August Schizophrenia

I know it is only the beginning of August and we do not start school until September 9th this year, and don’t think I am not relaxing and milking every second of my 72-day weekend, by any means.  But it is always this time of the year when I begin to think about, and get a teensy bit excited about, the coming school year. I start searching for new ideas online, begin reading or re-reading professional literature to enrich and focus my year, and write tentative plans, strategies, activities, unit webs, etc.   I am really beginning to look forward to teaching kindergarten in just a few weeks. Or wait, maybe I am beginning to look forward to teaching fourth grade in just a few weeks.   

At the end of last year, I was informed by my principal that it was very likely we would lose a section of kindergarten due to low enrollment, leaving one of us three kindergarten teachers without a class and precipitating some changes in grade-level assignments through the school.  Even though I have moved grades already five times in the fifteen years I have been in my current school ( fifth to first to third to fifth to kindergarten) and also changed classrooms seven times, I was the chosen one.  I won’t get into how I feel about that.  I am a professional; and I am certified to teach nursery through sixth grade; and I know that in New York City, grade level changes happen pretty much every year or two.   I know that if I have to make the change, I will rock fourth grade and enjoy doing it.  I just wish I knew for sure; we are waiting to see if there are seven new kindergarten kids registering before the beginning of the year.  I will literally get a call at anytime now letting me know which grade I will be teaching. And even that could change at the last minute, up until the first day of school.  So I am thinking about both grades, planning for both grades, and feeling decidedly up-in-the-air about it all.

I love teaching kindergarten.  Everything is new to the kids; and I mean everything.  How to listen,how to share,  how to line up, how to know when you have to use the bathroom so you ask before it is too late.  The academic goals are only one part of kindergarten, and I love that.  It is like being in a room full of puppies and kittens, who are learning about being part of a larger community, and learning about learning, and learning how to learn, and just plain old learning.  It takes energy of the physical kind, the patience of a saint, the ability to organize chaos, mitigate circumstances and ameliorate issues, and the willingness to guide newbies into becoming part of the fabric of school.   It takes sympathy, empathy, intelligence,  emotional maturity, enthusiasm, optimism, cheerfulness, vigor and endurance, to do it well.   The responsibility is huge:  this is the child’s first year of school and you can either help her love it or hate it.  I firmly believe that the emotions a child attaches to school during the very first year last the entire twelve or more years of education ahead.  I truly believe that this is probably the most important work of a kindergarten teacher, followed closely by the social and academic aspects.   Ideally, kindergarten embraces every child who walks through the door, no matter the family and background and language experiences, and helps that child become the best he can be.  Kindergarten, with its high highs and low lows, its tears and joy (which sometimes occur at the same time), its surprises and challenges , is unrivaled in its sheer volume of…everything.   It’s a huge year, the beginning of it all, and of all the grades, kindergarten  probably is the most all encompassing and significant year to teachers, students and families .  I think you get how I feel.

Will I love fourth grade? I have no doubt that I will.  It is the only elementary grade I have not yet taught, and I had a premonition that one day it would happen.    Now that it has (maybe), I have begun to ponder what it will entail.  In the old days, fourth grade was the grade that everyone wanted to teach.  The age of the children is a perfect mix of primary and intermediate developmental levels.  The kids still want to please and be loved by the teacher; lots of things are still new and exciting; friendships are still developing and in flux, allowing lots of social learning to occur that will form the future ability of each child to interact in society.  Fourth graders are eager about their growing independence while critically assessing the opinions of others.  They are still cooperative but learning to embrace competitive aspects of school.  They are resilient, but beginning to exhibit sensitivity to criticism and can become more easily discouraged.   They are concrete learners and tend to be more realistic than in prior years. They worry and can become anxious.  They are moving into “middle childhood”; it is a transition year.  Very cool.  

Now fourth grade has become the “testing” grade.   The children take hours worth of high-stakes tests throughout the year, and the scores for each class are published online and in newspapers, putting pressure on both the children and their teachers to “perform.”   Most teachers do not want to teach fourth grade due to this focus.  I see it as a challenge. 

I do not teach to a test.  I never have,  and I am not planning to begin now, after thirty years of working with children.  I help children learn the necessary skills, and I make sure they know and can apply them well.  I do this through constant, ongoing and pervasive assessment of their learning.  It is a seamless part of our day, as I watch, question, and record each child’s ability to complete tasks, and then adjust my instruction.  This is good teaching. I don’t need a state test to tell me how the kids are doing, and while I know that these tests are here to stay (unfortunately) for a while, I refuse to bend or bow to the pressure to get kids to reach for a number on tests that do absolutely nothing to help them on their educational journey.  In fact, I believe these tests are at best punitive and at worst criminally abusive to children, making them sit for seventy five to ninety minutes at a time over several days, speed reading passages and answering obscure, purposely confusing questions; or solving impossibly inane and bewildering math problems by writing detailed explanations of their thinking, without allowing them time to actually think.    I also believe they cause an incredible amount of stress, and turn children off to school and learning.  So I won’t be party to that, if I should wind up teaching fourth grade.  I look forward to the nine-year-old’s ability to read, write, respond, create, critique, find solutions and apply the Habits of Mind of successful learners.  I look forward to watching them make the transition to the next level of childhood development and I am determined to find joy in every single day.

And so, as I enjoy the wonderful waning summer warmth, getting things done around the house, visiting with friends, watching the hummingbirds swarm the feeders to fatten up for their long flight south, spending time doing things I will not have time to do once the school year begins, I allow that little germ of teacher-thought to sneak in and it brings a smile to my face. Even after all these years, I get butterflies in my stomach as I think about another September.  The summer that this spark does not occur will be the year I plan to retire. I swore to myself I would never be that teacher who is just counting the years until she can get the most return for the future.  I am there for the kids, and as long as I still feel that way, I will spend August getting emotionally and mentally ready for another year.  Round 31!

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One Response to August Schizophrenia

  1. Seema Boesky says:

    My dear teacher friends latest article on contemplating teacher grade 4 this coming school year. Had lunch with her yesterday, she is the one that mentors kids with dance and won last year’s competition. You might like to meet her one day.

    On Wed, Aug 7, 2013 at 8:22 AM, ordinarywomanextraordinarylife wrote:

    > ** > ordinarywomanextraordinarylife posted: “I know it is only the beginning > of August and we do not start school until September 9th this year, and > dont think I am not relaxing and milking every second of my 72-day > weekend, by any means. But it is always this time of the year when I begin > to thin”

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