by Deborah J. Stewart
Tell me about your preschool program and the ages you teach.
We are a cooperative preschool with a play-based curriculum. I teach a class of 3-5 year olds and class of 2-year-olds.
What is your background as it relates to early childhood and what is the length of time you have been teaching preschoolers?
I’ve been a preschool teacher for 8 years, all at Woodland Park. I spent 3 years as a parent in my daughter’s co-op preschool and was recruited by her teacher and the director of the North Seattle Community College parent education program to enter the profession. I subsequently did course work at the college. In my earlier life, I coached 40+ baseball teams with players ranging in age from 4-30 (seriously). In many ways, this experience had more influence on my teaching style/approach than anything else.
What are some of the ways parents participate in your classroom?
We are a cooperative preschool so parents are required to work in the classroom one day per week. Parents are assigned classroom jobs (e.g., art, drama, table toys, blocks, snack, sensory, library) on a rotating basis. The college provides us with a parent educator who is in the classroom once a week and who runs a parent ed class once a month (for which parents receive college credit) to help parents become better “assistant teachers.” Parents also understand that I may need them to take on additional classroom jobs as needs arise. I love having all those extra arms and legs!
As you work with parents, what are some effective techniques you have found for building positive relationships with the family members of your preschool students?
I know that this isn’t the kind of answer you’re looking for, but the “techniques” I use with parents are the same as I use for making friends. I’m friendly and give them lots of genuine compliments. I listen to them and try to give honest answers. There is something bonding about working side-by-side with parents on a weekly basis. Education in our school is not something I do for their kids, but rather something we are all working on together. We have good days together and bad days together. They see how hard I’m working to educate their kids and have a clear picture of the challenges teachers face.
I suppose if there is any one technique I use it’s to talk to every parent, every day about whatever is on their mind or my mind, even if it has nothing to do with school or kids. Not a practical thing in a traditional school, but an inevitable thing in our school!
As an early childhood educator, do you also invite members of your community to get involved in your preschool program?
In addition to parents being not just invited, but required, to be in the classroom, our doors are always open to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other teachers. We often have several extra adults in the room with us. We also have occasional visits from people like fire fighters, dancers and artists. We also go on monthly field trips, usually to local businesses or community groups, like food banks. There is paperwork involved in permitting older siblings into class, but whenever we get the chance, we fill the room with those older kids as well.
What are some effective techniques you have found for building positive relationships with members of your community?
Well, I have my blog, although I don’t think many of the parents read it — I think they sometimes need a break from Teacher Tom!
We use Yahoo Groups to stay in touch with one another. In addition to working in the classroom, each family is also responsible for an “outside” the classroom job, like serving as treasurer, secretary, admissions person, repairs/maintenance, etc. One of those jobs is “special events.” That person organizes social events for entire families as well as parents-only throughout the year and even during the summer.
We’ve also found that our all-hands-on-deck work “parties” (three times a year) and special projects (like re-doing our playground) are great community building activities.
Do you have any other comments you would like to add or that you think other preschool teachers would benefit from regarding building relationships with families and members?
In my mind, progressive education starts with community. Or as Alfie Kohn puts it, “Progressive education is marinated in community.” This concept is at the heart of our school. I couldn’t, frankly, care less about things like “best practices,” pedagogy and theory. As long as we have a unified, robust community, one that draws newcomers quickly into its center, the children WILL get a good education and be ready for kindergarten. I know you’ve been reading the blog — I got confirmation last week that my families understand this and agree whole-heartedly.
I have been reading Teacher Tom’s Blog on a daily basis for awhile now and what I find most remarkable is Tom’s consistent reflection on the needs, role, and concerns of the parents who work with him on a daily basis. When Tom states that he could “care less about things like best practices,” I know from reading his blog that this is because applying best practices in his classroom is second nature to him and he does so almost without thinking about it. Building a community of families that care about early childhood education and care about each other is where the real challenge lies. Tom’s teaching style and the parents of Woodland Park are a wonderful example of “Progressive education [being] marinated in community.”