Thoughts of a High Hopes Teacher
Every day at 7 AM, the High Hopes preschool opens its doors to fill eight classrooms with students, both typically developing and with special needs. Each classroom has two to three teachers overseeing our students’ needs throughout the school day, and the bonds formed between these kiddos and their teachers are very strong. Those of you with children in the preschool have undoubtedly heard your little one talk about their teachers, about their day, what they learned. But you might wonder what it feels like from the teacher’s perspective, arriving every day to face the joys and the challenges of preschool and inclusion. One teacher has shared her thoughts on the subject, and she starts it out with these words:
I have the best job. If I’ve thought it once, I’ve thought it a million times. And it comes at weird moments, too. Moments which, from the outsider’s perspective, would seem like the least likely time to think something as positive as, “I have the best job.” Like when I’m changing a dirty diaper. Cleaning up spilled juice. Or when every single child in a given classroom has decided to scream the song of their people at the top of their lungs.
But that’s the thing about it. No matter how many nasty diapers I have to change, I get the benefit of the tight hugs and sweet little moments that happen when they’re all fresh and clean. No matter how many times they spill their juice, the day will come when they can take as many drinks as they like independently. And when every single child is yelling, “Let it gooooooo” in a pitchless cacophony that assails the ears, it’s because they are having a lot of fun. I wandered around for a long time before I found High Hopes. Even with all the volunteer and professional childcare experience I had under my belt, when I finally arrived at High Hopes, it was a whole different world. It was a frightening prospect in many ways, to come on board with a place that cared for so many children with such serious needs on a daily basis. Researching High Hopes from the perspective of a potential employee was intimidating, to say the least. But when I walked into the Inchworm classroom for the first time and met these amazing children, it wasn’t even a full day before I was totally and completely hooked. It came with new challenges. I have watched many a child on the autism spectrum have full-on, knock-down drag-out sensory meltdowns.
BUT I have also given snuggly hugs to children on the autism spectrum, who couldn’t stand to be touched by anyone, even in passing, when they first enrolled. I have played peek-a-boo with toddlers on the spectrum, who never made eye contact before coming to High Hopes. I have witnessed the moment a child with autism responds to their name for the first time.
It came with new sorrows. I've felt the gnawing empty feeling of anxiety when a child I love has a seizure, or struggles with a common illness because their immune system isn't quite strong enough. BUT I've also felt the pure bright warmth of joy when a little one with dystonia snatches a toy out of my hand triumphantly, or very deliberately waves goodbye. Just in the relatively short time I've been a part of this place, I've seen impatience and temper tantrums, sickness, frustration, and recoveries from illness and surgery that seemed interminable. BUT I've also seen perseverance and stubborn effort, belly laughs, baffling advancement, and the satisfaction of sweet, sweet success. We're in the business of everyday miracles. There are no small moments. Every time I feel myself beginning to fall into complacency, into a trudging routine, I take a moment to look for that day's miracle. Some days the miracles are easy to spot – like the day a child the doctors said would never walk pulls up onto their feet and crosses the whole classroom. But of course there are days when you have to look a little harder – like the day a child with sensory issues manages to touch a hot dog without gagging. It’s those everyday miracles that spur me on now. Working here has inspired me to go back to school, first for an Associate’s in Early Childhood Education, and now I’m working on finishing my Bachelor’s. Every time I get frustrated with school, I can feel myself start to think those cynical, procrastinating, fatalistic thoughts about the whole system. But it’s this place, these faces, that stomp those thoughts down again. It’s worth it. If I can help this place to thrive in any small way, it’s worth it.
I love telling people about what I do. I tell them all about High Hopes and the unique model that provides the structure for what we strive to achieve every day. And still, when I say that I'm a preschool teacher, I can see that gleam in their eyes that says, "That's cute. You play with children all day and get paid for it." Anyone who has ever crossed the threshold of High Hopes knows our school is so much more than that. Yet, when it comes down to it, I really do get to play with children all day for money. Children learn through play. It is our strongest teaching tool in early childhood. Through play I get to take part in the blossoming development of every child who walks through our preschool doors. I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is the best job. Every day, I come to work with people who believe in the same goals. I am here alongside more than seventy people who have committed themselves to the success of these children, who recommit themselves to it every day when they clock in. It makes it ridiculously easy to continue to make that commitment myself when I see their hard work, and the beautiful smiles of the children that their hard work supports. Every afternoon, I see the families of the kiddos in our care coming to pick them up with smiles on their faces, knowing that their child has been loved on and cared for and lifted up. That trust is humbling and inspiring. We know that everyone has a choice about where to bring their children for daily care, and more families than we can yet serve make us their top choice. It’s an overwhelming vote of confidence, and I am so grateful for those relationships and that trust. And with all those wonderful people surrounding me, I also get to feel the rush of pride when a kiddo goes out of their way to include a friend with a need. I get to hear children who are nonverbal speak their mind through an assisted communication device. I get to hear conversations that start out with, "What are those things on your legs?", and end with, "Oh, so they help you run? I'll race ya to the swings!" This is just the best job! I'm not saying it's a bed of roses. Like every job, this one has its pros and cons, good days and stressful ones. But I am saying that when everything seems to be stacked against us and luck is not being kind, even on the worst day from a work perspective, the good stuff far, far outweighs the bad. When the work you do changes lives for the better, even in the smallest ways, it's hard to complain. Which is why I can be cleaning up spit-up one minute, getting bitten the next, catching a toy right before a kiddo chucks it at me, saying please-get-that-out-of-your-mouth for the millionth time, or tracking down an especially fragrant diaper, and I’m still content and happy. Because I’m thinking that thought that just won't quit reminding me: I have the best job.