I had learned a lot about teaching during my 4 1/2 years of college. My major was secondary education, but for various reasons I ended up working in a preschool/day care as my first post-college position. Initially, the director placed me as an assistant in the four year old room. After three weeks of working with a great teacher in that room, I was offered a position as the lead teacher in the three year old room.
When the director walked me over to show me the classroom and introduce me to the students, I was deeply concerned. The room had lacked a strong, consistent teacher for a long time so the room was undisciplined, unorganized, and unruly. At the time I visited there was some attempt at circle time being made but the circle was more like a vague group of semi-engaged students. One student in particular caught my eye. He was far out of the circle and he was running. Running into a wall. Repeatedly running into a wall. I had immediate concerns about that one.
I began my time as the lead three year old teacher as a mean dictator. I threw away broken toys, enforced strict circle time rules, and raised the expectations for how these little ones should behave. Painstakingly order was carved out of the the previous chaos. Initially my students and I didn't get along because they were losing control and were less than thrilled about it. Soon though, they began to see that with order came more fun. Running around and screaming turned into interactive and exploitative play. Throwing blocks turned into building fantastic structures. Crumpling paper, scribbling, and coloring all over the tables turned into creating beautiful artwork both concrete and abstract. (And yes, we used those words.) I celebrated each accomplishment with photos galore which I would print and hang all over the room. I loved those kiddos and they loved me in return.
The students were flourishing and I was having a blast. As time passed I brought things I enjoyed into the classroom including classical music. One day I told them a story about Beethoven going deaf and learning to feel vibrations of the music. They noticed how the floor felt when someone jumped up and down. We then listened to Moonlight Sonata. This may seem too advanced for mere three year olds, but they soaked up every word and loved it. Well, most of them loved it. Actually, all of them loved it. Except one. Michael. He absolutely refused to come to circle time and participate.
This is the part of the story I most regret. I gave up on him. I thought, "That's it. I'm done with this kid. I have 14 three year olds who are loving this and he's the only one who won't engage. I'm done with him." Then I was. I ensured his physical safety and was kind, but I gave up the hope of ever teaching him anything.
The class continued on and about a month later I began to complete portfolios with the students. I asked them to identify their colors, numbers, letters, and shapes, and collected art work to include in the file. (I highly recommend this to be done every six months starting at three. It is so fun to see how your child grows.) This allowed me individual time with each students which I thoroughly enjoyed. Eventually it was Michael's turn. I hadn't really given him much individual thought since the day I gave up on him. One of the tasks Michael was supposed to complete was to draw a picture. It was supposed to be a self-portrait, but he said it was someone else. As he drew I noticed that the ears were off the head. I asked why he had not attached the ears to the head. He looked at me and said, "Because his ears are broken like the guy in this song." I stopped and listened. I had put my calming CD on to play as background music while the other kids played. The song playing was Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor better known as Moonlight Sonata.
He had been listening. He had been paying attention. He was just unable to sit and show it like the other students. I gave up on him WAY to easily and had lost so many opportunities to engage this bright young mind. For this 22 year old first year teacher it was a slap in the face and a reminder to NEVER write a student off. They may not show it. They might not show it for years, but a teacher will never know where his or her influence stops.
When Michael left the preschool and headed for kindergarten his mom gave each teacher a fun flamingo frame with a photo of themselves with Michael. When I opened my frame, I discovered a extra gift in the bag. A pinkish plastic dinosaur. He had been chewed on and thoroughly loved. I told Michael I loved the dinosaur, but was worried that he would miss the toy. I offered to return it to him because I could see it was a special toy. Without missing a beat Michael said, "No. I want you to keep it so you will always remember me."
So I did. That dinosaur has sat on the desk in each of my classrooms. Whenever I got frustrated with a particular student or felt like giving up I would look at that dinosaur and remember Michael. Each child is unique and precious. Each child has intrinsic value as a human and should be cared for with dignity. This is SO hard when the administration is asking for stacks of paperwork, meetings run long, and parents are difficult, but NEVER give up on a student. NEVER.
Throughout the years I have received a number of wonderful gifts. I drink out of my mugs, proudly display my Christmas ornaments, and appreciate the kindness and generosity displayed by the parents and students, but no gift has ever changed me like this one little dinosaur. By now Michael is out of high school. Wherever he is now I thank him for his influence in my life and the way he shaped my teaching career.
"A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one."