My just turned eight-year-old daughter has been playing school on a regular basis since she was three-years-old.
Actually, I don’t think it is fair to call it “playing school” because there is no “playing” involved. It is the real deal; it is serious business. It is as close to actual school as it gets.
With each passing year, my daughter adds more classroom ideas, creative teaching techniques, and lesson planning to her reenactment of school. And to seal its authenticity, she utilizes every single item from my ten-year teaching career.
By default, Little Sister was declared “official student” of Big Sister’s school as soon as she could sit up. When she could hold a crayon without eating it, the educational training really picked up. Aside from the fact that Little Sister’s attention span isn’t as long as her “teacher” would like and she occasionally mouths off, she is a way better pupil than non-communicative stuffed animals or Barbie dolls.
But then one day, my little “Teacher In Training” had an idea. Why couldn’t she have a classroom of real live students? Why must she wait until she is grown (or even nine-years-old, for that matter) to teach all that she knows?
She came to me last summer, a month before my Hands Free Breakdown Breakthrough, and said, “Could I invite real children to come to our house this summer so I can teach them?”
Now I could have left this part out of the story and it would still have the Hands Free impact for which I strive for in my writing. But this journey is about living in realness, so I am going to tell the whole story.
I considered her request for about two minutes. And in my overwhelmed, over committed, stressed out state, there was no way I could fathom the idea of adding several more living, breathing children to my household on a regular basis in order to participate in my child’s self-created “school.”
So without hesitation I said, “Not this summer, honey. I’m sorry.”
And since I am being real, I secretly hoped her desire was a passing phase and it would never come to mind again.
Well, the year went by and my seven-year-old daughter continued to hone her skills as an educator. She discovered educational websites (for teachers, not students) and taught herself how to create an instructional PowerPoint slide show.
I will never forget the day I discovered her video taping herself teaching. She said she liked to watch the videos to see how she could improve.
It was almost scary, really.
And Little Sister was given no mercy. Big Sister starting paying very close attention to what came home in Little Sister’s take-home folder, particularly noting where she needed “remediation.”
Without fail, Teacher Natalie would have an array of worksheets that she found on the Internet and several hands-on activities geared to help her sister improve a particular skill.
“It’s time for school, Avery!” I could hear her call at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings.
“This is what you need to work on,” she confidently instructed as she stood over her pajamas-clad pupil who was still rubbing sleep from her eye and begging for her first glass of “milky,” to get her going.
I’m telling you…no mercy. Little Sister could not get away from Big Sister’s need to teach.
Perhaps it was because she realized there was no escape or perhaps she actually liked it, but Little Sister surprisingly became quite the willing participant. Her attention span grew and she actually requested “Natalie’s school.”
Once in awhile the model student would rebel and demand to be the teacher, but she soon quickly learned “real” teaching is hard work and it is much easier to be the student.
I remember the exact day in April that “The Question” came up again. (You know, the question that nine months prior I was hoping would disappear from her mind and never pop up again. Well, it didn’t.)
“Mama, do you think I could have my own school this summer with actual little kids that are going into kindergarten like Avery?”
OK, so here’s my realness (again)…
As I considered it, I envisioned chaos. I imagined messiness. I anticipated moments where I would need to intervene and get everyone calmed down. I envisioned counting beans getting stuck in noses and spit wads flying across the room. I imagined childcare gone awry in the worst way.
In a nutshell, I envisioned a whole lot of work…for me.
I was this close to saying “no” again, but my Hands Free inner voice went to work (in its sometimes annoying, yet poignant way). I was reminded to set aside my own inconveniences and ask one simple question: Is this a chance to grasp what really matters…not for me, but for my daughter?
Then I felt compelled to take a look around the playroom that had been transformed into a classroom through the hands of a seven-year-old.
I spotted four folders with actual names of children in our neighborhood.
I saw pre-kindergarten worksheets in sets of four neatly paper clipped together sitting on her teacher desk.
I saw a mini library of books labeled and categorized in boxes based on topic.
I saw a Morning Message complete with a circle time rug.
I saw an impressive “Word Wall.”
I saw clean white journals and with a place to store them.
I saw signs on places where signs had never been.
And when I stood back and took it all in…
I saw promise.
I saw a little girl’s dream being put into action by her own doing.
And then I was certain: This Hands Free moment in time wasn’t about me.
This was a pivotal moment in my daughter’s life. I could either put up a roadblock or I could stand to the side and see where this road goes, to see where she goes.
“O.K. You can have a summer school at the house for real children,” I found myself saying to a little girl who was now jumping up and down with excitement.
Then I informed her of the ground rules. (I am a teacher, too, you know.)
I told her this would be HER deal. She would be doing all the lesson planning, the prep work, and the clean up. I told her I would be happy to check over the lessons if she liked and would be available for advice and guidance.
I explained that first she must write a letter to the parents of her prospective students and give dates and times of class, and make a request for a small supply fee to cover the cost of materials.
She got right to work and prepared an impressive letter. She informed parents that she would be holding a six-week kindergarten preparation course for four students, (one, of course, being her sister), and it would cost $1 per session. She requested the money in advance so she could go shopping at Wal-Mart for her supplies.
She even thought to describe the skills the children would be working on and invited parent suggestions regarding skills that needed improvement.
Each time a student permission slip and supply fee was found in our mailbox, my daughter became giddy with excitement.
In the month leading up to her school, she had many questions that led to in-depth discussions between the “new teacher” (her) and the “experienced teacher” (me). She was especially interested in the behavioral techniques I used as a special education teacher; she was covering all the bases.
As we talked about classroom management, pace of lessons, developmental characteristics of four and five-year-olds, and smooth activity transitions, we were no longer speaking as an adult to a child; we spoke as one colleague to another colleague.
After every one of these amazing discussions, I experienced a powerful, “What I Would Have Missed,” revelation, knowing I had almost closed the window on these interactions with my child.
The day of school finally arrived and Miss Natalie put on her favorite dress and brushed her hair until it shined. She tucked her hair behind her ear on one side just like her young and beautiful first grade teacher that she adores.
Desks were prepared, pencils were sharpened, delicious snacks and an over-flowing treasure box awaited the arrival of the children.
Promptly at 3:30, the excited children arrived and she escorted them upstairs to her classroom.
As she settled them into their assigned “desks” and gave them one of the best welcome introductions I have ever heard, it dawned on me that I was not needed. I was not needed in the least, which is quite funny considering I thought for sure this was going to be “work,” for me.
(Good thing the Hands Free inner voice is not one for doling out a well deserved, “I told you so.”)
I decided to do some work in earshot of the classroom. I couldn’t help but wonder what she would say and how things would go.
In the time frame of 90 minutes, I witnessed my child utilize every single one of her God-given gifts…
She read a children’s book with the passion and enthusiasm of a veteran kindergarten teacher…
She enhanced their learning through a PowerPoint slideshow she created herself…
She privately and lovingly explained the importance of patience to a student who was having difficulty waiting…
She gave a humble word of thanks when corrected by one of her students after she lost her place in the ABC game…
She gave the children a chance to move their bodies and exert energy after a twenty-minute work period…
She asked thought provoking questions…
She complimented; she redirected; she nurtured and guided…
Despite all that, she managed to grade their finished work so it could be sent home in the take home folders.
While they were engaging in the going home procedures, I had a chance to peek inside some of the completed journals.
Although I enjoyed reading the journal “sentence” written in big awkward capital letters, that is not what caught my eye.
At the top of every student’s page, encouraging words were written in my daughter’s beautiful penmanship.
Suddenly I was brought back in time, 30 years prior. I was back in one of my favorite places of all time.
I was in my second grade classroom proudly looking at my writing paper that had been graded by someone I loved dearly; Ms. Paluska was her name.
I can still practically smell her comforting scent of blooming lilacs and spearmint gum that I would breath in whenever she hugged me, (which was often).
Ms. Paluska always wrote loving words of encouragement on the top of my writing papers in red pen just like Natalie did that day.
Yes, Ms. Paluska was an extraordinary teacher, but it was the loving, kind, and compassionate person inside her, not the teacher, that made an impact on my life.
I see the same qualities developing in my daughter.
And her students see it, too.
At the conclusion of the third session of school last week, one of Natalie’s little students with long beautiful hair looked up at her beloved eight-year-old teacher and exclaimed, “I don’t ever want to leave, Miss Natalie. I want you to be my teacher forever.”
Oh yes, my daughter is definitely heading somewhere…perhaps it is towards being a teacher or perhaps it is something all together different; it doesn’t really matter.
All that matters is she is on her way to being a loving presence in the lives of others.
I can’t think of anything I want her to be more than that.
I shudder to think I almost missed seeing my child in this role, in this setting. To realize she almost missed this opportunity because of my own selfish considerations is a “Hands Free wake-up call” for me.
Yet I must remember, the Hands Free journey is a learning experience, and this is one lesson I will never forget.
What about you? Have you encouraged and allowed your child’s gifts to develop through things like holding a lemonade stand, planting a garden, or building a race track or have you squelched them for your own personal reasons?
Perhaps when an opportunity arises, you can consider it this way: Is this a Hands Free opportunity for my child to grasp what really matters?
When you see promise, don’t start going through the list of negatives. Push those aside and imagine where that road of promise might lead.