Abi Parker is better known as "Teacher Abi" by the kids she teaches at Tanaina Child Development Center, which serves families with toddlers and preschool-aged kids. My daughter, Julia, has been with Teacher Abi from the beginning and, while she's looking forward to kindergarten in the fall ("I get to bring a lunch box!"), she's devastated that Abi won't be coming along on her next academic adventure. Abi, for her part, has done everything to make sure Julia and her classmates are ready to make that big leap from preschool to kindergarten. But Abi has also been learning quite a bit from the kids along the way—maybe even more than she's learned in her college-level early childhood education classes. I caught up with her on a field trip at the park to ask a few questions. Questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How long have you been working with kiddos?
Two years. Two whole, long years. It feels like a very long time. Julia said, "You've been my teacher for 40 years."
Q: What made you decide on early childhood education?
I've always wanted to teach second grade. Since I was in second grade, actually. I had the best second grade teacher ever: Mrs. Armstrong at Eagle River Elementary. She was so amazing—the quirkiest, craziest teacher and I knew I wanted to be her. I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job. She was super warm and kind and understanding and she was all about literacy. Literacy is involved in every aspect of early childhood education; when it comes to math, you have to be able to do letter recognition. I really enjoyed reading, but struggled with math and she was able to incorporate the things I was good at to help me with the things I wasn't. I wanted to be able to do that.
Q: How long before you felt like you knew what you were doing in the classroom?
Honestly, it was probably six months. Kids are testers. I thought I knew what I was doing. I had all these activities we were going to do. They hated it. The biggest lesson I had to learn was that nothing is going to be perfect and nothing is going to end up the way you want it to. That's not how they learn. It was six months before I kind of let them lead the way into what they were interested in and then things got a lot better. Connections started to be made.
Q: How often do you laugh at school?
Every 10 minutes, I would say. If an hour goes by and I'm not laughing, somebody is sick and I know it. Seriously. Pull out the thermometer, somebody is not OK.
Q: What do you see as the standard transition period for new kids coming into preschool?
It varies from kid to kid, but about a month in is when most kids are settled. There are the kids who come in and that first day they're into it and love it, they don't have any issues. Then there are some kids who will cry all day. At that one-month mark, though, they love you and they're not crying anymore. They might get a little teary every now and then, but that's normal even for the kiddos who have been here since they were toddlers. Everyone has moments when they miss their mom. We all do.
Kiddos who haven't been in care before can have a hard time connecting with kids who aren't their siblings. That's the learning curve.
Q: Is there anything parents can do to ease the transition?
The best thing parents can do is a quick and loving goodbye. That's the best thing. If you indicate to them, I love you, this isn't a punishment, I'll see you at the end of the day, and follow through with that, it will lead the way toward consistency and help them understand this isn't a bad thing. They'll see this as a good thing. My parents want me here because they love me. Sticking around for hours is counter-productive; there will come a day when you have to return to work.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a preschool teacher?
I feel like I've become more carefree since working with them. Life is not as difficult as we make it. What they're doing at that moment is all that matters. That really is how we should live our lives. When you have to "adult," there are some things you have to keep in mind. But, for the most part, when I'm talking to them and listening to them, I have to question all the things I take so seriously. Another thing I've learned from them: Life goes on. It sucks in the moment, but tomorrow I'll be fine. That's how they are.
Don't get jaded. For these guys, everything is exciting. Today, we were walking and a kiddo fell and she said, all excited, "I fell on my first real field trip!" That's a way to look at it.
Q: How do you know if you're doing a good job?
Kids are so honest about everything. You know when you look great, because they'll tell you. You know when you look awful, because they'll tell you. I think sometimes educators forget to take feedback from their students, especially in early childhood, because they have books that tell them how kids operate. They tell you, "That was a really mean way to tell me that." They're going to be your biggest indicator of if you're doing your job correctly or not. They are always learning. Sometimes in the moment it will seem like they're not, but three months later they will reiterate something you talked about forever ago.
Q: What made you laugh this week?
I think it's so funny how they don't think I'm a human being. We went outside and I had to grab something from my car. Their mouths were wide open and they said, "You don't drive a school bus?" I said, "No, I drive a regular car." And they said, "Teachers don't drive regular cars. They drive a school bus or a bike, because I've seen Teacher Dan." Then they asked, "Do you have a mom?" I said, "Yes." And they whispered, "Where is she?" They were super confused, like I came from another planet. I said, "You know, I was a kid like you once before, right? You have to get to 23 somehow." That was met with: "You're 23?! Are you going to die soon?"
The idea that I'm human and that I'll die was shocking to them. The thought that I do things that aren't school-related was shocking to them. They think I live at Tanaina. Your kiddo thought for the longest time that I was married to Teacher Dan and we lived in the Panda classroom and we just had all these children making us happy. They see us as this quirky modern family.
Q: Do you see what you do in preschool as preparation for kindergarten?
I think we're giving them exposure. My personal opinion is that the social-emotional prep is the most important part. I think having friendships and learning how to connect with peers, as well as respecting authority and connecting with authority, is a good way to ease yourself into a really high-stress situation. I realize it's just kindergarten, and what could be stressful about finger painting? But for them, sharing is stressful. It's hard for me as an adult! The thing I try to tell them now is, "There will be fewer teachers and more friends!" When they have an opportunity to experience things in a more self-paced way, then they can adapt better to the real deal.
This article was originally published in the July 31, 2016, print edition of Back to School. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, with questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.