Wondering what the coop preschool experience is like from the perspective of a parent? How about one that’s not only new to Seattle but also new to the United States?! Nikki is one of the parents in our 3-5s Class, and she wrote two posts about her experience in our coop preschool on her personal blog Spiralling Onwards. Here is the second of her two posts. The first can be found here. This article was reprinted with permission from Spiralling Onwards.
Last week I learned how to read a tide chart, so that I could help my five-year-old son’s preschool teacher plan a trip to the beach at low tide. A few weekends ago, I spent most of my Saturday cleaning the preschool, following strict instructions including carefully making up my own bleach solution. And every Wednesday morning I work there, helping to supervise the children and leading a small group activity such as a simple game or craft. Welcome to the world of the ‘co-op parent’…
Last week I wrote a post about our co-operative preschool and what a great environment it is for our 5-year-old son. It’s turned out to be a positive experience for me too. Working at the preschool once a week means I get to see first-hand how he is getting on there and what he’s up to, and it’s been a lovely bonding opportunity for me & him to ‘go to school’ together. I’ve also enjoyed watching him become more independent: the first few times I worked, he wouldn’t leave my side for the whole morning; now I often find myself occupied with other children for long periods while he plays happily on the other side of the room. Getting to know the other children has been rewarding too – they’re an adorable bunch, and it’s been fun to watch as they’ve noticeably grown up over the last few months. (I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing how the extremely cute show and tell sessions have progressed beyond nervous mumbling, with most of the children now solemnly agreeing when the teacher asks whether they are “available for questions or comments” from their friends afterwards, leading to some charmingly surreal exchanges.) For me, it’s also great to have an opportunity to watch American parents interacting with the children – if nothing else, I’ve been able to learn the US usages of words like “smart” & “silly”, and pick up some of the local parenting norms before making embarrassing mistakes at the playground.
There are drawbacks too, of course. When we looked around, all the parents I spoke to were careful not to downplay the time commitment involved: as well as the weekly in-class time, there are occasional cleaning duties, fundraising, monthly parent meetings, and an admin ‘job’. Although this is my only ‘work’ outside the home at the moment, it still felt daunting to commit to a preschool offering only 4 short sessions per week (significantly less than our son was already doing in Luxembourg last year) – especially with the requirement that I’d be working at one of the 4 sessions. However, when one parent mentioned that some people really throw themselves into the identity of ‘co-op parent’, even the downside sounded quite appealing: as a newcomer to Seattle, a ready-made local identity (complete with a set of ‘colleagues’ to get to know and a firm requirement to leave the house in the evening for 2 hours of adult conversation once a month) sounded pretty good…
I remember visiting other early learning environments (our daughter’s excellent Foundation unit in the UK springs to mind) and marvelling at how the teachers manage to elicit cooperation without ever losing their cool. This year feels like an opportunity to see at least part of how that magic happens: right from the very first time that the children walked through the door and were told that “we wash our hands before we play”, they’ve been receiving clear, simple messages, building up habits and patterns gradually until most of the expectations of the daily routine have become automatic even for the three-year-olds in the class. I’ve been inspired by this to make some changes at home, e.g. taking on a challenge I’d let drift for far too long: bed making. After announcing that this was going to be added to our morning routine, and persisting for a week or two even on days when we were running late, I’m now finding that when I call out “Have you made your beds?”, I typically hear at least one “Yes”.
The greatest eye-opener for me, however, has been participating in a co-operatively run enterprise. Although it can sometimes throw up interesting challenges (like a sometimes patchy institutional memory as a new set of parents come in each year), I think that the co-op model has the potential to bring out the best in people: there is no “them” in charge who we can assume will take responsibility, just “us” pulling together to make it work. Working collectively as a group has made me more aware of the power of my choices to affect other people – being late on your working day could mean a whole class of parents wasting their time waiting to be able to drop their children off, whereas volunteering to step in when a working parent is sick means those same parents don’t have to rearrange their plans because preschool is cancelled. People have stepped up to take on additional admin jobs when needed, cover other parents’ maternity leaves, and help out on field trips. When extra work was needed to make our preschool space usable before Christmas, everyone pulled together to do the extra cleaning duties, because it was our children we were working for. The parents are a friendly & helpful group – people help each other out with care swaps for younger siblings, lifts home, picking children up when someone’s unwell, and generally looking out for each other.
One of the most important tasks after an international move is to find some sense of community, and a way of connecting with people living in your new home. For me, joining the preschool co-op has been one of my most positive steps in that direction.