I've just started volunteering in my son's classroom, did my first stint yesterday, and let me tell you, it has given rise to a lot of reflection about teaching. I thought I would see many differences between teaching junior kindergarten and my own work at the university, but I observed that, for the teacher, keeping 20 four-year-olds involved and engaged is not that different from teaching a seminar of first year university students.
Of course there was the planning that had to occur before the day even started. And the weeks of establishing a classroom routine. I recognized the careful pacing of activities - some with the whole group sitting and supposedly listening, some with smaller groups doing different activities - and the orchestration involved in making all that happen. There is the engagement with individual students while they play/work, giving little boosts to the thought process, doling out genuine and non-fatuous praise. And then there is just enjoying the kids - their energy, their intelligence and talents, their interactions with each other.
It was the day the French teacher comes in to teach the group of kids. We were all sitting on the large mat when she arrived. She pulled out the flip-chart from the wall as she greeted the children, and selected the child whose turn it was to use the pointer while the group chanted the poem they are learning. "Je suis rouge, rouge. Je suis un coquelicot. Je suis rouge, rouge." etc... (something like that).
During this time period, one of my son's friends, who has trouble sitting still, was up and down 20 times (no exaggeration), looking for books on the shelves, starting conversations with other kids, and so on. One of the girls said to him - "If you don't stay in your seat, I won't give you the present that I brought for you." This gave rise to all kinds of speculation among the kids in the vicinity (the back of the mat, of course, farthest from the teacher) about what the present may be and whether she brought presents for anybody else. She jumped up from her seat and fetched a little bag full of hair scrunchies and business cards with scribbles and drawing on them, and started handing them out (selectively) to the kids, creating a subdued roar.
At the same time, my son, who had insisted that I sit beside him, scooched closer and closer to me, grabbed my hand, tried to lean against me, and finally put his head down and appeared to be trying to sleep. I resisted all of this, which made him upset. While the teacher continued to deal with the gift-giving disruptiveness, I tried to sneak off to the back of the classroom, feeling that my presence was not helping. At that, my son started to cry. Long story short, the gift bag was confiscated, the tears were soothed, the French lesson was concluded.
Much to my surprise, later that day my son told me, a propos of nothing, "coquelicot is the French word for poppy". Wow. Something actually sank in? Encouraging.