Starting over again with kindergarten
October 4, 2004
The last time I spent a year in kindergarten I was 5. Now, 49 years later, I’m back.
Although I am a veteran teacher, kindergarten is a new assignment. I am an explorer, seeing the world through 5-year-old eyes. And, just like Lewis and Clark, some days I am thrilled at the adventure, and some days I feel about 200 years old.
In the weeks since school started, I know I’ve learned at least as much as my students. I’ve learned that every piece of clothing I wear shows playground dust, tempera paint and fingerprints. If camouflage didn’t send the wrong message, I might give it a try.
I have also learned to assume nothing. I can’t assume that children can button their own pants, blow their own noses, or tie their own shoes. I can’t assume they speak English, know what a book is for or even why they are at school. And while some children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn to read and write, others must first learn to sit and stay.
I’ve learned that the little toilets and drinking fountain in our room provide endless fascination and that my patience wore off long before the novelty did.
In addition, I have learned that there is no such thing as making them be quiet. Few bribes, few threats work at this age. For the most part, their motives are still pure. Five-year-olds must be inspired, drawn in, captivated.
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I’ve learned that keeping 5-year-olds safe, happy and engaged for 2 1/2 hours can be something like herding cats. While careful planning and preparation are important, flexibility is essential. I am constantly monitoring and adjusting. Did they understand? Do they need to get up and move? With the attention span of kindergartners being about two minutes, plus their age, my lesson plans are merely a road map of what I hope to accomplish. Frequently, life interrupts. And believe me, the children let me know if I’ve messed up.
Most important however, I’ve learned that every teacher – new or old – needs a mentor, a learned, trusted colleague with whom to collaborate. Each year, each class presents new challenges. We all feel overwhelmed at times. I am blessed with a mentor who is wise, kind and profoundly patient – just what you want in a kindergarten teacher. Dianne Tobey, after teaching a generation of kindergartners at Seeliger, is still excited by the possibilities and appreciative of the individuality of her students. Not to mention the rookie next door.
Those outside education may not realize it, but teaching can be a very solitary profession. When we close the door to our classroom, we are alone. No college course prepares a teacher for a classroom full of very real – not idealized – children. When teachers are allowed time to meet, plan, and solve problems together, it works to everyone’s benefit, especially the children.
For better or worse, most teachers will become like those with whom they teach. Imagine being around cynical, apathetic or just plain lazy co-workers all day every day. It would be hard for the even the sunniest among us to remain optimistic, committed and hard-working. I have been lucky. For more than 17 years, I have taught next door to and down the hall from true experts, true professionals. I have learned from each one, and I continue to learn by their example.
As America’s schools face the continuing challenge to educate an increasingly diverse population, we must be mindful that the real power to make a difference lies with the classroom teacher, not in a government-mandated program and certainly not in any standardized test. Recruiting talented new teachers is important, but retaining experienced teachers is critical to the success of America’s children. And although accountability reports don’t measure school morale, those who make policy decisions need to be aware of its significance.
Teaching is more than the right textbooks or materials. In addition to skill, it’s a positive attitude, an open heart and perseverance that make a good teacher. The ongoing support and encouragement of colleagues are vital. We need each other.
Robert Fulghum said it years ago in his essay about what he learned in kindergarten, “And it is still true, no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”
I am grateful to every teacher who ever stuck by me, especially this year. I am better because of you. Thank you.
Lorie Smith Schaefer teaches at Seeliger. She is also grateful to the 44 little teachers from whom she learns lessons every day.