August 20, 2008

First Day of School

I just left my screaming two year-old daughter in the hands of a complete stranger and walked away. I feel empty and a bit broken inside. I am panicky, tense, nervous and staring at the clock until I can retrieve her and cuddle her safely in my arms, where she obviously belongs. I double and triple check my phone to make sure it is ready to accept incoming calls.

“If she freaks out and cries for more than thirty minutes, call me. But she should be okay soon.”

“Of course. Of course. She will be fine.”

The woman reassures me, her face drenched in what appears to be sincere understanding or is it contempt. Today was the first day of school for my daughter Kaia. She just turned two in July, and she is, for all intents and purpose, still my little baby girl. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Perhaps I am being a tad-bit overly dramatic, but up to this point in her life we have been blessed with the quality of childcare she has received. Her first year she was under the watchful eye of my Montessori-trained mother, and since then, we have been blessed to have a wonderful live-in nanny, Marilyn, whom Kaia adores. So why school? Why now?

As an educator and teacher myself, I feel I have a vested interest in answering that question. To label where she is going and what she is doing at this moment school may be a reach, it is really more of a daycare. So if we have adequate childcare why did I leave her screaming in that room with strangers? I suppose this raises the enduring question of why school at all. That philosophical conundrum is too large in scope to address here, but worth thinking about nonetheless for all teachers. Why do parents willing leave their children in your care? What do they excpect? What do you offer? How often is this negotiation discussed?

Our justification is that the experience of going to daycare for four hours a day, three days a week, will be good for her social development, teach her how to interact with other children, other adults, situations where mommy and daddy are not there to run and cry to. At this stage of the game, I am not sure we expect her to actually “learn” anything more than that.

If this experience thus far has taught me anything, it is how to look at the whole education game from the vantage point of a parent. As a childless teacher, I always resented parents who insinuated that because I did not have a child of mine own I didn’t truly understand what it means to have a child in school. At the risk of upsetting my childless teacher friends, I think I now understand. Being a parent you see the classroom as a place that, in theory, should be built around the needs of your child, anything less is unsatisfactory. As a teachers, however, we see the classroom as a communal space, where each child is another need we must tend to.

Achieving this balance between individual and communal, this differentiated instruction, if I may use the current jargon is the key to a successful classroom at all ages. This dichotomous relationship between self and society and the art of balancing the two sides is perhaps the biggest task a school could perform as a tool for socialization in our society. How do we teach kids to be cooperative, friendly, and kind while maintaining their individuality?

The two seconds it took for the teacher to pry Kaia from my arms, her eyes wet with tears, the terror of daddy leaving her in there, with them, alone, taught me more about the type of elementary teacher I need to be than a thousands hours of professional development would have. At that moment, I was surrendering the most valuable thing in my life to a person I was trusting on conjecture alone.

As I start a new chapter in my career as an elementary school teacher, I want to be the type of teacher who instills faith and trust in both parents and their children. This earned conviction begins with a warm smile and tender speech. As teachers we need to assuage parental anxiety buy putting ourselves in their shoes at every step of the game. Their child is not simply, “another face” in our room. Each child, no matter how rambunctious, no matter how rude, or quiet, or shy, or smart, or “slow” is the most important thing in their life. As teachers we must always remind ourselves of that.

I worked in the restaurant business as a waiter and a busboy for almost ten years, and to this day I cannot fully enjoy a meal without wondering: why my drink order hasn’t been taken yet, or why the check is taking so long, or why I haven’t been asked how everything is. Now as my little girl starts the thirteen yearlong journey into the world of institutional education, her teachers beware.

I am afraid I will be that parent; you know the one: “Oh she is super smart, she already knows all her colors and can name animals like Whooping Crane and Manta Ray, what do you mean she won’t follow instructions.” And for this I apologize in advance to all her teachers. But on the flipside, Kaia’s schooling will be schooling for me as well. Even after the initial two-minute exchange this morning; I have learned enough about being a good teacher than I ever did at university.

My hour is up and I need to go see how my little angel is doing. I haven’t received a phone call yet. Is she happily playing with the other children, or is she sitting in the corner screaming her lungs out while the teacher assumes that “toughing it out” is good for her. Oh teacher! Why would you ever take on that kind of responsibility?

End Note: I just got back from picking her up after an hour. She was sitting at a table eating her snack with seven other children. No trace of tears, smiling, and ready to go. That’s my girl!

1 comment:

  1. i only know what my mom told me about when she left me- the first time for kindergarten (mine was all day) and the second for college (i was 18). she cried both times. i won't speak to the daycare thing- i am childless. i have very definite opinions on childcare and institutionalized education- which i will also not speak to here- as i am childless. all i know is this- despite having a public school education, i think i turned out just fine :) it was in no small part due to the fact that my mother was involved. she helped with homework where she could and she went to every single play, concert and tennis match she could. for me and my sister. parental involvement is key bz- and you and your wife are on top of that one :) it will be ok- and i look forward to some pics soon of kaia's school daze :) you are going to be a fine elementary school teacher because you already have what can't be taught- empathy and compassion. namaste.