Note: This was my first day back in the People Serving People preschool since last November. The staff I work with is essentially the same, the classroom has been rearranged and all the kids are new to me.
As the lone volunteer in a homeless shelter classroom, I'm the only adult here who hasn't trained for this work, nor have I dedicated myself to teaching professionally. Coming back fresh after nine months got me thinking about the idea that people like me should be able to step into today's classrooms with minimal teaching preparation because we have life experience and may have mastered particular content.
As a 63 year old I have more life experience than most preschool teachers in America, plus all the content expertise a 4 year old could handle, whether it's math, coloring, music, soap bubble formation, physical education, reading or making monster faces. I have met a few preschoolers who were my match on dinosaur names, but that's a pretty narrow specialty if you ask me.
In other words, the lead teacher should be able to throw me into any subject area and I should be able to wing it. But the real question is whether I know how to engage the kids and get them to learn anything.
Can I teach?
Case in point: Today I was assigned to lead one quarter of the class in a ruler activity.
I've had a prior experience teaching a kid how to use a ruler. Thirty years ago I was tutoring a seventh grader and noticed he was having trouble with fractions. I hit upon what I thought was the brilliant idea of using a ruler to help him visualize the mathematical abstractions he was struggling with on paper. I was appalled to discover he had no idea how to use a ruler or even find the half-inch mark midway between the whole numbers.
Let us now pause to consider how to introduce these little kids to the lessons my student missed.
Do they understand the concept of length and why they might want to know precisely how long something is? Once I demonstrate that a milk carton is 2 inches by 3, what are they supposed to do with the information? Can they apply this to example to measuring other objects?
How about units of measure and the usefulness of having consistent standards? Do they need to know this. One side of the rule is metric and the other is in inches—which one should we use? And what if they ask about marks on the other side?
All the kids can count but they may not be able to distinguish a numeral 2 from a 5, and they may not yet be ready to translate the "comes after" or "more" of a number into "longer." They also may be unable to understand how one end of a ruler is different than the other.
Some of them want to gain control of as many rulers as possible.
I'm not over-intellectualizing this. Unless you've sat at a table with 10 rulers and a changing cast of 3 to 6 preschoolers of varying levels of development who aren't yet tuned into the idea of measurement, you can't appreciate of how little value your ruler content expertise might be.
You have to know where to start. You have to be able to command attention. You have to get them interested in placing sticks next to objects and obtaining reasonably accurate readings. You have to monitor how well each kid is following you or not. You have to regulate swordplay.
You have to be able to teach.