What face am I making?
Stepping into this school year, opening in November after many weeks of percolating and gestating, I felt a great deal of concern over how we would all be able to communicate, emote, and thrive in classroom life while wearing masks. I did not even consider supporting a classroom without a mask, but I did experience a palpable sense of dread over my ability to tolerate it while striving to connect and build community with very young children.
How much time and attention will be required to tend to the children’s ability to manage their masks ? How well will I acclimate to teaching while wearing a mask? How will we connect with the children and support them in building connection to one another with limited access to each other’s expressions, facial nuances and clarity of speech? How will we sing or laugh as much as we’d like? Will we be slogging along managing COVID protocols and find the early childhood classroom experience to be overly compromised by these new safety mandates? Will masks on children come with fears about the coronavirus and and stories from the adult world about death and hospitals and isolation? How will I answer those questions and create a feeling of safety at the same time? Will I be able to pivot from a place of planning and studying COVID safety policy restrictions to noticing the gifts and opportunities? Will I be able to lead?
We opened our doors to return to in-person, pandemic-modified beginning school, and each morning, as the children arrived, I witnessed their joy. Our shared social engagement as a community completely outshone the inconvenience of the children’s “mask experience.” Not only have I been surprised by their adaptability, but also their patience, humor and generosity. We ask even more questions about the children’s feelings and perspectives because we can no longer rely on the grimace or smile that now is hidden beneath the mask. We ask for children to verbally repeat themselves, to speak and sing even louder, and to turn and listen more closely to us when we also need to repeat ourselves during times that our words can not be heard.
What of the moments when we truly feel unsure? Where do we lean when we are skirting on the edge of discomfort? I found myself sitting with a child on the Morning Meeting rug as our meeting concluded and the class dispersed to various activities and provocations awaiting them around the classroom. This child had not yet made a choice on where he would like to start his play. Or perhaps he had, and was experiencing an obstacle or moment of confusion? From what little I could see of his face, and further challenged by the steadily whirring air filtration system that blanketed his quiet voice, I could not easily tell what was happening for this child. I did not feel I could offer an authentic suggestion or invitation. I was stuck and muffled in my senses and thoughts. I could feel my own fatigue as the clarity of the present moment evaded me. It wasn’t such a big terrible moment, really, but an accumulation of many of these small moments that now led me to feel loss and uncertainty.
I noticed a child’s quote up on our classroom wall, saying, “When you’re stuck, you can do something different, or ask someone to help!” These ideas that are fostered and articulated within the school community are not just meant for the children, but for us all. Another piece of text displayed in one of the hallways reads,
“How will we remain alongside of the children in genuine curiosity and wonder?
How will we frame the questions we ask to foster children’s innate disposition for inquiry, discovery, poetry and beauty?
How will we stay open to possibilities and responsive, yet resistant to the temptation to follow a path that keeps the adults in the lead and in a place of certainty?”
This might be what learning alongside one another could look like. In a bare bones vulnerable place of reaching out, rather than speaking from a place where I assuredly stand a few steps ahead, I said, “ You know, with these masks on, I am not always so sure about what friends are saying or feeling.” I have been asking children questions for years, and intentionally casting light upon my noticings to create opportunities for connection. In that moment on the rug I felt unsure, hindered by our masks as well as the steady whir of the air filtration system further challenging my listening.
The child responded by looking at me, and so I continued, “ Right now, I am wondering about what might be happening inside that mask!” His eyes began to smile, and then I asked, “Do you know how I am feeling?” The child’s eyes smiled bigger and he replied, “I look at your eyes!” We proceeded to play a game of “Guess How I am Feeling”, or “What Face am I Making?” And then, without much warning, he rose up looking confident and relaxed, and made his way over to the clay table.
This surrender into actively connecting with the ideas and documentation shared by fellow teacher-researchers, as well as an open-ended playful moment with a child, was the way through. In the midst of this historic and challenging experience, we are leaning even harder into co-researching and co-creating together, and playful inquiry continues to help us make meaning and find our footing. I did not plan on revealing my own bewilderment so that I could be in an authentic relationship with a child in my class, and yet by unmasking my uncertainties some of the fog was able to clear on that day.