Shortly after I lost my job last August I began toying around with the idea of going back to school to become a teacher. My sister-in-law, Becky, is a teacher and thought that maybe I should give substitute teaching a try, to see if I like it, before I invest my time and energy into a degree. Naturally, I put it off until she gave me no choice! And just as I expected to, I really, REALLY loved this week!!
“Volunteer at an inner city elementary school for a day. Shadow a teacher for an entire school day. Choose a school, not in the burbs, where 1 day of service can mean the world to those kids. Who knows, you may like it enough to eventually go in once a week :)” – from John and Becky Hayden (And my sweet little niece, Belle.)
I have written about my big brother, John, in previous posts so I will focus mainly on Becky’s intro. Becky became a part of the family long before she and John actually got married in 2010. My whole family has been vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Boca Grande, Florida since before I was born and because of these trips, our family is incredibly close. We also all grew up in the same neighborhood, so that helped. Our cousins are really more like siblings. Like new additions to any family, one must experience the “first impression” to see if they “fit in.” I have seen my cousins mercilessly ridicule “outsiders” on their first (and sometimes many, many more) introduction and I was quite nervous for Becky as she joined us on our first family vaca to Boca. Much to my delight, she fit in immediately! She cracked jokes, was perhaps a little surprised by some of our activities, but nonetheless, fired back whatever was thrown her way and was a welcome addition to our motley crew. I often joke that Becky reminds me of a Disney Princess and that I was waiting for woodland creatures to appear and make her a dress on her wedding day. This is partially because she sings and dances, but mainly because she’s just so sweet and legitimately looks like one.
Becky is also one of the best mothers I’ve ever known. She and my brother have done an incredible job raising Belle. She is independent, brilliant and super cute and I think much of that can be attributed to the fact that Becky is a teacher. I’ve never seen her in the classroom, but I’d imagine she’s just as patient, understanding and caring as she is with everyone else.
John and Becky know that I’m trying to figure out what I want to be “when I grow up” so giving me this challenge is perfect for what I’m going through. It’s a trial run of one of the many, many ideas I’ve been tossing around.
I put out a feeler message on Facebook a couple of months ago to see if anyone had any connections to the Cincinnati Public School district and could help me out with a future challenge. My friend Sarajane, whom I met in college, immediately replied, eager to help in any way she could.
Sarajane is a preschool teacher to 3 and 4 year olds at Woodford Piedia Elementary School in Kennedy Heights. This is, coincidentally, the age I was interested in teaching so it worked out perfectly. Rather than just do it for a day, (and since I have so much free time these days…) I opted to do an entire week. I wanted to give this a real run through to see if it was worth pursing for a career.
In order to volunteer in the CPS district you have to pass a background check, get approval from a residing principal and get a badge. I went to meet the principal at Sarajane’s school, get my form signed, visited the Hamilton County Justice Center for my $5 background check and off to the district offices I went for my badge.
We decided I would volunteer from Thursday to Thursday as this week was the Labor Day holiday and a special visitor was scheduled for Thursday that would be beneficial for me to experience.
I woke up Thursday morning and could not have been more excited. I seriously felt like a little kid on my first day of school. I even made my roommate take my picture before I left for the day. I walked into the classroom and met Ms. Campbell, Sarajane’s Paraprofessional, or teaching assistant. They showed me the lay of the land and a few moments later the children started to arrive.
A typical day in the classroom follows a pretty consistent routine. Weather and guests can sometimes rearrange Ms. S’s schedule, but for the most part, it’s as follows:
The children enter the classroom at 9 and go through health check. This is to see if there are any physical symptoms of illness, new cuts/bruises/etc. and confirm that overall appearance is good. This also ensures that both teachers and parents are aware of the physical state of the child and are on the same page before school starts each day.
Breakfast: All of the children are provided with breakfast upon arrival.
Pledge of Allegiance and School song. The children all stand for the pledge, any announcements and the song. I love this part because the kids know all the words and the message behind the song.
Woodford Spirit Song
My life is what I make it, who I become depends on me.
Every morning is a blessing filled with possibilities.
Every morning when I wake up I see the bright sunshine
I’m so glad to be at Woodford. I’m so glad to be alive.
Then Ms. S gives out jobs and each child gets one every other day.
- Door holder
- Breakfast Helper
- Lunch Helper
- Line Leader
The kids get really excited and enjoy the responsibility that comes along with their job. They also have the opportunity to “clip up” or “clip down.” This is a method of evaluating their behavior. If you clip up, you’re doing something good, and vice versa if you do something bad.
Then attendance is delivered to the cafeteria and front office before the kids head outside or to the gym to play.
After play time, Ms. S teaches the lesson and the kids have centers. If there is a daily project the kids will take turns completing it and playing on either the computers or in the kitchenette, reading or doing something else inside the classroom.
There is usually a bathroom break and a trip to wash hands at some point between play time and lunch. They have to go as a group as the regulations for teaching have deemed it necessary to have at least one teacher for every 10 kids.
Lunch is brought in and they dine, family style, together at the tables. This is to ensure that the children eat and get to experience what it is like to have a family meal. This is not to say they don’t have it at home, but to make sure that if they don’t, they’ll know what it’s like at school. It’s also easier to feed a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds in your classroom than to let them carry their own tray…
After lunch they play outside and go down for nap.
After nap is a snack and then their parents come to pick them up.
Each child must be signed in and out every day so they meet the parents on the playground for dismissal. For the most part, this is the daily routine.
Now, I LOVE kids so I began interacting with them the moment they started to enter the classroom. Day 1 was different than pretty much every other day. At this point, I was still caught up in how adorable they all were and how I just wanted to pick them up and play with them. I let them read to me and was completely blown away by how much they knew! I later discovered reading simply meant reciting the words they had memorized as a result of hearing them so many times.
This week they were learning colors. They have a book called Pete the Cat that all of the children absolutely love. I have now grown tired of this book as I think I heard it at least 23 times this week. I get it. He loves his white shoes, red shoes, blue shoes, brown shoes and wet shoes. That’s fantastic. On a more serious note, the message from the book is that no matter what he steps in, he doesn’t let it rattle him. It’s a great way to deliver some important lessons. But I never need to hear it again.
They went down for naps that afternoon and a woman named Jackie comes in to help during this time. This gives the teachers an opportunity to take break or get some work done. I began tucking the kids in like little burritos and Jackie asked if I would be coming back every day to do that because her back cannot do it. I laughed, but am pretty sure this was her way of saying please stop. Lesson learned the next 3 days when all of the kids begged “to be made into tacos for nap time.” It gave me a chuckle.
There are several kids in the class that tend to throw temper tantrums, disobey the rules and have a bad attitude. At first, I handled this by coddling them. Being that I have no professional training on handling these types of situations, I tried to calm them down by speaking to them calmly and trying to reason with them. Sarajane has had several of them in her classroom before and knows that this is repetitive behavior. I quickly learned that this not only validates their tantrum, but it teaches them to use them as manipulation for attention. In short, I now understand why the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. It was very difficult for me to hold back and not pick them up to figure out why they were so upset. Sometimes a stern voice and a confirmation that their behavior will not be tolerated are all that are necessary. There is also the threat of being taken to see Ms. Pierce, the disciplinarian of the school, if they do not clean up their act. By day two, I was on board with this plan. Hands on my hips, staring down at the little monsters in the midst of their outburst. I also took to reasoning with them. Metaphors, such as three strikes and you’re out, came in handy, and threats of missing out on special activities go a long way.
Then there are the hugs. SO many hugs. They would get up in the middle of what they were doing and come give you a hug, for no reason. So many hugs that at one point, Ms. S had to say “Ok, kids I love the hugs, but let’s save them for later.” A lot of these challenges have been, and will continue to be, child-related. I can confirm that there is no better feeling in the world than when a small person throws their arms around you and looks up at you and says “I love you.” Their sweet innocence and ability to care about everyone they meet is unparalleled in the adult world. I think that, as adults, we are too absorbed with our own lives that we don’t tell the people closest to us just how much we care about them. Now, obviously, these kids only knew me for a week and I wouldn’t go up to every stranger on the side walk to tell them I loved them. But you get my point. People should give more hugs. (Right, Nadyne Hayden?)
I’m truly amazed by how much these kids retain. Sarajane has a way of relating to the children that I have not quite comprehended. She gets through to them and they remember what she tells them. We did projects to help the kids learn their colors, like coloring rainbows and gluing the appropriately colored Fruit Loops in place. We also used watercolors to show what happens when you mix colors. Sarajane instructed me that some of these projects are multi-purpose. While learning what the colors do when they mix, we also learn whether or not they can properly hold a paint brush or comprehend shapes and follow directions.
When they are walking through the halls they do what is called “holding their bubble.” This means acting like they are holding an air bubble in their mouths. It’s a way of teaching them to be quiet and not interact with other students. They also hold their elbows with their hands so that they don’t touch things in the hallway. If another teacher or administrator of the school compliments the class on their hallway behavior, the entire class clips up. There is an elevator in the hall that they walk past all the time. Every trip to the cafeteria, to the bathrooms, to go outside – they go past this elevator. The kids always reach out and touch it. One of the trips past the elevator Ms. S stopped in front of it and explained to the kids that elevators go up and down and we have no need to go up or down. She also explained that only people with badges can open the elevator. After some repetition and extensive explanation, the kids understood not to touch the elevator. It was incredibly effective.
Sarajane gave me the chance to plan and teach my own lesson on Wednesday. She generally reads a book and then creates a project based on the book. I selected A Color of His Own by Leo Lionni. This is a book about a chameleon that gets upset because he changes colors every time he moves and he wants his own color like all of the other animals. He tries out lots of colors and eventually comes across another chameleon experiencing the same thing. The two decide to go everywhere together so that no matter where they are, they will always be the same color together. It teaches a variety of colors as well as the fact that companionship is more important than having his own color. Basically I just picked it for the color lesson.
I searched pinterest and found a way to dye rigatoni noodles with rubbing alcohol and food coloring. I dyed 6 different colors and had the children create noodle necklaces, naming all of the colors as they put them on their strand of yarn. In addition to this, I thought of something one of my teachers had done for me when I was little. I was an advanced reader in preschool and my teacher, Mrs. Sieber (who just so happens to be my best friend Megan’s mom…who know that would happen years down the road!?) created a key ring of note cards with words on each of them for me to learn. This was my first set of flash cards. I used that as inspiration to create color books for the kids. I made one for each child to take home and practice. They loved them!!
While teaching I realized that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. I tried to stick to the routine that Sarajane goes through with the kids, but found that I was more focused on remembering the way she did it than really delivering the lesson. I also think I read the book too fast. Commanding the attention of 20 three and four year olds is tough, but I got through it.
On Thursday, a group called Books in Action came into the classroom. They are a program funded by United Way that sends actors and actresses into the CPS classrooms to read a book, act it out, engage the children and create a learning experience unlike many others. It was a very entertaining afternoon and the kids seemed to really like it.
Now, from some observations I’ve made myself throughout the week I have determined that teaching can often be a thankless job. Some parents don’t appreciate all that teachers do for their children. They can blame the teacher if they’re child misbehaves. I have also realized Sarajane has to pay out of pocket for much of what decorates her classroom. She is given a small (read: very small) budget, to work with, but it really doesn’t cover much. This comes through an Early Childhood grant and from Crayons to Computers. The higher grade levels are not given the same stipend. There is also a SIGNIFICANT amount of paperwork that comes with EACH child. Most important of these forms is the ASQ. This evaluates whether or not children need an IEP or Individual Education Plan. She must also track if anything is given to the families to fulfill a need that she notices, which is also helping them out of her own pocket. There are monthly and quarterly evaluations, conferences and benchmarks for every single child.
One of the best things I learned that Woodford teachers are told to do is encourage the students to make “good choices.” If a student is misbehaving, Ms. S says things like “I don’t like the choices you’re making right now. Make better choices.” or “It makes me very sad to see the bad choices we’re making right now” instead of saying that they’re behaving badly. She also encourages children when she sees them behaving nicely. “DakAra is making great choices right now, boys and girls” or “friends making good choices will be asked to line up first.” It was one of the first things that stood out to me and I think it is an excellent way to redeliver the message of the school song “My life is what I make it, who I become depends on me.” I also love how when kids answer a question correctly, Ms. S says, “Kiss your brain!” Then the kids kiss their hand and pat themselves on the head. They grin from ear to ear and that is exactly the kind of positive reinforcement preschoolers, and students of all ages, need. When Sarajane must be stern with a student, she always makes sure to pull them aside later and remind them how special they are, how important they are and how much she cares about them.
I hate to say it, but I definitely had my favorites in the classroom. I tried not to, but I know I interacted more frequently with some of the kids than others. There was one child in particular that really stood out to me and I really connected with him and that had a tremendous impact on my experience as a teacher. I will miss seeing them every day, but am grateful for the lessons they have had on me. I am having a difficult time processing the fact that you cannot get attached to the kids. They have their own parents and will move on to different teachers as they continue to learn. I was very impressed with the amount of patience Sarajane and Ms. Campbell have for these children. I have a new found respect for every teacher I ever had. And I apologize immensely for misbehaving. Ever. You all are saints.
I have since filled out an application to become a substitute teacher for the Early Childhood division of the Cincinnati Public School District. Should I decide to pursue my teaching degree, which is sounding more and more likely by the day, I hope to be half the teacher that Sarajane is. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to come into her classroom, observe her and interact with her students. Thank you also to the parents for allowing their children to participate in Learning to Hit the Curve. I had such an incredible time this week and hope to go back and visit my new little friends in the future.
I found out on the last day that half of the class thought my name was Miss Cake, not Miss Katie. I thought I was hearing them wrong all week, but it turns out I was correct. I had to inform them that I was not, in fact, named after dessert. I also wish I’d kept track of how many shoes I tied this week…