Katherine K. Varughese, Kindergarten teacher, offers the latest installment in the From Theory to Practice series. A faculty member at Browning since 2005, she earned an M.A. from Bank Street College of Education and a B.A. from Sweet Briar College. Ms. Varughese is a recipient of the School's Sabet Award for Excellence in Teaching.
When I began working at Browning with Kindergarten boys in 2005, I was fresh out of graduate school and so excited to be joining the Browning community. Having been trained at Bank Street College of Education for my master’s degree, I came from a progressive pedagogy and was eager to apply all that I had learned to my new classroom. I quickly discovered that the foundations of my training were sound, but that on a daily basis I had to rely more on quick thinking and common sense – coupled with the advice of my colleagues and mentors – than any theory set out in academic readings. Gradually, I began to meld what I had been trained to do in a somewhat idealistic higher education setting with the practicalities of an everyday early childhood classroom. Teaching, I discovered, was a compromise of training/ principles and understanding the dynamics/nuances of one’s own community comprised of a unique mix of learners and families. Additionally, it quickly became evident that flexibility, a sense of humor, kindness and compassion must underlie all parts of the school day, whether addressing the academic curriculum or the myriad of interactions and relationships that comprise the make-up of any active and vibrant classroom community.
As the years progressed, I discovered that I loved watching our newest writers find their voices as storytellers in Writer’s Workshop. I felt the excitement of each young reader realizing they could unlock the power of meaning conveyed through words. And, I was amazed at how each student could problem solve during a math lesson in ways that were truly his own. Over the course of a school year, our youngest Browning boys might come to Browning in September without mastery over sound/symbol correspondence, be unfamiliar with number recognition, or perhaps even struggle with holding a pencil correctly. And, almost always, by June these boys had progressed and improved to a place that gave them a sense of pride and accomplishment.
This academic progression was something consistent that I saw throughout the years. This isn’t to say that there were not boys who struggled or had challenges. And, certainly, when those challenges arose so did an opportunity to overcome and demonstrate perseverance. However, I began to realize that the boys who were fortunate enough to attend Browning and who were surrounded by supportive adults to help foster their development would almost certainly become adults who could read, write and problem solve with an overall level of competency and skill.
What became less clear to me in my teaching is whether each child would leave Browning as a young adult with admirable character and a steady moral compass? Would the boys be kind adults who showed empathy, respect and decency towards all individuals, regardless of how they differed in life experiences? While the academic development of each of my students is always in the forefront of my mind, it is the question I posed above that truly weighs on my heart as an educator. In fact, I would say this responsibility to teach a child to be empathetic and kind to others has evolved into my greatest concern as an educator. Our boys and eventually our young men who walk beyond the red doors at Browning have a tremendous opportunity as adults to make significant contributions to our communities and to be upstanding citizens who make a positive change in a world that often, in my view, seems off-kilter.
This thought was particularly poignant last year as I watched my first group of Kindergarten boys leave Browning as a graduating class. I had very specific memories of each young man I had either taught or who had attended Browning during his Kindergarten year. There was the young man who devoted the majority of his Kindergarten year to baking imaginary desserts for me at his Fancy Cakes Bakery constructed weekly in the block area. There was another young man who surprised me with an impromptu hand-painting exhibit on the play deck windows shortly before Winter Break began. And, of course, there was the young man who throughout the years always stopped to say “Hello” and “How are you today, Ms. Kummer?” My great hope for all of these graduating young men, as well as for the incoming Browning Kindergarten boys and all those in between, is that they learn to not just be thinkers in the academic sense but that they learn to think beyond themselves and embrace others in a way that is reflective of the values we hope to instill in them at Browning.
In closing, I began my career as an educator solely based on theory, but gradually I developed a teaching style based on practice as well. This practice led me to believe that one of the greatest lessons I can teach a student is to be kind and to open his mind to the experience of others. From this foundation of kindness and respect, I hope our students can thrive as critical thinkers, curious explorers and lifelong learners. I hope our Browning boys can touch others throughout life in a way that is decent and good.