Days and Preschool Days, Too:
A treasury of anecdotes culled from my work
and play as a preschool worker and an elementary school after- school
by Diane Cobb, reprinted with permission
2003 portrait of the author at work with
a child, by artist/art teacher, Diane Cobb.
wrote the vignettes on the following pages while working
at a California private school for preschool through fifth grade children.
Currently, I'm a full-time preschool teacher. For three years beginning
in January, 2001, though, I spent weekday afternoons as an after-school
activities supervisor for elementary schoolers. I've also substitute-taught
in all grades.
At times I'm scarcely
able to wait till I can write down the hilarious or otherwise amazing
words I hear and the sights I see. I wouldn't be able to imagine scenes
so touching or funny.
Of course, working with young
children is demanding. Most of our teachers are exhausted by day's end.
The work calls into play our most adult qualities, and our most childlike.
A preschool teacher learns
early on that two to five year-olds do not share a grown-up's perception
of time or the world. This situation can make for humor, as well as
confusion. A little girl, for example, once told me her parents were
"Oh?" I replied, as much in
as a musical call-and-response as anything. "How long are they
"Forty days!" she exclaimed
with wide, distressed eyes. Her mother's eyes got a little wide, too,
when I shared what her daughter had told me.
"We're going to Sonoma for the weekend,"
she said. "Betsy's going to sleep at her grandma's one." That
wasn't how it felt to Betsy.
Another little girl announced excitedly
one day, "I'm not going to be at this school any more, after today!"
When she showed up the next day, and the day after that, I asked her
dad when they were moving.
"Oh, we're not moving," he
said. "We're going to Hawaii, but not for another week. And we'll
be back a week after that."
As far as geography goes, many little
ones know a place called Disneyland. Beyond that, understanding is often
very sketchy. When a child comes back from a long trip and the teacher
asks, "Where did you go?" the boy or girl is likely to say,
"On an airplane", end of story. A similar mix-up occurs when
a child gets injured. The question "where did you hurt yourself?"
almost always brings an answer like "over by the sliding board".
Nowadays I always phrase my exploratory question, "What part of
your body did you hurt?"
Because the consciousness of a small child
is so much in its own world, calling on people who spontaneously raise
their hands at Circle--even though "a quiet hand" is just
what we ask for, if someone wants to speak--can bring unexpected results.
One boy's comment, no matter what the ongoing class topic was, always
focused on cars. Another boy would begin with a statement tangentially
connected to the classroom discussion. Using the phrase "and then",
would segue in breathtaking leaps to a narration of his entire life
history, all told with vague pronoun references in Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness.
The teacher would smile and nod, listening long enough to validate the
boy, and. then politely move on to the next song.
Socialization is one of the main themes,
and probably the major subtext, of our little preschool community. Research
shows that most children have to be around four before they begin to
recognize reciprocity and the rights of others. We have many two and
three year-olds in our play yard, so that seeing someone grab a toy
from someone else--maybe even bop the other child on the head with it--and
justify the act later with "But I wanted it!" is not
an uncommon experience. Desire is in fact
the most frequent justification of lots of things. "You need to
put that toy away now, it's lunch time" brings the reply "But
I want it!". If the child was a lawyer, he'd follow that
statement with "I rest my case" and feel confident about the
verdict. Moving out of the narcissism of early childhood is a long and
I knew a three-year-old recently who volunteered
to get a wet kleenex for someone who'd gotten sand in an eye. Afterwards,
the boy explained his action without my asking: "I've had sand
in my eye before, Mr. Max, so I knew how Albert was feeling."
Such maturity is as heart-warming as it is unusual.
Another boy demonstrated a rare quality
when I gave him a "time out" for hitting someone. Time outs
are very short at our school, and after thirty seconds or a minute I
nodded at him and said, "OK, Randy." Some twenty minutes after
that, it was time to go inside. Randy, still sitting next to the wall
of the building, said, "Mr. Max, may I get up from my time out
now?" He hadn't realized my "OK" meant "it's OK
to get up and play", and had sat there for twenty minutes out of
simple loyalty, believing himself to be still atoning for his little
infraction. I apologized profusely for not having been more clear.
Discipline for all our children is based
on the work of Howard Glasser, author of "Transforming the Difficult
Child", a book whose principles really apply to everyone. We try
to give children ample praise and to use brief time-outs, administered
without anger, when they are necessary.
The teacher's eternal dilemma, of course,
is what to do when you came upon a situation just after it happened.
Sometimes a young bystander will believably recount what she saw. Asking
the participants usually brings complications. "What did you do
to Ellen?" usually brings a passionate narration of "what
Ellen did to me!" One of my friends told me once, "Even
King Solomon wouldn't be able to sort out all this.!" We try our
best, though, to be fair and kind.
After awhile I felt I'd met my Waterloo
in the after school program with the elementary school boys and girls.
My efforts to encourage boys to "lighten up" about their competitiveness
in sports met grim resistance. My suggestions of funny team names like
the "San Francisco Sweatsocks" brought the kind of silence
one might expect from flatulence at the Queen's tea party, followed
by renewed calls of "We're the Giants!" "No, we're
the Giants!" "OK, we're the A's!"
Since I began writing these stories down,
our play yard has changed considerably, a consequence of the ever-rising
insurance cost and ever more prevalent threat of lawsuits that schools
face. The low, metal bars I describe catching children jumping off are
gone now, as is the platform from which one boy used to proclaim, "I'm
so high!" Children are no longer allowed to climb the practically
banzai juniper tree, though fortunately they may still swing from a
branch. Nor am I allowed any longer to hold people's hands for leverage
as they swing easy backward somersaults. Someone's shoulder got dislocated
elsewhere in the school in a different activity. But we can't be too
careful. They can do somersaults with their dads, I tell them, and their
parents may bring them to the yard on weekends if they want to climb
All that just means we have to use our
imaginations more. Fortunately, imagination is nearly boundless, and
is close at hand for children. Something magical nearly always still
happens when I enter their lilliputian world.
continued back contents title
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