Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
Lauren Kahn is used to spending her whole day on the floor. She works at the Queens Center for Progress, teaching nonverbal 3- and 4-year-olds with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, several of whom have visual impairments as well. The class is hands-on, to say the least—they sing, they play, they practice communicating with body language. Well, they used to.
Instructing her students is an impossible task from afar, so Kahn is trying to teach their parents to teach. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she FaceTimes the parents so that they can put on their children, and on Tuesdays she sends out an email newsletter with exercises for the whole week. The theme of the month is plants; one week, she asked the parents to help their children sort vegetables by color, to see if they can point to the red ones or combine the orange ones.
But the parents aren’t teachers. They have their own jobs to worry about—or worse, are unemployed—and other children to tend to. Much of the time, the parents don’t pick up Kahn’s call, and she’s left to wonder how her students are doing. Sometimes, when she says she’ll call back, she’s told not to bother. She understands—it’s hard on everyone, especially low-income families such as those she typically serves. “They’re burned out,” she told me. So is she. Kahn tries to sing songs to her students over FaceTime so that she can see how they’re responding, but it’s hard to tell whether they even know she’s there; if she gets a smile, it’s a win so big, it’ll have to carry her for days.