Why I Ditched the "Compliant Classroom"
When I started teaching preschool, I remember colleagues and supervisors telling me I had a gift for early childhood education. You would walk into my room and see kids quietly and neatly sitting at the tables coloring, a few kids peacefully playing in the dramatic play area, several children engaging in Montessori works at rugs, and soft ambient music (thank God for Brian Eno) playing as I stood off to the corner observing.
Every now and then if you walked in at an inopportune time, the serenity remained but a child would be almost silently sobbing at his or her "wall spot", a dedicated, laminated circle on the wall with their name on it--the place they were sent if they broke a rule or I needed the group to look at books without going near one another.
It was a tight ship. When I wanted to transition into the next activity, I'd say "class!" and they'd all respond "yes!" and I'd say "clean up!" and they'd say "okay!" and in seconds my classroom was spotless and well-organized. If I said "Line!", everyone would stop what they're doing and form a perfect, military-grade single-file line.
Then I took a brief break from early childhood altogether. I took up an office job. It didn't suit me at all, but, as many in this field can attest, it paid a whole lot better. But, at a certain point the extra pay just wasn't worth the long, eventless days. I needed more action. I needed more creativity.
I took a job at an early childhood center and was told that I needed to curb a whole lot of behavioral issues in the specific classroom. I honestly didn't really know if I could so easily be thrust back into that groove, especially with such a daunting task. I brought in a few of the Montessori materials I owned, and went to work.
I started my usual thing. I made the wall spots. I started implementing the chants and responses from Whole Brain Teaching. The classroom was turning around, and just as quickly as I was thrust into this new position, I was about to be thrust out of my entire understanding of who I was as a teacher.
It happened like this: I had just instructed the class to start cleaning up the room after the serene, quiet work time I described before, a little boy was working with the Cards and Counters. He had been enthralled by them since the day I had brought them in. I walked up to him and said in my cookie-cutter, preschool teacher voice, "Did you hear me? It's time to clean up!" and I'll be darned if this little boy didn't look me right in the eyes and say "no."
I was offended. I don't know why I was offended, but I was. I told this boy to go to his wall spot and he cried. I started to pick up his work for him when I looked down at the neatly, carefully, and purposefully placed counters, and a sudden wave of intense realization hit me like one million bricks. I had just punished this boy for wanting to learn. I had just sent a message to this boy that he was only allowed to learn when it was convenient for me. I wasn't being an effective teacher, I was being controlling.
I went home that night shaken. Just a week into this brand new job, where everyone was telling me I was a blessing and an amazing teacher, and I had just realized that all of those complements and rewards completely blinded me to how damaging I was to the children I was caring for. What was worse was all of the other teachers were coming to me for behavioral advice. So not only were people in love with my style of teaching, others wanted to adopt it. I had to stop.
I started researching developmentally appropriate practice--something I cling to to this day--and the fabulous works of Dr. Becky Bailey. I was easily distracted from this "road to recovery" by the simple notion that how I taught children was considered totally normal in the early childhood field, and I could easily just stop trying to make myself better and remain in my old ways, but I decided that this work meant more to me than my admitted love of being lazy now and then.
I started to realize that I did have some control issues--possibly passed down from past teachers--that gave me this adult idea of how things were supposed to go with children. Adult tells child what to do, child does. I had no concept of the importance of mutual respect. I seriously had never stopped to think that maybe the class would almost always use quieter voices if I just whispered all of the time. I thought back to every time in my career that kids were putting their dolls in time out and just being totally brutal to these poor dolls, and realized that what they were acting out was their childish perception of me--a scary, brutish, jerk.
It took months for me to get to this place where children had the freedom to think and act as they felt they needed to. It took me months to get rid of the regulated centers. Months to get rid of the trace and copy worksheets. Months to get rid of the Pinterest art activities. This all led to emails from my supervisors accusing me of slacking in the job. I started to communicate with parents and colleagues that parents don't need receipts for their child's learning. That little panda you made out of the letter 'P' didn't teach that child anything any more than the worksheets taught them how to write.
Other teachers started to attack me because I didn't have interesting art on the walls (e.g. I didn't have 22 identical Pinterest crafts hanging on the wall). I had to be strong enough to tell these teachers that I didn't believe that any craft that I had anything to do with was appropriate for an early learning art activity. I would let them do art for themselves.
I had to explain the concept of child-led hundreds of times. I had to explain that I still had boundaries in my classroom that were to be respected. I had to explain why I didn't use "time-outs" any longer. It took a lot of explaining from me, and after a while, the explaining started to get useless. My words were falling on deaf ears, despite the constant, often totally ignorant and mean, requests for my explanation. I had to take a lot of deep breaths and be compassionate, because I was that teacher months prior to this. The parents were always on board with me through my learning, but the teachers made the struggle unbearable.
I chose to leave that position. I applied to several other programs and was offered positions at each of them, but the directors all warned me that it would be an uphill battle with the other staff members to be able to use my own style of teaching in my own classroom.
That's when I started my own center. Child-led, play-based, teacher-facilitated, early learning. I find myself having to explain myself a lot less often. I find myself surrounded by a staff that is eager to work on the next big thing to ensure we're aligned with D.A.P. and other early learning guidelines.
It always takes people a while to get on board with child-led/play-based. It can take up to a year sometimes. We get so judgmental of younger generations over their need for instant gratification that we forget that most of our problems as adults stem from that exact same need as well.
Some teachers just need to see the proof that it does lead to a less stressful environment. Some teachers just need some proof that a classroom that looks like a tornado went through it isn't such a bad thing after all. Some teachers just need proof that you can have a handle over the behavior in the classroom without time outs and behavior charts. You can't force that proof. You just have to let it show up organically with a teacher who is willing to try, just like I was willing to try years ago.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I should have known after my first high school psychology class that accepting authority on the basis of authority is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I was so sick of worrying more about what my classroom looked like than I did about the development and education of the children.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I knew that proving that "learning happened" with paperwork and teacher-led projects was a blatant lie meant to keep parents pleased with their choice of childcare.
I chose the child-led, play-based classroom because when I let them play, the proof that learning happened is right in front of me, as it's happening.