What my baby has taught me about learning


“What’s it like to be off from school?”

“What do you do all day now that you are not working?”

“Do you miss teaching?”

“Don’t you just love watching Netflix all day?”

Anyone who has taken any time off from their regular career to care for their children might feel the same twinges of irritation at these questions. As if caring for a young person was just a frolick in the fields all day long. Oy! While my wife goes off to work each morning, I consider my “work” to start the moment that squishy boy wakes up. As a teacher though, I see this role as just a different kind of teaching. So no, well meaning auntie or stranger in the park, I don’t miss teaching because my classroom just transformed from 23 giggling girls to one bouncy boy. And as the diehard edu-nerd that I am, it is impossible for me to not constantly be contemplating how a baby’s learning can teach me more about teaching. Here are four things my baby has taught me about learning:

  1. Repetition (and purpose) is Kind of a Big Deal

Hey baby, great skills getting that thing into your mouth. Great progress. Next time, try to bite on something that won't completely harm your sweet baby self, kay? Glad we had this talk.

Hey baby, great skills getting that thing into your mouth. Great progress. Next time, try to bite on something that won’t completely harm your sweet baby self, kay? Glad we had this talk.

I will say this, I loathe drill like work in class. I detest hammering in basic facts. I am deeply irritated with having to re-explain / teach / remind my students how to use a comma for the 18,000th time in the school year. But if watching Baby Kirsh has taught me anything, he just does the same thing over and over (and over and over) again until he masters it.

Right now, he’s pretty baller at getting toys (or hands, or hair, or our dog’s fur) into his mouth. But this “skill” took many months of repetition for him to master it. First he was just batting at things, then he was grabbing, and then he was just bringing the object around his face, and now he is fairly consistently getting the thing into his mouth (much to my horror when a second ago that sock was sitting in a puddle of pee on his change mat). He didn’t mind going over this same skill a bagillion times because he wanted to master it.

Teaching Translation:

You have to care about the skill / concept / thing you are trying to learn and then you will happily go over it again and again until it’s solidified in your knowledge bank. Moreover, if you really want to understand something deeply, you have to examine it many times, from many angles, and in many different contexts to “own it”. This doesn’t mean hammering basic facts in, but rather (I believe) parsing down the curriculum to key concepts / ideas and using content to keep coming back to these enduring understandings.

2. Novelty is the Sparkle of Life

Every few weeks, I change up the books in our little chair-side baskets by the couch and the rocker in Ambrose’s room. Every week or so, I switch the toys dangling overhead on the little baby play mat. And every couple of weeks I do a rotation of the toys on hand and see what might be interesting now given his age and stage. Should I have been a kindie teacher? Maybe (except totally not). But I’m also keenly aware now how new things bring a clear sense of wonder and curiosity. You can tell super quickly when a baby is losing interest and conversely it is clear as the midday sun when a baby is totally digging a toy, a book, or the new way the wind feels on his skin as he is drinking in the sight of a big oak tree in the park.

Teaching Translation:

Change things up! Take the children out of the class, bring them on a scavenger hunt through the school, stage a role play in the yard, lead them into new ways to discuss / debate / debrief their reading. Find new ways to deliver the same idea (*cough* comma lessons, anyone?) throughout the year. Get out of your own comfort zone and change up what your students are expecting. That “novelty” means that new synapses are firing together in the learner’s brain and because it is novel they will remember it better…it just stands out better!

3. And Yet Consistency is Key

When we were trying to get Ambrose to sleep a little longer through the night, we came across great “sleep training” advice from a friend. Basically, it doesn’t matter what “method” you try, just be consistent and your child will eventually figure out how to get more shut eye. Some methods may work more quickly than others, but if you find something that works for you, be consistent and you will eventually see results.

For the record, we have been using the “pick up / put down” method and for the first few nights, there was–how shall we put this–an ample amount of screaming time. But then, as we stuck to it, Baby Kirsh started to get the hang of putting himself to sleep solo (not sleeping on us) from awake. Now we are sleeping more at night and much more confident about our choices, since we are seeing some positive changes.

Teaching Translation:

It is tempting to change up everything you are doing everyday (or every year) to keep things sparkly or perhaps as new research and fads come out in the edu-scene. I think it is important to be clear on your own teaching philosophy so that the bedrock of your pedagogy reflects this. Yes, you should dress up and take your children on that role-play simulation in character to teach them about the plight of the Acadians, but it is equally important to be consistent with your routines, expectations, classroom management systems, and overarching philosophy governing your everyday choices in your classroom. I like to think that students feel safest when the routines in the classroom are consistent so that when those novel experiences do happen, they truly stand out in the best way possible.

4. Sleep is More Important Than Homework

This is 100% not baby Ambrose and also is 100% the cutest thing ever

This is 100% not baby Ambrose and also is 100% the cutest thing ever

A confession: having a baby has made me obsessed with sleep. How do I get more of it? How I teach Ambrose to find it on his own? What is the best way for encouraging my boy to sleep? And why oh why does my child constantly wake up from his naps screaming? My quest for juicy naps and chunky night slumber has made me realize that sleep is the bedrock to mental health. When I don’t get a good night of sleep, I’m a severely unhinged mother. When baby Kirsh doesn’t sleep, he is a deeply troubled demon.

Teaching Translation:

As a teacher, I wish I could somehow tuck each of my students to bed at a reasonable time. But since professional boundaries thankfully prevent me from being that crazy teacher, I would gladly trade in nightly homework for the agreement that students read every night for 20 minutes and go to sleep at 9:00pm. In every teaching conference moving forward, I want to start by asking parents how sleep is going. If the student is going to bed at 11:00om (and with Google Docs, it’s so much easier to see when students are staying up too late to work on their assignments), talking about study habits, learning skills, or extension work comes secondary to getting their sleepy head to bed!

For those of you teacher-parents out there who have taken time to be with their child intensely, what insights have you gained (or have been re-solidified) about teaching by watching your babe learn?

About the Author
Passionate and curious about technology, smiles, special education, differentiated instruction, forests, graphic novels, accessibility, anti-oppression, and warm beverages. Can often be found laughing with young people and improvising songs on the spot. @teach_tomorrow

5 comments on What my baby has taught me about learning

  1. This post captures the tension that exists in education, and I am so thrilled you’ve articulated so clearly for us – now we can take your lens and apply to what we do in our own spheres of influence. Change things up, but be deliberate and transparent about it. Change things up, and still allow our students and faculty to recognise the stability behind your change. Change things up in a way that values their pace of learning, and change when they are ready and prepared for change. Change things up, and sometimes that means not changing too much too often.

    Thanks so much for this great post!

  2. Eric Daigle says:

    Great post, Celeste. As a fellow new parent (my girl, Aletheia, is 7 months old), the sense that development is now happening at both ends of the spectrum is very real and prescient. I suppose I have learned through her, the importance of discovering wonder in each and every experience, no matter how “mundane” it may seem to our over sensitized adult brains.

  3. Jen says:

    Great post, Celeste. I don’t know the first thing about raising a baby, but I can certainly understand the connections you made to teaching and learning. And, despite not having a baby, I too am obsessed with sleep!

    My favourite point you made was about the repetition needed to master a task. I think most students can understand this idea if they think about the things they love to spend time doing, whether it’s playing basketball or decorating cupcakes. They inherently know that the more often they practice, the better they will be, but sometimes it’s hard for them to make that connection to the world of school.

    Thanks for taking time to continue blogging during your year “off” 🙂


  4. Lara Jensen says:

    Yes, yes, and yes, Celeste! What would it take to go back to a time of an appropriate amount of homework? As kids participate in more and more programmes outside of school we seem to be sending ever more schoolwork home. This really wasn’t easy in families. Wouldn’t it be nice if kids could go home at the end of the school day and learn to socialize with others, be bored and have to come up with something to do on their own or dig in the dirt/ play outside? I’m all for reading and developing number sense and math fact families but is hours of work necessary every evening? Okay, stepping down from my soapbox. Great post – it clearly struck a chord!

  5. You know I agree with you on the importance of sleep!! 🙂

    As for what parenting has taught me in my teaching role, I think the biggest change is that I have more empathy. Pre-kids, I was probably more judgemental and rigid in my expectations. Now that I have my own kids, I am better able to see my students for the beautiful individuals they are – I suppose I treat them more how I would like my own kids to be treated by their teachers. Parenting has definitely made me a better teacher!

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