Saturday circa sunset, I wandered the Santa Monica beach for one final nostalgic night in So-Cal this summer. Just before turning my back on the water, a pair of fins peeked above the waves and caught my eye. Two, then 6 more, then more, and more. These fins, however, did not belong to sharks like I first imagined. Swimming wildly in the ocean a mere 50 meters from the shore, was a collection of dolphins—untrained, leaping out of the water in pairs, and playing in the waves. What a spectacle, and a rarity too one local commented aside. Entranced by the unexpected sight of dolphins—I was reminded why I am committed to doing something that brings novelty and surprise each day. It is purely exhilarating.
According to the study described in this article, the calculated value of a good Kindergarten teacher amounts to a salary of $320,000 per year. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/business/economy/28leonhardt.html?_r=1&hp ) I may not be worth that much, but I do believe Kindergarten teachers are undervalued.
I’ll admit I’ve had my failures this summer. Inevitably. I may have nearly broken down that third day of teaching and a classroom of Kindergarteners may have almost made me cry, but life in my classroom quickly changed. It is challenging to go into a new profession with little training and a plethora of ideas about how class is supposed to run, but this is what I live for—the constant learning, evolving every day, and finding new ways to connect with students and invest them in class.
My cousin, a high school teacher in Sweden, advised me: “Own your classroom. Every single student needs to know that you are in charge. There can be no nonsense. From day one, moment one, from your very first introduction, your students need to know that you mean business, that you have high expectations, and that you will not tolerate misbehavior or apathy.” At first I interpreted this in terms of scolding and not smiling—both of which are intrinsically antithetical to the essence of me. But quickly I observed that students crave a classroom that runs smoothly, one in which students are held accountable to strict behavior management and well practiced procedures. And so, I found my tough-love teacher voice and more importantly practiced my “I mean business” teacher face in front of the mirror—nightly. Kids be wary.
And success followed. When I taught Donte, a boy who previously covered his answers from everyone and whined when people wanted to use his ideas, about how he could be a leader and teach his classmates the things he understood, I found him showing Jaszmine, a girl that checked out far too often, how to correctly write the letter “Ee” in her alphabet book. When I publicly praised my conscientious students Khalil and Tyler for cleaning up crayons spilled all over our carpet before going home, a flock of children immediately circled them to lend their hands too. When I provided opportunities for Alyx, a student constantly disobeying directions and choosing to be off task, to succeed and earn praise for academic achievements, he wrote the longest (and most correct) sentence using our summer words in the final lesson assessment. He didn’t want to leave school when his mom came to pick him up.
The last six weeks have escaped any linear concept of time, but a few funny moments stand out…
Whenever the Kinders pulled together to amass 50 class points, we gave them a dance party (this typically took 2 days, as 5 year old children’s attention span is short, and points were administered every time kids were on task, to keep them on task). The class lined up their toes on each side of the carpet, boys and girls facing each other in a dance-off. Michael Jackson blasted from our laptops, and the kids displayed their moves—break dancing, hip swaying, spinning on their heads, and twirling. One dance party I spun all the girls who raised their hands, when Eric raised his hand too. I took it and started to twirl him, but he stopped me, and said “No, Ms. S. You spin.” And he spun me under his tiny arm. Within the minute, a line of four other boys wanted to spin me too.
While seated on the carpet, students were expected to sit criss-cross apple sauce. One morning Timothy took a seat, legs stretched out. When prompted to sit properly, he replied, “But Ms. S, I’m wearing skinny jeans. I can’t sit criss-cross applesauce.” He repeated this line with my partner teacher in the following lesson. Since when do 5 year old boys wear skinny jeans?
During one lesson, as the class lost its focus, my partner teacher used the class puppet Lary the Lion and started whimpering loudly. She said, “Class, you are making Lary cry. You are not listening and you are rudely talking.” Immediately Donte, seated in front, whimpered back, “Sorry Lary. Please don’t cry.”
On our last day together, I revealed my big secret in the final lesson—I was leading a double life. By day I was their teacher, by night: Secret Agent S. Students were on the edge of their seats as I revealed a sealed envelope from my blazer, in it was our secret mission handed down from 007 himself. They were all my spies in training and our mission was to decode scrambled sentences. For the rest of the day they referred to me as Ms. Secret Agent S.
I am left with memories of reading books under the slide with students, writing and illustrating stories that tell apart B & D and M & N, hunting for patterns on the playground, and the glorious sight of 23 4-5 year olds all dancing the same choreographed moves to R.Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest.” As cute as Kindergarteners are and as much fun as they are to teach, I realized my world was changing when I’d watched 5 versions of “10 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” on youtube trying to choose the best version, when I found myself breaking down words into letter sounds in conversations with adults, and when The Wiggles’ “Head, shoulder, knees, and toes” became a morning staple for moving about and starting the day. With these things behind me, I bring exciting news:
I’ve been hired! Yours truly will be teaching 4th grade starting August 24th. I have 180 days with my future kids and no time to waste. Grounding myself in the learning that filled this summer, let the envisioning begin…