By Laura Richards

“Be the teacher that you wish you had.”

That quote stands alone on the wall of my classroom. Last March, it took on new meaning, not only for my colleagues and me, but also for the high school students in my class who were learning to teach young children.

The course that I teach is called Exploring Childhood, and in this class high school students earn their “merit badges” of teaching by learning to write objectives, create lesson plans, prepare teaching materials, and to teach young children for the first time. As the teacher of these “teachers” and the group of 3 to 5 -year-olds that they instruct, I have the rare opportunity of seeing the enthusiasm for learning and discovery that is only found in the minds and hearts of young children. But the real privilege of my position is watching a teacher take form.

As you step through the wooden door of my classroom, you can feel an atmosphere of warmth and excitement. Inside you will find a very special place where children have their first days of school and high school “teachers” have their last days of high school. It’s a beautiful parallel. Where else would you find the head cheerleader on the carpet pretending to play kitchen alongside a happy 4-year-old?

In my classroom there are paintbrushes and school glue, tears and hugs, letters and numbers, dramatic play and circle time, mystery readers and snack time, and show and tell for both high school teachers and their young students. It is a place where diversity is welcomed and celebrated.

Our classroom library exists not only in our classroom but also virtually, and it is stocked with books created by the high school “teachers.” These beautiful picture books are what we have come to call “awareness stories.” Each introduces a form of diversity, such as various cultural beliefs and practices, LGTBQ families/topics, autism, illness, loss, learning disabilities, and any other topic that a high school student taking this class might feel is important to introduce to a young child.

One of the high school students from the 2019-20 school year, Jenna Harmke, wrote about growing up with hearing loss, and her book was published at the end of the school year. It is available on Amazon. It is even proudly displayed in her audiologist’s office for young children to read so that they might find comfort and understanding on their own journey with hearing loss. Our classroom library, like our classroom, is a window into the world beyond and exploration of the lives and hearts of those within.

Exploring Childhood is a class with so many layers. It is a beautiful masterpiece with exquisite moving parts and even after traveling a great deal of the world, the view from my classroom door is still by far one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen.

After reflecting on taking this class, one of my most dedicated young high school teachers, Caroline Tenberge said:

You create an amazing family in this class. I remember feeling so loved in this class, from the teacher, my friends, and people you don’t even know. Everyone just loves each other. The preschoolers look forward to seeing you every single day. It’s really just an amazing environment that is not comparable to any other class that I’ve taken, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The Eagle’s Nest

When March 11, 2020, sent the world and our school in quarantine, my tenacious group of high school “teachers” remained committed to the education and development of their preschool-aged students. Without the backdrop of our happy classroom, the high schoolers took bits and pieces of what they liked about how their own teachers were teaching them virtually. They added to that countless hours of research to develop a robust virtual classroom for the young children. Circle time, show and tell, and learning continued as the high schoolers fearlessly incorporated new technologies into their online lessons.

It became quite clear that the reason our virtual classroom became so successful was because the high schoolers knew firsthand what the needs of the young children were, and they responded to them with dedication and passion. When I asked one of the high school teachers what made her such a great teacher she repeated a line we often say in class, “You’ve got to Maslow before you Bloom, even if it’s on Zoom.”

As the 2020-21 school year approached, I added a SafeSitter certification for all high school students that took Exploring Childhood so that upon the completion of this course, the high schoolers could have a real-life credential that could help them pursue babysitting jobs and continue their exposure to working with young children.

I also changed the name of the program offered to the preschool-aged children through the class to The Eagle’s Nest. Our school mascot is the Golden Eagle, and it seemed fitting, as our principal, Ryan MacNaughton, encouraged the student body to “protect the nest” and remain vigilant about following the health and safety precautions advised by the CDC for in-person learning.

Knowing that the young children would not be able to join the Exploring Childhood class in person, a robust and innovative plan was offered to the families of young children who were willing to join The Eagle’s Nest program for this unprecedented school year.

Monthly learning kits were added to the online and virtual learning offerings that the high school “teachers” provided to young children enrolled in the Eagle’s Nest program. Each month, the high school “teachers” work tirelessly to compile lessons and activities that focus on the physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development of a preschool-aged child.

Each kit is custom tailored to the learning needs of a specific child and this year we welcomed special education students whose parents sought out additional enrichment for their child.

The kits prepared by the high school “teachers” are the epitome of differentiation. Each kit matches a specific child’s developmental needs, which are as diverse as apraxia, autism, developmental delays, and other areas, including kits for the typically developing preschool-aged child. Neurodiversity is a proud component of the curriculum of Exploring Childhood, and the high school “teachers” bring their knowledge, love, and experiences together to create the perfect kit for their preschool-aged students and their families.

Using the Seesaw app, preschoolers, their teacher and their high school “teachers” stayed connected during remote learning.

Communicating with families

The high school “teachers” study the effectiveness of their activities through postings that the young children’s parents provide on SeeSaw. Personalized Zoom lessons, recorded lessons, and virtual storytime have all been a key component of the Eagle’s Nest program. Even the storytime recordings are personalized to the learner as the high school students are taught to engage and interact with young children while reading. In early October, after learning how to read to young children in Exploring Childhood class, Anna Torres took first place in a “Virtual Read Aloud” competition offered through Future Career and Community Leaders of America.

The high school “teachers” report that one of the most rewarding byproducts of teaching online and sending home the monthly learning kits is the addition of parental participation and communication. The high school “teachers” comment on what is posted by the parents of the young children on SeeSaw and the parents often reply giving the high school student valuable feedback on the lessons and the materials that they prepared for that parent’s child.

Adding the parents into the learning process has been rich and rewarding for the high schoolers as it creates a strong partnership and increases learning and understanding for the preschool-aged child. Keila Aquino-Lobato, a high school “teacher,” describes the experience:

You’re making the lessons and you are teaching the lessons to actual children who are learning. You’re working with other high school ‘teachers’ and your teacher is there 100%. You just really work on your character in this class. When you take this class, your eyes are opened to things that you never would have considered before.

Sophomore Elisabeth McMahon demonstrates the safety protocols that go into the creation of the monthly learning kits.

When the world turned to online learning, the high schoolers were uniquely qualified to be exceptional teachers for the young children in The Eagle’s Nest program. While so many felt lost and alone, the relationships the high schoolers forged with the parents and young students grew and flourished. The relationship between the high schoolers and their young students was synergistic. It gave the high schoolers purpose and allowed for them to see the world beyond their immediate view. For the young children, it provided a constant in a changing and scary world.

Like so many of my professional colleagues, I continue to grow and adapt my teaching to meet the unique educational climate of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some days, I learn from my students as much as they learn from me. The lessons that they teach me are always unexpected and often quite often pivotal.

As the circumstances surrounding the education of students continue to change as we navigate through the pandemic, what makes a teacher a great teacher does not change. That lesson was made clear as I watched my high schoolers continue to teach and inspire their young students. They truly became the teachers that they wished that they had.

Emily Farese, a junior, prepares manipulative pieces for a St. Patrick’s Day activity that she is working on for her preschool-aged learners. Each kit is highly personalized; no two are alike!

Leaving the nest

In Exploring Childhood, the year always concludes with the high school “teachers” writing their wishes for the “graduating” preschool age students. In many ways, all are leaving “the nest,” the graduating high schoolers, those high schoolers advancing to the next grade, and the young children who took part in the Eagle’s Nest program. When asked what it was about this class that made it so special, high school student Erika Wasserman said:

“I love this class with all my heart. I walked out of class everyday feeling so confident, excited for the next class. Just to see those kids, to teach those kids, to create lesson plans, to see their gears turn and to know that they are going to school or logging on to see me. It feels good being that role model for them and to learn what it takes to be a good teacher.”

As it turns out, “being the teacher that you wish you had,” was exactly what was needed to carry this class of high school “teachers” and their young students through such uncertain times. Whenever I read that quote, I am reminded about what it was that made me want to be a teacher many years ago.

It meant something to me then and continues to mean something now. It is a reminder that teachers are a constant for their students. Teachers are a child’s strong and steady anchor as they navigate the tumultuous seas of childhood and/or adolescence, and the impact of such a teacher resonates with students long after they have left their classroom, whether that classroom be in school or online.

Laura Richards is a teacher at Morris Knolls High School and is a member of the Morris Hills Regional District Education Association. She can be reached at lrichards@mhrd.org.

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