If you’re an early childhood teacher, no doubt your head is full of tugging voices
and questions: What are the children really learning as they play? How should I
handle all this pressure for school readiness? What will reassure parents that I’m
a competent teacher? How long can I really stay in this job?
Competing interests in young children’s futures storm around and within us.
Early childhood teachers feel so much pressure to shape children into what society
expects of them. In quieter moments we long to be with children in a different
way. Then the prevailing tide rushes in with the language of standards, outcomes,
and accountability. The wonder of childhood is pulled under and washed away
once more, and with it, our love of teaching.
Waiting for you in the eye of this storm is the art of awareness and the joy of
paying close attention to children. With close observation you can refocus, see the
value of childhood, and remember why you wanted to be a teacher. You can learn
to integrate the concerns of these contesting voices and a full measure of delight
can return to your work with children. If observation is already part of your teach-
ing practice, you may find an expanded focus here. If it isn’t at the center of your
practice, developing the art of awareness may transform your teaching.
The early childhood profession faces a critical juncture. We have come of age as
a full-fledged profession with a core body of knowledge, code of ethics, profes-
sional standards, accreditation system, credentials, literature, and conferences.
These developments are all wonderful, but for practicing teachers they often
translate into giving more attention to checklists and paperwork systems than to
the actual children, reflecting the overall trend in U.S. culture of overlooking the
insights children offer.
In the United States there is no clear vision for the value of children or the
role of childhood in our collective lives. We are willing to entertain children,
make products for them to consume, and prepare children for adulthood, but we
don’t earnestly give them much attention for who they are right now. Except for
brief moments of crisis, holidays, or campaigning for elections, rarely do the lives
of children get public attention, nor do we hear people discussing how they
enrich our humanity and our overall culture. Even parents and teachers fail to
notice what children notice or let them lead us to new awareness and apprecia-
tion for their time of life.
Professor and author David Elkind reminds us that in the last fifty years our
country has become more and more adult oriented, with children increasingly
viewed as a nuisance. Shopping malls, casinos, health clubs, and the Internet
have all been conspicuously developed as places for adults to gather. Parks,