It's Not About the Branch

At the start of the school year, our Director sat us down as a staff -  a small staff of four - with the task of creating a guiding question for the school year.  This would be a question to help reach into teaching practices and children’s inquiry; how we decide what we will do with children on a daily basis.  We gathered our thoughts on this collective paper, and looked for some overlapping ideas.


At the end of this short activity, we created our question:  How Will We Investigate?  Thinking back now, and even looking at my notes from that day, I have trouble connecting this activity to the work that we have all done together over the past eight months.  This is not a flaw of the director or how she chose to focus the meeting, but rather in how this information really didn’t “guide” anything this year.


It really is a lovely, lovely question.  This was a lovely experience to have as a team.  But when I look at this butcher paper, I don’t see where the question came from.  Function is more important that good intentions.  As a small staff with limited time, we created a question, likely because it was something that the director had seen or read about.  There is a lot to think about as the school year launches - routines, goodbyes, social dynamics, toileting - and finding a big, guiding idea, in theory, is a wonderful thing.  And the question "How Will We Investigate" is a meaningful one that can ooze into all of the decisions that we make.  When we were creating it, I thought about it very personally because of my interest in investigating my own teaching practice.


The problem with this question was that we never revisited it as a team.  We did not take it into account on purpose, at least.  We did not talk about it at meetings throughout the year - meetings were very logistical and did not leave room for investigations and dialogue around what we proposed would be a big idea.


This seems like a problem with many early childhood teams.  We are so inspired, we love this idea, we would love to do this in our classroom!  The grandeur of possibility is so present in the world we get to live in as Early Childhood Educators, especially as people become exposed to the theories of Reggio Emilia.  There was a post in a Facebook group recently asking, point blank, why all Reggio Inspired schools seem to have a big branch in them.  It reminded me of being in the Opal School in Portland last summer, soaking in these gorgeous environments and the documentation, and hearing people debate whether or not the fire marshall would let them have a big branch, too.  


Its not about the branch.  Its about an early childhood space, whatever that may be, as a true reflection of all of the people who are in it, who interact with it, and the community in which it is situated.  For a very long time, I thought I wanted to open a school  - and perhaps that will be part of my life someday.  But I simply love to visit schools, and I fall in love with schools that are original and have created their own identity. As Early Childhood Education becomes a more powerful part of everyday conversation, even amongst those who do not have children, these things really matter.  Montessori, Waldorf, Forest School, Reggio Emilia - everyone seems to be searching for a label.  None of those are meant to be formulas.  Many American early childhood educators are working in settings where we can choose the “how” of teaching because most settings are private without a curriculum to follow.  On the other hand, there might be a curriculum to follow - but that does not need to define school culture.


The work that I have done with this group of women this year has been different than any other year, despite the school having qualities of places I have worked in the past.  A learning environment lives and breathes, as silly as that may sound.  When you walk in, you feel that philosophy.  The values are laid out, right there on the floor and on the walls and in the materials on the shelves.  We see so many photographs of environments on social media with comments ranging from “Ooooh, jealous!!” To “Where did you get that?”.  What I want to say back (but I don’t) is (1) why?  And (2) why?  We live lives full of jealousy via social media, and that specific item that you saw online has very little to do with the long-term education and well being of a young child.  I have wanted the triangular mirror, the 20 foot by 40 foot mural paper.  I have bought things with budget money, and with my own money, that I thought would be earth shattering when I introduced them to children.  At the same time, I have watched children painstakingly write their name on a list to be second, third, and fourth in line to use a broom.  The “stuff” that we use can be as individual as our centers, and our teachers.  I know I have ruffled a few feathers over the years when people see I am not your “typical” preschool teacher, and I only very recently started to embrace that.  With families and children as stakeholders, it may not seem like there is much room for the radical.  The radical can be a tiny disruption from the norm, which is an excellent place to begin. The radical is simply thinking outside of the box and questioning why the norm is the norm.

Here is the meat of that activity from the beginning of the year:  hooray, we’re trying to look at the big picture, be conceptual, do something we read about somewhere - but where do we go from there?  I have had many false starts as a teacher, as a writer, as a person.  I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to get really excited about things, and then not follow through.  I want to do everything, and that is fully unnecessary.  Perhaps there is a project that we saw online that we think would be great in our classroom - and there is no harm in throwing a few tennis balls out there and seeing which ones get hit back.  Some years it feels like many of them just fly and never return; some bounce out of bounds; some go over our heads.  But the ones that get smacked right back at us and we return with a perfect backhand - those are not going to happen everyday, or every week or month for that matter.  Are we giving ourselves enough time to understand what is happening in a group or in our center?  How do we get under the surface more often?


Working with children is a creative process, and it takes an incredible amount of time and energy - much more than we are paid for.  The reward is in the moments when you solve a problem, when you feel you have grasped an idea, when you have stories to share with children, colleagues, families, and the community about the work that is happening in your space.  There is no exact formula for early childhood education, and I hope we never find one. As educators, we can’t be perfectionists.  Every child is different, every group of children, every school, every community.  As professionals, all we can do is practice, reflect, and practice again.  Let’s try to fight those feelings of inadequacy that we all have by doing something to make our teaching practice our own - not someone else's.