Having been a preschool teacher in both a small preschool setting, and in a larger elementary school setting, I would propose the notion that being in preschool is a whole lot like being in jail.
Ok, I understand that it is likely a lot more colorful than what I imagine the inside of a penitentiary to be, but hear me out. If you know anything about young children, you know that they function best, and in fact, thrive on, routine. Their best days are ones that are completely structured, just like, let’s say, an inmate at Rykers. And as a preschool teachers, we are like the friendly prison guards, we keep watch, we make sure no one gets out of hand, sometimes we’ll slip you a treat if you don’t tell anyone else. But please note, we aren’t the Warden…ain’t nobody want to be that guy, cause that job sucks.
So anyway, bear with me, the juxtaposition here is just too uncanny and cannot be ignored. Preschool classrooms have a set structure, just like prison. There are little activity areas where you can choose to play a memory matching game, much like prison’s popular card games. You can choose to read a book in book area, you can even write a letter home to mom if you feel like it. These activities only happen for a short while, until it is time for your one-hour allotted outside time. Here you can run around with your friends, or just take a nice rest under the sun, while the prison-guard-preschool-teachers supervise you.
The rules are simple; you may not hurt your body or anyone else’s body. You may not shiv anyone. And I say that because this was actually an issue when I was teaching two-year olds.
Our outdoor space had this play kitchen set and of course it’s equipped with plastic food, dishware, utensils and what looks like a completely realistic butcher knife. One of the little boys in my class would seek out this knife whenever we went out to our playground with his little “2 year-old mischief radar,” and quickly find a target. He would then grip the knife appropriately with a full grasp on the handle and try to shiv his friends right in their sides, as if he somehow knew puncturing the liver or kidneys was a fatal move.
As prison-guard-preschool-teachers, we not only try to prevent these instances from happening, but we govern each transition that the children make throughout the day. They eat when we tell them to eat and what we tell them to eat. They sleep when we tell them to sleep (well, sort of). And most importantly, they pee when we tell them to pee, while being supervised. Now I know that that sounds weird and kind of violating, but we have a child’s bathroom in our classroom, and by law, the children are not allowed to close the door because we have to be able to see them for safety reasons. So our children learn to get used to peeing and pooping with an audience…just like prison.
Rule number one of working with young children is that you gotta love poop. You have to at least like it a great deal, if not love it. You can’t just be o.k. with it, because that will not work out in the long run for you. Pooping and peeing take up a great deal of your time and energy as a preschool teacher, especially with 15 children or more in a class.
I always think it’s interesting when, as adults, we expect children to just “get” potty training. Think about how messed up it must seem to a young child to have all these people in your life telling you to deposit your excrement into a ceramic bowl that will take this disgusting product to an unknown location because you pushed a lever.
That’s like false advertising for life! We are saying, “Here’s this shitty thing, I can put it in the ceramic bowl, pull the lever and goodbye forever!” NO! That’s messed up you guys! Potty training is not intuitive, especially if a kid’s been in nasty diapers and they are perfectly o.k. with taking a pee while simultaneously completing an animal sounds puzzle. Think about it, it’s far more efficient. Children are great multi-taskers in that sense.
I love how sometimes we get so frustrated that a kid doesn’t understand potty training and they wet their pants…and some may shame the shit out of them, like they’ve stolen a Rolex and put it in their underwear. We always react the same, with the same irritated malaise, “Awwww…What is this!? What did you do!?” Its ridiculous you guys, we need to cut our kids some slack for not realizing that peeing in the potty is a really tall order.
And when kids do start to “get” it and they have an accident that they know they shouldn’t have had, they sometimes start to get really shameful…or sometimes even shameless…
One day at school I had come back from my lunch break, my first year teaching, and the kids were getting up from their nap. The routine is that they each put away their blanket, use the potty and put on their shoes. The area by the classroom door and the bathroom door is always a high-traffic area as the kids are completing these tasks. Well I walked into the chaos, shuffling, whining, blocks-banging, items falling out of cubbies, and started to help a kid put on her shoe. I looked over and saw a huge puddle in the middle of this busy high-traffic area. It was right in the walkway, nowhere near where anyone’s cot had been placed during nap or near where anyone was sleeping, just right there in the middle of the floor. So I asked my co-teacher (who had been drinking a green tea), “Hey Mary, is your tea leaking?” She checks the bottle, says, “No why?” and I point to the yellow-ish LAKE on the floor.
Silence falls upon everyone, like a snowy winter night, and we all look around the room.
Clearly no one has taken down their pants and peed in the middle of the floor without us noticing, right? Nobody could have just snuck by us, tushy in the wind, right? So who is the culprit?
No one in the vicinity of the potty is wet or owns up to the deed so we go check the children who are already busy playing in the classroom. Except for Geoff who is cleverly hiding behind our wooden kitchen stove at the back of the classroom pretending to work very hard on some culinary wonder. My co-teacher escorts him into the bathroom with his right leg completely soaked and asks him if he’s peed on the floor.
Obviously, Geoff simply says, “No.”
It is clear to all young observers that Geoff is guilty as charged, but he feels so ashamed that he just turns and walks away, right foot squishing. We certainly would never publicly shame a child, hence asking him about the incident in the bathroom. But poor guy, being three is hard. Now of course we had him change his clothes while we cleaned up this mess, but we couldn’t blame the little guy for just trying to maintain his dignity.
Dignity is an interesting concept when used in conjunction with potty training. As teachers we want all kids to feel a sense of pride and independence when they are successful at using the potty. But we teach this with these completely ridiculous extremes. When a child pees in the potty they can run up to any adult or friend and announce that they have just gone number two. And what is the response? A REWARD! There is a freakin’ reward for that accomplishment! We hug them, congratulate them, maybe they get a sticker or an M&M! When, in any other circumstance, as an adult, are we ever rewarded for taking a poop? When would it ever be o.k. for me to run up to my boss, throw my arms around her, tell her the good news, and expect to get a handsome bonus? Never you guys, that’s total nonsense.
One kid in my class was so proud of himself, that he even took his poop to a spiritual level. All of the other children were sitting in the book area and he had just finished at the potty. He calmly walks into the middle of the area, spreads his arms out and says, “My friends, I have pooped in the potty.” And all the other children turned and looked at this spiritually enlightened figure with awe and amazement. They had taken a serious moment of silence for his accomplishment knowing how looming the potty Gods can be.
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