What does LifeWays bring to my public school special needs classroom?
Sitting in the empty basement room with one high window and pipes in the ceiling, I tried to imagine how it could become our classroom. I had just taken a job as a preschool special needs teacher at a rural West VIrginia elementary school a few miles down the road – and I had three working days to put the classroom together.
As I measured and drew, my mood slowly lifted and I saw how the room could hold us. I found I loved the sense of history in the tall wooden folding doors that made up almost one whole wall. I also loved the spaciousness of the classroom that would give us room to move.
In setting up the room, my LifeWays training helped me choose what to focus on. I didn’t have to argue for a theoretical best. I had to do my best to create a home for these children, in this place, with what was available. I had two main goals: 1. To support our daily rhythm, and 2. To make the space warm and welcoming to little children.
To support our daily rhythm, I wanted our classroom set-up to make transition times easier. For example, I grouped our chairs right by our entry door and the coat hooks, making a landing spot when we enter the classroom.
To make our space warm and welcoming, I needed to soften it. A home-style rug made a big difference and so did a couch. Years ago, someone in LifeWays told me that one way to soften a classroom is to put a couch in it. I spent much of the weekend before our first day of school fashioning one. I used a mattress, two old foam chairs, a bedspread, some sewing, and safety pins!
How did it go? Well, four months later I can say that the couch, despite needing periodic re-pinning, has been great. And the teaching, challenges and all, has been tremendously interesting. We now have 9 children, ages not-quite-three to five-and-a-half. I love the mixed-age group, with its variety of challenges and abilities.
In our classroom, there is so much to be done. I wonder if we will ever get to finger knit. We baked just once (gingerbread men), and I don’t know if we will manage it again. LifeWays helps me be patient. During training, Cynthia Aldinger had us write down our weekly schedule and then tried to get us to be kinder to ourselves by doing some activities less often, perhaps just seasonally. Remembering this, I can let myself be happy that in our classroom we sing and build and sometimes we have puppets. Most days we can give someone the chance to help set the table. Maybe next year we will manage more.
The biggest surprise? I already knew that our classroom environment would be important, but during these four months I’ve seen how much the larger school environment matters both to the children and myself. The school staff has been unbelievably patient and welcoming to our sometimes unpredictable, and often noisy, group. The children are always on the lookout for their hero, our friendly and hardworking custodian. Our cooks learned the children’s names and the children started to make eye contact and talk to them. Our principal helps me get my bearings when things go wrong. Community matters so much.
About myself: I took the LifeWays training while working with Sophia Project in West Oakland, CA, providing childcare for families stabilizing after homelessness and other crises. I recently completed my masters in early childhood education at Bank Street College in New York City. After many years, in many interesting places, I am grateful to be back in West Virginia.