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What I learned from my kids’ preschool teacher

Spending time in my children’s classroom changed my approach to parenting.

Shaw Nielsen for the boston globe

The first time I served as a parent helper in my son’s cooperative preschool class, I watched in silent horror as the 4-year-olds discovered their shared passion for glue. As pools of white gushed across the table, I cautioned the kids against wasting their supply. When that got no response, I stood there, stumped, yanking handfuls of Clorox wipes out of the package, preparing to clean.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Dee, the teacher, noticed that the children were running low on glue and asked me to pour more. Did I hear her correctly? I thought, incredulous, as she knelt down and asked them about their artwork.

I hadn’t considered that point of view.

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My perspective on close to everything I once knew had shifted in the previous year. The school was new, as were our town, our house, my job as a stay-at-home mom, and my status as a motherless mother. I was flailing, trying to figure out how I could possibly parent without my mother’s guidance. In place of daily calls to her, I had a pile of dog-eared advice books, but I was too overwhelmed to practice what I read. I was a loving and mostly patient mother, but that was my entire bag of tricks. Connecting with a 4-year-old required something more.

We met Mrs. Dee right around the time the concept of superheroes swooped into our lives. My son and his classmates wore tiny capes to school, and she welcomed their Batman personas, reminding them of their superhero responsibilities when cleanup time came. As the children stacked blocks from their fallen buildings, I considered whether Mrs. Dee’s superprowess was inborn or acquired over her 25 years of teaching.

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In time, I understood that the magic of Mrs. Dee lay in the respect she accorded the children and the world as they saw it. One day, a child spotted a leprechaun running up a wall. Mrs. Dee stepped aside and let the child lead the class on an animated hunt around the room. Her lesson on hibernation involved building a cave for the children’s teddy bears. Imagination prevailed, and the miniature became larger, more important.

She set limits that made sense to kids. When the energy level at lunch grew too high, she dimmed the lights, put on classical music, and told her students they were in a restaurant. Legos simply went on vacation when sharing became too challenging. There was no need for demands or timeouts.

I took her lessons home. I began to kneel down. At 3 feet high, I saw things differently. Magna-Tiles can create actual skyscrapers. Glue is for exploring. Sharing is sometimes painful. Mrs. Dee taught me that nearly all the problems in this world can be worked through with the help of the right picture book. She reminded me that a bit of creativity can turn a problem on its head.

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This past spring, my daughter brought home a life-sized paper gorilla and tapir from Mrs. Dee’s class and asked that we convert the house into a rain forest, as she had done at school. After five years of Mrs. Dee’s mentorship, it was easy to recognize that our front hall ceiling could double as a tropical canopy.

Now the landscape of our lives is changing once again. In a transition possibly scarier than any other, we’ve said goodbye to Mrs. Dee, and my little one is headed to kindergarten. I’m afraid of the silence that will follow, the stillness of home without chaos. But I’ve attended preschool long enough to realize my daughter’s opinion matters now far more than my own. She is ready. And when I kneel to meet her eye level, a “big kid” school stretches out in front of us. It feels larger than a rain forest, but we move toward it hand in hand, my daughter leading us forward.

Janet Damaske is a writer and blogger in Winchester. Send comments to connections@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.

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