I’ll Come Back When You’re Teaching

I’ll Come Back When You’re Teaching

What does it look like when the principal heads down the hall to the new pre-kindergarten room for his scheduled observation?

Sometimes, it works great. But sometimes, it looks like this: he peeks his head in, sees that kids are just playing, and smiles at the teacher. “I’ll come back when you’re teaching,” the principal says.

It’s a kindness, full of good intentions. The teacher’s marks would be low if he watched now. The observation sheet in his hand offers categories and rubrics that just aren’t going to match to the seeming chaos of choice time. If the principal doesn’t have any training or experience in early childhood to draw from, he may not see that right there in the chaos are intentionally designed supports and opportunities. Mathematics is going on as kids line up blocks from shortest to longest. Vocabulary development is going on at the stuffed animal veterinary clinic in the corner. Peer and teacher interactions permeate the room with oral language and social emotional learning. But all of this can masquerade as chaos, to the eye trained by years of seeing something quite different.

In February, states in the Early Childhood Education and Assessment collaborative through Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) met to discuss assessment, particularly across the preschool to kindergarten years. One focus was teacher observation and evaluation. And for every state that sees pre-K programs growing within the previously K-12 system, the issue of relevant principal preparation was a sticking point.

What a Difference a Year Makes

What might it do to pre-K approaches, to have teachers evaluated by someone who wants to “come back when they are teaching?” One unhappy possibility becomes clear from data Sharon Ritchie, Ed. D. (Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute) shared with states. She offered a view of what time use and emotional support look like in pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms.

In pre-K, large chunks of time are spent in student choice activities and peer collaboration. Kids get gross motor time, and they are rarely asked to sit and work independently on what the teacher has assigned.

But by kindergarten, things are different. The time use patterns that will hold steady through third grade are already present. Beginning abruptly in kindergarten, choice time and gross motor time are gone, replaced by significant proportions of the day spent either in whole group time (everyone sit on the carpet by the teacher) or independent work time (go to your desk space and do the assigned activity on your own). By kindergarten, the culture has shifted to emphasize prevention of chaos.

When observers in Ritchie’s First Schools project used the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) in observations across the pre-K to K years, they picked up this stark shift in classroom culture. Classroom ratings in the “emotional support” strand are strong in pre-K: this is something preschool and pre-K staff tends to do well. But emotional support scores plummet in kindergarten. In particular, the “negative climate” score gets drastically worse in kindergarten. This means that either teachers or students—or both—are expressing anger, hostility, or aggression. Clearly, kids don’t feel as happy and competent in a classroom with a significantly negative climate.

Kids are only one year older in kindergarten than in pre-K. Are the shifts we see in time use and in teacher emotional support appropriate? And where do they come from? To what extent are the expectations communicated by teacher observation and evaluation—within the K-12 buildings for kindergarten, but historically outside of them for pre-K programs—responsible for these differences?

Let’s talk about what kind of experience kids should have each day, when they first do school. If we decide that we don’t want pre-K classrooms to look just the way primary grade classrooms look, then let’s empower all principals to move beyond “I’ll come back when you’re teaching.”

Instead, imagine if this were pervasive: “Don’t worry, I can still gauge quality when it looks like chaos.”

What’s it looking like to you out there, as pre-K moves into the building?

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