I have been working with kids since I was twelve years old, when I was reluctantly thrust into the role of babysitter for a two-year-old family friend. For the first twenty minutes we sat together in her baby-pink bedroom, we just stared at each other. She looked at me. I looked at her, terrified, convinced she was going to spontaneously combust into a puddle of tears, poop, and screams at any moment. And then she sighed, squared up, and told me it was time to go outside to her tiny playhouse for a party. She took my hand in hers, and the rest was history.
In the ten years since that first playhouse party, I’ve been a camp counselor, a preschool volunteer, a practicum student, a part-time assistant teacher, a substitute teacher, and a full-time teacher. I’ve fed two-month-old babies their bottles, helped kindergarteners with their letter-of-the-week assignments, choreographed dances for twelve-year-olds, rubbed backs for nap time, and helped eight-year-olds learn to shampoo and condition their own hair. I even once helped teach English to a class full of Danish nine- and ten-year-olds (who did a full-class synchronized dab for me as a thank-you).
I currently work full-time as a preschool teacher, and the first word that always comes to mind when I am asked to describe my job is exhausting. It is exhausting in every way - physically, mentally, emotionally. Some days when I come home from work the only thing I can do is lie face-down on the hardwood floor of our apartment and groan. Don’t even ask me how my co-teachers with families of their own at home do it. I have no idea. They are superheroes and I am in awe of their powers.
Working with kids is exhausting. It is exhausting and messy and frustrating and repetitive.
And it is the best part of my life.
I love working with kids more than anything in the world. Children are full of endless hilarious ideas about how the world works (ask a three-year-old where rain comes from), they turn logic on its head, they remind me that learning never ends, and (most importantly), they crack me up every day. Some examples:
I once had a three-year-old little camper who announced to me, out of the blue, that Nemo from Finding Nemo was a “good man.” A GOOD MAN.
I was in the park with two little girls I was babysitting, ages two and four, when a very sweet grandmotherly-looking woman came up to them and asked their names. The four-year-old very politely said her name. The two-year-old, however, contorted her face into the grumpiest little mug I’ve ever seen, and with absolute conviction, said “Nobody.”
My preschoolers have developed a habit of taking turns sitting in my circle time chair and pretending to be me - leading songs, reading books, and scolding each other: “YOU ARE MAKING BAD CHOICES!!”
My job may be difficult - if I said there weren’t days I thought about duct-taping my kids to the wall and then leaving to go cry and scream in the bathroom, that would be a lie - but I love it. But even more than that, I will defend the importance of what I do until the day I die.
When I was in college, I had lots of people tell me that I had the “easy major.” I heard lots of “wow, it must be so fun to just sit in a room and play with kids all day! I wish I did that.” And in one of the worst moments, I had a close friend tell me that if I got a degree from Tufts just to be a preschool teacher, that I would be “wasting my education doing something that anyone can do.” That one still hurts.
I won’t lie, sometimes the negativity about working in early childhood really brings me down. It is hard sometimes not to feel like I should have picked a “better” (ie, higher earning) job, that being a teacher isn’t enough - not in the eyes of my old high school classmates on LinkedIn, not in the eyes of all the computer science majors who brag about coding until they fall asleep on their keyboard, not in the eyes of the whole suit-and-tie cubicle-shaped corporate world.
But then I watch from the corner of the playground as one of my three-year-olds pats the back of his crying friend and says “It’s okay to be sad, but mommy always comes back!” And I know what I do this for.
Did you know that ninety percent of a child’s brain develops before kindergarten?
So before my kids go off to “real school” to learn their times tables and the water cycle and how to write a proper five-paragraph essay, I have to teach them how to be people - good, kind, empathetic, thoughtful people - first.
I teach my kids how to communicate their wants and needs, and how to recognize when other people are communicating theirs. I teach them how to recognize, understand, and regulate their feelings. I teach them how to be a good friend. I teach my kids how to do basic daily tasks that have become so second-nature to us as adults that we forget that these things actually have to be taught: how to wash your hands correctly, how to put on a shirt, how to get a spoonful of peas to your mouth without all of them falling on the floor.
Oh, and just for the record, preschoolers can and do learn about math, science, language, and history in their classrooms. Watch a child who is playing with magnetiles - she is learning about shapes, structure, forces, weight, design. A group of kids listening to a book read on the beanbag are learning about how words are put together to convey messages, cause and effect, sequencing of events, problem-solving.
Children learn so much in preschool, but not everyone can see that. And that’s what frustrates me more than all of the two-year-old tantrums in the world.
I could rant all day about the state of education in America. How little our teachers are being paid, how undervalued the profession is by so many people, how Common Core standards that try to help our students end up hurting them, how teachers often end up paying for even the most basic of school supplies out of their own almost-empty pockets. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
I love my job with everything I have. Every child I’ve ever worked with has taught me something valuable about how we understand our world and the people who experience it with us. I remember them all, and watching them grow up and become strong, smart humans is worth every post-work afternoon spent lying on the hardwood floor.
If you still don’t believe that early childhood development is important for our world, check out some of these articles below:
And if after all that, you still have the audacity to scoff at the trials and tribulations of education professionals, then I will personally come to your house and fight you with all five-foot-two and one-hundred and twenty-five pounds of me. Rest assured.