“I am a perfectionist, but I don’t want to be one,” says Kelsey Lepa, a recent graduate whose first teaching position is at Willow & Sprout in St. Anthony, Minnesota. “I like to plan and I like to know outcomes. I was taught in school that that is what you are supposed to do when you are educating children. That is what teachers do. We write lesson plans. We know where our lessons are going. We know what the children will get out of it by the end of the lesson.” Willow & Sprout is different; their work with children centers on project-based learning opportunities. They believe in the inherent curiosity of children and they give the children the space and time to follow their own curiosity.
Kelsey knew she didn’t want to teach within a traditional American educational environment. From the moment of her interview she knew she wanted to be at Willow & Sprout, but being there meant being very uncomfortable as a teacher who was taught to plan. “It was overwhelming, very overwhelming, especially as a new teacher in my first job. You want to do well and doing well to me was writing perfect lesson plans and knowing exactly what was going to happen.” The time spent reflecting on her work and the collaboration with the other teachers helped her get past being overwhelmed.
Jen Johnson is the school’s director and Kelsey’s teaching partner. “Jen and the other teachers were very supportive. I kept wanting to go back to lesson plans and Jen would say that I could use lesson plans if I wanted to, but she would challenge me to go without. During the day or during our weekly meeting, my fellow teachers would ask me, how did that go? Or how did that feel? What did you notice? What did you learn?”
Kelsey discovered the importance of really listening to children. She also discovered how to be more comfortable with being vulnerable, listening to and trusting herself. “Teaching is such a giving job. You need to take care of yourself. It is so important to know what you are bringing into the equation on any given day so that you can be ready to listen and learn alongside the children. In the beginning I had a lot of self-doubt. This way of teaching seemed hard and not clear. Checking in with myself and knowing how I feel and where I am coming from helped with the self-doubt and allowed me to become a better teacher.”
Kelsey doesn’t feel overwhelmed anymore. She does still feel vulnerable, but knows that that is an important part of teaching. She said that support from her fellow teachers, self-reflection and collaborative reflection help her use that feeling. Kelsey has learned to trust herself and the children.
She has also embraced being a researcher – and research is never about perfection. “If an exploration doesn’t work, that is ok, maybe try it again on another day or explore it in a different way if the children are interested.” Now, she feels lucky. “This way of teaching has taught me to be knowledgeable and curious about the whole child. I am so grateful that I get to know each child as the unique and curious person that they are."