June 30 was my last day working as a preschool teacher. I’ve spent the last year pouring into 23 children, trying to teach them all that they needed to know while also showing them love and support as we navigated the pandemic together. It was a surreal experience, and a role I never imagined myself in. And even though the early childhood education system will most likely never see me again, it’s been an adventure that I am tremendously grateful for, and most definitely will never forget.
The children were my teachers, just as I was theirs. It may sound like a cliche but when teachers say that their students teach them more than they teach their students, they’re right! I never expected to learn so much from the children but they have taught me incredibly valuable lessons, while also being an escape, a safe place, as we were dealing with the pandemic, a rocky election, and some of the first visible effects of climate change.
What I find even more fascinating is that the humanity and adoration these children expressed is very similar to how we as adults express ourselves. We really don’t change all that much, we just learn bigger words and how to think about our own thoughts.
We really don't change all that much, we just learn bigger words and how to think about our own thoughts
With that being said, I’d like to share what my three year old teachers taught me, since their presence in my life has changed me permanently, for the better.
Children, and humans in general, are loving and understanding naturally. Even if they don't fully understand, they are still forgiving.
The true nature of the children was always happy and curious. Of course they each were their own individual so the extent of that curiosity wasn’t always the same (and some friends had more anxiety than others) but overall they each were thrilled to learn something new (whales and snakes were their favorites). They were always high on life and I could tell that everything was beautiful to them. They deserved to see and experience the world in that manner as well. A majority of them never hit unprovoked, protected our garden and animals, and gave each other gifts. They drew pictures for each other and usually negotiated the shared materials fairly well on their own. When an incident did occur, such as one friend hitting another, I would sit down with them both and we would discuss why our feelings were hurt. Usually it was a simple miscommunication and once we sorted it out, they would apologize to each other and hug before continuing to work together.
This experience mimicked many of my own miscommunications and disagreements in my adult life. Once myself and the other party discussed what happened through our lens and how we felt, we were able to understand each other, forgive and move forward. The children were better at this than many adults I’ve met! It was astounding in an incredible way, and showed me that really we all desire to be seen and understood and respected and that it’s easy to give and receive this if you pause for a moment and just listen to the other person.
Children are healthy communicators when given the correct guidance.
Similar to the first point, the children surprised me many times by their innate ability to compromise and clearly state their feelings. They were usually curious about how others felt too, and they never ever wanted to cause problems or hurt their other friends. But of course, the five year old cannot be left to fend for themself, so I would step in when necessary and guide them through their emotions and help them find the words they needed to express their thoughts. Although usually simple since they were so young, they actually used the guidance and words that I gave them when I wasn’t present in the conversation. They were using their natural ability to compromise and then adding other communication aids that I had provided to effectively maintain and build friendships, socially interact with new friends who came into the classroom, and to solve interpersonal problems that came up. It was incredible. They were really good at it with the right guidance, even more than myself sometimes! And most certainly better than adults. I hope that this is something I have given them that will follow them throughout their lives, and become the mental equivalent of tying a shoe.
It has been revealed to me that I am... a little judgemental.
I had never been a preschool teacher before being hired at my workplace during the pandemic. There were many things I didn’t know, and although I had some experience with children and a degree in their development, nothing could have ever prepared me for what being a teacher is like (spoiler alert: most of the job sucks). One of the very first things I realized is that perhaps I am a little quick to judge others. I would judge them for not putting their shoes on the right feet sometimes or for not knowing how to button their pants or use the soap dispenser (which really bothered me since I was doing everything I could to prevent the spread of germs). After however long, I don’t remember exactly, it dawned on me that they needed to be taught these things. These little actions are so simple and we as adults take them for granted because of their simplicity, therefore we forgot what it was like to not know. What comes as second nature for a grown up is extremely challenging for a toddler. I felt immensely guilty for my irritation after realizing this and always tried to show them kind and gentle instructions with more intention and care after the fact since before I was lacking the understanding and intention that they needed. Soon they ended up taking me for granted (haha!) but it didn’t bother me; I was grateful to be a constant during such important years of their life, in such uncertain and scary times. Perhaps I took them for granted too, because it was only a job until they became my safe space during times that were uncertain and scary for me too. We needed each other throughout the entire time we were together. They were there for me without even knowing, which is another aspect of the experience I hold gratitude for.
We all need and deserve the space to make mistakes. It expands our capacity to be understanding, kind, and forgiving.
The children oftentimes made mistakes. From not listening to directions and missing the learning goal of the activity, to breaking materials and costing the company money. And I often make mistakes in my life too, such as applying for a teaching position when I knew before I even finished college that I didn't want to be a teacher. But every time we make a mistake, we gain valuable knowledge about ourselves and the world and are able to maneuver new territory with more tools in our toolbelt that can help lead us to success and contentment.
I quickly learned that becoming angry or irritated when the children made mistakes didn't actually teach them anything. Every time they objectively failed, it was an opportunity to teach them something. Of course they are small children and some lessons didn't stick and there were many times where some children and I would be having the same discussions on a regular basis (there was one child who purposefully killed insects and butterflies despite multiple times of many teachers telling him that was wrong and not okay). But there was such beauty in their growth, and my own, when moments of failure or disappointment could be used to teach them how to do better next time. And just like grown ups, the children always wanted to do the right thing but they couldn't if they didn't know what that was.
Their emotional capacity, understanding of relationships and social norms, kindness towards others, and empathy grew every time I took a breath and gave these things to them. Most times I attempted to take advantage of learning experiences, there were positive changes seen afterwards. This mindset can be applied to grown ups too. There is always room for growth, we can do better in some areas, and in terms of employment and interpersonal relationships, being given the space to make mistakes allows us to grow our capacities in understanding, kindness, and forgiveness for ourselves and others.
Working as a preschool teacher during one of the most challenging times we have ever been through was nothing short of a trial, but there were many moments of joy, love, appreciation, and growth. These invaluable lessons have blessed my own life, and I hope the insight and unconditional love that the children gave me can be spread throughout all of my interactions. And now yours too, after reading this piece on the precious life lessons from three year olds.
Maren Hoflund MT HHP, is a massage therapist and holistic health practitioner based in San Diego. This her self created space where she explores topics such as mental and physical health, self care, spirituality, and child development; in addition to her poetry and prose.