Over the summer, I had the great fortune to work with a group of kindergarten students in Poland for six weeks. As a volunteer, I taught them basic English as well as Canadian culture, which was an incredibly rewarding experience as they were all so willing to learn and are fascinated with different cultures around the world. Although I was expected to be a teacher, I also learned so much from them because they have such a unique viewpoint— I must have had that viewpoint once, but it is now lost that I am older. Below is a list of important lessons I have learned from these tiny bundles of excitement after reflecting on my experience.
1. Always be curious about everything.
For these children who are roughly five years old, there are still many things in this world that they haven't seen. Naturally, then, they want to know about everything that they don't understand, from simply asking me how to say ordinary every-day stuff in English to questions like why the birds sing the way they do now. Sometimes I was thrown off guard by the questions because I have taken so many things for granted that I never wonder about them - which also means I have lost a lot of opportunities to learn. By being curious, not only will I learn more but I will also observe my surroundings more often and look at the information in front of me more critically instead of just accepting it.
2. Let your imagination run wild.
There are no unwritten rules confining these children's thoughts - no strict expectations on coloring inside the lines or even the color choices themselves. They can create wonderful worlds that we can't think of because we have now been subconsciously told to stay inside the box. Seeing them so happy and entranced by their own imagination during art classes and on the playground, I remind myself to allow my imagination to freely roam from time to time, both for coming up with an alternative solution to problems I face and to be more content with the little things in life.
3. Be honest about your feelings.
We have long been told that negative feelings are unacceptable. Far too often we lie about how we are feeling to avoid confrontations when we are angry or we brush off how sad we are feeling because we don't want to be seen as weak. Here at the kindergarten, however, the children freely ask for comfort when they are feeling sad and they talk to the teachers if there are any disagreements that arise between them and the other students. I realize that to truly solve the problems that we are facing, being honest and talking about it would be a lot better than bottling it up or lashing out later on.
4. Songs are a great way to learn.
My typical day in the kindergarten contained an incredible amount of singing. Since I work in a bilingual kindergarten, most of their songs are in English and they show up during meal time, for cleaning up the toys or for learning about concepts like numbers and colors. I often find myself humming the songs subconsciously when I get off work and I can tell that these students remember the lyrics and the concepts of the songs clearly through simple repetition without the teachers going into great details explaining what they mean. If you are stuck on a concept when you're studying, try turning it into a song you're familiar with! It sticks with you, plus it's fun.
5. Give your family a hug from time to time.
The end of the day has always been my favorite moment of the day, not because it means my job is done, but because I get to see the most touching sight of the day. Every time a parent comes to pick up their child, they would run to their parent with the brightest smiles on their faces and rush into their arms. Seeing how happy the families look always warms my heart and reminds me that I should do the same more often: constantly remind my own family that I love them.
6. Try everything.
Besides regular lessons on English and other basic concepts, the kindergarten also invites a lot of teachers to teach a variety of lessons like first aid, dance and music. I have always preferred to sit out and observe what people did instead of taking part in activities myself because I am afraid of making a mistake and embarrassing myself. However, I found that even though these children don't know a lot about what they have to do, they want to try new things anyway. To top it off, they always end up having fun even though sometimes they don't follow the teacher's instructions quite right. Seeing this reminds me to be more open to new experiences because it just might turn out to be great and memorable: to pass them up in fear of mishaps and embarrassment can mean that I miss out on something I could have enjoyed.
7. Look for ways to de-stress other than using your phone.
Using my phone and going on social media has become an almost automatic process for me whenever I have the time. It's relatively low maintenance and easy to lose yourself in when all you have to do is scroll through. This has gotten to the point where I feel uneasy when I don't have my phone with me and sometimes I even find myself not knowing what else to do without it. It is undeniably unhealthy and I became even more aware when I observed the children during their free time. They naturally do not have smartphones of any kind, yet they can thoroughly enjoy a variety of activities like drawing, reading and Legos - all things I realized I used to enjoy, too. Now after the wake-up call, I can be more watchful of my unwinding activities and remind myself to use healthier alternatives.
8. Never be overly preoccupied with your mistakes.
A lot of times, I would turn the scenario over and over in my head after I have done something wrong, be it a failed test or giving the wrong order to a customer while at work. While it is understandable that setbacks can be discouraging, it certainly doesn't help to be so deeply bothered by what I could have done better. Over the course of six weeks, I found stronger resilience in these children. They might still feel somewhat discouraged when they are scolded for their behaviors, but they don't let the fact affect their mood for the rest of the day and they are more aware of what they do the next time to avoid repeating the same mistake. I learned that I should redirect my energy to learning from the experience instead of ruminating on something that I could no longer change.
Going into this volunteer experience, I had expected to learn a lot about the culture and language of this beautiful country. Of course, I believed I would gain skills in teaching young children. And while I did learn about those things, what I didn't expect was that I would end up learning so much about my attitude in life from these young students. I really appreciated having my view challenged by theirs, and I believe now I feel more ready for my second year of college than ever before.