It’s the first day. And although this child has been looking forward to meeting her teachers, she’s somewhat apprehensive. She’s said good-bye to her special person, who she knows (thinks?) will "always come back" (our Temple Sinai Early Childhood Center separation mantra). Now she’s on her own with a bunch of strangers. There are one or two friendly and familiar faces, for which she is grateful, but still she is out there in this new world by herself, navigating new territory, and it’s a little scary.
There are so many unknowns, so many questions. She wonders: How will I know what to do? This place is so big. Will I be able to find my way around? Where are the bathrooms? Will I be comfortable? Do I have everything I need with me? It’s really hot outside, but inside it’s air-conditioned and cold. Is my sweater in my backpack? Will there be something to drink if I’m thirsty? Who will I sit with at lunch? Will I like the food? What is my special person doing while I’m here? Will it be fun? What if I don’t have a good time?
When something horrible happens to one of her friends, she feels alone, and cries. At that moment, she wants nothing more than to be with her family and hold them close.
"This child" could be any one of our children starting school. But really she is me, a toddler teacher who attended the Early Childhood Conference @ CAJE (Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education), compliments of the Jewish Early Childhood Association of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.
It was the first time I had ever been to the conference, this year themed "Engaging ‘1st-Century Jewish Learners." The gathering lived up to its name for at least this Jewish teacher and learner was instantly "engaged." I ran from early morning yoga sessions infused with the wisdom of Jewish teachings to class sessions presented by thoroughly inspiring teachers. Then I stayed to hear intelligent keynote addresses relating Torah text to teaching and for late-night, thought-provoking films. Throughout the conference, I experienced many "light bulb" moments. And yet, as I was processing all of the information I had been given, I began to realize that there was something about the experience itself that was revealing.
The conference took place Aug. 5 through 9 at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. The sprawling campus was beautiful (even at 100 degrees in the shade), and the hard-working CAJE staff really did a great job helping everyone find their way around and keeping everyone hydrated. The teachers were phenomenal, and the people were friendly. The food was surprisingly good. Even so, it was the first time in a long time that I found myself doing something so new on my own, and it was not without trepidation. Then, just as the conference began, I received word from home that a young mother in our community, Nancy Block-Zenna, had lost her valiant fight against an aggressive form of breast cancer.
And all of a sudden it hit me. If I, a grown woman, college graduate, married with two children of my own, who travels quite a lot with her family, had misgivings about being at CAJE, how much more uncertain are the toddlers I teach at our Early Childhood Center when they enter the classroom at the beginning of the school year? And if one of these toddlers is crying or feeling sad, it is the comfort of a loved one he or she seeks, not the reassurance of an (as yet) stranger/teacher.
It’s not that I wasn’t empathetic with the plight of the toddler before; it’s just that I really hadn’t lived a similar experience in some time, at least not since becoming a toddler teacher nine years ago. I hadn’t felt it first-hand. Which also struck me as a little ironicI went to the conference expecting to acquire knowledge, perhaps about developmentally appropriate practice in a Jewish early childhood setting, or to learn some new songs for Shabbat. And I did. However, I also experienced a sort of process-over-product learning, where the very act (process) of going to CAJE provided me with a deeper understanding of the toddlers I teach.
I want you to know that by day two of the conference, I was giving other people directions to buildings on campus, and never ate a meal alone. Like the toddlers who become so comfortable in their class that they can reassure others by saying that "Mommy/Daddy/caregiver always comes back," I had learned the ways of CAJE. And just like our toddlers, who thrive on repetition, the lessons I learned at CAJE are ones that I hope to explore again and again.
Rachel A. Taylor is a toddler teacher at the Temple Sinai Early Childhood Center in Tenafly and a former staff writer for the Jewish Standard.