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The elements of quality pre-K

New York Teacher

Where my children attended pre-kindergarten, we were blessed with Joyce, a 4-foot-10-inch bohemian firebrand whose ability to take the measure of a child made her a legendary lead teacher in the neighborhood. The first “field trip” she took with the 3-year-olds was to the basement of the church where the pre-K was housed to view the boiler, so they could see how their school kept them warm.

Joyce could key into a distressed child like nobody else. When the parents of one inconsolable little boy were at their wit’s end, Joyce deduced his “challenge,” which was… wait for it… the wind. She talked with him about where the wind comes from, assured him it would not hurt him and took him outside to feel it again on his face. The child came around quite happily. And probably for the rest of his life, this boy will find wind a secret joy.

Good pre-K teachers are like magicians to the rest of us, not just keeping kids safe, but teaching them how to feel safe. Not just showing them how the world works but giving them a role in creating it. Now, if all goes well, New York City will embark on a herculean effort to staff thousands of new pre-K classrooms with the goal that all 4-year-olds have a Joyce, who can bring out their curiosity and joy.

 

The ‘quality’ issue

Newspaper editorials warn that “quality” is uneven in pre-K classrooms. Well, sure. But if the city is to succeed, it will succeed by protecting what pre-K teachers do, even as it provides intensive coaching to bring up the overall quality. Early childhood educators don’t give tests, and good ones don’t follow a rule book. They are tuned to a completely different frequency than the administrators who manage them, and they have to be.

In good pre-K classrooms, children spend much of the day moving among centers — for sand and water play, painting, construction, dress up, reading and writing — and their teachers let them choose the activity, according to “Starting Out Right,” a review of research on early literacy from the National Academy of Sciences. Teachers are not “instructing.” They are constantly watching, changing, supplying and rebuilding these worlds their students inhabit, stoking their imaginations and introducing new learning.

The curriculum should be full of such experiential learning. “Kindergarten is now reading and math. It is no longer the time to touch, to experience,” said former Bronx pre-K teacher Nanette Sanchez-Rosario, who is now the UFT’s certification director. “So the need for pre-K is so essential for the social skills, for the exploring.”

There are actually tough Common Core Learning Standards for pre-K, but they are not readily identifiable as academics. Teachers are looking to develop motor skills, empathy and awareness, rhyming and counting. It shouldn’t look like school, and it doesn’t.

Nancy McCullough, who is teaching the first year of pre-K at PS 160 in the Bronx, said her principal isn’t sure what to make of her classroom. “When they’re in the centers, she thinks they’re playing, and that’s what it looks like,” McCullough said, laughing. “But the centers change all the time. To me, it’s the best-kept secret. There’s so much that goes into it behind the scenes.”

 

Intuition and balance

Even a brief time spent with 4-year-olds will confirm that this is an intuitive, not a linear process. There is a balancing act going on — teachers seize the teachable moments, gauge when to challenge or back off, and make adjustments throughout the child’s day.

“You are assessing children’s growth 24/7,” said the UFT’s Rosario. “You are not testing, but you are observing and writing it all down.”

What teachers are working on are the developmental sequences that lead to school readiness. There are academic skills that children will use throughout school — deciphering meaning, expressing themselves or working in groups — but they must be introduced in ways children can master them, according to early education research.

“Even though the realm is the same, it’s completely different how you are teaching it when it’s not pen and paper. You have to know how to apply the knowledge you have for the children you have,” said Tracey Pearson, a pre-K teacher at PS 245 in Brooklyn.

“I always felt the most important thing was to think like a child,” added PS 160’s McCullough. “They are listening to every word I say. It could be a month later, but I will hear those words come out.”

Some politicians still insist that pre-K is glorified baby-sitting and are fine with paying pre-K teachers less than upper-grade teachers. Many pre-K classrooms lack curriculum and professional supports.

“I think we should all be on the same page, but we’re not,” said Barbara Magnotta, who has taught pre-K at PS 121 in the Bronx for eight years. Pre-K teachers rarely visit each other’s classrooms, she said. “A lot more discussion needs to go on.”

Yet for New York City’s ambitious undertaking, the pre-K teachers are the make-or-break element. They need not only good curriculum but also professional respect. They need wraparound supports, ample supplies, good coaching, and access to nurses, speech teachers, occupational and physical therapists, social workers and family workers.

“Happiness is essential in a pre-K classroom,” said Rosario. “It won’t work without all the components in place.”