Confessions of an Elementary School Teacher
So you want to be an elementary school teacher? It's a challenging career, requiring first a college degree that prepares you for the intellectual side of the job; and second social skills, as you have to be able to wrangle a room filled with rambunctious children.
But as our confessions below prove, once you get through the tough stuff, it is a career that is often filled with immeasurable rewards. And if you're an elementary school teacher already, please tell us your funniest/saddest/most inspiring stories in the comments section that follows our confessions.
In the beginning as an elementary school teacher, enthusiasm and innocence see you through days of exhaustive preparation and learning to juggle all the hats you must wear. Mid-career, experience and the resolve to make a difference push you stubbornly through endless days working sunup to sundown. Later, as you near the age many retire, passion and a sense of achievement keep you at your post long after others have left the profession. On any given day your duties may include those of mentor, guide, parent, nurse, coach, artist, musician and instructor -- you are all those, and an elementary school teacher.
Most veteran elementary teachers would probably agree that the profession is a calling or an addiction, not just a job. Our classrooms become second homes, full of all the necessities of life since we almost always put in extra hours much of the school year.
During the year, our sleep reduces to fewer and fewer hours filled with an increasing number of dreams related to our most "special" students. Personal activities unrelated to our classroom suddenly become missions filled with searching for the perfect picture book, craft project or supplies that will keep our students learning, excited, safe and happy. Even vacation breaks cannot escape the grasp of our classroom, as we snap pictures of things our students will love, seek out teacher-friendly stores in far-off cities and explore historical sites with the intent of sharing them with our students. Teachers that do not feel this calling or "addiction" do not last long in the elementary profession, because the job requires so much more than teaching.
Chaos, be it organized or otherwise, comes with the elementary school territory. Nerves of steel help; however, you must learn to go with the chaos and create as many learning experiences as possible along the way. Fighting chaos in an elementary classroom is futile, so just go with it.
For example, one small, innocent cricket wandering lost through your classroom door can create chaos where moments before everyone was peacefully reading. Of course, the cricket always lands near the girl with the loudest shriek, setting off more shrieking, running and jumping as the poor cricket jumps wildly around the room. My choices here are simple. You can scream and yell for quiet, or calmly walk to the cricket, place it in a jar and use it as a quick insect lesson or storytelling prompt. If I choose to scream and yell for quiet, chances are the children nearest the jumping cricket will continue to whisper, scream and stand on chairs. Let's say I get the cricket and scowling, throw it back outside and demand the students get back to reading. What happens? My students whisper and laugh about the cricket for the next 20 minutes, which equals zero learning. However, if I catch the cricket and give a quick lesson on insects, complete with drawing our unexpected guest, my students will happily spend the next 30 minutes writing poems and stories about it. Go with the chaos to help keep elementary kids learning.
That is not to say you will never find yourself in completely unfamiliar territory, speechless and without a clue as to how to continue. Elementary kids, and their parents, are unpredictable, to say the least. Each day unfolds with the chance of both wonderful and horrible moments. As an elementary school teacher, you have to learn that schedules and plans are extremely fluid items. Have a backup plan -- always. I learned this during a multicultural art lesson for which I had spent weeks and quite a bit of money preparing.
Four at a time, my students came to one table at which I helped with a particularly difficult part of the activity, so that the supplies would not be wasted. As we worked, one little girl started to feel sick and stood to tell me this as I was passing around a bucket of carefully prepared specialty art papers. The last words I heard were "I think I'm going to --" before warm liquid splashed all over my hands and into the bucket of art paper I was holding! Gone were my supplies, gone was my settled stomach and out was my antibacterial soap as soon as I could get the poor girl off to the clinic. Of course, everyone saw and heard this happen and could not stop squirming and discussing it. We ended up scrapping the whole project because I had no other paper for that part of the project. So always have a backup plan and supplies.
On the other hand, always be ready to abandon your plan and supplies. Parents and kids do not always communicate clearly. I once ended up with what I thought was going to be a 10-minute classroom photo opportunity and good-bye for a student who was leaving turn into an hour-long speech by a guest during the good-bye moment!
The reason? It turned out that Mom's message to me through the student was lacking in details, so I did not realize this student's father was a wounded war hero who traveled the country giving motivational speeches. I thought this was just a dad coming to pick up a student who was moving, there to take a few pictures. He arrived late, walked in on our class going-away party and started speaking to the kids. To make things worse, I was initially aggravated at him for his tardiness, as our scheduled party was already running late. However, I kept on passing out cupcakes as he spoke.
Suddenly, I realized who this man was and how fortunate my students were to receive this free speaking engagement. I abandoned our planned party games and crafts, and as the kids enjoyed party snacks they listened to the speaker. Needless to say, they gained much more from the speaker than from some silly games and crafts. So always be open minded to changing your plans for the good of your students.
Though my hats are many, my hours are long and my monetary rewards not so grand, I will continue teaching elementary school as long as I can mentally and physically do it. Something about a teenager returning to visit you after many years to tell you all the cool things you did that he remembers makes elementary teaching an amazing career! I know I have made a difference and left my mark on the fond memories of many children. I cannot ask for a better reward.
-- Liz Stover
I've been a teacher most of my adult life. I've been a preschool teacher, an elementary school teacher and a substitute teacher. I've been a teacher to my own children at home. Wow. When I think about it, that's a lot of teaching. Now, if only I could teach my husband! Tee-hee. (We'll save that for another article).
The best part and the worst part of teaching, is the kids. It's kind of an oxymoron, but nonetheless, it is the truth.
Some kids you just want to take home with you and adopt them, like Miss Honey did to Matilda in the movie 'Matilda.; They give you hugs, they tell you that you are the best teacher they have ever had, they just make your day. I had one little boy when I was teaching first grade who brought me an apple every day. He had the cutest little Southern accent, and one day confessed, "My daddy says I have a crush on you." Fortunately for me, apples are not fattening, because I would eat every single one.
Other kids can act so rotten, you wonder if they were spawn of the devil. Once I had a classroom of sixth graders that were so bad, I seriously considered walking out of the room, getting into my car, driving away and never looking back. No kidding. I ended up calling the principal on the intercom speaker, and he had to come down to the room and give them a serious lecture. I could not understand why these kids were even in school. I had come to the conclusion that most of them would drop out of school and end up in jail for one reason or another. Of course, I was a substitute teacher at the time -- and let me tell you, that job encourages hazing of the teacher at its finest. I will never forget what that class of kids taught me about teaching: When the going gets tough, call the principal!
Then there are kids that just cry in school. You aren't always sure why. It's always wise to place a box of tissues on their desk, pull up the trash can and let them get serious. I had one little boy cry, and then I found out it was because he didn't want to do the lesson. Then he told me he didn't need to pay attention because he had ADD. I told him I didn't care what he had, he still had to try, and it was no excuse to not follow directions and complete his work like everyone else. And it seemed to work.
The little kids are the most challenging. They need help tying their shoes, blowing their noses, buttoning their coats, putting on their hats and their gloves. They drop things, spill things and make the biggest messes. They also are the ones who express the greatest joy at the littlest of things. A bubble blowing in the wind, spotting an airplane overhead. Writing their name for the first time or discovering an ant walking across the dirt on the playground. The tiniest things mean the most.
I can't say I've ever regretted my choice of being a teacher. I have stored great treasures in my heart from many a student who taught me something about life. I've seen students struggle, but work and work and work to achieve their goals. Completely inspiring. I've seen other students just float by when they have so much more to offer. I've seen others not try at all. So very sad. I've seen acts of great kindness expressed. I've often been on the receiving end of those acts of kindness.
When I became a teacher, my mother said to me, "Never be mean to a child." At the time, I thought she must be crazy. "Some kids are just plain lunatics," I wanted to explain. She never seemed convinced. Soon after saying that to me, my mother passed away. As time went on and as I continued on my journey of teaching, I began to understand what she meant. I began to make a conscious effort to not react angrily when a student did something wrong. Instead I chose to be kind and to find a constructive solution. I steered away from any reaction out of anger or meanness. Well, at least most of the time. Nobody's perfect. However, as I did that, I began to take note of what happened. What I noticed is that my kindness spawned kindness. My respect spawned respect. Even the "bad" kids, weren't so "bad' anymore.
So yes, the best thing and the worst thing about being a teacher is the kids; but I wouldn't want it any other way. Thanks, Mom.
-- Diane Niccolai
I confess! I loved teaching elementary school students. I especially loved the fifth graders. In the first school where I taught, the fifth grade was a wild and woolly lot. The previous fourth grade had been divided into two classrooms, but when I applied to the school, I was told that the previous large fourth grade was being separated into three classrooms. The principal decided that the new teacher should be tested, so I was given the class containing all of the previous fourth-grade problem children and troublemakers.
But what did I know? They were children. I expected some not-so-perfect times, but as I gazed at my first class, on my very first day of teaching, and saw 17 beautiful children, I fell in love. They, however, were not so sure of me. They began by looking at each other and grinning. Then one large fellow took a shoe from a much-smaller boy, and threw that shoe out the window. I somehow knew that the big fellow wanted an excuse to leave the classroom, and that if I sent him after the shoe, he would probably not return. So I chose another child (a girl) to retrieve the shoe, and asked the class to sit down. The first day ended without further incident.
The class, however, was just getting warmed up. The next day, I entered the classroom to find the students sitting quietly in their seats with their hands folded on their desks. However, my desk was missing! "WOW!" I thought, "What's this?"
But instead of yelling and carrying on, I asked quietly where the desk was. The students just shrugged silently. So to make a weird situation more weird, I asked the students to stand and to drag their desks into the corridor, leave them there and return to the classroom. They did return, and when they did, I asked them to sit on the floor. I sat on the floor, too. I told the students that if I couldn't have a desk, neither could they.
They didn't seem to mind, as I began teaching them about narrative poems. I told them that my favorite was 'The Highwayman,' which I knew by heart. I recited a couple of verses, and asked them to repeat after me. They had just gotten to the second "Tlot, tlot" when the principal darkened the classroom door. He wanted to know what we were doing on the floor. "Saying a poem," answered the class. The principal turned to me, so I explained what happened. Then the principal let out a mighty roar and shouted at the students to get THAT desk, NOW!!! Those kids scrambled, retrieved my desk from the boys' room and returned their desks to the classroom.
Nothing as weird ever happened to me in my teaching career again. However, the love never ended. Students are wonderful, and can teach a teacher a lot.
-- Jeannine V. Pondozzi
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