In one of my favorite versions of a New Yorker-style cartoon by Aaron Bacall, a doctor scans a chest x-ray while a female patient waits patiently for the results. The caption reads some variation of “Your heart is slightly bigger than the average human heart – but that is because you are a teacher.” While it may not be medically true, elementary school teachers are typically a caring bunch. You can spy our compassion in a wink, a smile, or a word of encouragement. Sometimes, however, it’s more subtle and even covert.
For instance, I have a secret teacher confession: I won’t tie your child’s shoelaces.
While it may not seem so, it’s truly because I do care. Of course, I will never allow your child to be unsafe, or trip, or drag untied shoelaces through puddles. In teaching, nurturing means more than hugs and kissing boo boos. It means empowerment, building self-esteem, and fostering independence, too.
When developmentally ready, your child will be able to do things that are age appropriate (like tying shoelaces). The mere expectation that they can do it or will be able to do it soon makes them feel good. I teach them how, stand by and encourage as they try (never to the point of frustration) and finally, ask if they need help. If I always tie your child’s shoe, how will they know when they are able to do it on their own?
This guiding principle cultivates a sense of ownership, responsibility and autonomy. Visitors to our class are always astounded when they see how independent our students are. Our mini-MacGuyvers can fold a painting tablecloth as a team, open a milk container or Go-Gurt without an explosion, clean a table, pack up papers, open Pop Chips or know where the scissors are to cut the bag open. We relish these real-life teaching experiences tucked into our academic environment. Sure, it helps me out (parents too!) when students can do things on their own (Can you imagine packing 27 backpacks?) but the true, lasting beneficiary is the self-sufficient, confident, self-assured child.
Before you rush off to buy your child Velcro sneakers, I’ll tell you one of my favorite teaching memories involving a kindergartener I’ll call Carrie. Carrie was a bright light and a hard worker with cute freckles and some challenges. Carrie initially needed me turn the water fountain knob for her. I showed her how it worked and then I stood next to her and asked her to try. Everyday for months, Carrie tried and then I would do it for her. Until finally, she tried and the water spouted! Carrie’s surprised face lit up with pride. She was so happy; I don’t even think she had her drink! With water fountains, tying shoelaces and the like, the magic happens…if you let it.
“Back-to-School” sales are now in full swing. You’ve read The Kissing Hand and Wemberly Worried and you’re about to set your child off to the first of school. If you’re like most parents, you are hoping for a teacher who is regimented yet flexible, supportive and kind yet firm, funny yet academic, vibrant, enthusiastic, loving and an extremely temporary replacement of yourself. Like parents, teachers wear many proverbial hats from nurse to mediator to instructor to etc. etc. etc. While it can be emotionally difficult to entrust your precious child to a new teacher, know that our hearts are big. Sometimes you just need some x-ray vision to see what’s going on underneath.
Beth Pereira, M.S.T., is public school teacher and private tutor on the Upper East Side. She has over 15 years of early childhood experience and is the 2014 OTTY East-Sider of the Year award winner for Education. Contact her at LearnWithMeinNYC@gmail.com.
How you can help build independence at home
• Have patience. Teach first, let them try, encourage and then help.
• Google “how-to” videos and watch together. Model and have your child try immediately after. S/he may only be able to do part of the process independently at first.
• Offer words of encouragement: Keep trying! You’ll get it. Great try. I can see you’re getting it!
• Always, listen to thoughts, feelings and opinions. You may not always agree but it’s empowering.
• Practice tearing toilet paper and pump soap dispensers in unfamiliar bathrooms. Surprisingly, this can sometimes be frustrating.
• Allow your child to choose his/her own outfit. Start from three choices. Soon they can try to choose and dress themselves. Ignore mismatched clothes when it’s not important. Get excited about looks you love.
• Allow your child to set the table. Forgive mistakes but do teach where things go.
• Let your child grab items from shelves at the market under your direction.
• Check off steps in a morning or bedtime routine. Choose your battles. Maybe you’ll want to make sure the back teeth get brushed but you can live with the strand of hair outside the hair band.
• Post a “Did I Pack…? Sheet” on your front door with days of the week and what to bring that day. For instance… PE sneakers on Mondays, art clothes that can get mussed on Tuesdays, reading log on Friday etc. Let your child pack up!
• Cut, use paperclips, staplers and different materials whenever possible to gain practice.
• Encourage your child to order in a restaurant after a discussion.
• Learn and practice how to zip/button coats.
• Clean up bedrooms and common areas. You can make it fun by playing a favorite song and dancing and cleaning for the length of the song. Put things away and put garbage in the trash bin.
• When your child shows off his/her artwork asking if it’s “good” first ask, “What do YOU think?” Then celebrate with oohs and ahhs and wowee kazowees once they have self-affirmed.
• Offer positive reinforcement. You can include a reasonable reward. Try an independent behavior chart. Work on one or two behaviors at a time and make it easy to initially achieve success. The behavior chart should evolve and/or disappear over time.