Every teacher has an age group that they gravitate towards, those children who go right to the gooey center of a teacher’s heart. An age that they just “get” while other adults may struggle to understand their moods and behaviors. For me, that group is toddlers. Yes, they have drippy noses, sticky fingers, and require constant supervision; but I love their determination, their newly acquired independence, and their sense of wonder. Toddlers live in the moment, they remind us of how truly extraordinary our world is; a soap bubble, a spinning top, or a wisp of cotton floating in the air, demand that we pause in awe and pay attention to all of the wonderful and fascinating things around us. However, their new-found independence, lack of impulse control, and curiosity, combined with a lack of knowledge of consequences, lead to their intractable nature and their mercurial temperament. It’s these characteristics that make a teacher with the stamina and patience to spend their day surrounded by toddlers so hard to find. However, extraordinary toddler teachers do exist, and I recently sat down with one of my favorite toddler teachers, Olya, to ask her how she does it.
Olya is a mother, a teacher, and a speaker of multiple languages. She grew up in the Republic of Moldova, a tiny Eastern European country, that I had never heard of before I met her. When I worked with Olya, I was amazed by her ability to put parents at ease. I observed her greeting new infant and toddler families and helping them feel comfortable with the huge transition of putting their child in group care. Olya is not one to sugar-coat things, she is honest and tells it like it is, but she is able to do so with compassion and grace. Her lived experience as a mother and teacher informs her pedagogy and young children thrive in her care. Read on to learn more about this fascinating teacher, her advice for new parents, and why she decided to raise a multi-lingual child.
Background and Education
In 2005, Olya was living in Moldova, where she earned her degree in Business Administration. Growing up, Olya had dreamed of being a teacher, but teaching was not considered a profession that could provide for her and her family. Under pressure, she started her career in business. Olya was the first product manager of a new company based in Germany and was enjoying a successful career when she received word that she would be moving to the United States. At the time, Olya did not speak English and she didn’t know what life would look like for her and her husband in America.
Olya’s first observations of Seattle, Washington was that everything was super-sized and she was unsure where she would fit into this vast metropolis. However, Olya’s host family from Moldova let her know that she could become an early education teacher working with young children. Olya prepared for job interviews by learning as much English as she could, rehearsing a few sentences about herself over and over and practicing introductions. A parent whose child attended Bright Horizons Family Solutions suggested she apply there. Olya furiously scribbled six pages of notes, painstakingly translating them into English, and preparing for an interview. With time spent answering interview questions and interacting with children in classrooms, it was her longest interview ever. Olya impressed the director and once her references and background check had come back, she was offered a position working with toddlers.
Olya’s husband was concerned that working with young children would make her not want to have kids. After all, it’s difficult to take care of children eight hours a day and want to continue taking care of kids once you get home. In Moldova, Olya’s doctors had told her she would have trouble having children and if she wanted kids, she should get started right away. But with school, starting a career, moving to another country, and then looking for work, it had never been the right time. Now with everything finally settled, Olya and her husband were ready to start a family and soon Olya discovered she was pregnant.
Olya’s first trimester was difficult; in addition to nausea, she had frequent headaches and was often tired. Working with toddlers is exhausting, it is being in constant motion. There are the diaper changes, cuddles, handwashing, dance parties, cleaning, nose wiping, playground time, and meals. Even during nap time, teachers are cleaning up from lunch, washing dishes, rubbing backs, drying tears, sending notes and photos to parents, and planning for the afternoon. Every toddler teacher knows that sometimes, as soon as the last toddler falls asleep, the first toddler wakes up. There is rarely an opportunity to sit down, as it’s a job of bending, lifting, carrying children, and helping herd them back and forth. With the physical demands of working with toddlers overwhelming her, Olya made the transition to working in an infant room. A few months later, Olya and her husband welcomed a new baby girl to their family. Now, when Olya works with new families, she has the perspective of being both a teacher and a mom. She knows first-hand what it’s like to return to work and understands what that transition is like. I asked Olya some questions about working with young children and what parents need to know.
Sky: how can families help prepare their toddler for child care?
Olya: give your children more freedom at home and help them develop independence and self-help skills. It’s important that your child has experience doing things for themselves. Take your child outside and let them explore nature, schedule play dates with other families, give children an opportunity to interact with peers. Children learn from watching others, they need a chance to interact and observe other children to learn to socialize and make friends.
Sky: what should families be doing to help their child adjust to group care?
Olya: parents need to prepare their children, but they also need to prepare themselves. If you are nervous, your child will pick up on your anxiety and become anxious themselves. Be calm, keep your heart from racing, stay positive. Even though your child might not understand your words, talk to them and narrate what will happen. “We are getting ready to go to school. Your teacher will love you and care for you. Mommies and Daddies always come back.” Don’t linger, tell your child you are leaving, give them a hug and a kiss, and leave. You can ask the teacher for help if you want assistance passing your child to them, but remember they may be assisting other children at the moment. It’s okay if your child cries, don’t stay to watch them or try to wait for them to stop crying. You must trust their teacher and know that they will help your child adjust to group care. You can wait around the corner, watch your child from where they can’t see you, call the teacher later in the day. The longer you wait, the more anxiety your child will feel, it’s important that you leave so that your child can begin to learn they are in a safe place where they will be loved and cared for.
Sky: what skills are young children learning at school?
Olya: children are learning social skills and how to communicate with their peers, they are learning independence and self-help skills, and they are learning how to make friends. Children are also learning how to separate from their family and put trust in their caregivers. Children need the security of a nearby adult to feel comfortable exploring the world. Sometimes parents don’t realize how much their child knows how to do. At a center, toddlers quickly learn to feed themselves, they start learning how to eat with utensils, and clean up after themselves. Children in group care get to do messy and creative activities that parents might be reluctant to do at home: painting, play dough, collages, and sensory activities are happening daily at school. Toddlers learn to walk independently. begin climbing stairs, and doing large muscle movement outside. At home, parents might be tired and exhausted, and might use screen time to keep their child busy. At school, children learn from the real world without screen time.
Sky: you and your husband speak multiple languages, what made you decide to raise a multi-lingual daughter?
Olya: we speak English, Russian, Romanian, and German. Our daughter learned Russian at home and as an infant transitioned into an English-speaking program. She also has had the benefit of German language immersion from our time living in Germany. We were never worried about our child speaking multiple languages. In fact, we take pride in the fact that our daughter can express herself in so many languages. We also used sign language to help our daughter express herself as an infant and toddler with some simple signs she learned at home and at school. Our daughter has quickly learned to translate and understand words and concepts in multiple languages. Occasionally, she will mix languages, but she will keep trying when she sees that someone doesn’t understand her words. We want to ensure that she continues to remember the languages she has been exposed to so we continue speaking those words at home and reading books in other languages.
Sky: were you concerned that speaking multiple languages might delay your child’s language development. Did you worry about putting your infant in an English school while she had been exposed to another language at home?
Olya: no. In fact, where I come from, it is normal for people to speak more than one language. Young children are so receptive to learning language, like little sponges. Young children have an ability to recognize sound distinctions and produce new sounds, and an eagerness to develop language that they will never have again. At this point, it’s so important to introduce them to new words and sounds. If you want your child to speak a language like a native, introduce them to that language when they are young.
Sky: thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, you have so much experience and knowledge of child development and family dynamics. You are an amazing teacher and co-worker and I miss working with you and I appreciate you sharing your expertise with me today.