On my first day as a Teacher’s Aide in kindergarten, I sat perched on a silver bench outside the classroom, watching the stream of children and parents ebb and flow around the Stage One courtyard. What seemed like an ocean of children washed up around my feet, squawking and chattering like a flock of seagulls. There were more children in one class than in the entire tiny school where I had last worked, and I wondered if I would ever get used to the noise and apparent chaos. A woman crossing the courtyard towards me caught my eye and smiled. I smiled back immediately, as if in recognition of a kindred spirit. She had short, black spiky hair, a mischievous smile and a spark in her dark eyes. I liked her immediately. “You must be Sara,” she said warmly, grasping my hand. “I’m Maria. Welcome!”. At that moment a parent approached with a question and she excused herself, promising to return. I watched her go, both majestic and motherly, adults and children halting her progress every two steps or so.
As I got to know her better, over days and weeks of interrupted conversations, I would discover a deeply dedicated teacher with a huge heart and a wicked sense of humour. She has a creative, occasionally chaotic mind with an ability to hold and solve a myriad of tricky dilemmas and impossible conundrums while juggling a dozen tasks and projects. I was in awe of her dynamism, and often felt like her slow younger sister, scurrying to keep up, sometimes slightly bewildered. She works long hours, starting early, finishing late and coming in on weekends. The school day does not leave teachers much time to plan, organise or attend to the multitude of other teaching tasks, such as phoning parents, writing letters, talking to health professionals, organising excursions and performances or God forbid, planning lessons. My experience of teachers over the past eight years of my own childrens’ schooling and two years of working as a teacher’s aide is that they are extraordinarily hard working. They put in many hours of overtime, pay for resources out of their own money and do all kinds of unexpected and thankless tasks. In my mind, they are the unsung heroes of our community.
“He’s a lovely little boy”, Maria had said the night before when briefing me over the phone on the child that I would be looking after as part of my job. “You won’t have any trouble with him. He’s ASD and has some speech difficulties. There will be a speech therapist coming in once a week to work with him and I want you to sit in with them so that you can work with him on the other days.” Education seems to have more than its fair share of indecipherable speech terms and acronyms: ASD is code for Autism Spectrum Disorder, a blanket term for a multitude of behaviours and symptoms. It tells me absolutely nothing about what this little boy was like. Would he like me? Would I like him? What would be the best ways to help him? Did I have the appropriate skills and knowledge? I felt suddenly nervous and inadequate.
I was filling in for an existing SLSO (another acronym!) who was finishing the last year of her High School teacher’s degree and was on a seven week work placement. Teacher’s Aides or Student Learning Support Officers (SLSOs) are funded according to need, and that need is usually one or more students who have an official diagnosis and need support of some kind. In the school that I am working in there are two kindergarten classes and one K/1 class, each of which has 18 children and a full-time SLSO. The school has decided to supplement the aide funding for kindergarten as a way of acknowledging the heavy, hands-on workload for kindergarten teachers. So, although some of my funding is provided by one child, I am considered the aide for the entire class.
I soon realised that the recipe for success for a teacher’s aide in kindergarten is not complicated theories on childhood education or learning strategies. It was much more simple than that: love + patience, and you could never have too much of either. At the end of first term, there were still some children who were four years old in among fives and the odd six year old. There were children who had never been away from their mothers, and most had not attended preschool full-time. Some were ready for school, some would be once they settled in and some would have been better off staying at home until next year. Some kids thrive in the structured environment of a classroom, some will get used to it, and others will probably always struggle. For an aide, it doesn’t matter which category a child was in, because there is one thing all children thrive on: attention.
There is no average day in kindergarten. I never really know what kind of day I’m going to have, because it all depends upon the children. Will D be peaceful or a warrior princess? If her hair is unbrushed and she has her fanciest patent leather boots on, it usually means that she has got the better of her mother that day, and we’re all in for it. Has S had enough sleep? He has a lot of trouble sleeping at night, which makes him tired, wired and over sensitive. How is B today? She is a most delightful child with big grey eyes, an expressive mouth and a halo of curls, but she often misses her mother and has a sadness that all the fun can’t hide. C isn’t here yet, but that’s normal – Before he came to school, he had never been away from his mother for even a day. He is bright but very sensitive. He is distraught when he can’t do things as well as he’d like to or when things don’t go to plan, which is often when you are 6. I could go on, but the bell has rung, and it’s time to go into class. Uh oh. L is sitting by himself, arms crossed, a deep crease between his eyebrows and a face like a thundercloud. I go up to him and ask if I can be his partner, and the light returns to his face. He slips his little hand in mine and we walk to the classroom steps.
The children sit on the big blue and white mat at the front of the class, eating their fruit while their names get marked off the electronic role on the interactive whiteboard. Everyone that is, except for C who doesn’t eat fruit, but likes to have it so that he doesn’t feel left out. Maria quickly briefs me on what we will be doing for the day, what she would like me to do (check homework folders, do word lists, take this to the office for photocopying, listen to these children read, sharpen pencils, hang these posters up on the line, add these photos to the photo collage outside the classroom, sit with these four boys at the jellybean table while they do their writing so that they actually do some work, draw and paint some stage decorations for a performance and see if you can tidy up this area if you have time) and any issues with the children that I need to know about. I take N for word lists, and he is shocked that his homework bag is here: “Mum must have snuck it in!” We sit down at a little table outside the classroom and I point to the first word on the list: TOP. He uses his detective finger to point to each sound, saying T-O-P…top! He stares in surprise at the word and then at me. “Top! How did I know that?” I grin gleefully and tell him that he has secretly learned how to read without knowing it. We go down the list, and to his surprise and delight he knows most of the words. I am not surprised but I am delighted.
I return to the classroom and look around. Maria has made four round tables and covered them with brightly coloured plastic, and the children sit in groups of four or five around each table, with pots of coloured and lead pencils in the middle to share. G, an intelligent, gentle but anxious boy, with a habit of rubbing his head and biting his lips when worried, has finished first as usual and Maria asks me if I can sit and do some more nuanced writing with him. He has the ability, but it is more important to him to be finished his work quickly than for it to be great. So, we sit outside the classroom and talk about the event they were writing about (a dance they did for Open Day) encouraging him to remember and describe things in more detail and then put some of those ideas into words. When I go back in, N and I want to show me their good work, C is under the table crying, mortified because he didn’t know all his words in his word list… and it’s time for me to go to morning tea.
The day literally evaporates under my fingers. I don’t think I have ever had a work day go so fast as a day in kindergarten. We end the day with a story, and I sit with the children and listen and laugh as well. The children nearby edge back until they are touching me. S wants to sit on my lap, but I know from experience that if I allow one child to do that they they will all want to, so he sits as close to me as he is able to and listens. Even with all of the new technology – the ipads, interactive whiteboards and instant internet access – a story will still hold their attention, just as it always has. The parents, grandparents and carers have started to gather around outside the classroom, and one by one, the children get their bags and greet them happily. My own daughter will arrive shortly – her class is on the other side of the school – and I look around our classroom. It looks like a bomb has hit it, but I know that Maria will be here until 6pm doing all the things that can’t be done in a school day, and by tomorrow morning it will be completely repaired. Sometimes we have time for a quick chat when the kids have gone, but not today – Maria is on bus duty and has to hurry up to the bus lines so that she can connect children and buses for the next 30 minutes.
She sends me a message that night:
As usual did not get time to chat really. Thanks again for everything you do amidst the mayhem that is school. Tomorrow we can just chill write read and be prosperous without interruption. We might have a crack at a cube mobile tomorrow and some 3D classifying, dinosaur writing etc I will put it all on paper so you don’t have to read my cluttered mind. I love having you with us and really appreciate all you do.
The Bear is amazed that I am working with kindergartners and loving it – you’re so cranky and prickly! – but for some reason, that part of me doesn’t come to school. Maria worried at first that the work was not intellectually challenging enough, but I assured her that I get plenty of opportunities to be clever, and that’s not what I’m here for. My patience is definitely tested at times, but can I tell you a secret? Not by the kids. I can’t get cranky with them, it’s just impossible. Everything is so new, the world is so big, and they are so small and vulnerable. I feel open-hearted around them, like the muscle that works acceptance and unconditional love is being exercised continuously. If they suffer, I suffer. If they are happy I am happy. If that is the case, then it is in my self interest to make them as happy as possible. Perhaps kindergartners are teaching me a much bigger lesson than I could ever teach them.