The Kinder Chronicles, Part Two

I was somewhat recently a guest on the new Al Jazeera America show The Stream to discuss the common core. When hearing about my appearance, my grandfather asked, "Well, what did they introduce him as?"

I think my grandfather, who's been a dominant fixture in my life, comes from a time, a generation, maybe a location (or perhaps it's just him after all) that puts a premium on titles and the amount of money you make.

Even though I'm an educator, there was some cachet with my position as a college professor. I didn't lose my PhD when I returned to the classroom. But I guess being a kindergarten teacher doesn't work as well when good old Grandad is trying to impress old acquaintances at the grocery store.

Yet, I must admit that I paused a beat during the broadcast when I saw kindergarten teacher kindergarten my name on the television monitor. It's different this time, isn't it? I mean, Kindergarten is very distinct, more so than being a generic fifth or third grade teacher. That's always been my impression of early childhood when I taught fifth grade a decade ago.

What makes kindergarten so unique then? The conversations I've had with people tend to mention naptime, play, painting, and drawing. It's remarkable that we could remember such vivid details of events when we are five or six years of age. There are tremendous gaps in my own memories of my formative years in school. I cannot recall much of my time in class or the tests I took. I can't even remember what it was like to really learn to read. But I can remember telling stories during circle time or being denied snack because I just received a fluoride treatment from the dentist.

This isn't meant to be some sappy, sentimental slice of life about the simplicities of being a kid or some sugary screed about the wonders of a child's imagination. There's a place for that. But, not here and not now. No, this is more an indictment of childhoods lost.

Before returning to the classroom, I sought advice from friends and colleagues who specialize in early childhood education. These are experts in their field. I was in a state of slight panic when I started listing what I needed in order to start my year. I was advised to create various areas in the room for art, dramatic play, sand and water, a reading nook, writing, and math. I built some of my own wooden furniture and then spent another $1,000 of my own money getting it all together.

You visit any affluent private school, or even a neighborhood public in a well-to-do neighborhood, and you'll see all of this present, and more. You'll observe more than our District's minimum of 15 minutes of outdoor play. Parents in these cases are paying the equivalent of college tuition to keep class sizes at 15 or fewer. These conditions, and many others, are deemed as absolutely essential to the health and well being of children at five or six years of age. For some mysterious reason, such necessities are kept from the children with whom I work. And I'd like to know why.

Alternatively, you visit my school and others like it, the atmosphere is hectic, frenetic, and high-stress. Management mandates how every minute must be spent. Observers will soon hover among us for 30 minutes at a stretch to guarantee compliance, potentially tattling to supervisors if we stray from the script. I wonder who gets enjoyment from micromanaging others to such an extreme.

The work that I do is messy, unpredictable, and entirely resistant to routines. Sure, we like to repeat chunks of time on various days to maintain some consistency. The flesh-and-blood human beings with whom we work seem at times nearly immune to uniformity. And why would we want it any other way? If I wanted to work in an office with widgets, I would have.

Our public schools, through not fault of our own, are plagued by a perverse and pervasive culture of micromanagement and clipboard compliance. Teaching kindergarten to me means at its core curiosity, unpredictability, surprise, and flexibility. It's anathema to common standards, common curriculum, textbooks, and consultant artifice. I listen to my students every day and adjust to what they need in that moment, not moments a month or even two weeks down the road.

My title is kindergarten teacher. It may be the most difficult work I've ever done.