After more than a quarter century as an early childhood educator, I once again became a novice teacher – a beginner - this fall.
COVID-19 limited my consulting opportunities as early childhood centers focused their time and resources on health and safety, and my age made in-person teaching feel like a risky option. So, I was delighted when a school with whom I had previously worked offered the opportunity to teach a small group of preschool children remotely.
I had only a week to prepare for my first Zoom class meeting, and my excitement soon gave way to mild panic.
Last spring, as most teachers were getting their “sea legs” in the world of remote learning, I was working individually with the two-year-olds and their parents / caregivers in my Beginning Together class. We read stories and sang songs via our computer screens, I emailed suggestions of inquiry-based experiences using materials families likely had at home, and created books that documented both our shared experiences at school and the children’s diverse experiences at home.
That was very different from creating a community among children and families who were strangers to each other, and reimagining an educational experience for four-year-olds that I had only experienced in-person – one in which a carefully designed environment is the third teacher and interactions among people, materials, and ideas are the catalyst for learning. Countless questions swirled about in my head, all of them pointing to one overwhelming dilemma:
How could I implement a Reggio-inspired, constructivist philosophy without the environment, the materials, and the
in-person interactions that are the foundation of this approach to teaching and learning?
With everything I had assumed was essential taken away, I was forced to look at the situation with a 'beginner’s eye" – acknowledging the discomfort of uncertainty that comes from a lack of experience, but also freed from preconceived notions of how things should or must be.
Like someone stranded on a desert island who needs to find new ways to meet the most basic life needs, I needed to reimagine how to approach the most fundamental aspects of teaching – fostering relationships, creating a culture of inquiry and creativity, inviting dialogue and collaboration, listening for the ideas and questions that lie beneath children’s words, and making learning visible to the children, their families, and myself.
I found comfort from the words of Shunryu Suzuki in her book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
Teaching remotely for 14 weeks this fall has been both a daunting and a rejuvenating journey. It has been filled with joy and frustration, success and failure, insights and questions. It has both challenged and reaffirmed my beliefs about teaching and learning, and caused me to grow in ways I could not anticipate.
“Remote Reflections” is a series of posts about my experiences with distance learning. Some are philosophical, others practical, but they are connected by a common thread – the belief that teaching at its best is always a creative act.
That belief is put to the test whenever we move out of our comfort zone, whether by choice or necessity, and enter the beginner’s world of questions and possibilities. Like so many challenging life experiences, it is a gift that often we can only see clearly from the rear view mirror.