Learning what it means to care

Catharine Hyson ‘03
Ellis Memorial Kindergarten

This winter I was working in a K-1 (ages four and five) classroom in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. It was harder than I imagined it would be to leave the job and the kids. I had thought that I would love my job, but I didn’t know that I would fall in love with the kids in the short period of ten weeks. Some days when I was working there, I was frustrated, tired, and angry, but I always looked forward to going back the next day. To tell about my experience there I have to tell about the kids there and the stories that I have about them. In many ways the relationships that I formed with them were the central part of my experience.

I’ll start with Nikasia. The youngest girl in the class, and extremely bright, she was pointed out to me early on as one of the kids to watch out for because they had had problems with her for a while. On my third day in the classroom, I understood what they meant. I don’t know what set her off, but when I turned around I saw her hitting other children in the classroom and pushing one of the other teachers, Kathleen, as Kathleen tried to calm her down. The third teacher in the room, Isabel, had to physically restrain her and take her out of the room for most of the rest of the day. When Isabel had returned she told me that Nikasia had been spitting on her and speaking to her abusively. An incident like this makes me wonder what should be done differently in the classroom. What caused Nikasia to react so intensely? Was there something at home that was the greater problem or was there something else the school could have done to help?

I still don’t know what it was that Nikasia needed, but I do know that this was the last such incident that happened after I arrived. I don’t know for sure if it helped that I was in the classroom and could give some extra attention to her, but I believe that it was a contributing factor. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the day that I left she had a relapse and spent half of the day outside of the classroom because while she was in the classroom she only screamed continuously. Unlike some of the other children she seemed to grasp the fact that I was separating from her. However, apart from these two incidents, she was usually a model student, but there were other special needs she had that weren’t being fully met. In reflecting on it, I think that as long as children were not causing problems the variety in individual needs was often overlooked.

Nikasia is very bright and loves to spell things and write things. However, she also has a speech impediment that sometimes makes her hard to understand. As I watched a movie recently on several people’s first year teaching I saw clips about one first year teacher who was struggling to get a boy in his class the speech therapy that he needed. I very much admired this man’s efforts to get the services that his student needed, and I thought about Nikasia as I watched it. Should the school or the teachers be working to get Nikasia the services that she is entitled by law next year when she enters public school? I didn’t ask because it just didn’t occur to me at the time, but I doubt that she has been evaluated or that services have been arranged for her in the school. I just hope that her teacher next year work to ensure that all of her needs are met, because she needs speech therapy and to be challenged academically.

I think that there were other students in the classroom who had special needs that were not necessarily recognized as such, but one boy was actually removed from the school and it was intended that he would go to a specialized treatment program for children with behavior disorders. This was Jaquan, a primary concern every day for all of the teachers, and all of the students too. It is sad to admit it, but everyone seemed to have a good day on days when Jaquan was absent. He usually had an hour in him in the morning where he was “good.” He would play with some activities and wouldn’t get in any fights. But once that hour was up he was running around, threatening other children, damaging property, and in general never listening to directions or doing what all of the other kids were doing.

However, when it came to helping he loved it. If he could clean the tables, great. If he could pick up all the balls in gym, excellent. If he could help set up lunch, wonderful. I just wish that we could have figured out how to better use that strong point. Whenever he was busy there was only a temporary relief because nothing seemed to hold his attention for long. We had to be vigilant in the classroom to ensure his safety and the safety of the other kids. It didn’t really occur to me as a possibility at first, but two of the children in the classroom told me that they were actually scared of Jaquan. Jaquan was not a bully, but his behavior was so erratic that the environment felt unpredictable and unsafe for some of the children.
Yet, when the teachers told me that they couldn’t have him in the school any more because he was too dangerous, I was saddened. It sounded like they were giving up and I don’t want him to be given up on over and over. I worry that he will be labeled as “trouble” and “failure” and that the label will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wish I had known more about behavior modification to be able to suggest ways to keep him at school and keep him involved in the activities with the other kids.

This is also why I thought that the punishment of not being able to come to school when a child was having behavior difficulties was not appropriate. Jaquan needs to be able to come to school so that he can learn the right behaviors. The negative home environment that he comes from will not help reinforce those behaviors. The teachers were pretty sure that he lives in a crack house with six other brothers and sisters, and his mother is mildly mentally retarded. He’s not getting the care he needs and no guidelines for behavior have been set. He needed to be given opportunities to do well in school and to be rewarded for doing it, but I also think that he needed special services because I felt like neither the other teachers nor myself knew enough to be fully effective.

I hope that he is now in the other program that is specialized for kids with behavior disorders because it was difficult for the teachers at Ellis to give him what he needed. I think it would have helped if there had been more attention paid to his academic needs. He didn’t even know how to write his own name, he would only write “JQ.” I think that he may get the attention that he needs at the other school, but I worry that this sort of incident sets him up to always be moved like that. I worry about what public school will be like for him next year, but I also have these concerns for some of the other children.

In particular, I worry for Paige who has extreme reversals of mood and is easily provoked. There were many times when she would threaten and sometimes hit other children. Sometimes when she would refuse to comply with any requests and would be extremely rude to teachers. Many of these violent mood swings seemed to be precipitated by the smallest things. For example, one time she threw a fit and told me she hated me because I did not fill her cup to the top line with milk. So with her I’ve learned to pick my battles. There were some times that I would let things go, but I had to know when I couldn’t do that. One of these times was on the playground.

There are only two swings, so kids tell me they want a turn and I keep a mental tally in my head so I know who is next. Paige was nearly last in this line and she got very upset and she said that she wanted a turn. I refused repeatedly because she needs to understand that some systems are in place to allow fair access to the things on the playground. She got very upset and told me that I was ugly, that she never wanted to see me again and went so far as to hit me. Naturally this made me really upset, but I just told her that if she wanted a turn on the swing, what she was doing was not going to help.

When it was finally her turn to use the swing she needed my help to get up on the swing, but I told her that I would not help her up until she had given me an apology. Apologies are incredibly difficult for Paige because she truly believes that in order to apologize she has to cry. This belief only perpetuates itself because by the time she says that she is sorry she is in fact in tears. This is exactly what happened here, but then once she had apologized I helped her onto the swing and a minute later she was smiling and laughing as I pushed her. Of course the next day rather than remembering that she had said that she never wanted to see me again, as I walked into the room she came over and told me how much she had missed me when she was home last night.

These changes in mood were incredibly frustrating to me and the other teachers, but I was able to deal with them by taking into account that no matter what she said she really did want to see me the next day and she really needed me to be there for her. I worry for her as she enters public school in the fall where there will be only one teacher in the room instead of two or three. She needs a lot of individual attention and a single teacher won’t be able to give that to her when they have to attend to the whole class. It can also be very difficult for a teacher to really begin to understand Paige and her moods.

One other child with whom I spent a lot of extra time was Daniel. Daniel is clingy and has a whiny voice and is not only unpopular with other students, but I felt that he was not given the attention that he needed by the other teachers because of his personality. I really enjoyed spending time with Daniel because when he was getting attention he did a great job at things he usually had difficulty with. He also was behind many of the other children in his letter recognition. When I would read with him during nap time he would often choose an alphabet book to read which I thought was a great opportunity to work on letters with him. However, it seemed like no matter how many times we would concentrate on a few letters and then review a minute later he never really improved. I really wish that I had known a better strategy to help him learn his letters because they will be very important when he enters public schools next year.

Of course there were many lessons I learned that did not come directly from an individual child. One of these was a new consciousness of my own feelings as the day goes on. Some days frustrations would build until I found that I was not being a very good teacher. I was punishing bad behavior instead of rewarding good behavior, and I was becoming sharp in the way that I talked to students. What I realized was that this will happen sometimes, but I have to notice it and be able to step back, mentally regroup and realize that treating the children that way will only make my frustrations worsen.

I found that never having been a teacher before I was heavily influenced by the other two teachers in the room, gladly I also had had experience in a daycare center in Hanover so I could draw on that experience. Fortunately I think that both of my co-workers are good teachers, although one of them did have a bit of a temper and was quicker to yell when things got hectic in the room. I realize that it was good to have a comparison situation though because it allowed me to see some places where their program could use improvement or to know other ways of handling difficult situations.
One of these was during naptime. The rules were that the children had to lie down and be silent and still during nap time whether or not they were sleeping. Nap time is two hours long and it needs to be for kids who don’t go to sleep until midnight at home, but for those kids who don’t go to sleep at all it is impossible to be quiet and still for two hours. I thought of how at the other day care center we would read books to children who were still awake. So, I started reading to kids an hour into nap time if they had been doing a good job resting up to that point. It gave them incentive to lie quietly for awhile (or at least while I was looking) and they also loved the reading. I was pleased that so many of the kids really valued reading and it was a great opportunity to expose them to more books that they were really interested in.

Another thing that contrasted with the daycare center was discipline. There seemed to be a lot more punishment and less positive reinforcement. Now that I have been learning more about behavior management I can envision a better way of constructing the classroom to avoid punishment, but at the time I didn’t know how else to structure it. At the Hanover day care there wasn’t much need for punishment because most problems could be solved merely by a verbal reminder of the expected behavior. However, at Ellis the children hit each other on a daily basis.

Although I think that the school environment could be restructured in some ways - like having a specific argument mediation process for them to follow - I think that the children’s home environments were a huge contributing factor. Whenever a child hit another child, the child who was hit usually hit back. It just continued back and forth until one of the teachers saw what was going on. When I would pull both of them aside to talk about what was going on I always heard, “Well she hit me first.” When I would reply, “Even if someone hits you, it’s not okay to hit back.” The response I usually got was, “Well my mom says, if someone hits me that I should hit them back.” “Whoa!” I thought the first time I heard this, “Is that true?” I hoped that this child was lying, but she wasn’t and to my surprise I found that nearly all of the children had received the same message from home: “If somebody hits you, hit them back.” It was very hard to combat this message, but I know it was still important for me to tell them, “Use your words, not your hands” when solving problems. Some of them were at least able to remember this contrasting advice even if they didn’t always follow it.
I think the higher amounts of hitting were also a result of the discipline policies of the parents. I don’t know how many of the children were actually experiencing physical abuse at home, but I do know that a “whooping” was a generally accepted way to make sure that your kid will be good in school the next day. I wonder if it’s the teacher’s place to let parents know why spanking a child at 6:00 in the evening because they hit somebody at 11:00 in the morning is not effective. The two events are too far separated in time for the child to make the connection between the first event and the spanking and so it serves no real purpose.

The inappropriate methods of discipline from parents were also verbal. We had a stoplight with names on it. When you were on green you were doing well. Yellow you needed to pull yourself together and red you got some gym time taken away. Whenever Jovanni’s father would come into the classroom to pick him up, he would check to see where Jovanni’s name was on the stop light. If it was on red (and it usually was) then his dad would start yelling at him and saying that he better do better the next day. One day Jovanni started crying when his father did this and then his dad was quick to try to stop him from crying. This led me to believe that his dad doesn’t really care about improving Jovanni’s behavior, but that he is trying to look like a good parent by making a scene about Jovanni improving his behavior. When Jovanni started crying he no longer looked like a good parent, so he had to change his tactics. I tried to help Jovanni get back onto green by the time his father arrived so he wouldn’t have to go through this pointless and unpleasant routine.

The teachers and I struggled with creating the consequences of misbehavior. We had the consequence that once your name was on red you had gym time taken away. This consequence was not one that we liked because the kids really need their gym time, but it also was not a good choice because consequences should follow directly on the heels of the misbehavior. I think that the classroom should have more effectively used time out. Now that I have been reading about behavior management I wish I had read the book Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Charney before I had gone to Ellis. I think the methods used in it are particularly appropriate to the Ellis kindergarten.

I also had my own personal problems with asserting authority. Most of the kids were pretty obedient when I gave verbal reminders, but Jay’Ni often put up his macho front and refused to listen to me when it was time to clean up. He would often talk while I was trying to read a story to the group. I tried to talk to him and told him that if he wanted to let the group know something during story I would really like to hear what he has to say, but he needs to raise his hand. This seemed to work for a little while.

I think that part of the problem with getting him to listen was because I was white. I know that he has a higher consciousness of race than the other children coming from home because he has made comments about Dylan who is the only white child in the classroom and how “His whole family’s white” in a disdainful tone. I noticed that he moved quickly to clean up when he heard it from one of the teacher’s aides who was there in the afternoon who was black. Apart from this though, race did not seem to play a large role in the classroom as much as economic class did.
Although I felt very confident in the classroom after about two weeks, especially on occasions when the other teacher would take a break and I was the only one in the classroom, I wish that I had taken more initiative to create activity plans for them earlier. Kathleen did ask me early on if I wanted to run morning meeting, but at the time I hadn’t felt ready. Now after I have been teaching in a third grade classroom for the spring I realize that you’re never going to be totally prepared for the first time and I should have just taken the opportunity so I would have had more chances to work on it and improve it.

There were many things that I did add in gradually. I began setting up center activities, I started running gym activities, I taught them a song, and eventually I did do morning meeting. I think that I would have done more, but I didn’t see the other teachers coming in with prepared lessons. I felt that most of the activities that they did they pulled down each morning when they got to school rather than planning ahead of time. I think that the kids enjoyed most of the activities, but I don’t think they were learning too many new things, or capitalizing on the children’s individual interests.
I think that something that would have really helped me to think of some of the activities and lessons that I could have created for them would have been to have some sort of curriculum. I don’t know if the school had a curriculum or if there is a state or national pre-K curriculum, but to know what skills would be helpful for them going into kindergarten plus integrating their interests would have been a good guide for creating activities.
The more academic aspects of what I should have done while I was there occur to me now that I have been in a classroom for a few weeks teaching well thought out lesson plans. However, I think that the two experiences have helped me in very different ways. I realize that more than the kids at Ellis needed to learn how to tell time, count, or to spell their last name they needed to learn how to treat each other with respect, how to follow rules and how to gain confidence in their own abilities. I think that at that age especially the importance of schooling is more social and less academic. So, by not doing more lessons I don’t think that I missed out on too much because I think that my energies were directed to where they needed to be for the time that I was there.

More than anything, the experience helped me to understand how deeply I care about children and how much I love being a part of their lives. It’s very natural for me to be a caregiver and I love the age that I was working with. Although I treated them in age appropriate ways, I also feel that in coming to know each child I come to feel that they are older than they are. Some people say they don’t want to teach young children because you can’t have real conversations with them. I would have to say that the conversations that I had with the children at Ellis were very real. Maybe you can’t talk about theoretical things, but I love talking with them about anything from their families, to their questions on how God can hear your prayers if he’s so far away, to debates about Little Bow-wow.

When I first arrived back on campus, it sometimes hurt a lot to think about them. I missed them so much and felt like I wanted to see them through the rest of their school year, and even to keep up with them the rest of their lives. As I look through pictures now I always long to visit them instantly. And I realize that I am in love with the kids with whom I worked. I’ve worked with a lot of kids whom I cared about, but I fell in love with MY kids while I was working at Ellis Memorial kindergarten.

I went back to visit five times now. The first time some of the kids asked me where I had been. Even though we had talked about how I had to go back to school only some of them seemed to have understood. It almost broke my heart, on my last day when Nikasia asked, “Will you come on Monday?” “No.” “Will you come on Tuesday?” Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. And then she paused, mulled this over and asked earnestly, “How about Monday?” It was very hard for her to accept that I was no longer going to be there every day.
When I returned to visit again the kids had trouble understanding why I was no longer there any more. One girl Cheylah in particular had thought that I was merely on vacation and had to try to understand all over again why I wouldn’t be there everyday again from then on. She looked so sad. What was I doing after all? I told them that I was going to school so I could be a teacher. “But you already are a teacher,” one said. Yes, I already was a teacher to them, so why couldn’t I just stay with them? The work with them was so much more meaningful to me and fulfilling than being a student at Dartmouth. Where was the meaning in my overly hectic schedule at college? Maybe I didn’t notice it was missing because I never had enough time to breathe to realize that it wasn’t there.

Sometimes I felt like I didn’t understand where I had gone, or why I had gone. It’s not my nature to change plans and so I didn’t, but in some ways I wish that I could have just made that leap and stayed there until August when they would be going to public school. As I write this reflection I realize more and more that I didn’t know enough, but I wasn’t expected to at the time. All the same I didn’t learn enough yet either, but the experience has helped to understand my stronger points and where I don’t know enough yet. It’s also helped me to know that even though I still have a lot to learn, I was a competent teacher and more importantly one that connected to the students and helped them to have another person in their lives that cared about them.