Stepping into a pre-kindergarten classroom is like crossing the threshold into an imaginarium full of vibrant colors, inquisitive chatter, calming music, and the warm buzz of endless energy.
Backpacks and sweaters hang in a row by the door. The walls are plastered with drawings pinned up by proud, aspiring artists alongside bright instructional posters introducing letters and numbers. Shelves of picture books crowd the room.
Scattered throughout are buckets of legos, markers, crayons, playdough, puzzles, magnifying glasses, iPads, etc. A large open floor space leaves plenty of room for the kids to do what they do best – move around.
This space – part sanctuary, part circus – is distinct from the rest of the school and perfectly designed to meet the needs of a 4-year-old exploring his or her world.
But a classroom is just a space. It’s the pre-k teacher who creates a home away from home and an environment where foundational early learning takes root.
“In an effective pre-k classroom, the first thing you would see would be a lot of activity that is organized and directed by the teacher and a lot of engagement on the part of the kids,” says Dr. Robert C. Pianta, a nationally recognized early childhood education expert and Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “It would be a classroom in which it is very evident the kids like what they’re doing, there’s a level of energy, and the teacher is engaged with the children – not just with the group, but also with each individual child – moving around the room, involved with conversation, stretching them along.”
Pre-k teachers adapt and integrate their instruction throughout the day to a host of activities and structures. At times the teacher leads whole group activities. During other periods the teacher works with a small group of kids on structured lessons such as math or literacy skills. Moving through “stations,” kids engage in lively play and exploration – touching, smelling, listening, and seeing. The teacher moves about the room right there with the kids, giving feedback and support so they get the most out of each activity, whether writing the alphabet or molding playdough.
“Good early childhood education involves a teacher engaging kids almost on the fly, in conversation that stretches kids’ thinking, in activities that draw their attention into learning new concepts,” Pianta says. “That happens in a fluid way in a classroom setting.”
James Butler, pre-k teacher at Gullett Elementary in Austin ISD, may not fit the typical pre-k instructor profile. He is male and decorated in tattoos. He is also warm, patient, and encouraging – loved by his students, and highly regarded by his district. In 2014 he was recognized as the AISD Elementary School Teacher of the year. “I am most proud of being able to create and sustain a feeling of community full of trust and love with all of my students and their families no matter their background,” Butler says. This video provides a window into Butler’s classroom, showing what effective student-teacher interactions look like in a pre-k environment. Learn more about Austin ISD’s pre-k program, including their recent expansion of the Pre-K3 offering to 13 additional campuses.
In his 2014 research report Pre-kindergarten for the Modern Age: A Scalable, Affordable, High-Quality Plan for Texas Pianta identifies several essential elements of a high-quality pre-k program. Of these elements, teachers matter most.
“Far and away, teachers and their actions account for the majority of students’ achievement gains in early learning,” Pianta writes. “Increasing the quality of teachers’ interactions with children might be one of the highest-impact investments for improving pre-k.”
That’s huge, when according to Pianta, studies estimate the short-term (one-year) impact of early learning programs to be about half the poverty achievement gap.
Pre-kindergarten students are eager for understanding. They soak up everything around them. They deserve to be taught by the brightest and most caring educators who look them in the eye when they talk and listen to them as though they are the only one in the room. Teachers who compliment, support, and push them while introducing structure, discipline, and a culture of high expectations.
Pre-k teachers are charged with closing achievement gaps, developing kids’ socio-emotional skills, and sparking a lifelong love of learning.
The research is clear about the essential elements of a high-quality pre-k program – and strong teachers make the biggest difference.