Throughout my career in early childhood education, I have held a variety of roles. I have been a teacher, an education director, an instructional coach and a parent. Through each of these experiences, my perspective has shifted, enabling me to reflect on my practices and develop as a professional. Most recently, I have temporarily moved from coaching early childhood teachers back into a teaching position. I think it’s important to note that this move is not a typical move, as I have not moved to in-person teaching, as I have taught before, but rather to remote teaching — which is new to all of us. This new chapter in my career has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride.
Moving from being an experienced teacher to an experienced coach to being a completely inexperienced virtual teacher is quite shocking. Over years, I have accumulated knowledge, skills and quick tricks for engaging young children in meaningful ways. As a coach I have called on these bits of knowledge to help new teachers. Walking into a classroom full of young children and knowing what to do has become second nature to me. September of 2020 brought on a new challenge I never could have imagined facing. I can assume this is a sentiment everyone in early childhood education can relate to.
The crux of early childhood education lies in the relationships and connections we build with children and their families. Young children come into early learning environments wanting to be seen and known. Needing the adults around them to understand them, support them, challenge them and meet their ever-changing needs. I sat frozen in shock at the beginning of the school year wondering, “How am I going to connect with these children through a computer?” I couldn’t see it.
Surprisingly or not surprisingly, the children’s need to connect proved to help alleviate my worst fear. I did begin to connect with the children, understand their needs and see them for the amazing individuals that they are.
This did not turn out to be the hardest part of the job. For me, the hardest part became the loneliness and helplessness that a computer screen cannot alleviate. As is true in the classroom, some children arrive excited and ready to learn, whereas others arrive timid, shy and unsure of this new situation. It is these children who are hardest to reach and to engage. When a child refuses to engage in a conversation, there are only so many things I can do through the computer. When something happens at home and a child starts crying hysterically, there’s only so much comfort I can provide through the computer screen. When a child sees the computer open with his teachers on the screen and he screams, runs away and refuses to come back, there is only so much support I can provide. This level of helplessness is exhausting. For each of these scenarios, if we were in the classroom, the solution would be to go to the child, get down to their level and through gentle words of encouragement and soothing touches help them through the moment. With repeated moments like this, most children eventually adjust and find their own way to be in their new space.
Of course, there are strategies and techniques I can and have implemented, but at the root of it all is this deep feeling of — this just isn’t right — this is not the lovingly, slightly chaotic, but well-run, energetic, exciting world of early childhood.
Recently I attended a meeting in which I shared my feelings of frustration and heartbreak. A very well intended participant responded with a coaching lens, that we as coaches all have, wondering what category my concerns would fall under. Was I struggling with classroom management, family engagement, or what? This response broke something inside of me. With raw and heartfelt emotion I responded by stating that this is not a technical issue, this is an emotional issue and that if a coach tried to help me “solve” my problem from a technical lens, I would probably crumble or lash out with anger. I felt and saw in my reaction a cry of desperation.
This moment has become a transformational moment for me as a coach. I would like to look back at myself and say that I was the type of coach that considered the emotional state of my coachees first and foremost, but this is not fully true. I might have started off a session from that place, inquiring about how a person is doing, feeling, etc. But, feeling the need to “do my job right,” I would often quickly shift to the technical. What can we accomplish today to help you become a better teacher? Rather than, what can I do today to help you get through today, tomorrow and maybe even the next day?
I sit here writing this, wondering how many teachers I worked with felt like I did when I was asked about what category my problem fell under. Did I, as a coach, unintentionally neglect to meet the emotional needs of those I coached prior to focusing on the technical skill development? Did I forget to help them develop coping strategies to take on future challenges?
In working with teachers, I often ask them, inspired by the words of Deb Curtis, “Are you really seeing the children? And when you do, how does what you see change your perspective and actions?” As coaches, we must ask the same of ourselves when working with our clients. Am I really seeing this person? Am I taking the time to get to know her and understand her? It’s easy to walk in with an agenda and be eager to get started, but I think we really need to pause, notice the energy in the room, read the non-verbal cues, and do an emotional check-in. We need to take time to build a relationship in which people can show us their vulnerability and ask for help. This is always true, but even more so now when the emotional cost of COVID is so high. The collective loss of what was, the collective fear of the unknown, and the individual experiences of grief are at an all-time high. If a teacher is unable to move beyond an emotional barrier, no amount of technical coaching is going to help them solve their problem. But helping someone by showing up as an emotional coach can make all the difference.
Whether you are a coach, a teacher, an administrator or a parent reading this, I hope you can find it within yourself to pause next time you do a check-in with someone and first try to truly see them, ask them how you might be of assistance, and let them know that they are not alone. This will probably be the most powerful gift you can give another person right now.
Kelley Arau is an Instructional Coordinator with the NYC DOE’s Division of Early Childhood Education and is currently serving as a remote teacher for 3-K and Pre-K. She has over 15 years of experience in the field of education having been a public and private school teacher, an education director of a Pre-K for All preschool, a mentor, coach, and professional development facilitator.