“Daddy, let’s go somewhere!“ It was 2-year-old Josephine that unconsciously pushed her father Tom Hobson to shift gears.

After studying journalism, Hobson was working as a content writer while trying to publish his fiction. But when his wife Jennifer got pregnant, it became clear that he was going to become the stay-at-home parent because his wife’s income was more stable than his, Hobson says during a Zoom call, me logging in from outside Athens and him from Seattle, USA.

What was clear to him was that he was excited at the prospect of staying at home with their baby. As an introvert, he liked the cozy, homey parts of his job: hanging around, making some snacks, reading and maybe going for a walk. But his daughter had other plans. When she said she wanted to go somewhere else, Hobson realised she meant she wanted to go to daycare. His wife, mother and mother-in-law said it made no sense: Josephine could spend time with a parent at home, and they all believed that was much better than sending her to daycare. But one day at the playground, Hobson spoke to a mother who told him about schools where parents could go with their kids, and stay to help the teachers.

Learning about cooperative schools opened up a whole new world for Hobson. Not only did his wife and the rest of the family agree that it was a good compromise, while Josephine thrived from the new interactions but Hobson found himself drawn to try to better understand and interact with the other children.

For three years, Hobson was required to spend only one day a week at school, but ended up going more often. “Her last two years, the school was located in a laboratory preschool. So there was a room with one-way mirrors where I could stand on the other side and observe. Whenever I would leave, I would just go in that room and watch the kids and listen to things going on.”

Without knowing it, Hobson was doing his apprenticeship.

Becoming a teacher

When Josephine was ready to move on to a primary school, one of the main teachers, Chris David, asked Hobson what he was going to do now that he could not go to school all the time with his daughter. “I flashed back on the idea of sitting at a computer all day and that didn’t sound good to me. So Teacher Chris said: ‘Well, I think you should be a teacher.’”

By that time the Hobson family was living in Seattle, and Hobson started studying at North Seattle College. Before he was even done with his degree he started working at Woodland Park Cooperative School, where he spent 16 years. This is how Teacher Tom was born. In 2009, he also started publishing a blog with his thoughts on education, play, children, and how to listen to them properly. He’s posted daily ever since. As an author, international speaker, and organiser of the Play Summit, Teacher Tom is a household name among early educators in the US and beyond.

I had been following Teacher Tom on social networks, but he reappeared on my radar thanks to Cathy, a member of this newsletter, who suggested an e-course titled The Technology of Speaking with Children that Teacher Tom offers. The course gave me so many insights, and I’ll be writing some follow-up newsletters about it. (By the way, if you’re interested in taking either of Teacher Tom’s e-courses, Teacher Tom has offered a coupon to readers of The First 1,000 Days. Feel free to contact me for more information.)

When we finally connected for an interview, I felt as if we could have talked for ages. The good news is that I’ve invited Teacher Tom to be part of this community, so feel free to ask him questions below this piece as a follow-up to our chat below. And remember: only paying members can access the comment section.

Three questions for … Teacher Tom, US educator

Q: Something that worries me and that I keep coming back to in my research is that our society does not value children. Why do you think that happens?

A: I think I think a lot of it has to do with economics, with this hyper-capitalism that we’re in, where we feel that if you’re not producing at some level, you’re less valuable. Of course children are not out in the workforce, they’re not producing income, so they have no value. I think part of it is because of the break-up of our village. We’re all in our different parts of the village, most people don’t have experience with children unless you have one yourself or you work in the caring professions. When we had our daughter, it had been 20 years since I’d spent time with children other than just in passing, so I didn’t know anything about kids. I think this is the case a lot of us find ourselves in. For me, when we broke up the village we all kind of lost track of how important children are. One of my missions is to try to urge people to remember our society will become healthier when we bring children back to the centre, when we make more spaces adaptable to children. We have so many places where kids basically aren’t allowed. Sure, you can take them to the symphony. But, boy, if they act like a child, if they sing along, you need to get out of there. I can’t think of a better way to watch a symphony than to dance, to move your body, and sing along…

Q: But it’s hard to include children in our daily lives if our cities, where the majority of us now live, are not built thinking of children…

A: When we build new offices, new buildings, we never put in playgrounds, we never put in places for children. Nothing is designed for kids. Kids will naturally educate themselves when they’re given the chance to be around real life. I think this is the problem with separating children in these walled gardens, where we keep them almost caged up. And we make them beautiful, these walled gardens, but what happens – (late US educator) John Holt writes a lot about this – is that people outside of the walled garden look in and it makes them mad, because those kids aren’t producing anything in there, and they want to drill them and teach them so that it’s more like real life. So why don’t we just put kids into real life, instead of keeping them walled up? I think that’s why we devalue kids, because we don’t understand them; we’ve forgotten who they are. There are lots of myths about children. I’ll never forget my father-in-law saying: “Little kids are trying to kill themselves every day.” But they’re not trying to kill themselves every day! In fact, they really want to keep themselves relatively safe – they need us to support them in some ways, but for the most part none of them wants to get hurt. We kind of develop this idea that children are little idiots, and without adults constantly on top of them telling them what to do they would kill themselves… Well, that’s not the experience I’ve had working with young children – especially when I set them free.

Q: I agree completely with your philosophy. The one thing I struggle with constantly is not to talk about setting children free from a place of privilege. I have the privilege of having a garden, for example, and access to the beach.

A: Right. We need to build public spaces that allow for children. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. In my third book that will be coming out, I’m going to be talking about how we can transform schools to become the kind of community places where children can have an authentic childhood, or can legitimately play together. I don’t think we need schools to teach them how to read and how to do math and all of that kind of stuff. Young children need to learn how to centre emotions, how to get along with other people, how to be self-motivated. These are the skills that are required for success, and you learn them by playing with your friends in the roadside ditches, in the little patches of forest, in the gardens, in the playground. I guess what I’m proposing is something like a walled garden, but a very very big walled garden – one where the senior citizens can come, for example, or where parents come when they’re home from work.

Do you have other questions for Teacher Tom? If so, please log in and leave them in the comment section below the piece!

You can catch a short snippet of my interview with Teacher Tom here!

What I’ve been reading

A great investigative piece about the lack of oversight in Greek fertility clinics, which are renowned worldwide for competitive prices and good doctors. But journalist Elvira Krithari, writing for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), shows how the Greek state-backed agency tasked with regulating fertility clinics was first under-resourced, then abruptly dissolved, failing to put in all the necessary checks. Krithari spoke to people who recruited women who donated their ova in ways that were unethical and unsafe. Definitely worth a read to understand what can go wrong with the industry around assisted reproduction when checks are not in place.

What I’ve been listening to

“Mama, something went wrong in your tummy that made me come out as a boy instead of a girl. I want you to put me back so that I can come out as a girl.” This is Marlo describing her transgender child in Our Story, a two-part podcast broadcast by The Documentary on the BBC. In part 1, Marlo explains why she has been making a podcast for several years about her daughter. She explains that she wanted the world to know they existed, and found a community as a result. In part 2, Marlo talks to parents of transgender children from around the world and finds out how they connected to their children and supported them through many challenges. This is an extraordinary story, told with intimacy and tenderness. I will certainly come back to it, but in the meantime make sure to listen. (Thanks to Tanmoy for putting this on my radar via this story in the New York Times.)

What I’ve been watching

The Poetry Party of Bologna Children’s Book Fair is very nourishing for the soul. Poets read their work for children (either their own, or what they have collected in anthologies) in their own language, so this is a good place to practise some Spanish, Italian, French, Russian and Taiwanese. I especially loved Adolfo Córdova’s anthology Cajita de fósforos that collects Latin American free verse poetry. (The book won the Special Category award at the fair.) It’s a good video to come back to over time, savouring one poem at a time. Special mention also to Chile’s María José Ferrada, who wrote a book about the 34 children who disappeared or were killed during Chile’s dictatorship.

What’s been inspiring me

Argentina has created a non-binary option for citizens to recognise themselves on identity cards with an X rather than female or male. “The state should not care about the sex of its citizens,” said President Alberto Fernández. “There are other identities besides that of man and woman and they must be respected.” This is another step towards recognising a diversity of identities in Argentina, which – nearly a decade ago – became the first country in the world to let trans people change their legal gender without requiring a judge’s permission or medical interventions. It recently also passed a law establishing a transgender quota for jobs in the public administration.

How to share this newsletter

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With love and care,
Irene

📣 Kate Kingsford, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. Thanks, Kate! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

📷 Photo credits and alt-text: Andrew Ebrahim on Unsplash, boys writing on book.

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