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Lessons Learned {during playground duty}

His little body tells me he means business. He power-walks away from me, even as I call out his name: once, twice, thrice. And then some more. He hears me, but he’s trying not to listen. It is apparent that he perceives my constant calling for he moves purposefully ahead, making an ever-widening arch as he moves around the periphery of the playground.

Like he has somewhere to go.

I follow, but I do not run. And as I go about this awkward pursuit, I continue to call. While he continually moves out of my reach. We continue this dance-like charade until I get close enough for him to hear the calm in my voice. The care and the compassion. I call out again, indicating my desire to talk it out. Indicating my desire to listen. And this time, he allows me to catch up to him. I see, as I near, that he is fearful. Anxious. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even half over. He tells me what has happened. And indeed, his story matches up. He admits that first his mistake was accidental. But then he says “the bad stuff came.”

My heart aches for him.

It is a long road to travel when you are only five. Lonely and anxious and unsure.

Our schools are bursting with children that present with different needs and requirements. Some children come hungry: we feed them. Some children come filthy: we wash them, or teach them the ways to clean themselves. Some children come with precious little of material value to call their own: we provide clothing, backpacks, shoes, mittens, skates, splash pants and the like. Not to mention all the other stuff we offer that would seem to define us as teachers: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic. But what of the children who come lonely…what is there for them?

What do we offer the lonely?

The reason I feel I have stayed with teaching, why I continue in the classroom- has been for the little moments I have been given in which to gaze uninhibited inside the heart of students like the Boy in my story above. When the guard is lowered and I am allowed privileged glimpses into the depths of the soul: my own soul is fed. I am redeemed. Liberated to be the teacher I dream of being. For I want nothing more than to share in the journey. To share in the process of discovery. It is what keeps me here, inside the school milieu. It is what I love.

I have felt of late a certain sense of lacklustre in my teaching. A loss of passion. As an educator, I have been going through the motions, for lack of better words. The same routines, the same schedule. Even speaking the same uninspiring words as I facilitate learning from the teacher’s seat on the worn, blue mat. And although there has been nothing changed as far as the demands of my job, something has certainly changed somewhere. Somehow.

Within.

True, life is certainly busy and hectic, but not more so than any other moment. What I believed has changed is me. I have felt like I am losing interest, losing a sense of the significance for why I am here. For why I am where I am. I have lost my sense of place. And this loss has had the effect of causing me to feel that I am just putting time in each and every day. Biding the time until the day is over. Believing somehow that this is all there really is.

Until Friday. Until I looked into those sad, brown eyes last Friday.

The turning point for me personally was the opportunity I had to turn a mundane chore into an opportunity for possible transformation. And the while one would hope for transformation for those you assist in learning and growth, the real transformation was for me.

To elaborate. Outdoor duty is a time when teachers take their shift of playground supervision. It is invariably a time when tattle tale-ing hits with full force, while accompanying this rite of childhood is a fair bit of injury and sometimes blood. Two weeks ago, a little girl who already had a broken arm fell off the monkey bars on my watch. I had spoken to her just moments before, turned my back, and then she climbed up the monkey bars and promptly fell to the ground. One never knows what will happen on the playground.  It is both an exciting and terrifying venture at one and the same time.

Recess playtime is a bit unconventional when compared to school norms. Because the playground is a place where risks can be taken, where learning is done through play, where social interactions are at the forefront and where inhibitions can be lowered, play offers opportunity that the classroom doesn’t. But it is also a place where children can feel more vulnerable, for various reasons. Given that the duty teacher is only one person, and that the playground is a big place with seventy or eighty little people running around, a lot can go right. But often even more can go wrong.

What I have found about recess playtime is this. It is the greatest opportunity for me as a teacher to observe children in their most natural state. And added to this: I am at my most relaxed, feeling none of the pressures to meet outcomes or standards or to teach to differentiated learners. Kids love to play in all the same ways. It is very freeing as a teacher to be witness to this wonder. But my greatest joy has been in helping children who need a little extra love and understanding. It’s why I love duty the most.

When I see the opportunity to connect with children and use this time to enable them in their growth and development as individuals, I take it. I use duty to do what I really love to do: help children grow their hearts. That might be allowing an anxious child to travel with me around the playground, holding my clipboard. It might mean taking the time to settle a disagreement between two or more friends. Or what it is often becoming is a chance to observe students who are finding it difficult to connect with other students and thus making this time of supervision a chance for me to help these students solve both little and big problems, as they arise.

I’d like to say that the Boy had a better day after he and I chatted. I’d like to say that he came to a better understanding of himself and others as a result of the incident on the playground. I’d like to say that he resolved to find a way to connect more easily with other children and that he let down his defences. And I’d dearly like to say that the students involved with him were willing to wash the slate clean. I’d like to say that our infrequent encounters on the playground paved the way to continuous, visible growth in emotional and mental well-being for this young child. But the truth of the matter is: he had a very difficult afternoon, as I came to find out in speaking with his teacher.

And so it goes.

But this I know: no kindness goes unnoticed. And no thoughtful, caring gesture is soon forgotten. There will be other Fridays to come. More duty days in which to build his trust. And while there doubtless will be more incidents and pursuits, there will be small victories along the way. It’s a journey with a climb. Or maybe this process of learning is more like a building a house on a solid foundation. We are laying the framework, he and I. And it is not a race to perfection.

It’s a slow and steady process to building more awareness and understanding. And we all know- anything worth building takes lots and lots of time.  And love. Must never neglect the role of love in building the life of a child.

It’s what really matters.

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