By Susan Perkins

Six teachers from Monsignor Boyle Head Start shared thoughts with Ken Kessel, LCSW, and Susan Perkins, New York Zero to Three Network Co-President, of what has worked for them as they adapted to teaching remotely, and in hybrid classrooms, over the last year. Our conversation was held by Zoom on June 12th and facilitated by Mr. Kessel, who specializes in Infant Mental Health and works as a Mental Health Consultant at that site.  We used these questions as a reflective starting point:   What have you learned about teaching, children, parents and yourself through the COVID pandemic? Here are the highlights of the conversation!

What we learned about teaching

The remote set-up centered learning in the home, rather than the classroom, and in essence became child and family centered homeschooling, with the teachers as guides and coaches. It was essential to discover how education lived in the flow of life for each family and find ways for instruction to respond and support that.  Shifting the focus in this way created educational models that included building community and culture.  Teachers also realized the value of cultivating the children and family’s interest in each other as a vehicle for teaching.  Creating this bridge not only shaped the teaching materials and their approach but also created a collective enthusiasm for the learning experiences.  

Planning was key. Several teachers emphasized how much additional planning went into their lessons, including developing Power Point presentations and new ways to use the environment, “seeing their home as the classroom.” Distributing learning packets and relying on easily-available materials in the homes created an inclusive project-based approach. Families became enthusiastic about posting and viewing their work on Class Dojo (a web-based application), further enhancing the sense of community. Simple activities included inviting the children to bring a toy to share, conducting a treasure hunt that would send the children exploring their own home for “something blue.” Morning meetings became a way not only to start the day but also for the children and families to share and learn about each other; what emerged was a community of caring.  The use of breakout rooms afforded an opportunity for interaction in smaller groups.  Several teachers noted that they relaxed in their control of the class and trusted the learning process.

What we learned about preschool children

More than one teacher mentioned the value in “letting the children figure it out.”  The need to invent new ways of teaching reinforced that children are intrinsically capable, interested learners.  If learning is a process of curiosity and discovery, then teaching becomes the art of providing materials and supporting exploration, about themselves, each other, and the process of learning itself.  

What we learned about parents of these children

Many teachers felt that in some ways this was the best part of the experience.  Every teacher commented on the relationships they developed with parents over the course of these months.  The insights into their students’ family life, the ways parents provide emotional support and guidance opened new windows on how to form a strong productive partnership tailored to and guided by each families’ needs and sensibilities.  The teachers were inspired by the strength of these partnerships.  

What we learned about ourselves

As much as each teacher reflected on their appreciation of the relationships they built with their young students and their families, they also affirmed the value of their own abilities: “We are strong,” “We are creative.” “We are adaptive.” “We value our teamwork.” “We found new ways to support each other as teachers.” “We had to discover our own balance of work and family” (many of these teachers are also parents of young children who were learning remotely).  “Our strength and skill lie in building relationships.” They learned to relax and be positive.  Finally, they expressed their continuing love of teaching and for the 3-5 years old in their program this year.

What of this will we bring back into classroom-based learning

Teaching and learning rest on family, relationship, communication, caring and discovery. Lesson planning has to be based on the learning interests of the child and the family, not the other way around.  The lesson plan is a useful organizational tool but must not be the end goal.  Methods only work when we’re adaptable. Every year is unique.  Every family is unique.  Every child is unique.  Every day is unique.  Web-based resources such as Class Dojo and Ready Rosie can be powerful vehicles of relation-based instruction.  Teachers are enthusiastic about continuing to use these tools to reach out to families and engage parents in future years as they did so successfully this past year. These resources allow opportunities for storing student portfolios, communicating with parents and extending lessons into home life. For families with internet access (including phone apps), they offer an opportunity to see their child’s work, communicate with the teacher and build upon formal instruction.   Class Dojo can translate text into families’ home language; Ready Rosie is available in English and Spanish. 

Communication with parents includes sharing developmentally-based teaching strategies, and thus embeds mutual guidance on child development. There are always ways to engage with families, independent of what technology they may have available, and the resources already present in the home include the people who live there and the everyday objects of their lives. Engaging the challenges of finding equipment for themselves and for families (sometimes borrowed laptops, sometimes i-phones), as well as discovering the strategies to use what is at hand, builds creativity, connections, commitment and confidence. These are the foundations of early childhood education. 

With thanks to Ken Kessel, and Jomara Castillo, Sugeiry Hernandez, Yensy Meija, Nieves Micolta, Gastride Paris, Catherine Wint.