In a classroom in South Seattle, teacher Matthew O’Connor is down on the ground with a group of 3- and 4-year-olds surrounded by colorful puffballs called “poms” that they’re fitting into a muffin tin. You might be tempted to say they are “playing.” You could call the students “babies” but you do so at your own peril.
“Wait a minute!” O’Connor shouts in a silly voice. “I notice there are more poms than there are spaces in the muffin tin. Can I put two in one?” “No!!” the kids scream in unison.
To the untrained ear, the wall of sound coming from Matthew O’Connor’s pre-kindergarten class suggests an atmosphere of barely contained chaos. But he’ll tell you this is sound and fury signifying something powerful.
“One of the reasons I love being a teacher of pre-kindergarten is because of the massive potential for learning that can happen over one year,” O’Connor says. “It’s one of the richest windows of brain development that there is.”
This early learning window isn’t open equally to all kids. Research shows that children begin the learning process well before they arrive in kindergarten. ABCs, numbers, narrative, colors, shapes — children who are fortunate can get a lot of those vital concepts from parents and/or from quality preschool. But many children do not.
“Typically, families of color, lower-income families who live on the south end of Seattle, they don’t have as much access,” O’Connor says, explaining why he is passionate about working in Rainier Beach. “It is crucially important to me to work at a school that can be transformative for a kid and for a family.”
As energetic and committed as he is now, O’Connor didn’t start out to be an early learning advocate. Basically, he fell into his teaching niche because he didn’t check one box on his Teach for America application. This meant that, unlike a lot of his peers, he didn’t opt out of early childhood education. “It’s a passion that circumstances put me in. I believe very much in serendipity in this case.”
Serendipity has great timing because this turns out to be a watershed moment for early education. In the past, within the hierarchy of education, pre-K and kindergarten teachers were considered to have an easier, less important job than teachers of higher grades. That attitude gets O’Connor fired up because he believes early learning is the only time in a student’s academic career when it’s possible to close the achievement gap in one year. But transformation can happen only if that first critical year in the classroom is well funded.
O’Connor has a powerful ally — President Barack Obama. Obama has argued that spending on the nation’s youngest students will lead to better performance for children later on, and has pushed Congress to make pre-kindergarten education universal.
Seattle isn’t waiting for Congress. Voters approved a nearly $60 million four-year pilot program and O’Connor was appointed to the mayor’s advisory committee charged with shaping early education and rolling out the pilot program. The ultimate goal is universal pre-K, but it will take a few years before there are enough classrooms for every 3- and 4-year-old in Seattle. At the moment, O’Connor’s is one of 12 classrooms testing the potential of full-day preschool.
It’s time for science at South Shore Pre-K. Kids are circled around Matthew and a whiteboard, most in rapt attention. A girl with a pointer aims at each word as O’Connor reads them. “Bonjour! Today is science Thursday! We are going to learn about transportation.” Murmurs of interest go around the room as a boy shushes any side conversations. It is so clear that these kids are like sponges, ready to soak up learning. For O’Connor at this moment, that means focusing — not on science or transportation as advertised — but on developing language and vocabulary, because research shows that children in low-income families are exposed to 30 million fewer words at four years of age than their higher-income peers.
“That means they’ve heard 30 million fewer words in their life,” O’Connor says. “And hearing less language when your brain is trying to grasp every word that you hear and turn it into knowledge is really critical.”
O’Connor’s students are part of a “looping” classroom, which means they stay with him for two years, Pre-K and kindergarten. His first graduates demonstrate that this additional time together is boosting academic performance.
“My daughter started first grade with a second grade reading level,” says parent Jessica Colinares, crediting O’Connor’s style of teaching. “I love that he helps children solve their own problems.”
“Every student should have a Mr. O’Connor in their life,” agrees Mawiayah Fields, who says her son’s confidence has blossomed in preschool.
Fields, who is a middle school teacher herself, says respect is the final ingredient of the secret sauce that makes Matthew O’Connor the kind of teacher kids will remember for the rest of their lives. He sees his students, not as babies, but as the individuals they already are and the grownups they will become.
“Since they are 4, I get to watch them grow for the next 14 years when they leave the public education system,” O’Connor says. “So I get to have a lasting impact on their life. That makes it special for me.”