Rethinking Preschool in a Pandemic Teacher Shortage
Dayneé Alejandra Rosales on Supporting Educators
This piece is part of a series from teachers on the ways their classrooms have changed over the last year. Read others here.
For many children entering childcare or preschool, this year marks the first time they are interacting with a complete group of strangers outside their immediate family. It is understandably overwhelming. Teaching preschool is a continuous exercise in remembering how much we were born not knowing; the children are a whirlwind of emotions exploring and navigating the world around them, and it can be easy to forget that there was once a time in our lives when we didn’t know how to do things like washing our hands. The pandemic has turned this lesson, like many others, into a vital one, and the stakes in teaching the multi-step process to rubbing soapy hands beneath water can feel incredibly high.
The coronavirus has radically shifted education and its infrastructure, with many of those in the profession questioning its sustainability. For me, this year also marks my return to teaching after taking a year off. I missed the classroom; I missed working with students and doing something that felt meaningful. But it’s difficult to step back in as many of my colleagues offer their resignations en masse. It feels like we are at war, and I am part of the changing of the guard. I see children every day step away from their comfort zones into an unfamiliar world, and it can be equally disorienting to teach them basic socialization skills—to translate adult logic into the language of a child—when the rules of etiquette we followed for so long are constantly changing.
Still, I consider myself lucky. I work for a private institution that has taken the health and safety of students and staff more seriously than most, in a state where mask-wearing for all those over the age of two is not up for debate. That said, a preschooler’s conviction for wearing a mask is, more often than not, reliant on a vibe. Colors can be a vibe. People can be a vibe. Dinosaurs, I’ve learned, are most definitely a vibe. As an early childhood educator, I find the greatest challenge in this pandemic is not in enforcing mask usage: you sing a song, do a dance, put a mask on. The bigger issue is in re-conceptualizing childhood experiences with the limitations presented to us during the pandemic. This means spending less time in front of screens, more time outdoors, and teaching children to stay in their group pods. Teachers and schools are being forced on the daily to reconsider why we are there and how we want our children to learn.
I saw myself as part of a new guard, but I hadn’t considered what would happen if no one came to my release—if I was left in the barracks alone once I burned out. Last week I attended a funeral and a friend remarked how every day feels like she is running on her last, living brain cell. I laughed, a little too loud, at the absurdity of how we are expected to suspend reality and go to work every day like everything is normal. When the reality of our day-to-day work life clashes with the idiosyncrasies of our personal life, I have to ask myself: how does anyone expect I won’t burn out? Who decided that essential workers, as we are now called, were an expendable and renewable resource? And what will happen when the system inevitably crumbles? There are teacher and substitute shortages everywhere with few incentives to take vacant positions. I can only imagine we will continue to lose quality educators if drastic measures aren’t taken on a national level to support us.
A few weeks ago, my class was spending time on our patio. A student kept starring at something on the floor. Very quietly, he picked up what appeared invisible, walked over to me and dropped it on my hand. I looked down, seeing nothing at first, then catching a slight movement and understanding the presence of a worm. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am incredibly squeamish around bugs, but I did my best not to overreact. Instead, I walked over to a nearby plant and placed the miniscule creature on the soil beneath a big leaf. A group of children trailed behind me like baby ducks, seeking direction.
I explained that the worm was probably scared and we should refrain from touching him, as he was so vulnerable, though they were welcome to observe. The children nodded and circled around the plant, the tiny worm sitting very still. After a few seconds of silence, one of the children waved at it and introduced himself. The others proceeded. I took a deep breath and sat on the floor, watching my students watching over the worm with the kind of reverence only young children seem to understand.