personal opinion his speaking today would not have come without the months of relationship-building we have been doing).
  • Executive Function –  Since it’s “just” play and it’s “just” fun, it’s also suitably low-stakes. As his pegs repeatedly fell off and he had to put them back on he was in a state of mind where he had a (flexible) plan, experienced set-backs, persisted and enjoyed the process.  It is absolutely just fiddling with pegs but it is also absolute sustenance for developing executive function.
  • Well-being, involvement and brain development – these are all terms that I think some non-EYs people here as Charlie Brown’s teachers (“WAH WAH WAH WAH”) but they need to get with the program.  After feeling safe and secure, young children’s brains need concete multisensory experiences to make neuronal connections.  Simply put they need to be loved and they need to be able to get into stuff, touch and fiddle with things.  EYs (which is birth until 7) is about this and much more.  In the plainest language possible: Kids who feel safe and have the time and space to get into a wide variety of things have better brain and physical development than those who don’t.  Education cannot plaster over severe class inequality, but people who want to talk about social mobility would do well to start taking this stuff seriously.

Related: This week I’ve been singing nursery rhymes with a number of the kids, hitting those plastic “boom sticks” together in a simple rhythm.  A lot of kids have enjoyed this and joined in.  Today E did and sang his ABCS for the first time (while dancing) in our setting as far as I know.  My adult brain realised this and called for a coworker to come to try to take a video.  Again I can’t know for sure but I believe my sudden break in this shared moment stopped his singing.  As I imagine many other EYs people know, by the time someone comes to “document” something, the moment is over or the simple fact of the ipad coming out fundamentally changes the moment.  E continued to hit out a rhythm and dance but to me it appeared he realised he was singing out loud and was getting attention for it and got quiet again

This was not an entirely ruined moment but it was another example that has had me  realise how my quest to document and assess things (and get pictures!) can get in the way of the actual good stuff.  I have been taking a lot less pictures recently.  Young kids feed on our genuine interests in their activities and the ipads can ruin the moments at times.

I don’t know for sure all the reasons that led to E’s relative avalanche of talking today but I hear from lots of academics and experts that oracy is important in education.  Laminated pictures and structured circle times might genuinely work for some people but they would not work for me.  I hope people can respect that wacky “save childhood brigade” approaches can be done with skill, experience and to great results when given the space and trust to do so.  People in education and early years especially should be open to looking at what we do that actually gets kids talking and what we do that might get in the way at times.

Thanks for reading!

 

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After Bold Beginnings

I helped write the letter in the Guardian this week.

While I personally do think the report should be withdrawn – as purposefully or not – it leaves out whole swathes of important Early Years pedagogy and approaches, I recognise that we do not have the political power to make this happen.  What’s much more important to me moving forward is finding ways for Reception teachers, and really all educators in all phases, to be free to work to the best of their ability and professional knowledge.

I am a little more than a year into edutwitter and it still confounds me.  At first I jumped in ready to argue with any and everybody, but I am getting very tired of it.  I can read extremely disagreeable and even hateful things online with a detached sense of curiousity about how others might think these ways.  To be entirely honest I have found the one corner of the internet where I can get “mad online.”  I imagine this is because like all of us in education, no matter our views or interests, we all put so much of myself into my work.

Adults arguing on twitter really should not be the point of all of this, but I fear we are all getting stuck here.  Education social media arguments and debates are just plain weird.  Many times we don’t know each other, and the format of twitter lends itself to discussion becoming a battle of quips, citing studies we like and silly one-upsmanship.  We then find “our people” with who we can have some good discussions with and fortify our views.  I am as guilty of this as anybody and I am interested in moving beyond this.

At the moment I honestly don’t have much hope any real discussion across views can happen, on Reception or anything else. I still tweet at some people because I can’t help it, but it never goes anywhere.  If any Bold Beginnings fans are reading this, and interested in trying to have a real discussion, where we both genuinely assume the other side is not out to set children up for failure, please send me a tweet.

So the rest of this is going to be aimed at my fellow Early Years people.  The main message of this is do not get stuck on social media.  Twitter is not real life.

If you want to see changes in our education system, and culture in general, this is not going to happen overnight.  Before we solve the big problems, we are going to have to learn to come together, where we are, and solve our smaller problems in our schools, settings, towns and settings.  There are teachers who have managed to make changes towards quality play based approaches, dealing with skeptical Heads and SLTs.  There are others who have slowly brought along coworkers to improving their interactions with children and their observation skils.  We could learn so much from blogs like these people.

What problems are you facing as educators or parents in your daily life?  What do you want to improve in your practice?  What is stopping you?  What can you, and the people around you, do about it?  What do you need help with?  Leave a comment or send me a DM.  If this stupid site is going to be worth anything, it should help us figure out ways to improve our jobs and skills offline.

 

 

 

 

 

Honestly, who sees me as a teacher?

 

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A few days ago, Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted declared that in regards to Early Years: “Our view is that the looking-after-children side of things is very good. The education side is not so good.”

There are truly real problems in Early Years that cannot be swept under the rug.  Still, the line of thinking demonstrated in this quote is ignorant, disrespectful and downright foreboding.  The Head Cop of Education clearly does not understand how genuinely inseparable care and education are for young children.  In her eyes, proper education must mean getting four year olds “school ready” in the most myopic sense of the term.

I am anti-Ofsted, but I do have to give whichever individuals responsible there credit for their defintition of teaching in the Early Years.

‘Teaching should not be taken to imply a ‘top down’ or formal way of working. It is a broad term which covers the many different ways in which adults help young children learn. It includes their interactions with children during planned and child-initiated play and activities: communicating and modelling language, showing, explaining, demonstrating, exploring ideas, encouraging, questioning, recalling, providing a narrative for what they are doing, facilitating and setting challenges. It takes account of the equipment they provide and the attention to the physical environment as well as the structure and routines of the day that establish expectations. Integral to teaching is how practitioners assess what children know, understand and can do as well as take account of their interests and dispositions to learning (characteristics of effective learning), and use this information to plan children’s next steps in learning and monitor their progress.’

I am finally at a place where I am willing to claim that I am a teacher in my work in a children’s centre 2 year old program.  The thing is, I don’t think anybody else sees me as one.  I am not looking for pity, just trying to say the truth of the matter.  Spielman’s quote has got me thinking about this so here I am ranting to myself on a Friday afternoon.

Let’s get to it in broad, very general strokes: The older the person, the more respect – both social and financial – is given to the people teaching them. University professors make more than high school teachers.  High school teachers look down on Primary teachers.  Early Years of course is definitively at the bottom of the pile.  Even within Early Years, Reception teachers are seen as the most important and get the most attention.  In most people’s eyes de facto qualifications for working in the average baby room requires a certificate, two arms and a beating heart.  Somehow cutting hair and taking care of brand new humans are considered comparable options.

Of course this not-so-secret hierarchy in education is incredibly stupid.  The first 1000 days of a child’s life are of paramount importance to the rest of a human’s life.  90% of person’s brain develops in the first five years of life, and what happens in this time frame has a life long impact on their physical health, mental health and over all happiness and success in life.  There is no evidence to show that early capital-A Academics helps young children at all, and less time for play is clearly harmful to children’s emotional and social development. Blah blah blah.  If you are reading this you have probably heard it all a million times before.

Anyways, just a small handful of examples of me teaching in a 2 year old program this past week:

  • I am with one of my key children at our water table, scooping and pouring water into a funnel.  He tries to snatch it from me and I pull my hand a way saying “hey stop, I am using that. You can have a turn when I am finished.”  Not too long after I give it to him, “okay I am finished, you can have a turn.”
  • One of my key children is screaming and hitting another another who is trying to pull him off a bike.  I suggest to the child on the bike, “tell him to stop.  Tell him to let go.”  Today, after weeks of these sort of instances, the child yells “let go!” (while still hitting the other child) and the other child listens to him and let’s go and looks for something else to play with.  After the dust settles I tell the child on the bike “you told him to let go and he listened to you.”
  • I am helping a key child get their shoes on and they tell me “Yusuf doesn’t like me.”  I reply “you think Yusuf doesn’t like you?” “Yeah.” “Why do you think Yusuf doesn’t like you?” “Gonna hit me” “Yeah I wouldn’t want to be hit either, if someone trys to hit me I tell them to stop.”
  • We noticed that the children are not using the smaller wooden blocks at all, and using duplos more, so we replaced the wooden blocks with a basket with many more duplos in them.

If you aren’t familiar with the Ofsted definition of teaching, look at it again.  If you are reading this, you are probably already get this already.  Honestly though, would your friends, family or coworkers see the above as examples of teaching? Would Spielman?  These are “just” regular everyday interactions with an adult who has the time, patience and interest to talk things through with young children (and knows early childhood development).  Call it teaching or don’t, but those of us who know the real value of these “regular” human interactions, can’t let them be muscled out of education by technocratic, test-loving ghouls.

I think I get on with my actual weekend and will end this with a quote from Early Education’s far more appropriate and excellent response to Spielman:  “The problem is that education is not a production line, practitioners are not machines and children are not widgets. It is not realistic to think that the existence of a written curriculum can produce a uniform experience.”

 

 

 

Decluttering the Emotional Environment: Over-Scheduled Days and Too Many Transitions

Originally Published in The Early Years Collective E-Zine, Issue 1.

The best designed physical environment, with carefully selected loose parts displayed in the most Reggio of baskets are not worth that much if the emotional environment isn’t right. To me, the emotional environment of a setting can be most simply judged by a few criteria: do the children feel safe, secure, respected and like they belong there? Do the adults feel relaxed, confident in their role, and able to have the presence of mind to interact meaningfully and mindfully with the children? Perhaps most importantly, are the children and adults alike happy to be there?

Just as we might move a shelf to different wall, add or take away some resources, or rearrange other physical objects in our rooms to better fit the needs of the children and our overall aims as educators, we also should be open to new approaches and techniques that help improve the emotional environment. As a team, and individually, this requires us to be honest, reflect and at times be willing to try new things in our practice.

Whatever task we might be doing, young children are experts at sensing if we are stressed, annoyed, relaxed, genuinely interested, frustrated, calm, distracted or anything else we might might be feeling when interacting, or not, with them. This of course has an enormous impact on children individually and as a group. Settled and confident adults tend to find themselves with settled and confident children. Stressed and distracted adults have a similar effect too. It is our responsibility as the adults of setting the right emotional tone to a room.

There are a lot of things that needlessly stress adults and “clutter” up the emotional environments of many settings but this article will only focus on one topic, the daily schedule. Yes, young children thrive on routine and familiarity but I’ve worked in too many places that treat the daily schedule as a cruel and impatient taskmaster. If the schedule on the wall states “10:15: Outside Play Time”, many adults rush the children through getting ready as if it were a once-a-day train that we might miss! Not only does nobody involved enjoy this stress, we miss out on opportunities for younger children to increasingly learn to get on jackets, shoes or water-proofs themselves. Instead of investing the time for children to increasingly learn to handle these tasks independently, “doing it for them” because it’s faster ensures we will always be burdened with these tasks.

When I’ve worked in situations like this, my patience went way down, my stress way up and I know the quality of my interactions with the children suffered quite a bit. I would go home everyday feeling miserable and upset with myself because I knew I wasn’t giving these children what they needed. I couldn’t keep up with the pace demanded by this setting and nobody benefited. I’ve noticed a sort of an unspoken sense of pride amongst some practitioners: look how quickly and efficiently I can get the kids through lunch, or ready to go outside or anything else. While I appreciate working with organised and capable coworkers, I am not sure speed and efficiency should be valued over the quality of our interactions.

Parents (who might know much about early childhood development) might like the look of a schedule of 30-45 minute intervals titled things like Literacy or Work Time, thinking this is what will get their children ready for school, but these sort of schedules do not allow children enough time to truly get engaged in anything. Many days children need time to suss out their play options before getting into some thing truly engaging. A rule of thumb I agree with says children need at the very least an hour of free play at a time to truly get into some engaging play and to see it through to a satisfying end. Settings I admire like Discovery Early Learning Center in the USA, have changed their environment, schedule and approach over time as they’ve learned to trust in following the pace of the children. These days they simply let the children play all day. The pictures from their Facebook page show children absolutely brimming with engagement, curiosity, well-being, persistence, confidence and everything else a quality early years setting should strive for.

Some adults can be tactful about it, others more bossy but one of the worst parts parts of transitions is the fact adults have to interrupt children in the middle of their play. On an episode of the podcast “That Early Childhood Nerd,” Heather Bernt, an American consultant says we “teach children not get engaged by our interruptions.” Her guest, Tiffany Pearsall, asks if you only had 15-30 minutes to engage in something you enjoy as an adult – knitting, reading, cooking a nice meal etc. – would you really get into it, much less bother at all? I’d add to this: How would you react if you were happily in the middle of perfecting a new recipe and someone told you it was time to put your kitchen tools away before you were truly finished? Many interruptions are unavoidable given the realities of group-based education and care but I do think we should give children’s play the same respect we would as the favourite hobby of any adult.

If you are currently in a setting with an over-scheduled day, consider minimising the transitions and chopped up parts of the day. If some transitions are truly unavoidable, is it always the end of the world if you get off-schedule a bit somedays? Do you worry what your co-workers will think if you can’t herd the kids to next thing like they do? If so, is it possible to talk to them about it? If you’re worried you won’t get good observations in a certain area of development, could you bring something specific into provision? Or perhaps get some mentorship on how to further see all of the learning inherent in children’s play? If you are lucky enough to be in a setting that values long stretches of play time, are there still any “sticking points” in the day that might be worth discussing with your team?

Young children’s brains are in a distinct and sensitive stage. What education should look like for them should not be confused with us “playing” mini-Primary teachers and getting them to sit still because that will be expected of them in a few years. “Learning time” is every single second of the day they are with us. Young children’s brains don’t stop growing when they are getting jackets on to go outside, fighting over toys, having runny noses, getting their nappy changed, eating meals, or falling down and skinning knees. These aren’t parts of the day to impatiently rush through so we can get to the part of the schedule where we think we put our “teacher hats” on. Rather, these seemingly insignificant parts of the day really are valuable opportunities for connection, learning and growth.

Over-scheduled and hurried days do not give children the time and space they require to engage, persist, experiment, think critically or deeply engage in their play. When we streamline the daily schedule and minimise the transitions, we can use our patience and energy for more meaningful and mindful interactions instead of burning through it quickly trying to keep a group of young children in line and on schedule.

Our daily schedules shouldn’t just be randomly thrown together or “what we’ve always done.” In my opinion, schedules should include long stretches of free play time (with constant access to outside), minimal transitions and move at the pace of the children. More than anything else though, schedules should best serve the actual, specific needs of the actual, specific children in our settings. This means they will change as the children grow, leave or as new children join us. Serving the best needs of the children also means they are sustainable and not needlessly stressful for the adults. Figuring this all out will take observation reflection, discussion and the freedom for educators to experiment.

A lot of us like to joke our job is like “herding cats,” but when are we going to realise that cats aren’t meant to be herded? Just like a spring cleaning and decluttering of a room, if something in the schedule is not helping the relationships and emotional environment of a setting maybe it needs to be changed or even chucked out!

From Classroom Cop to Reflective Practitioner Part 2

Tomorrow is the last day with the children in our Children’s Centre’s 2 Year Old program (most of them are three now of course).  I am going to miss them quite a bit, as I have with any group of children who’ve “moved on.”  Though honestly I am going to miss these children more.  Changing my views on what early learning practice looks like has made these relationships deeper and clearer to me than any previous group of children.  The only way I can put it is that it’s with this group that I’ve begun to learn to see these individual children for themselves in the here and now and not as future four, five, sixteen year olds or much less adults in training.  My views of them am no longer weighed down by that secret scale of judging them based on how well they do or don’t live up to a typical preschool routines demands.  I’ve earned to not only respect but see their intelligence and emotional lives – in all it’s 20-something months on this earth glory – in the here and now as well.  Their intelligence and emotional lives obviously don’t look anything close to an adults, but it is there.  I am more sure than ever that there it deserves just as much as respect as any adult. As John Holt put it, “be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.”

I am more confident and clear-sighted than ever before in what my approach to my work should be, and it feels quite good.  I more or less just trust in letting the children’s happiness and engagement (i.e. the Leuven Scales) guide me in most every decision I make with the kids.

If children are happily playing with well selected resources, I will do my best to not interrupt them, and sit in one place or at least work on some stuff as close as needed and let them get on with things themselves.

If I am needed because of a conflict, I will do my best to calmly help them sort it out themselves as much as possible.  I will suggest phrases like “don’t hit me,” or “can I use that when you’re finished?” If a child is hitting somebody else I’ll gently block them from doing it and say something like “I know you’re angry about not having the truck now but I’m not going to let you hit her.”

If a child is hurt I’ll do my best to calmly help them assess their accident and give all the cuddles they require until they’re ready to enter the play again.

If a child is new and not yet feeling secure or safe enough to get into some play, I’ll do my best to engage them in play or conversation while leaving plenty of opportunities for them to take the lead of the play themselves.

If a child invites me into converstation, play or interactions of any kind I’ll do my best to respond with genuine interest.

Part of me naively still thinks it shouldn’t be more complicated than this but of course it is: I work with all sorts of other adults who have different lives, experiences and views than me!

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Earlier this week I took a group of our children over to the nursery next door as that’s where they will be in September.  Long story short I saw a coworker who normally works with older children intervening in a conflict over a bike and she went straight into the “how about you have it for five minutes and then he can have it for five minutes” spiel. I didn’t openly contradict her in front of the children but quickly after  blurted out “we’ve been doing less of that lately,” (absolutely not true in nursery!) “why can’t he ask the boy on the bike for a turn when he’s finished?”

I really surprised the both of us.   She looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language.  “… I thought we teach the kids to share in nursery?”  In my shock at myself for blurting something out at such pointless time, I tried to mutter something about “I am not sure they are learning anything about sharing when we force them to.”

Later on I apologised for springing that on her. I don’t think she was too offended but I could tell she had no clue where I was coming from.  She was only covering for the day in nursery, so trying to explain myself to her isn’t the biggest priority, but this interaction made me reflect (yet again) on the fact how little in my ten years of working with babies and young children has there been a shared general approach or ethos to our practice in any given team or setting I’ve been in.

Today we visited the nursery again and one of my program’s children kicked another one in a conflict and one of the nursery teachers came over to “make him say sorry” and then talked of giving him a time-out because he wouldn’t.  She did ask what we did in the Children’s Centre and I gave the honest answer that it depends on which adult is dealing with it and kind of left it there.  Just like with the Sharing Incident, I did not feel it was the right time to tell her I personally think there is no point in forcing a 34 month old to say sorry.

These two incidents beg the question: when is the time to have these conversations with co-workers?  It seems to me it is never the right time as we are busy with so much else (some necessary and some not at all, but that’s another blog post).  I am not and have never been a room or setting leader and I appreciate the difficulty of hiring from a low paid and respected talent pool, but I think developing a truly shared approach amongst staff is a widely unmet challenge in settings in the UK and across the world.  I have my personal views on things, but I recognise there is more than one way to skin a cat, or cook a lasagne.  What matters is that we work from a similar recipe.

In early years we like to talk a lot about gender, “getting it right for boys” and getting more men into the field.  What we talk bout a lot less is race, class and immigration.  Like I’ve mentioned in the previous post, I recognise my experiences have obviously shaped my views.  I am interested in how people’s different experiences in terms of culture, race, class, immigration and more affect their views of child rearing and educating.  I know I have a lot to learn from others, at the same time I am not going to be shy about my views and what I have been lucky to learn these last few years.  I am slowly learning how to talk and reflect with coworkers in the moment, but the answer is further to be found in us having time to really talk with each other, and possibly leadership that steers and mentors us in a general direction.  I would love to learn more from the examples of settings that have steered their ships in a shared direction.

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Anyways I am about to have my first UK summer school break and I am looking forward to it of course, but for the first time in ten years of working in this field, I am looking forward to meeting and learning with next year’s group of children.  I have strong opinions about my practice as is apparent but I’ve also learnt that there is never an end point in our practice.  It’s a terrible but true cliche there always more to learn!IMG_6361

 

 

Rediscovering Play for Adults 22/7

Rediscovering Play

Next month my friend Vivian and I are hosting our first “Rediscovering Play for Adults workshop” in Leeds.  I hope if you are around, you consider coming!

If it’s not obvious enough from this blog, I am endlessly fascinated by children’s play.  It is vital for their development and I am worried how it continues to decrease over the years.  I am trying to start advocating for it more in and outside of Early Years settings and schools.

But enough about kids.  I am learning more and more that play and playfulness isn’t something we should entirely leave behind as we enter adulthood.  Taking some time for ourselves to have fun “just playing” by ourselves or with others isn’t something to be ashamed of or be embarassed about.

There won’t be any corny ice breakers or mandatory activities with people you don’t know.  We will simply provide a space, time and “permission” to play.

You might feel rusty, silly or worry what others might think of you at first but I promise you innate sense of playfulness is still with you, it just needs a little refresher!

Facebook Event page

Eventbrite Event Page

 

From Classroom Cop to Reflective Practitioner Part 1

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This week in my 2 year olds room, children took play dough and curry spices into the home area and their play and this picture makes me happy.  I would have never let this happen a few years ago, much less let them use a table knife!  I include other pictures below for similar reasons, they make me happy and I wouldn’t have seen anything valuable in them or the play experiences that led to them before.

Most adults don’t know a thing about babies, young children and early childhood development in general.  Sadly many early childhood educators & teachers don’t know that much either.  Sadder still, we tend to know more than most other adults but our working conditions and the pressure of “academics” pushing into our field keeps us from trusting and acting on what we do know.

Data for data’s sake, assessment detached from our day to day practice, number crunching, ridiculous notions of “school readiness,” benchmarks to achieve, GLD (Good Level of Development) benchmarks in the UK and equivalent high-stakes expectations in other countries all keep too many early years educators fenced in, stressed out and afraid to take the first steps necessary in changing their deeply held views of children and what our jobs could look like.

Three decades of groundbreaking research can’t do much against centuries of cultural baggage that sees children as cute but empty-headed semi-humans.  Our work is stressful, but as a whole we adults make it so much harder than it needs to be.  As Dan Hodgins says, we make “moral isssues out of developmental ones” and spend far too much time battling, scolding, praising, yelling, sticker charting and otherwise manipulating children into obeying us.  Many of us joke it’s like “herding cats,” but maybe we should realise cats aren’t meant to be herded!

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I’ve now worked in Early Years for 10 years.  Might be hard to be believe but I’ve been ambivalent and embarassed about this for most of this time.  I’ve been a “warm body” in a room more times than I would like to admit.  In my practice I have done almost every dumb and damaging thing to children under the sun.  I got into this work because I “like kids” but I have had far too many days where I couldn’t stand being in a room with them.  In essence this was because the job felt like, and really was, just being a classroom cop.

Don’t run inside.  Sharing!  Don’t build the tower so high.  You need to share! Clean those up now.  Clean up! Stop playing, go wash your hands and come eat now. Stop playing and come to a circle time.  Sit criss-cross apple sauce.  Stop fidgeting.  I love the way Anna is sitting, well done Anna.  Go play now.  If you two can’t share I am going to have to put this toy away!  Okay Joseph can have it for five more minutes and then it’s your turn.  Don’t climb on that.  Share please!  I’ve told you three times now, go sit down behind the desk!  Please stop running inside.

Why would we expect anybody to enjoy this for a job?  I never did but I didn’t know things could or should be different.  In my first setting even though I got quite “good” at them, I hated circle times but continued to do them all the same.  I don’t know how to explain this feeling but it wasn’t until I heard Dan Hodgins and Amy Ahola talk about circle time that I heard others affirm a little voice in the back of my head that I wasn’t yet able to listen to.  Before hearing their podcast episode, I always preferred impromptu, smaller and non-mandatory “circle times.”  Unsurprisingly, when children had the choice to come in close to listen to a story or sing songs, to sit how they like and leave when they liked, the process was much more enjoyable for us all!

Similarly at my first setting, I hated our “work times” and so did the children.  We would stop children’s play and make them come sit at tables to do things we thought were important.  I got to a point that whenever I was the only adult in the room, I would simply not do them.  I didn’t have any actual evidence or knowledge to back up this choice, I simply didn’t want to do something we all hated.  Honestly it was little more than laziness at the time but I do think I instinctively knew that it’s more important for young children to be having fun.  I now trust that voice more than ever.

Like I said though, I was not yet ready to listen and act on this feeling.  I still thought part of the job of circle time was getting children to obey me, sit on designated carpet squares and learn “self-control,” (i.e. stop fidgeting and annoying me when I am trying to read them a book!).  I did not yet know that well-loved and children naturally learn self-control as they get older and thought it was something we adults had to socialise into them.  Circle times sucked, but that was part of the job, and who am I to suggest to the team and our manager (not too mention our professional parents expecting their children to be “kindergarden ready”) that maybe we should try something else?  Lunch needs to get set up anyways, and we can’t have the kids running around then..

Hearing Amy and Dan fully blow apart the idea of mandatory circle times was truly a revelation.  For the first time I heard others reflect a feeling I’ve had about my job that I basically ignored and it was a major part of turning on my reflective practitioner switch.

Most politicians don’t know anything about what we do, or what they actually want from us but in saying our field needs to improve, they are in effect expecting wide scale individual personal transformation from a stressed-out workforce fenced in by criminally low-wages and an education system warped by high stakes testing and accountability.   Personal transformation takes courage and the willingness to step into the unknown.  It takes faith in ourselves to trust that little feeling or voice in the back of our heads.  It requires humility in realising there is always more for us to learn and we do not have all the answers.  In our context, it also requires freedom in the workplace to experiment, try things out and have some real say over the way things are done.  How many early years settings operate like this?

High stakes benchmarks set by people who have never set foot in our settings create, or appreciate that every class of kids is always going to be different, create a stark and simplistic view of what our jobs are and what it means to be good at them.

I don’t think people who don’t work in early years can understand the general pressure and disrespect that we feel as a field and I am not sure I can fully describe it but I will try.  We take pride in our work, and love the relationships with the children and the thank you cards from some parents but because it is not respected by others, we often look for external valididation and proof that we are doing a good job.

To prove that we do more than “just play with them all day,” we have children do cookie cutter arts and crafts because the parents love how cute it is compared to what children would actually make on their own.  We don’t know enough about the power and purpose of play and and too often set up activities only to mark off developmental checklists and collect “data” because that’s just part of the job description.

I am only now at a point where I beginning to learn enough about early childhood development, and confident enough in my own practice to realise that this job can be so much more than what I’ve first though.  I am learning to truly see children as actual humans worthy of full respect here and now, to trust in putting relationships and deep play with them first in everything I do, to continue to hone my observation skills to see children’s play for what it really is, to not take young children’s behaviour personally and focus on being in the moment with them as much as possible.  I now trust that strong, secure relationships and play are more than enough.

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Somehow I’ve turned from a “warm body” Classroom Cop into a reflective practitioner who spends their Saturday mornings ranting on their blog.  I now truly my work and am endlessly fascinated by it.   I don’t expect people not in the choir to be reading this but I hope for others in the field to get their reflective practitioner switch flipped on as well.  If it can happen for me, it can happen for anybody but for it to happen on a wide and long-lasting scale, we need to massively invest an unprecedented amount into the field.   It is plain stupid to expect teachers dealing with the stress of poverty wages to give their hearts and minds over to quality reflective practice.  There are many who do, and stay in the field out of the sheer passion for it, but there are clearly not enough to round out a quality workforce.  No amount of quality training is going to address issues stemming from low wages, stress, burn-out and high turn over.

Side bar:  Part of my personal transformation is that I am an anamoly in more ways than one.  Besides being a man, I am from a comfortable middle-class background and am married to an atmospheric scientist.  Unlike so many of my coworkers, I don’t have children to look after when I go home.  More than this, I have been raised on the far end of the vocabulary gap, grew up around tons of books and was brought up encouraged to think for myself in so many ways.  I don’t say this navel-gaze but just sharing what obviously informs my world view.  I’d be very interested in hearing from EY educators from backgrounds different than mine on all these topics.  I know my experience in this practically all female field is not representative at all.

Money talks and shows what we value in a society.  We can’t keep relying on the heartstrings and low wages of passionate educators to subsidise an essential field that not only keeps the rest of the economy working today but is literally raising the next generation.  Educators trusted and respected in the form of better pay, suitable working conditions are far more able to move into a reflective place where they can learn to trust and respect children in turn.