The Child as Unit of Consideration: A Comfortable Place to Learn

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From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Susan Lazareck

Susan Lazareck and 3rd graders

Each child is the unit of consideration. This foundation of Catlin Gabel’s philosophy, as stated by founder Ruth Catlin, expresses the ethics and integrity of the road we choose to follow as teachers. The best part of the work is translating that ethic and value to teaching each child.
Teachers at Catlin Gabel understand that each child is unique, learning in his or her own way. We use their own skills and talents to help children grow, forming lifelong learners and confident people. But how do we do it?
When I was starting out, I worried: what if I overlooked the quiet child? What if I forgot the neglected child? What if I allowed the most verbal of children to distract me from the needs of others? I started to sit down on Friday afternoons and write the name of each child from memory. Inevitably, I would have to dig hard to remember the last two names. The following week, I placed those two children at the forefront of my thinking and observations. And at the end of that week, I might have to dig to recall one or two names again. I would consider why the child had slipped off my radar and what I needed to do better to be attentive.
I watch the children carefully in my 3rd grade class, encouraging them to move around if that is how they learn best, to talk to others to loosen their thoughts and engage in sharing ideas, and I help each child find the place where they will best stay focused. On the floor, behind the projector, on a clipboard? Fabulous! Need to sit on a bouncy seat at the end of a long table with headphones on? Of, course! In a quiet spot away from others? Why not use my teacher desk?
But there is more to this puzzle solving. How do I help the child who is confident and eager, and needs a challenge? I provide the challenges, and watch carefully that the foundation pieces are not overlooked. Often very bright children fly along with their passions and need teachers to create opportunities for deeper thinking and growth. The best teachers also know that even the brightest child will have things to learn that are more “ordinary.” The gift to that child is creating balance.  How do I help the fearful child who is sure that schoolwork is too hard? I break the challenges into smaller parts, using the child’s talents to build the path to success. I will sit on the floor after teaching a new math concept and invite kids to join me. Soon children with clipboards and pencils surround me. Instead of making a “special” group to help them understand new concepts, I create a comfortable place to talk. Those on the floor may not need any extra support, but no one considers the floor group anything other than simple preference.
Some years there are questions about children who need even more support. This is the hardest part of teaching. For in order for every child to be the unit of consideration, I sometimes have to ask parents for more help. I ask for testing to find out how to best help a child learn, or ask a child to receive some tutoring to reinforce skills. This is the real test of a teacher’s integrity and compassion for a child. Every child is like my own, and I come to love him, champion her, and seek the best for that child’s future and happiness.
The child is the unit of consideration. Every day I think about how to make each day wonderful, comforting, safe and exciting for the children. I teach them to care for each other. For me, there is no better work than teaching.
Susan Lazareck has been teaching at Catlin Gabel since 1994.