Things I learned and things that happened after just one hour in a first-grade classroom:
1. First grade is such a big year for learning. Reading and writing skills grow exponentially. Kids master basic math operations for numbers up to 20. They learn to tell time, to count money, to follow complex directions, to work on their own and how to ask for help if they need it.
2. First-grade teachers have tremendous workloads. The preparation for one day’s lessons must be immense. I’ve written lesson plans for high-school chemistry and for 8th-grade science, and those are cake-walks compared to what an elementary school teacher must do. Every subject. Every day. Every child. The hand-written posters of examples and directions. The classroom management. The diverse needs of 16 children. The next time you run into a teacher, but especially an elementary grade one, give them a hug. Or better yet, a raise.
3. Today was the first time I’ve ever been called by my daughter’s preschool. She was crying uncontrollably and wouldn’t tell anyone why. That I had just said that she was finally ready to be apart from me does not escape me. Children are nothing if not ultra perceptive of any signs of their parents presuming to function without them.
4. First grade makes you tired. They are a sweet bunch of kids and I had the easy job of passing out a snack, then reminding them what they were supposed to be doing (writing an opinion), spelling words and helping some of the Spanish-speaking students with directions. It wasn’t taxing, but I felt totally drained after just an hour. Part of that comes from the isolation of parenting small children. I’ve always been an introvert, but then I worked in a tissue-culture lab for several years, meaning in a sterile hood, by myself for hours every day. And then I had two kids and stayed home with them for several years. Yes, they make lots of noise and the weird screeching and high-volume that comes with kids (even though they are paradoxically noise-sensitive,) but my whole life is surrounded by a thick bubble of silence and non-interaction. Even with grocery shopping and other errands, I can go whole days without any real human interaction. And I like it that way. (Sort of.) So being surrounded by chatty six- and seven-year-olds is particularly exhausting.
5. I realized I do not miss teaching. At all. I enjoyed it when I was there, and I liked teaching eighth grade science more than high-school chemistry, because eighth graders are a curious mix of jaded and naive. On good days, you can still get through to them and see them get excited when they make a discovery or connection. On bad days, they’re just narcissistic jerks. It’s about a 50/50 mix and hardly ever do you get every kid on a bad day at the same time. However, I left my son’s classroom nauseous and head-achy, probably because I was already getting a migraine when I went in, but still. The point in my teaching education where I was doing all the teaching/grading/planning in my student teaching position coincided with my first pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage. Walking through a school hallway while nauseous, even for non-pregnancy reasons, made me a little heartsick. I was offered a Bilingual Biology position at a nearby high-school the same day I found I was pregnant again and I turned it down. For lots of reasons, I’ve been fairly sure I wouldn’t go back to teaching, but as time goes by, that becomes more and more true.
6. I see a lot more volunteering in the classroom ahead for me. For one, my son was thrilled to have me there. For another, a bilingual student gave me a hug and thanked me for coming to help him with his work before I left. And the look the teacher gave me of relief and gratitude was also a great shot in the arm. I enjoyed it a lot…and I enjoyed leaving too.
If you can manage it, I recommend spending some time in your child’s classroom too. There’s all sorts of stuff to learn.