Tom Hobson, AKA Teacher Tom, is a father and preschool teacher. He let's kids be kids, takes inspiration from Mister Rogers, and hands young children glue guns. His blog, Teacher Tom, was awarded Best Teacher Blog by the 2010 EduBlog Awards. Please join me in learning more about Tom and his teaching philosophy.
***Note: Readers will have a chance to win Tom's tool of choice, a glue gun, at the end of this interview!***
Teacher Tom, kids'-eye view
JEAN: I love what I see on your blog about your preschool classroom. It seems that you really understand kids – that you just let kids be kids and learn in a way that comes naturally to them rather than trying to mold their learning experiences into more adult-sanctioned styles. Okay, first question. Will you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into teaching and what or who has influenced your teaching style?
TOM: I worked in public relations, then for 15 years as a freelance writer and baseball coach. My wife was always the one with the “career” so being flexible was important as we moved around the US and the Europe, childless, for the first 10 years of our marriage. There wasn’t even a conversation about which of us would stay home when our daughter Josephine was born 14 years ago. When she was two, we found our way into a cooperative preschool. We all loved that I got to work in the classroom with the kids, teacher, and other parents — it created such a sense of connection and community.
As Josephine entered her third and final year of preschool, her teacher, Chris David asked me, “What are you going to do when she’s in kindergarten full time?” I’d sort of unthinkingly assumed that I’d go back to knocking on doors trying to sell writing services, but when I thought about her question the idea of sitting in front of a computer all day looked like a grim prospect. Chris then suggested I think about teaching preschool. I started taking classes, but even before I’d earned a degree, I was hired at Woodland Park, and that’s where I’ve been for the past 9 years.
Chris David is easily the greatest influence on me as a teacher. Our classroom styles couldn’t be more different, but my schedule, most of my songs, the core of my art projects, and my classroom set up comes directly from her. And there is no doubt that my background coaching baseball has greatly informed my teaching. From the time I was 14 until I was nearly 40, there was almost always a baseball team in my life, with players ranging in age from 4 to 30. It’s where I learned to lead large groups engaged in communal endeavors. You hear lots of sentences that begin with, “Come on, everybody, let’s . . .” around our classroom.
And, of course, Mister Rogers was a great, great man, from whom I continue to take inspiration.
JEAN: Your preschool has a very different look and feel from most preschools (that I’m familiar with anyway). Can you talk about this?
TOM: Well, since I only have experience in co-op classrooms, I have no first hand experience with any other kind! That said, from what I know, I don’t think I’d be capable of teaching in any other kind of school!
As for the “feel” of our school, that comes out of the cooperative model, which incorporates parents into the day-to-day classroom. In our 3-5’s class we’ll have 6-8 parents working with me on a typical day, and in the Pre-3 class we often have as many as 12 adults in the room with 20 kids. Obviously, this makes for an incredible child:adult ratio and means that I, as the teacher, need to make sure to not waste all that loving parent power by having meaningful things for them to do with the kids. Like many schools we run “stations” – art, drama, blocks, table toys, sensory, snack – but in a co-op we have the “man power” to put a parent-teacher in charge of keeping those stations running smoothly, while still having adults handy for the important roles of helping children through conflicts, recovering from owies, or just having a lap to sit on if that’s what they need.
I suppose the other thing that gives our school a special feel is our play-based curriculum, meaning that we start from the premise that play is the natural way for children to learn about their world. It’s a child-directed, child-centered way of learning, one that results in the adults scrambling to keep up, which, of course, is much different that a traditional school where the teacher is in charge of everything.
As for the physical aspects of our school, I always say that the more like a garage it is, the better. Several years ago the parents wanted to raise funds to install a new floor to replace our old, worn, permanently stained linoleum one. I asked them to raise money for something else because I didn’t want to be responsible for taking care of a nice new floor! I like a place where paint spatters, mud, bangs and dings aren’t something to worry about. I finally agreed to new rugs, but only with the stipulation that no one would complain if we got them messy.
We made a decision last year to transform our outdoor space into an “outdoor classroom.” This meant getting rid of our traditional “climbers" and slides, and replacing them with a giant sand pit, a cast iron water pump, a workbench complete with real tools and scrap lumber, a garden, a bunch of tree rounds to define spaces, and lots and lots of what we call “loose parts,” like sticks, rocks, corks, bottle caps, figurines, buckets, containers, boxes, florist marbles, parts of broken things, you name it. A few adults have complained it looks like a junkyard, but I guarantee that’s not how children see it – they see magic.
JEAN: How do you try to encourage your students’ creativity and creative thinking?
TOM: I don’t know that I do anything special to encourage creativity other than to let them be responsible for their own learning. Creativity is the natural state of a child’s brain (I suspect that’s true of the human brain in general) and all you need to do is provide them with a variety of interesting materials and stimulating information.
Creativity, it seems to me, is something traditional schools spend a great deal of energy trying to iron out of kids in the effort to get them to “behave,” sit down, and conform. I like the children of Woodland Park to be all “wrinkly,” make their own rules (literally, all of our rules are made by the children), on their feet, and doing whatever stimulates their magnificent brains.
I suppose if I do any one thing to encourage creativity, it’s to role model imperfection, making mistakes. That’s where the learning takes place.
JEAN: What are your favorite art activities to do with your students? What are your favorite art materials for the classroom?
TOM: Hoo, that’s a hard one. I suppose that your basic tempera paint and construction paper are the two things we go through the fastest. We also nearly always have tape, scissors and a stapler handy.
I think what I love best of all is using glue guns with the kids. A lot of schools ban them because of the worry about burns – and the kids do burn themselves – but for most of the children, that’s a very small price to pay for the power of using that tool. Glue really limits them to horizontal creation, collage-like pieces. Maybe if they are very patient and work over many days, they can get into making 3-D art, but with a glue gun it’s instant. They envision a tower or a house or whatever and bam, bam, bam they can make it. Usually we use cardboard or wood scraps. I love watching the children create with glue guns, they concentrate so hard, and are so proud of what they've made.
And more often than not, even when a child burns him or herself, they’re right back at it the moment the pain has subsided. I’ll never forget the day my friend Lachlan burned himself. I heard a huge wail come up from the workbench where he was working with his mom. I asked, “Did you burn yourself?” Through his tears he answered, “I burned myself because I wasn’t paying attention.” Oh, to be so young and to already understand the importance of being responsible for yourself.
JEAN: You’re also the author of A Parent’s Guide to Seattle. That must have been fun to write! Can you talk about the process of exploring the city with children in mind?
TOM: That was quite awhile ago. I was hired to write the book because I was the former communications manager of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, a father, and a preschool teacher (just hired and hadn’t worked a day, but I didn't tell the publisher that).
I love Seattle. My wife and I have traveled all over the world and there is no place I’d rather live. The research part was fun and easy. But honestly, the writing process was miserable. I wore out the thesaurus finding new ways to saying something was “a blast,” “a hoot,” or “a grand old time.” I’m proud of the book, but the only thing I ever wrote that was more challenging was the time I was hired to write marketing biographies of 82 orthopedic surgeons.
JEAN: What are your favorite books or resources about early childhood education?
TOM: Blogs. There are so many blogs that inspire and inform me everyday. Yours, of course is brilliant. I’m also a big reader of Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning, Let The Children Play, Filth Wizardry, atelierista, Marla McLean, Teach Preschool, Get Your Mess On!, I’m A Teacher, Get Me OUTSIDE Here!, Pink And Green Mama, The Living Classroom, Leaves & Branches, Trunks & Roots . . . Oh, and so many more. I hate listing blogs because I know I’ll leave someone important out.
But Mister Rogers is my go-to-guy. I love his Parenting Resource Book. He keeps everything so simple, so straight forward, so practical. He never makes you feel like you need to be perfect, just loving; just loving, that really is enough.
I often spend an afternoon just watching episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on the internet. I recommend that to anyone who works with young children. I recommend it to anyone even if they don't.
JEAN: Thank you, Tom! I think we all need to remember that about not needing to be perfect — that being loving is enough.
***Glue Gun Giveaway***
Readers who leave a comment to this post by Thursday, March 16th at 12 midnight EST will be entered into a random drawing for a dual-temperature hot glue gun. You know you want one!
The random number generator picked #48, so Sheryl wins the glue gun. Congrats, Sheryl!
I wish we had a co-op preschool in our area! And thanks for introducing us to Teacher Tom! Can't wait to read his blog!