It was day four of a new school year. I walked to the bus stop on a muggy August day, dressed for work, with a five-year-old girl clinging to my leg—sobbing. My nine-year-old son looked up at me: “She’s that kid. She’s the kid who cries at the bus stop.”
Meanwhile my daughter had devolved into begging. “Please don’t leave me. Please. I want to stay with you. I want you to come to school with me. I want to go to work with you. I love you.”
My daughter, Annalei, has a wild heart, thriving on risks and throwing herself completely into each new experience, good or bad. She invites strong feelings and expresses them freely with a comfort and confidence that I envy. As she sobbed, I questioned the seemingly arbitrary start of our public school system at the age of five. I’m well aware of the connection between a high-quality kindergarten experience and student success, yet my daughter’s tears made me wonder: Is five too young to ask a child to separate from his or her family and get on a bus to school?
I kneeled down and pulled her close to me. We took some deep breaths. Then I started talking about her teacher. Because when my daughter left me, it would be her teacher who had the power to make Annalei’s day beautiful. She would be the one to hug her, wipe away her tears and offer reassurance. She would be the one to smile from across the classroom and make her feel special. She would be the one to make her laugh or gently encourage through a challenging task.
Flash forward to today, with just two months left in the school year. Annalei, having forged deep bonds with her classmates and teacher, is thriving. She runs to the bus stop on Monday mornings—mind racing with stories about her weekend that she cannot wait to share with her friends and teacher. Over the past eight months, she has emerged as an energetic, charismatic, almost six-year-old – driven by the curiosity of what each school day brings. This transition is thanks to the hard work, dedication and patience of someone who is having an immeasurable impact on my daughter’s future - her teacher.
But as a parent and former teacher, I know that the teacher-child connection runs even deeper. Annalei’s relationship with her teacher has not only influenced what she has learned this year but how she feels about learning—and how she feels about herself. Great teachers can help shape who children want to be, how they trust, how they build friendships, enjoy a good book, or find the fun in mathematics. That’s the power of high-quality early childhood education. That’s the power of great teaching. And in kindergarten classrooms across the country, that’s exactly what children should be experiencing.
School readiness, as measured by counting skills or letter recognition, is important. But throughout the year, what’s equally important are the ways that teachers support children as they say good-bye to families and learn to find comfort in a new community while maintaining a secure connection to home. They help answer critical questions that children have about joining and being successful in a new classroom: What should we do if we get sad or scared at school? What are our rules? How do we make friends? Teachers who address these questions are creating a sense of security and community that lays the foundation for academic success. Strong, caring teacher-child relationships are the context for all learning. Without them, we can’t fulfill the promise of early childhood education.
Teachers like Annalei’s should inspire us to create tools for educators that transcend academics and make it easier to create the context where relationships are built and learning happens. Tomorrow, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, there will be a note to Annalei’s teacher tucked in my daughter’s backpack, thanking her for the care, kindness, and intentionality that I know she is bringing to building relationships with all of the children in her Kindergarten class—especially Annalei. I invite you to do the same with your child’s teacher.
Kai-leé Berke has taught and cared for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners across public, private, and Department of Defense programs. Today, she is the Chief Executive Officer at Teaching Strategies, whose groundbreaking resources, such as The Creative Curriculum®, support great teaching and inspire creative, confident thinkers.