Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary:
A Day in the Life of a Head Start Teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee
Sarah Neessen, Knoxville Head Start
Samara Madrid Akpovo, The University of Tennessee
As an Associate Professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at The University of Tennessee who conducts cross-cultural and intercultural research at urban preschools in Nepal, I initially envisioned writing an essay for Childhood Explorer about a remarkable and unique classroom in Kathmandu. However, having recently moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, I have realized that in some ways Knoxville was more foreign to me than Nepal. As a researcher of the social and cultural aspects of early childhood education, I wanted to know about the day in the life of a teacher and children in my new community.
I had heard about an extraordinary Head Start teacher in the community named Sarah Neessen. During our first meeting, I listened to Sarah speak passionately about her teaching, the children, and her classroom. At the end of our meeting, I asked what inspired her to not just teach, but also learn about the children—a marker of an extraordinary teacher. She told me her inspiration was a quote by Loris Malaguzzi (1994):
The teacher has to be the author of a play, someone who thinks ahead of time. Teachers also need to be the main actors in the play, the protagonists. The teacher must forget all the lines he knew before and invent the ones he doesn’t remember. Teachers also have to take the role of the prompter, the one who gives the cues to the actors. Teachers need to be set designers who create the environment in which activities take place. At the same time, the teacher needs to be the audience who applauds. . . . Sometimes the teacher will find himself without words, without anything to say; and at times this is fortunate for the child, because then the teacher will have to invent new words. (p. 96)
In what follows, Sarah explains how the Loris Malaguzzi quote above inspires her everyday teaching philosophy as well as how it shaped a study on buildings. In particular, Sarah and the children were not studying just any building, but rather a cultural and historical landmark called the Sunsphere (see photo) that was created as the theme structure for the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. The World’s Fair site later became a public park and the Sunsphere remains standing, serving as a focal point for the community.
My interview with Sarah’s captures a day in the life of a teacher and how her view of the child is embedded into the small moments of learning that occur over several days, weeks, or months.
Samara: Sarah, can you share your thoughts about how a day in the life of a Head Start teacher begins with curriculum and still allows the teacher to be the author of the play?
Sarah: Let me first say that a day in the life of Head Start teacher really isn’t just a day; it is evolving from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, and week to week. As some background, our curriculum uses studies of topics to engage children’s learning. Right now, we are in the middle of a study on buildings. Just as you thought, Samara, I assumed I would be sharing extraordinary buildings from all over the world with my children. At the beginning of the six-week study, we began with a focus on buildings in general. I quickly realized, however, that I wanted to share a local extraordinary building with the children—the Sunsphere. When the Sunsphere was introduced, the children became fascinated and their work and investigations took on a new direction. Their work emerged through many forms of representation with the Sunsphere at the heart of it all. During our discussion of buildings, the curriculum focused on houses, materials, machines, and tools. The children went in the direction the curriculum guided them; when they had their free time, they chose to focus on the Sunsphere.
Samara: How are you the main actor of the play—the protagonist?
Sarah: The children’s interest in the Sunsphere brought me back to my teaching philosophy. I know that my day is not linear. Yes, we have our schedule and our curriculum demands, but my day centers around the children. I believe that children are capable and competent. I believe that children bring their own knowledge to each and every day. In pre-K, the children create their own work and, in that work, we have many remarkable experiences. Those experiences happen in moments of spontaneity. It is my job as the main actor to be prepared to meet children in these everyday moments and build upon their previous knowledge. I need to deeply listen to what children are telling me and showing me. I can then work to provoke thoughts and ask questions, to encourage the children to express their theories and ideas. I listen so I may know what the children want and where they need to take their work. While I do make time to hear the children and provide an environment full of provocations, for me the extraordinary in each day is seeing what the children bring to their work and the life they give it.
Samara: How do you forget all the lines you knew before and invent the ones you don’t remember?
Sarah: In our day, I spend time with children and develop shared experiences that create connections among all of us. I use the curriculum to directly teach skills to the children, but the day’s agenda is not mine. Our day is bigger than curriculum. I value the opportunities to ask the children to talk more about what they are thinking and experiencing, knowing that their interests may not be the ones of the curriculum. I choose to move with the children and follow them to lead in the moment. In those times and moments, their own interests and work truly bring them joy. The extraordinary in each day is the children sharing who they are with me, to remember that my job is to really see and hear who they are.
Samara: How are you a set designer who creates the environment?
Sarah: One of my jobs as a teacher is giving children a time and a place, making it possible for them to show what they know and, most important, to be present when they are working. I love when children feel capable and competent without me. Watching the children take ownership of their work and their classroom by bringing together resources to create and to think and to wonder means I have created an environment where they feel safe to think of new possibilities. I value and respect the children’s choices. I create a space where the children generate their own work because they want to do so. I hope that each child makes his or her own individual journey through our classroom, but that all the children take away that what they think matters, that they can wonder, and that they are able to develop their own theories. The extraordinary happens when I step back and let the children determine their work.
Samara: How do you make the time be the audience who applauds?
Sarah: Every day may not start with a planned moment of excitement or greatness. Sometimes, our days are rushed and busy with so much to accomplish that I need to make time to listen to the children—hearing and seeing children for who they are takes time. I need to make the time for conversations and to naturally be together in the space of our classroom, simply talking and learning together. We do so not because of an objective or a curriculum, but rather because we are interested and invested. The extraordinary is that I am a learner alongside the children; I am an observer, I am a decision-maker, and I am a planner. Most important, I am a cheerleader, knowing that I am truly teaching in these moments when I am an encourager and supporter of the children.
Samara: When are you without words?
Sarah: When I step back and let the children’s voices rise, their words speak for me. I am really reinventing the invented. I believe that the extraordinary in our ordinary is there. I just need to see the resources around me. It is in our own downtown and in our classroom; it is in each and every day. It is in valuing the extraordinary work of the children. In taking the time to hear and see the children display their knowledge, we have seen the extraordinary. All of the extraordinary in the everyday would not be possible without the children.
From my discussions with and observation of Sarah, I learned the value of looking deeper at ordinary experiences in the classroom. Sarah did this when she took a small moment from the children’s interest in buildings and turned it into a larger investigation of the Sunsphere, linking the children’s interest to an important historical landmark in Knoxville. I also learned from Sarah that an extraordinary day is about listening to children and giving them time and space to wonder, create, and invent new ways of learning. Sarah spent weeks prompting the children to consider, investigate, and revisit this extraordinary building through multiple representations. As the protagonist, she honored the children’s voices, not as passive actors in the play, but rather as equal contributors. Finally, I learned from Sarah that extraordinary teachers and children are found in our own backyards—in places, spaces, and events that seem ordinary. I did not need to go to Nepal to find my story about a remarkable and unique classroom. I found that right here in my new backyard.
Malaguzzi, L. (1994). Your image of the child: Where teaching begins. Child Care Information Exchange, 3, 93-97.
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