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The Way to a Teacher’s Heart…is Through Her Kids

Ask most teachers why they chose their profession and they won’t mention the palatial work environment or the exorbitant salary. They won’t even talk about the long, languid summer vacation. Most teachers teach because they love children . . . and that’s no joke. So, if you want to connect effectively with the teachers who bring their classes to your institution, connect with their kids.

Docent training in many museums, zoos, historic sites, nature centers, and gardens now includes sessions on the developmental stages and learning styles of youngsters. These are valuable courses that help docents know what’s “normal” for a particular age group that they may tour.

Volunteers for the Camp Tyler Foundation in Tyler, Texas, provide a two and one-half hour nature program for area third and fourth graders. During a significant portion of the program, the children explore trails through an east Texas pine forest and along the shores of Lake Tyler. As part of their training, the volunteers learn that the children on a nature hike may be “experts” on the frogs, snakes, birds, or mushrooms they may encounter. Once they feel confident about their reading skills, children in the primary grades often read everything they can find about a topic that interests them. Elementary age children frequently have collections of flora and fauna {and lots of rocks) that they have studied independently. A wise docent allows knowledgeable children of these age groups to share their expertise without letting them “take over” the conversation. Where staff is not available to offer training in educational psychology, local classroom teachers can be enlisted to share their knowledge about and experience with particular age groups. Local colleges and universities with departments of education are usually willing to provide teachers who can instruct docents in techniques for working with youngsters during specific developmental stages.

There are other less traditional, but, nonetheless, effective sources of information about children at different stages. Visiting and observing in classrooms and on playgrounds allows docents to see children interacting with their teachers and with each other. Of course, permission for such visits must be obtained from the school principal and, depending on the situation, she may not be receptive to visits from “outsiders.” Informal visits usually are easy to arrange if they can be made for a school attended by the docent’s children or grandchildren. More formal arrangements can be made by your institution for several docents to observe at one time. Again, local university education departments can be helpful in planning such visits.

Television is also a surprisingly accurate source of information about the different ages and stages of childhood. Watching programs aimed at a specific age child can reveal much about the interests and abilities of that age. A morning with the PBS channel’s Barney and his friends. Mister Rogers, or the Teletubbies may not raise your level of intelligence, but it will provide some insight into what interests preschoolers. Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and other early morning shows for preschoolers give way in the afternoon to programming for older children. And, of course, if you want to immerse yourself in teen lore, try a day of MTV or some of WB’s designed-with-teens-in-mind programming. (USA Today reports that half of all teen-girl viewers on Wednesday nights are watching WB’s Dawson’s Creek.)

Learning what’s appropriate and effective in teaching different ages isn’t all you need to do to endear yourself to the teacher who stands on your institutional doorstep with her class in a tidy row behind her. It’s important, too, to understand something about the normal, and not-so-normal, fears of childhood. Many children are wary of the unknown and of change, and your institution may represent both. It’s important, therefore, to very quickly “break the ice” by introducing yourself and giving your visitors a brief run-down of the plans for the tour. They need to know at once what to expect, where the restrooms are located, where the bus will pick them up, and that you or other docents whom you introduce will be with them for the entire tour.

Most of today’s children have been warned repeatedly to avoid strangers. And, there you stand. A stranger! Some, too, bring with them a fear of adults or of people of different racial or ethnic background. Again, a quick introduction is important. A few moments to establish that you are known by the classroom teacher and to point out that you are wearing a uniform, of sorts, or an official namebadge may help to blunt some of the fear many younger children may bring with them. With small children, docents often make themselves less intimidating by sitting on the floor or crouching down when talking to the group. A pleasant, friendly smile and manner are still the best ways to help children lose their fear of you.

Children may be afraid of some of the exhibits you plan to show them, and your tour may be a wonderful opportunity to help them conquer their fears.

Many of the children (and teachers) participating in the Camp Tyler program begin to lose their fear of snakes when, before the nature trail hike, they have an “up-close and personal” encounter with a harmless corn snake. They should not, however, lose their healthy respect for exhibits that might harm them. So, in addition to learning that our corn snake is the only snake any of us touch, one of the first observation lessons helps children distinguish between poison ivy and the equally prevalent, but harmless, Virginia creeper.

Many of the exhibits that children are afraid of are not inherently dangerous. Children from southern Louisiana, with its high water table where even graves are built above ground, often have their first encounter with a basement at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Some are reluctant to go “down in that hole” where art activities await them. Historic sites that include cemetery activities also encounter superstitious fear of the dead from some children. Art and anthropology museums with collections of masks and other tribal regalia may engender fear among their touring children. A zoo’s animals may be frightening to some youngsters. In all such cases, part of the responsibility of the docent is to recognize that such fears exist. It is not helpful to tell a frightened child, “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or “Don’t be silly!” It is much more productive to acknowledge that many people are afraid of the object or situation and offer explanations and activities that help the child overcome the fear. No child (or teacher) is ever forced to touch Camp Tyler’s corn snake, but those who conquer their fear long enough to touch receive a quiet compliment. On rare occasions when the fear is too great, the docent must be prepared to offer less frightening alternatives or ask the classroom teacher to escort the child to another area. This latter choice, of course, must be done without ridiculing or embarrassing the child in front of his classmates.

The teacher who brings her class to your institution also welcomes some empathy from the docents who will work with her children. Sensitivity to the challenges some children encounter on a daily basis can make a docent a more effective teacher. Empathy can help docents avoid rushing to judgment about the cultural, economic, and educational background different children bring to the museum experience.

Some of the children who visit the Camp Tyler nature program are not physically conditioned for a one-hour hike. We take a break halfway through the program, and teachers are asked to provide a nutritious snack (such as fruit or graham crackers)for their class. Having one snack for everyone solves Several potential problems. Every child has something to eat, and we have the opportunity for a lesson on waste reduction, an important part of the conservation goal of the program.

Teachers bring their classes to your institution for the programs you offer. They will come again and again if you demonstrate that you share a willingness to make the needs of their children a priority.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “The Way to a Teacher’s Heart…is Through Her Kids,” 8.3 (Spring 1999): 16-17.

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