This morning, I was fretting. Cleaning my desk, I misplaced writing I was going to share with colleagues after school. The day ahead already began to seem scattered and rushed, and I felt like a dope to not even have in my hand the draft of my thinking. I might have been undone if it had not been for my “meditation verse” today:
Do not fret; it only leads to evil.
Looking back on my day this evening, I am thinking how so much wrong-headed teaching is caused by fretting, fear of failure, or wanting to make the test grade. And then I thought about a home visit I had today with an incoming parent of one of the children in my Head Start class.
Like many parents and teachers in the fall, Ellena’s mom was also fretting. She told me that she was trying to teach her daughter her letters and how to write her name, but that Ellena wasn’t that interested and she wasn’t able to teach her. She was blaming herself, and she was blaming her daughter too.
I thought about what I need when I am fretting about my teaching. I need someone to remind me that growth takes time, that I’m a good teacher, and that my students are capable young learners. The way my students learn has a lot in common with the way I learn. We both need the same things.
So, with this young parent before me, I gave it a try.
“Do you want some advice?” I asked, wanting to make sure she was open to suggestions before making them.
“First, get in your mind that she’s going to get it. She’s a smart girl, she lives in a culture where we read and write, she attends a good school, and she has terrific parents. She’s going to get it. Just think of how you feel when you’re doing something new. Your kids are young, so you’re a pretty new parent. If someone says, ‘You’re a good mom, and you’re doing a good job with your kids,’ you feel better and you do your best. But if someone criticizes or corrects you, then it really makes it harder to do your best.
“Let’s see what she is writing now,” I said, and I went to get the drawing Ellena had just made in my classroom that week. Her paper showed some letter-like forms, some squiggle writing, and some shapes she had drawn and colored in.
“When she draws like this, you can point to what she did and tell her what she already did well. Say something like, ‘Oh, there’s an O, or ‘That looks like a P.’ You might also ask about this writing: ‘What did you write here?’ or ‘What does this say?’ That will help her know that writing carries meaning.
“When you write anything, like a shopping list or a note, give her a piece of paper and let her write her own list or note. Don’t correct her or tell her how to do it. Just let her play along.”
Ellena’s mom nodded, and I continued chatting, remembering some of the ways this young mother had been working with her daughter.
“Your idea about cutting out letters and letting her glue them is such a great idea! I might use it. It’s a lot of work for you to cut out the letters, but it’s a great activity. Just lower your expectations when you do it. Rather than asking her, ‘What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?’ and expecting her to know, you can be more playful. Say things like ‘Look, here’s a Q. Let’s glue that on. Oh, I found another W.’ Just have fun with it. You can talk about the letters like they’re things—like animals or pretty flowers—and name them, without asking her to name them.
“You’re doing a lot of good stuff, ” I stressed to her. “Most of all, remind yourself that she’s going to get it.”
“I know where Ellena gets her perfectionism,” she said thoughtfully.
Talking with Ellena’s mom today was a good exercise in countering that fretting voice that starts jabbering when we expect things to be perfect. We forget what we do well and the enormous capabilities of the children we work with. I now have a list of suggestions to share with other parents on my home visits. They may need to remember, like me, that there’s no sense in fretting.