I have seen a bumper sticker with the slogan “If you can read this, thank a teacher”. I suppose this refers to the elementary school teachers who directly teach literacy. I am deeply grateful to and amazed by the work of those who taught me and my kids to read. They should for sure be thanked. Some would contrast their work with that of preschool teachers, saying that we merely wipe noses and watch kids play. It’s true, I am not an expert at teaching children to read. I do know, though, how to facilitate a child’s learning to read by supporting her early development, including essential social/emotional and self-care skills and knowledge. The importance of these factors to academic (and more importantly, life) success is well-documented and likely to provoke indignant lectures from early childhood educators. I also wipe noses. Instead of the lecture, I will offer this bumper-sticker motto of my own( meant to compliment, not contradict the other):
“If you know how to deal with your own snotty nose, thank a preschool teacher”
Think about the last time you were at a meeting at which you were supposed to be intellectually engaged and imagine you are there. Now imagine you are experiencing physical discomfort that you do not know how to alleviate, or are unsure how to do so in a way that will be socially acceptable in the meeting. Or suppose you go ahead and alleviate the discomfort, but it turns out that in doing so, you offend the others in the meeting. Not getting much out of this meeting, are you?
Knowing how to deal with your own snotty nose is very important to being able to learn and engage in communal life. It is one small example of the essential things early childhood teachers work on with students each day. How well can you pay attention if you don’t have the skills, confidence or sense of agency to deal with feeling too hot or cold or needing to use the bathroom?
Knowing how to deal with your own snotty nose is no simple thing. Yes, preschool teachers may be nose-wipers, but the good ones are not just nose-wipers. Every interaction with a child is one in which the child learns. When we wipe a nose, or coach a child in wiping her own, we are teaching in that moment about important things. Let me break down the steps of the process, noting the deeper lesson in each step. I invite you to consider how each of these lessons contributes to a child’s later successes.
1) Notice that the discomfort you are feeling is because of your runny nose. A toddler fusses, and a teacher notices, and helps the child learn the words to describe his problem. The lesson is about learning to use words instead of fussing. The lesson is that the child is deserving of comfort and care.
2) Get a tissue. To do this, a child needs to be taught where the tissues are, and that she should get one herself rather than tell or ask someone else to. Learning this is learning about oneself as a capable and competent agent in the world. Tissues are kept in a consistent spot and kept stocked. This shows things in a classroom can be safe and predictable.
3) Wipe or blow. This is a skill to teach. Here a teacher has an opportunity to teach a child that he, and everyone, deserves kindness and dignity, even when bodies are vulnerable and un-pretty.
4 and 5) Put the used tissue in the trash and wash your hands. We teach children that we do this because we are in a community, and we do not want to share our germs with others. We want to keep our classroom clean and neat. We learn that each of us can do real things to care for ourselves and others.
There are many things that people can figure out themselves without a teacher. This isn’t one of them. Yes, we wipe noses, but in doing so we teach skills and share love and instill confidence and compassion and teach important social norms.
So, the next time you feel a sniffle, perhaps take a moment to appreciate the people who helped you know what to do next.