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Want to Make a Really Fresh Start to the Year? Spend More Time with Children

January 3, 2019 by

I love my student teaching hours at the large elementary school where I am placed by the WVU Five Year Teacher Education Program. With around eight hundred students from pre-K through fifth grade, this school prides itself as one of the most diverse in this predominantly white state. In my class of twenty-four kindergarten students alone, there are nine nationalities represented with three students from China, one from the Philippines, one from Mexico, one who has lived in Shanghai, Denmark, Norway and France, and three who are Arabic or Middle-Eastern. When students are working together on projects, it is not uncommon to hear Mandarin or Arabic amid the excited chatter as my English language learners find a chance to employ their native language with like-speaking peers.

When we discussed how we are alike and different at the beginning of the school year, our discussions of who had lighter hair color and whose hair was dark, who had blue eyes and who had brown, and who is the tallest and who is the shortest, flowed naturally and spontaneously into an investigation of whose skin was darkest and whose was lightest. There were no stereotypes attached to this, just five-year-olds comparing themselves to their peers.

It is these experiences that make me eagerly anticipate the part of my week spent in the kindergarten classroom. Their genuine and childlike outlook on life is a refreshing break from my three-hour-long classes and from the noisily stressed out twenty-somethings with whom I have studied for three years. There is something about being with children that makes all the work, all the anxiety, and the prospect of a low-paying and underappreciated career worth it. This is something I and my classmates as well as my professors and many others in the field of education agree on. Fyodor Dostoevsky put it beautifully when he said, “The soul is healed by being with children.”

two boys cutting paper

But beyond the simple yet deep moments we experience together – watching a monarch butterfly crawl out of its cracked chrysalis, the innocent conversations about growing older, the tears that can be banished with a hug – there is much more going on in my students’ worlds.

As I stand in the playground, I watch the children that I have gotten to know well over the past three months, and reflect on what a casual observer cannot see about my students: That curly headed girl on top of the climbing wall – her mother is dying of cancer in the very hospital that she can see from her high perch; the tall boy, the loud one who just knocked over the little red-head and is brandishing a stick like a gun – his mother has chronic depression and he told me he’s scared of going home; the boy with shiny black hair and a bulky red coat – his mother works overseas in China for four or five months at a time and whenever she leaves he cries for days.

The world right now is not a safe and nurturing place for children. But within the kindergarten classroom, we are building values of caring, of inclusion, of valuing differences, and of taking responsibility for our actions.

These are the students in my classroom. The girl whose mother is dying is the same one who walks in to the classroom each morning with a smile on her face and often a proclamatory, “Good morning Mrs. VanHorn and Ms. Shirky!” as if we have been waiting all week to see her. The boy who dreads the day his mother leaves again is the same one who likes to look up at me sideways with a witty grin and say deliberately, “Can you help me, Mrs. Sharky?”

Somehow, despite facing situations that I wish no five-year-old would even know of, these children are resilient, happy, and hopeful. And I am privileged to work with them.

Thinking about where some of my students are when they are not at school makes me discouraged and scared for them. The world right now is not a safe and nurturing place for children. But within the kindergarten classroom, we are building values of caring, of inclusion, of valuing differences, and of taking responsibility for our actions. We say good morning to everyone in the room, every day in Mandarin, Arabic, or English with a high-five, fist-bump, handshake, or just a smile.

When the children walk into the classroom every morning, they are ready for the day, ready for what they will experience. Unlike my peers and coworkers, they do not drag their frustrations and grudges in with them. And they don’t worry about future problems that may or may not arise. If there are tears, angry words, or discouragements, they face them, fix them, and forget about them in a matter of minutes. This is how they can still smile – and appreciate monarch butterflies or one inch of snow –when their lives are far from perfect.

I know that I can use more than two days a week of kindergarten in my life and I would say this is true for all of us. Because with everything that faces us in the news, in our personal lives, and in our hearts, we all need healing: the healing that can be found “by being with children.”


Anetta Shirky lives in Morgantown and attends West Virginia University, where she is studying elementary education.

 

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  • I truly appreciate this article. We have 13 grandkids. Sometimes, when some of them come to visit, I forget to simply enjoy our time together. However, when I imagine Jesus interacting with little children, I picture His delight, and theirs. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

    Bill Canonico