“He pushed me,” says one of Daché Browne’s students — and it’s one out of about 100 concerns she is juggling in this single minute. Another child wants to dance with her. Another wants to play with Browne’s hair. Another needs help fitting a too-small shirt on a doll.
But Browne, an infant/toddler teacher at Kids R Kids Learning Academy in Charlotte, remains calm. She addresses each child, maintaining her composure.
“It’s full-blown, fully emerged, everyone all over the place,” Browne said. “But I never feel a sense of chaos.”
That has been Browne’s mindset working through the coronavirus pandemic, she said — addressing one thing at a time, never allowing chaos to take over. Her classroom is nearing capacity at 19 children for the first time since the spring. And these particular 19 3- and 4-year-olds are full of extra personality. Four are new to the class in recent months, but Browne has known most of them since they were about a year old.
Browne, who has worked at Kids R Kids since college, has “looped” with these children, meaning she has been with the same group as they’ve grown up. She has never been around children with this much energy, she said, and she’s heard other teachers and inspectors say the same. There is maybe one shy child in the class, she said. When they were all 2 years old, things were especially crazy.
“It just means that it’s loud and everything is heightened all the time,” Browne said. “The energy is up there.”
Browne worked through the early months of COVID-19 with reduced numbers, new health and safety guidelines, and tons of uncertainty. She worked through the summer, when her class held steady at about 12 children and her pandemic routines became familiar — extra communication with parents, hand-washing, shortened hours for more cleaning.
And she is working now, entering a fall when some things seem back to normal. With a full and energetic class, there is simply not as much time to think about the pandemic, she said.
“When we didn’t have a lot of children, it was a constant reminder,” she said. “Now that it’s full class, it’s like a normal day out here.”
Except the masks, she said. Except the moments when children bring up “the germs.” Except not seeing parents in person to check in about the day.
Though Browne’s classroom has never shut down, Kids R Kids had to close one classroom in June after a teacher tested positive. The center has not had a cluster — a group of five cases linked together and reported by the state.
Kristen Idacavage, director of the center, said there were points in June when half of the staff members were at work while the other half were somewhere in the cycle of getting tested, waiting for results, quarantining, and getting back to work.
She said the last couple of months have been better. Then she knocked on wood.
Idacavage and Browne said that following state and local health guidelines, overcommunicating, and having proactive plans for when cases do arise have helped them navigate these months. Day to day, these things make them individually calmer as well.
“When you do come in contact, or when a child comes in contact, what are you going to do to keep it contained?” Browne said. “But I think that’s all you can do. I think it’s important not to worry, not to be afraid of it, because I don’t think that’s healthy either.”
When it comes to managing an extra energetic classroom during a pandemic, Browne said she does not worry. Sometimes she sits in her car after work in her driveway for an extra few minutes. She works out. But she does not worry.
“I never feel like I have to decompress,” she said. “Naturally I’m high-energy anyways. I kind of thrive off that environment. My brain is just so used to it. I never feel stressed. I just roll with it.”
“Let’s go talk to him,” Browne says to the girl who was pushed, walking her over to the boy. “Tell him how you feel and why you’re sad.”
The girl shares her side. Browne turns to the boy: “Can you make sure she’s OK?” Confronted with her emotions, he says, “Yes.”
In the span of a couple of hours, multiple conflicts such as this one arise. Each time, Browne facilitates these conversations. When a girl accidentally steps on another boy, who begins to cry immediately, the girl is clearly upset. “It was an accident,” she says in Browne’s direction. Comforting the boy, Browne says, “He doesn’t know that. Tell him that.”
Browne said these social-emotional development markers are her priority every year. Much of that development requires in-person interaction with teachers and between peers. She said many of the parents who kept their children at home during the first months of the pandemic returned them sooner than they thought they would, saying that staying at home didn’t feel right for their child.
“They need to be in school,” Browne said. “They need to be emerged in something that’s keeping them stimulated in all aspects, not just one.”
Browne said she hopes others will understand both the value and complexity of early childhood education. She said it’s not about supervision like she hears her friends say. It’s also not just about teaching children pre-academic literacy and math skills. She sees the heart of her work as equipping children with tools to understand their emotions, interact with others, and manage conflict.
“I get parents every time asking, ‘Can you please help them write their name?'” Browne said. “I can help them do that, but can we talk about the fact that they don’t know how to play with someone without taking their toys or without hitting them? … Can we address that before we address them holding a pencil or writing their name?”
Browne has dreams to go back to school for nutrition — but to still work with young children or preschools. Whether through teaching or helping children with healthy eating habits, she wants to leave her mark on others.
“I think I’m just trying to do my part in building good humans for the world — for the future.”