Tying Their Shoes

Mike McGough
October 2018

The first day of school was always special. As a kindergarten teacher, she was welcoming them into a new world, a world that would prepare them for the rest of their lives. There were always some tears, sometimes more from the parents than the kids, and she was good a drying all of them. Helping her students become acquainted with the school environment was job number one. They needed to become comfortable. A big step in that direction was helping them navigate this new environment.

Most of the students who entered her kindergarten classroom were ready for the experience. Many came with some letter and number skills, and others didn’t. Most knew their full names and the majority could at least write their first name. Then there were those who came able to recite the alphabet, count to a hundred, share their addresses, and give their Moms’ phone numbers in case of an emergency.

Personal space issues and other basic group behaviors were something that some had and others were still acquiring. That was never a problem or an issue to her. She had learned over the years that assuming anything with children that age is generally unwise. Besides, as she saw it, that was part of her job, it was what she was there to do.

It was important for them to be comfortable, and she did everything she could to make their environment as pleasant, calm, and inviting as possible. Over the years, she learned that doing certain things for them was essential if they were going to acclimate themselves to their new environment. Two prime examples were tying shoes and zipping up coats and sweaters. As a new teacher, she did that well into the year. They loved the help she freely offered. Even something as simple as tying their shoes allowed them to have her attention.

After a few years, she realized that the more she could teach them to do for themselves the more time she would have to teach them things that they wouldn’t learn without her help. She could give them her attention on things that were more important and more interesting. One of the first self-reliant lessons she decided to have her students master was tying their shoes. She never minded helping with their shoes. Nonetheless, she saw it as an important skill that they needed. By teaching the skill instead of doing it for them, she could empower them. And as she empowered them she was encouraging them to embrace the process of doing for themselves and leading themselves.

Late in her career, she was asked to mentor a new teacher. She had done so before, but this time it was a bit different. This time she was mentoring the person who would replace her. She knew that, but no one else did. She had not yet announced her intention to retire. As the mentoring year began, she shared materials, techniques, and practices that had served her well. She made it clear to the new teacher who would replace her the next year, that what she was sharing had worked for her, but there was no guarantee that any of it works all the time. “I’m just offering you suggestions. There are few absolutes in a kindergarten environment. You’ll have to experiment with what I’m sharing to find what will work best for you.”

In the spring of that final year, they had kindergarten registration for the coming year. It was always a day she enjoyed. She got a sneak preview of what was coming in late August. Several of the parents at this particular registration had been students of hers, some almost 30 years ago. As she entered the room, she saw the new teacher she had mentored during the year, kneeling on the floor tying a shoe. She had done that for students more times than she could possibly count, and on this particular day, it was going to be a teachable moment for the teacher who would replace her.

When the day was over, they met over coffee in the kindergarten kitchen. She shared that she would be retiring. There were some tears; it was a bit emotional for both of them. She then said that even though there are few absolutes when working with children, there are indeed a few worth noting. She said that one in particular might be among the most important. She said that helping children learn, regardless of their age, empowers them, and the more personally empowered they are the more they can and will learn.

She closed this little conference with, “When you tie someone’s shoe for them, you show them kindness. When you teach someone how to tie their shoe, you empower them!”