Veronica Vazquez’s face lights up as she describes playing with one of her Pre-K students. “We have these foam squares that are like puzzle pieces that connect together, and yesterday, a student of mine made a train. And at the bottom of the structure, there was a hole about yea big that you could see through, just a gap between the two pieces. And he wanted to talk through it. So I got on the floor and I talked through it.”
“We tried to connect our eyes so we could see each other,” she continues. “Now, this means my face is on the ground of Social Hall. But it’s so exciting because he just laughed, and he thought it was the funniest thing ever.”
Vazquez teaches Pre-K at Ethical Culture. She’s been at ECFS for two years, and she’s been teaching early childhood education for nine years. Though she’s taught older children, she says that Pre-K — four- and five-year-olds — is her “teaching sweet spot.”
Vazquez’s path to teaching began with her own family; her parents indulged her when she insisted on playing “teacher” as a child. She loved to take home expired teachers’ materials at the end of the year and teach her own pretend classes at home. “Starting at four, I was tormenting my parents” with the game, she jokes.
Part of the reason Vazquez loves teaching Pre-K so much may be because she’s the youngest child in her own family — she has three older sisters and an older brother. “I was around adults mostly, and I feel like I, by default, was very mature at a very early age,” she explains. “It’s almost like I’m able to be a kid and do that fun stuff now. It’s like, ‘I’m over being so serious.’”
Her clean, colorful classroom reflects her approach to teaching. Carefully-chosen picture books — The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Ish by Peter H. Reynolds, I Can Be Anything! by Jerry Spinelli, When Mama Braids My Hair by Monique Duncan — are displayed on shelves surrounding an inviting floor area where kids meet, talk, and play. There are stations for dramatic play (currently made up as a pretend veterinarian's office), blocks (“we have some great builders this year — so we’ll have the Empire State Building or bridges with train systems”), and tables for eating, playing, and creating art. Jackson Pollock-inspired paintings hang around the room, and crafts made of recycled materials are displayed next to the class pet, a turtle. There’s even a “zen corner,” complete with pillows and decorative paper leaves, where kids can go to take a moment to process their emotions.
Teaching students to manage their feelings and understand others’ feelings is at the center of Vazquez’s approach to Pre-K. At this age, students should be focusing on the social and emotional aspect of learning, she says: practicing kindness, making friends, and confidence.
In practice, teaching empathy takes many forms, including leading the kids in breathing exercises and yoga-inspired moves during classroom mindfulness sessions and reading and discussing books about empathy, like Have You Filled the Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud. The book introduces the concept of bucket-filling: if you do something nice for someone, you’re adding to their bucket, while if you do something mean, you’re taking away from it.
Vazquez emphasizes that everyone has buckets — even teachers. And she was glad to see one of her students take that to heart recently. The student often has a hard time saying goodbye to his parents in the mornings, and Vazquez distracts him by asking him questions about himself. One day, he started asking her questions back: “What did you do this weekend? What did you have for breakfast? What did you eat for dinner last night? Who’s your husband? What does he do?” Vazquez told him, “You really filled my bucket by trying to get to know me and asking me questions.”
Vazquez’s tactic of endless encouragement goes back to her own experience as a high school student. A counselor told her that she’d never get into Barnard College, even though her father worked there — feedback that made her feel terrible about herself. “[The counselor] knew me, and the fact that he knew me but then shot me down, and did it in a way where it was like he was talking to a stranger with no compassion whatsoever, it just was so devastating,” she says. She calls getting in one of her proudest moments and says it shaped her both in her self-confidence and in her determination not to discourage her students from pursuing their goals, no matter how lofty.
It’s almost like I’m able to be a kid and do that fun stuff now. It’s like, ‘I’m over being so serious.’
Although she often turns to children’s books to introduce concepts like empathy or to teach about historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Vazquez is also working on a children’s book of her own, inspired by her experiences teaching in the South Bronx. “It’s very limited in the South Bronx, even basic things — like you wouldn’t see garbage cans on the corner of every block, there were no mailboxes. The book is rooted in the idea of highlighting the beauty in a community.” Vazquez’s love of books is shared with her aunt, with whom she brainstorms ideas for children’s books, and her mother, with whom she takes weekly Saturday morning trips to the Scarsdale Barnes & Noble, where she browses the children’s books section. Recently, she picked up two books by Susan Verde, I Am Human and I Am Peace, which teach empathy and mindfulness.
Vazquez says teaching empathy also means she always takes her students’ goals seriously, even when they might seem a little silly — like “I want to eat 100 apple pies,” one of the goals displayed on the classroom goal wall. “You want to eat 100 apple pies?” she says. “Who am I to stop you? That's your dream? Go for it.”