Sunday, December 6, 2009

Reflections of a public school newbie

My kindergartner has been in public school for fewer than 200 days, and I've already been thoroughly "schooled" in how little I know about elementary education. Having taught at a university for the better part of a decade, I think of myself as an educator. But this fall has taught me that the differences between teaching highly motivated adults at graduate school and teaching 4, 5 and 6 year olds (all in the same class!) are enormous. If adult students are from Mars, kindergartners are from a galaxy far, far away.

I volunteer in my son's class 5-6 times a month. Every time I leave the classroom, I'm in stimulus overdrive. Five cleansing breaths and a brisk walk later, my nerves are only slightly less frayed. The reserves of patience I try to tap into when I work with a challenging kindergartner never seem quite deep enough. The teacher often asks me to work with a boy in class who truly can not sit still, who runs away from the classroom, who won't make eye contact, and who generally says "I can't do it" about every task he faces. I try to teach him to count to five, but it's as if he doesn't know what numbers are. We work on writing his name, but he rarely makes it past the first two letters. After 15 minutes or so, the teacher usually takes over. I go find another table of smiling, wiggly, eager kids to work with. I breathe easier. I smile and help them. I feel useful.

As I leave the classroom, I often wish I had been more creative with the challenging boy. Could I have worked with him longer, if only to give the teacher a longer respite so she could focus on the other kids?

The teachers in my son's classroom are wonderful. Kind, patient, creative -- and they are both female. So are most of the parent volunteers. Sometimes I wonder if the boy I work with would react differently to a man? Would he try harder? Make more of an effort? Perhaps not, but it's interesting to note how few male teachers there are at our school. From my own experiences co-teaching courses with women and men, I know that adult students often respond very differently to male professors than female ones.

Phillip Done is a third-grade teacher at a local Silicon Valley public school. He's one of those beloved teachers who has been teaching for twenty-plus years and has received several national teaching awards. Mr. Done recently published a book of his thoughts about teacherhood called Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind. I just finished reading it for the SVMoms Book Club, and as I read it, I often wished I could be in Mr. Done's classroom. Many of the chapters are light and funny, like the one about gifts in which he talks about "Mug Week" (right before Christmas) when all teachers receive their "#1 Teacher" mugs from their students. Or for the male teachers, their novelty ties that play Christmas carols. (Note to self: perhaps we should just give gift cards to the teachers this year!)

The book's serious chapters shed light on the humanity of a caring, loving teacher. There are tear stains on at least three pages in my copy of the book. Reading about a girl named Rebecca, I was reminded of the boy I try to help in kindergarten.

Rebecca had trouble reading and lacked confidence to read aloud in class. Her mom was in jail and she was being raised by her grandparents. She fought at school and cried because she missed her mom. Worrying about her one night, Mr. Done hit upon the idea of having her read to the dog that comes to school a few times a week with the school secretary. He pitched it to the girl as a way she could help out the secretary, who was too busy to read the Max, the school's beloved golden Lab. After a few weeks of reading with Max, Rebecca's reading and confidence had improved. She chose books that she thought Max would love and got excited to read to him. Wiping away my tears, I kept wondering if there is a similar way that I could help the boy in my son's class. I haven't thought of any yet, but I have resolved to keep trying.

Even though I'm a newbie parent at my son's school, I know how vital it is to have caring, creative, kind teachers for all children. I'm grateful that my son has such a teacher and that great teachers like Mr. Done are sharing their stories so the rest of us can learn a thing or two about how it's done.

Erica also blogs for SVMoms. She received a copy of the book Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind for free as part of the SVMoms Group Book Club. She had hoped to give it to a friend as a Christmas gift but had an incident with some hummus while reading it.


Rebecca said...

I really enjoyed this book. Good for you for volunteering! I think just showing you care will help that little guy in your sons class so much.

Bonggamom said...

I was sobbing so hard after reading that chapter with Rebeecca and the dog that I could barely see!

Phil said...

Hi. Phil Done here, author of Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book. Thanks for writing! I enjoyed reading your post. The "Rebecca" chapter is one of my favorites, too.

c2cmom said...

I often wish for more male teachers - in school, childcare, sports, music and art activities. I agree that males play, think, talk and lead differently, and it's such a shame that there aren't more men involved in this phase of growing up. Thank goodness for those like Mr. Done!

svtwinmom said...

In one of my son's kindergarten classes, two groups of children rotate through my center. The first seems to be ex-Challenger kids and they are way, way advanced and easy to teach (a few of them are 6). The other group has the young ones and one little boy in particular is very challenging. Sometimes I feel sad that I wasn't able to get through to him.

It's definitely amusing to see 4,5 and 6 year olds all in the same kindergarten class.

About Me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
About Me said...

Oh Erica. What a joy to read your blog. I smiled the entire time reading your thoughts because I experienced the same thing last year in Izzy's class.

When I volunteered I had to help students with their Dulch [site] words and I struggled. A lot. I kept saying to myself, "okay, I'm a licensed teacher. I train teachers for goodness sake. I can do this. Okay, no I can't." I realized fast there was a reason I went into secondary education.

Then I thought, "I had these students. They were just bigger."

So many of our students need people like you to come in and help. Even if it doesn't feel like you are. You are.

Can I offer you a challenge? Can you continue to volunteer like you are when O goes to middle school? High school? Parent involvement drops off significantly at that level. Just think if this boy had people like you coming in to help throughout his entire education. I bet he'd soon be sitting in your college classes one day.

Miss you!

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