Is It Non-Negotiable?

Self Portrait by L, age 4.

Self Portrait by L, age 4.


In The Anatomy of a Curriculum, I tried to make a case for understanding our own settings as a jumping off point for truly original planning that supports the children with whom we work.  We do not work with generic children, stock images: we work with individual small humans.  And we are not generic teachers, stock images: we are individual, full grown humans.  Everyone in a learning environment has thoughts, feelings, priorities, dislikes, and beyond.  

The learning environments where children spend time vary greatly: from home daycares to preschools to Head Start to private schools with waiting lists, and others.  Readers here come from all kinds of environments.  Just as I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all curriculum, I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all learning environment.  Early Childhood involves so many moving parts, from what families need for their schedule to the philosophy of education that drives your school.  You may be in an environment with a blanket, pre-scripted curriculum - many people are - that demands specific time and attention paid to implementing those activities.  But if we value young children’s time as they grow and develop in the crucial early years, we need to think about the experiences that they have.  It takes more time from us, but a layer of individual curriculum that reflects your setting is what can bring more joy to you, to children, and to families.

The assumption here is that teachers love to teach, that they are positive and optimistic, even in the face of the inevitable challenges.  But pessimism is pervasive in education, especially in larger institutions, where decision making does not always consider the human aspect, and function with the stock image of the child in mind.  A challenging child, budget cuts, large class sizes - this is the stuff that pessimism grows from.

I have referred to the skeleton of the curriculum as the “non-negotiables”.  But, as with all things, I have to stop and ask the question underneath: is it really non-negotiable, or are we just tired of trying to jump the barriers?  

When I talk to Early Childhood Educators about different topics - materials, literacy, play, storytelling, writing - I can feel the initial discomfort in some of the ideas I suggest.  How can I possibly find ten minutes a day for writing?  Won’t babies choke on those small materials?  I love this idea, but the parents just don’t get it!  We don’t have money for more books!  I hear educators talk about bad kids and bad parents, dismissing them simply as elements that are annoying and inevitable.  How can we possibly dismiss a five-year-old as a "lost cause"?

I hear those thoughts loud and clear: I have said them to myself.  When I began my teaching career, I did not even know that I could make things up for myself - I looked to the internet and to books to find lesson plans because no one told me what to do.  Other teachers I worked with complained about children, about supplies, about hours.  Naturally, those perceived barriers became my reality, and I leaned right into them.  If we can’t buy a certain supply, we won’t be able to do a certain activity.  If a parent won’t come in for a parent teacher conference, they must not care.  If this kid won't use the potty, or stop biting, or stop mixing all the paint colors together, it is a lost cause.  We get into these pessimistic habits, convincing ourselves that everything around us is pesky and it has nothing to do with us as educators, but rather about circumstances outside of our control.  

At the core of this attitude lived my assumptions about what school looks like, and especially what preschool looks like.  The notion that preschool is all Twinkle Twinkle and no David Bowie comes from the schema that I had built: that bubble that encompasses “preschool stuff”.  A decade in, and I have let everything into that bubble, really: the whole world deserves to be played with in preschool, and preschoolers deserve to play with the breadth of ideas that the world has to offer.  But educators get tired, and we make decisions based on our comfort or convenience.  We make assumptions that are rooted in our perspective, not the big picture.  

All of the preconceived ideas that we have around preschool deserve to be examined for that reason: the wealth of stuff to learn about is not just there for adults - children have as much of a right to spend their time learning and figuring things out that are more meaningful to their everyday lives.  Childhood and adulthood don't seem like they can mesh very well on the surface: adults forget how to play, and children don't see what the big deal is in making loud noises.  The pessimism begins to inform decision making, and we create an adult world for children to function in: no climbing up the slide, no talking in the hall.  Rather than approaching what seems to be a problem by stepping back and looking at the big picture, we make new rules, we keep bringing a child to the principal's office, we keep suspending Kindergarteners.

Self portrait by Y, age 4.  

Self portrait by Y, age 4.  

This is where we have to think about the non-negotiables, and, more specifically, look at our attitude about those non-negotiables.  Are we looking at the skeleton of our curriculum - the things we cannot change - through a lens of pessimism?  If we think the budget is small, where are we spending our money?  Is we think parents don't care because they are not reading the class blog, are we thinking about other ways to reach parents?  Are we thinking about whether or not they even have access to computers?

The non-negotiables do not need to be negative things.  We can see them negatively, or course, and some of them may be real challenges.  But part of our job is to be optimistic, and to work hard to overcome obstacles.  Isn't that what we want to model for children?  It takes obscene hours - I know.  Obscene hours are not a requirement of good teaching, but they come up at some point in a teaching career.  We're not working in factories, we are working in schools.

We need to know what we are doing, and if we don't know, we need to learn more.  We need the communities, many of which are online, to help us with big ideas.  We need to be open to other people telling us that we need to use a different lens, or making suggestions for change that might make us a bit uncomfortable.  Complaining gets us nowhere - pessimism just kind of leaks into other areas.  


Perhaps we prefer to think of ourselves as realists; pessimists only after the (discouraging) event.  This may be so, but had better be sure that our pessimism does not spill over from one event to the next, from one day to another, from this group of children to that, or we will be blinding ourselves to reality by supposing that nothing and nobody changes, that we can never be mistaken, that children never succeed where they formerly failed.
David Wheeler,  On Not Discouraging Ourselves, from Outlook Magazine


I do not think that Wheeler is asking us not to be ourselves, to not have bad days or make mistakes: I think he is reminding us that pessimism is a slippery slope.  I don't suggest that we become cartoonish versions of our real selves in the classroom - we are real people, after all - but perhaps that is for another post.  It takes reflection, thinking, dialogue, and action to be an optimistic teacher - and an obscene amount of hours.  Children deserve teachers like that.