When you work as a preschool teacher (as with any other job), the first half hour or so after arriving at work is mostly spent waiting for the coffee to kick in. You are still adjusting to being awake and out in the world. Your social skills aren’t really accessible yet. However, unlike someone in a non person-facing job, who might be able to ease into their day by answering emails and spending a few minutes scanning the day’s headlines, all in the comfort of their own chair and desk while sipping a mug of their caffeinated beverage of choice, a preschool teacher does not have that luxury. It is in these first moments of the day that a teacher must spring into action.
The start of your day could very well look like this:
But it’s sprinkled with what I like to call “gems” like these from your preschoolers:
“Well, being a kid is great because you don’t have to work, but you also don’t get to make your own choices.”
“You have to try until you die, and then someone else will do it for you.”
“This is the baddest day in my whole life.”
Morning is the most chaotic part of the day for a preschool teacher. You may have a bit of prep time, but almost immediately after arriving at work, you’re likely to be greeting children and trying to welcome them to school in a way that makes them excited to be there and OK with the impending departure of their mom or dad.
“You can be happy and sad at the same time.”
“I’m having feelings today.”
“Keep this a secret: when my daddy woke up, he said the F word, quietly.”
Amid rushed exchanges with parents on their way to work, you might be entrusted with a bottle of cough syrup to be given after lunch, notes on how that child’s morning is going (“Today’s gonna be a rough one”), or instructions such as “Please make sure she has a nap today,” or conversely “Please make sure she does NOT have a nap today.”
These are just a few examples of the information you’re expected to keep in your brain about each child. Of course, if the parents at your school are as wonderful as most of mine, these instructions and requests are delivered with grateful smiles. But multiplied by the number of kids in your class, it adds up to a lot of information to retain.
This time is intense for the kids, too. They’ve just left the warm embrace of their parents and home. The comfort of their My Little Ponies and granola bars already seems like a distant memory. They find themselves in a bustling playground full of competitors for toys and attention. Now they’re just another face in the crowd. They are understandably distraught.
“I’m the monster of death today.”
“This is another day where I’m feeling fragile.”
“I CAN find my angry but I CAN’T find my fun.”
They hesitantly scan the playground for allies, even as the croissant crumbs from their one-on-one bakery date with Mom still cling to their lips. Some are thrilled to see friends and hop on the playground equipment, but others find the transition less joyful. Torn from a world where they were special, the center of attention, they are thrust into the harsh new reality of school, where they’re no more important than any other child. They fear it, hate it, and don’t fully grasp the concept. They won’t for another few years at least.
“Sometime can I be your friend?”
“I don’t need any help, I’m doing my own thing!”
“He keeps saying I’m a french fry, but I don’t feel like pretending right now!”
“Doesn’t anyone want to play Kitten Unicorn Puppies with me!?”
“Hey, this is fun! A lot more fun than crying!”
At our school (and at many others), we start each day with Circle Time. We typically start by singing songs about greeting the day and each other, and about the seasons of the year. At this time of day, I find myself really enjoying the kids and being at school. It’s pretty much impossible not to feel happy when you look around the room and see a bunch of little people pretending to be gnomes happily mining magic stones from inside a mountain, daffodils growing out of the ground, or bears hibernating for the winter.
“It’s pretend, and pretend is real.”
“I know a fake guy, I made him up.”
“I wanna show you how to be a bear. It’s very easy to be a bear.”
“My friend is really for real life a real bear.”
In elementary or high school, the curriculum revolves around reading, history and math. But in preschool, which is essentially to help kids learn to be part of the world beyond their families, Circle Time is the real meat and potatoes of the day. Although it might appear to be nothing more than singing and dancing, circle play actually helps develop coordination and social skills, and aids in general brain development.
“Lightning dinosaurs are made out of cool love.”
“You’re king of the sun, I’m king of the darkness.”
“I drew a circtangle!”
“Hugging is not for hurting. No fire hugs!”
Despite the difficulty of getting everyone through the hand-washing process and sitting relatively quietly at the table, snack-time is an enjoyable part of the day. It’s a chance to be together and a great opportunity to listen in on some really funny and interesting dialogue between novice socializers.
Overheard at the snack table:
“I like your little chinny.” (Older girl to younger boy while affectionately stroking his (admittedly adorable) ‘little chinny.’ Both smile.)
“I don’t like water because I’m a fan of taste.”
“I want to eat butter but my dad and mom say no.”
“Cake, you silly food!”
“The bananas came from the tropicals.”
I’m sure you weren’t aware of this during your own preschool days, so I’ll let you in on a secret: Teachers get excited about snack time, too. I’m not proud, but I will admit to grazing on the fruit salad before serving it to the kids, having already plucked out most of the pineapple. After years of dumping uneaten grapes, pretzel sticks, and baby carrots off the plates of finicky eaters, I’ve become rather conservative when it comes to portion sizes for kids. One day I was serving the snack plates and doled out one strawberry to each child, but put two on my own plate. One of my more observant students asked “Teacher, how come the kids only get one strawberry but you get two?” I was taken aback. Most young kids would never notice something like this (they have a lot going on internally). “Well,” I said, ” I don’t know how much each of you likes strawberries, but I know how much I like them. I like them a lot.” The satisfaction of a well-deserved double helping of berries gave me the fortitude to resist adding, “You know how happy you feel when you climb a tree, sing a song, or see a butterfly? Well, it takes a little more work for a grownup to feel like that, so sometimes I just need to have two strawberries!”
“Those plums made me feel very good brave and happy.”
“Do you know what pineapple is? ‘Cause I do.”
“Know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna pretty much chomp on pomegranate seeds all day.”
Playtime is at the heart of many preschools’ curriculum. At my school we spend a lot of our time outside, which is wonderful. We have regular gardening classes, and the kids get to climb trees, build spaceships out of logs, and pick and eat herbs. They are better at identifying edible plants than most adults, though their spaceship engineering skills may still need a little time.
I love observing the games that they come up with, especially when they don’t know that I’m paying attention.
Overheard on the playground:
“Go computer! Go magic! Go flowers!”
“Let’s go drink beer by the monkey bars.”
“I’ve got two pretend friends comin’ to my Easter egg hunt, and their names are nothin’ and nobody.”
“Should we guys play animal doctors?”
“I’m doing my secret program, and it’s a pumpkin secret program.”
“My dragons can ‘splode everybody. They can ‘splode you.”
“Look at me! I’m in the shape of a hamster and I’m hopping.”
“I’m a powerful lightning man with lightning shoes.”
“We are the super eyesight girls, we are the best team in the world!”
“I need high fives from everyone.”
It rains a lot where we live, but we still go outside every day, which means recess frequently calls for full-body rain gear. Getting the kids suited up is challenging all by itself, but consider what happens when a child is playing outside and becomes aware a moment too late of their need to use the bathroom. Repeated experience has fixed indelibly in my mind how swiftly and effectively a pair of rain pants can channel a stream of pee directly into a rubber boot. I have frequently seen a child in that predicament duck into a hidden corner of the garden to empty out a boot in what he or she thinks is a totally private and unobserved moment.
I could go into further detail about toilet-related stories here, but I’m sure that’s a whole article of its own. Just know this: They are numerous. Any preschool teacher could tell you tales of pee and poop that would curl your hair. You won’t get far in this profession with a weak stomach.
“I’m just gonna let my body decide.”
“Now TWO things are happening to my pants!”
“I just went poop and then all my clothes fell off.”
“Hey, can I get some new pants on? ‘Cause, uh… I’m kinda peein’ in my shorts.”
“My butt is restored!”
“After I go poop I can have gummi bears.”
Lunch is another fun and social time of day, but it can also be challenging for teachers, because you have to get the kids to go through a pretty rigorous schedule in a short period of time. Also, by this point in the day, they have been at school for awhile and are starting to feel hungry and tired. As we all know, these are two things that don’t bring out the best in children (or anyone else).
“Feed me pizza or I’ll die.”
“I can eat up something way bigger than the whole universe connected to the earth!”
“I’m not a vegetarian or a meat eater. I’m a Sagittarius, I eat everything.”
First you have to round everyone up to come inside. This is no small feat, as some children literally kick and scream every day to stay outside a little longer. Then you have to
- persuade them to line up and come back to the classroom
- help them take off and put away their many layers of gear
- convince them to wash their hands and sit calmly at the table, once again.
This already sounds like a lot, but if only it were that simple! You can’t just tell a three-year-old, “Wash your hands.” You have to say “Walk over to the sink, stand on the stool, lift up the faucet handle, push down on the soap dispenser, scrub your hands, rinse your hands, turn off the water, dry your hands, and sit in your chair.” And you have to repeat it several times, sometimes in the form of a song, with hand motions. Even then, many of them will either stare at you like you’re crazy, engage in some sort of water play with a friend (to which we say “Save some for the fishes!”), or go off and do whatever else they find more interesting at that particular moment, which is literally everything else.
“When I was meditating in the bathroom I saw a bunny.”
“Do you know why I was laughing? ‘Cause I think the toilet is funny, that whys.”
It’s easy to enjoy the chatter at the lunch table. A lot of great conversations happen there. But in the back of your mind, you know that you need to start preparing the class for naptime: Subtly turning down the lights, encouraging soft voices, putting on some Enya or the like in the background. The next transition from lunch to nap is crucial, and even when you do everything right, sometimes it all goes to hell anyway.
“I don’t want to be myself anymore because I can’t stop eating cheese.”
“The food at McDonalds has chemicals in it. I love the food at McDonalds.”
“I am now collecting some flavor.”
“I mostly like things that are made of bread.”
“Excuse me, I did the burp.”
There a lot of different types of nappers at preschool, but I think any teacher could tell you who their Priority Number One Napper is. The Priority Number One Napper is the kid in your class who you have to prioritize putting to sleep before any of the others, because you know if they don’t sleep, no one else will. They are patient zero for naptime misbehavior, and once it starts it will infect the entire class with terrifying speed.
“I’m sleeping and punching.”
There are lots of different styles of nappers, too. A few years ago we had one child who fought sleep tooth and nail every day. He would thrash and yell right up to the point when he passed out. Another would sneak as many classroom toys as he could onto his nap mat every day. We would frequently peel back his blanket once he had fallen asleep and find half the contents of the dollhouse. Tiny wooden housewares. A toilet, a toaster, a clunky 90s computer. An entire family of bunnies.
Another child just talks to himself at full volume until he falls asleep, despite his teachers’ continuous urging to quiet down.
“When you sleep your brain organizes.”
Some kids need to feel some weight on their body in order to fall asleep, so you have to put a heavy pillow on them, or put your hand on their back.
The thing about these kids who require so much work is that you end up developing quite a bond with them. All this time, energy and struggle results in a lot of affectionate feelings. These are the kids you will always remember. And somehow they seem especially sweet once they have fallen asleep.
“I am a girl who’s tired but she’s still OK.”
Just as there are different styles of napping, there are also different styles of waking up. Some kids wake up in tears daily, confused about where they are and missing their parents. Others spring out of bed ready to play. One of my students would wake up from nap every day in the exact same way: his eyes would pop open and a little groggy voice would say “Can I color?”
One day a little boy who was typically more of a groggy/sad waker woke up really happy. He sat up straight and did a little dance with his hands above his head, then, as he started to look around the room, he seemed to realize that he was not at home like he thought. His dance slowed, and his smile melted into a frown, then dissolved into tears. He experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of human emotion, all in a five-second period, and I feel incredibly lucky that I was there to witness it.
“Before I woke up I was asleep.”
“I tasted a dream when I was a baby. It tasted like nothing.”
“First I wasn’t a mermaid, then my dream came true!”
Heading outside again
On sunny days, sometimes we try to get the kids back outside as soon as possible after they wake up from their naps. We shove their sleepy little feet into their velcro shoes, slather them with sunscreen and head out to soak up the vitamin D. Years from now when I think back on teaching, these sun-drenched afternoons spent in conversation with the kids and watching them play are the ones that will come to mind.
“You can’t stop the weather ’cause the weather just keeps coming back.”
“Can you outside-out my sleeve?”
“You can be your own mom if you want.”
“I made a volcano! Admire the view, before I knock it over.”
“Let’s play real life!”
At our school, families have the option to send their kids to school two, three, or five days a week. Among the kids who are at school every day, there are some who, due to their parents’ work schedules, arrive early and are among the last to leave. These kids spend more time at the school than most of the staff members do. Their days are long, even for an adult. Even though I know it’s unavoidable for some families, I really feel for those kids. Already weary with the world at age three. But these all-day-every-day kids are the ones you really bond with and get to know the best. After all, you spend more waking hours with them during the week than their parents do.
Wrapping up the day
Unlike morning drop-offs, which are often full of tears, watching the joyful reunions of kids and parents is truly touching and sweet – even though the first words from a kid to a parent after being separated from them all day are often, “Did you bring me a snack?”
Sometimes the joy is short-lived, as a lot of kids break down fairly quickly after seeing their parents. They may simply be exhausted, all at once realize how much they’ve missed them, or finally feel secure enough to let out any leftover feelings they have accumulated throughout the day. Some days parents take the time to let their kids play and show them the Lego castle, play-dough shark or new friends they have made (real or imaginary), while other days they have to rush them out the door to get home for dinner. Both types are totally understandable.
“In the olden days, you had to build people from Legos. But in the now-endays, Lego people just exist. Magic.”
“I have two flowers for my beautiful mom.”
“Tee tee tum tum, we dance to shake our bums! Tee tee tum tum, we dance to show our moms!”
Being a teacher, parent, or caregiver is one of the hardest jobs you can have. But it’s important work. If you have chosen to do this job – thank you. The world needs people like you in order to keep going. It’s often exhausting and frustrating. You learn to take a breath before you respond to most anything. Easier said than done sometimes, though, I know.
But enjoy this time, because they’ll soon learn to be embarrassed and think before they speak. Little by little the world will chip away at their imagination. These tiny beings are very special – they’re people before the bitterness and inhibitions of adulthood sink in. We can learn a lot from them. Be mindful. Listen to what they’re saying.
“You know, I’m very special to this world. VERY special.”
“We are gorgeous humans.”
“Lots of kids can see invisible stuff.”
“My mom has a story about fish underwear. No one knows how it goes, you just feel it in your heart.”
“When I grow up I’m gonna be an artist and a mom and a slingshot.”
“My sillies are stuck like arrows in my heart.”
“When I grow up I want to be a doctor or a nurse or a fish or a broom. Basically, I can be whatever I want.”
Illustrations by Chris Fontaine.