Teacher Tom on child-led learning

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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!***

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 LearningLet The Children PlayFilth WizardryatelieristaMarla McLeanTeach PreschoolGet Your Mess On!I’m A Teacher, Get Me OUTSIDE Here!Pink And Green MamaThe Living ClassroomLeaves & 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!

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Comments

  1. youclevermonkey says

    I love the idea of co-op classrooms. We’ve been trying to get a kitchen garden program established at my childrens school and struggle to get enough volunteers to each class. It would be fantastic working with that ratio :)

  2. Georgia Monroe says

    Such an interesting and inspiring article. My husband and I talk almost daily on how we will teach our children someday.

  3. says

    LOVING Teacher Tom ~ SO COOL!!!
    similar to my approach to teaching ART.
    I call it Fun Art, as opposed to Fine Art… a fun, creativity messy kind of art kids love! It’s all about self-expression, self-confidence, & pride! oh yeah!
    Teacher Tom, YOU GO!!!!

  4. Jess lee says

    Awesome, two blogs I love coming together. My daughter always asks me if we can see if Maia did any new art.

  5. [email protected] says

    great article very thought provoking

  6. says

    Wonderful!
    I’ve been ‘glued’ to Teacher Tom’s blog. So great to see other males leading the charge for children’s play.
    True inspiration!
    -Jon

  7. says

    A very inspiring article !! Loved the words “one thing to encourage creativity, it’s to role model imperfection, making mistakes”

  8. Lisa F. says

    thanks for this! Teacher Tom’s school sounds like my son’s former preschool, which we miss as he’s trying to adjust to public school kindergarten. this is inspiring me to let our backyard stay messy with a mudpit and other things for him to be creative & messy.

  9. says

    Love it. My almost preschooler has been begging to use the glue gun. My husband doesn’t see the big deal since we let him chop vegetables. Thanks for giving me permission to let loose. I am going to haul out that glue gun!

  10. gardenbug says

    I’m 68 years old and would love to start over with preschool! Better yet though, is playing with my grandchildren! Unfortunately, they live many many miles away. At 22 months, my granddaughter arranges shapes on the refrigerator and shoes in the front hall, paints her yogurt breakfast on her belly, races the dog around the couch, enjoys forward somersaults and delights us all.
    I well remember the year when our son missed Christmas dinner – because he received his first glue gun and new Lego which were more urgent nourishment in his mind!

  11. says

    I use as much inspiration from Teacher Tom (and Mister Rogers, of course!) as I can while I homeschool my two kiddos. We have two glue guns (a big dual-temp and a teeny low-temp) but we could certainly enjoy a third! :)

  12. Maureen says

    What a great teacher! I can’t wait to check out all the blogs he mentioned. Thanks, Maureen (jnomaxx at hotmail dot com). PS. We did your volcano project yesterday and it was a big hit. Thanks!

  13. karla says

    Completely awesome post and interview. So inspiring. I’ve always wanted a glue gun, but never bought one. Now I must–not only for me, but for my kids. I never even thought about how it would open up the possibility to more 3D art projects.
    Thank you so much for the post. Teacher Tom–you are an inspiration. Thanks for listing some of the other inspiring blogs you watch.
    LLMR! (Long Live Mr. Rogers!)

  14. [email protected] says

    That has made my day. And reaffirmed how I feel about early childhood education. Our children attended a similar preschool co-op many years ago. We didn’t even have an inside- just various little covered spaces near a lovely reservoir. If it rained enough we went to a nearby church basement and everyone brought something to share.
    To this day the way I see my own work as a social worker and now a preschool art teacher as guided by the philosophies and practices of that child-centered/play-based learning. My children still remember being supported in using hammers and nails, deciding to paint their whole body etc. My husband and I treasure that time and that community as the sweetest in our life as a family. I made friends for life, learned to sew for the community quilt raffle, and developed such a respect for that age of magical thinking.
    Thank-you to Teacher Tom and to Jean for sharing this.

  15. says

    Oh, this was a welcome read this morning after weeks of dealing with teachers who have mishandled our gifted son since he entered preschool in September. Yay for creativity!

  16. says

    I read tom’s blog too. nice to see him here. i’ll have to hunt down the others he mentioned and also share them with my sister-in-law who is studying early childhood education! Thanks Jean.

  17. Erin says

    I have always been cautious about the glue guns…but reading this made me feel like I can let them loose! Thanks for the inspiration.

  18. Kate says

    I am NOT a naturally artistic person, but I do know how to use a glue gun, and my children absolutely LOVE to create with “treasures” rescued from the recycle bin and garage!!! What an inspiring interview!

  19. Tiffany says

    Jean and Teacher Tom,
    Thank you for your constant sharing of all things children. I have been in preschool for 14 years, play-based, in Portland, OR. I am also the parent of a child who attends a co-op preschool. I am happy with the play – based, parent co-op model mix. It is amazing to watch my son grow.
    I follow both of your blogs and get a wealth of ideas, assurance and smiles.
    Thank you again,
    Tiffany

  20. says

    How awesome is all of this! I just started reading Teacher Tom over a month ago and I am so glad you did this interview! Love that he lets children use a glue gun—-they do learn! I will need to let my daughter start using one!! Love Mr. Rogers too! Thanks Jean for the inspiration!

  21. Quacklin says

    I love play that gets messy! Bring on 3d collages in our near future (hopefully with a new glue gun!)

  22. says

    I don’t always take the time to read an entire blog post – especially if it is more than 300 words long! LOL! But when it comes to learning more about Tom and his amazing work in early childhood education – I am always intrigued! So yes – I read the whole article:)

  23. Nikoli says

    I love Teacher Tom’s blog (and many of the others he mentioned). They are all great inspirations to me as a parent (not an educator). Thank you!

  24. Jill says

    Thank you so much for this interview! My daughter and I are lucky in that we were able to spend time in Teacher Tom’s class during their summer sessions last year. We had been involved in a co-op in our neighborhood for four years and really appreciated the differences in schools. Teacher Tom’s approach to letting the kids think, create and come together as a community is is very valuable indeed. I have followed both your blogs for a long while and was so excited to see two of my favorites come together today!

  25. heather says

    I actually love when I see posts from teacher tom. I find the things that are done in his classroom and out are amazing. I loved hearing about the “outdoor classroom” AWESOME!!!!

  26. Carolyne says

    Teacher Tom keeps me questioning,thinking and wondering – do I really need to do that? Is this really a good idea? So what if we make a mess?
    Keep on writing and sharing. We need you!

  27. says

    What an inspiring and affirming interview. I wish that all children could experience a Teacher Tom-like classroom with an equally thoughtful teacher.

  28. says

    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!

  29. Julie L. says

    I love Teacher Tom! Thanks for interviewing him. We need more Teacher Toms in our world.

  30. says

    Teacher Tom is AWESOME!!! Thanks Jean for posting this :) It reminds us as teachers and parents of what is the most important when we are with our kids! Thanks Teacher Tom!

  31. Susanne says

    Thank you so much for introducing me to Teacher Tom! I teach 4-year-old preschool in a small, rural public school and this article helped affirm my philosophy of educating our youngest students! I see hours of happy reading in my future!

  32. Famika says

    Love teacher Tom blogs. Wish that I could do as much as teacher Tom without the wolves on my back

  33. says

    Very fun article – would never have considered a glue gun for my almost 4 year old, but having read this, I know he would love it!

  34. andrea says

    yeah, you’re right. i DO want one!!!! and i’ve now also requested the mr. rogers book from the library!

  35. Lauren Brown says

    Tom seems like an awesome guy and teacher. Always love the reminder to let go of controlling how our kids learn and just let them do it!!

  36. erica says

    Wow! What a fabulous interview. I’ve recently been thinking of letting my kindergarteners loose with a glue gun and this entry may have tipped me over the edge!
    -Erica

  37. Tina says

    Great interview! I had heard of Teacher Tom before but didn’t know much about him. Glue guns…I hadn’t thought about that. Sounds like an adventure.

  38. says

    I am loving finding out a bit more about what makes Teacher Tom tick. I love how his blog is like a window into a special environment and approach that ignites learning.

  39. Susan ULrich says

    What an ispiration! I’m getting my glue gun back out! My preschooler is not too young!

  40. Krista H says

    hah! i like this guy. i would like him teaching my kids! and i would love the glue gun :)

  41. Courtney says

    I would have never thought to let my (almost) four year old use a glue gun. I think it is an amazing idea – and those googly eyes sure are going to go on a lot better.:) Awesome article!

  42. says

    Thank you for sharing this, Jean! I don’t want to enter the give-away (the glue gun won’t work over here anyway), but I wanted to once again say how much I enjoy your blog! Thanks for the effort and the inspiration! I always enjoy what I find here.

  43. says

    Thank you for the interview with Tom Jean. Teacher Tom was the very first blog I ever subscribed too, and Tom was the very first person to leave a comment on my blog. Since then he has shown generous support and been a source of inspiration and has me thinking and reflecting on my own practice as a teacher. Go Tom!

  44. KEM says

    As a teacher at a Reggio based center, I would love to see the parents get more involved with the center, that is why my dream is to some day open my own center and to be able to apply what pactices I believe in.

  45. says

    Great interview.
    oooo glue guns. In the puppet room @ the theatre I teach at, we laid down a piece of tape to stop kids from coming close to the glue gun — it is a heavy duty industrial sized one — amazing to use for long-lasting puppets and masks.
    I’d like to try a smaller one for the kids to use themselves. Thanks for the inspiration.

  46. Deanne says

    I’m a cooperative preschool teacher and I’m in love with Teacher Tom’s blog. He is so….inspiring, and authentic. I’d love a glue gun, too! Thanks for the interview.

  47. says

    I also can’t bear Mr.Rogers, but that’s probably because I grew up without TV at all and don’t have the patience to sit through much of anything on it. I love this interview and the picture of the child watering her plants reminds me of my little berry.

  48. says

    Hello Jean
    Many thanks for this interview about Tom – it’s all the questions I’ve been longing to ask but too polite to do so because I feel I pester him enough already.
    I’d also like to thank Tom for mentioning my blog and you, for adding a link. I checked my email this morning and found a flurry of hits from the US. Running a quirky British blog (actually Scottish, which is even MORE quirky) about getting children outside is never going to be high on the average person’s blog list.
    Tom’s blog is really important and unique because it is written from the heart with courage. Passion creates possibility. I like his ability to link nursery activities to wider education issues. His approach to managing risk, letting children test their abilities, involve parents in a meaningful and valued way and … letting his children REALLY PLAY is great. As a mainstream UK education consultant I do endorse this!!!
    Best wishes
    Juliet @CreativeSTAR
    “In a truly educational environment, ideas and experiences interact to create wisdom that feeds the seed of knowledge” (Anon)

  49. says

    Wow! So great. I love Mr. Rogers too! Especially the day my middle son, who was about 2 at the time, excitedly yelled to my husband, ‘Dad! Neighbor’s on!’ :] I’m excited to check out Tom’s blog.

  50. says

    so glad I saw this. My preschooler nails things, and saws things, and cuts things, but I never thought of letting him loose with a glue gun. Good to remind myself constantly that I shouldn’t over protect them!

  51. Deb says

    Dear TeacherTom,
    I just started working in parent coop preschool and so far I am loving it! I love the idea of collaborating with the parents as it is evident just how much their involvment in the program is such an asset.
    I have a question about your glue gun. Have you ever had any burned fingers? I have burned my fingers enough not to have thought of letting the children use one. Please, do tell you secret to making this tool available to the children.
    Thanks, Tdeb

  52. kelli says

    Wow! I’d love a new glue gun. The one I used in college was high heat and I won’t let my children use it — I’ve burned my fingers many times.

  53. Michele says

    Yes, I know I want one too! I have an old one that is super super hot and I’d love one that has two temperatures. And I am sure my little one would love to glue with a gun!

  54. elizabeth says

    dual temperature? I had no idea such a stroke of brilliance existed. Would love one! Thanks!

  55. Lacey says

    I was pregnant with my daughter when Mr. Rogers passed. I cried every time I thought about how I’d be raising my child in a world without Mr. Rogers. I’m so grateful that there are people out there who are still interested in helping children the way Mr. Rogers did.

  56. says

    I am the proud, happy product of a cooperative nursery school, and when it came time for my daughter to go to preschool, with no hesitation she was signed up at the same school I went to. My newly-turned three year old boy will be going to the same cooperative in the fall. I can’t say enough good things about such a school! And thank you so much for introducing me to Tom – his blog is now a Daily Read for me :)

  57. says

    Great interview, Jean!! Teacher Tom is a huge inspiration to me as a parent and gives me all sorts of good ideas to share with our own co-op. Makes me wish we lived in Seattle!

  58. says

    I love Teacher Tom! And I’d love a glue gun, too. I can’t believe I graduated art school without ever using one in my life! I’d love to learn how to build constructions with my 3 year old as we figure out the glue gun thing.

  59. says

    Tom is the best!! How fun to read this interview with him and Mr. Rogers is a pretty awesome role model too : )
    Think I need to give up a bit more control and actually let the girls at those glue guns (yikes!)