The Japanese people have an expression, Kūki o yomu, read the air, which, in essence, means to take in one’s surroundings before acting; to take a few moments to use one’s senses; to observe and listen; to gauge what is happening in this place at this moment, before doing anything else.
Reading the air is a respectful practice. Enter a space or situation quietly and absorb what is going on—the level of activity; the level of conversation or silence; the level of engagement—how are others interacting, responding to one another, or are they not. The Japanese people observe and listen first. And then, they act or react in a way that fits the situation. If everyone is deeply engaged, talking quietly with one another, then enter in the same way. A loud and boisterous entry into a quiet place will have others shaking their heads and murmuring, “she does not read the air.” In Japan, reading the air shows respect to the people already involved, and to the situation at hand. It is a polite and considerate way of being.
We, in early childhood education, can also tap into this practice. Reading the air easily applies to the way we enter a classroom of young children; how we join a group of preschoolers already at play; and how we enter a conversation between colleagues. Do we enter quietly, respectfully, and take in all that is happening within the space? Do we observe and listen first? And then, do we enter in a way that fits with what is already happening? Do we read the air?
Or, do we enter the room with no thought to what is already happening in it and clumsily interrupt the activity and hum of the classroom?
Best practice teaching is often described as a cycle that involves watching and listening—with care. Teachers observe everything going on carefully, and listen closely to the children. Teachers reflect on, think about, and engage in dialogue with others about what is happening. Teachers respond thoughtfully in ways that support children’s ideas, questions, and thinking. Teachers gather data from the children, use what they learn, and act as a resource for the children. Teachers ask questions and discover the children’s ideas and theories. Teachers then find additional materials and equipment to test out the children’s ideas.
The best teachers of young children are keen observers and listeners. I suspect they read the air quite well and act appropriately and respectfully toward their children.
What about you? How do you see yourself? Are you adept at first reading the air in your classroom and then acting? Upon entering, are you respectful of the children and adults already engaged? Do you first observe and listen to everything going on? And do you then insert yourself into the mix with care and consideration?
If you haven’t yet spent some good time observing and listening to the hum of your classroom, I invite you to add this practice to your teaching this school year. It will take some slowing down a bit to actually do this, but once you begin to read the air you will see the enormous benefits for both the children and adults who live with you.
For more ideas, tools, and strategies to use in your workplace, take a look at my early childhood leadership book: Beginning to End: The Life Cycle of a Child Care Center—A Director’s Story, available on Amazon.com.
These are my real-life, time-tested tips and techniques, and all of them worked successfully in my four childcare centers. I am pleased to share what I have learned! Take what resonates with you and then, one day, pass on what you learn to the next generation of early childhood colleagues. My best to you!