Earlier this year, I started my new teaching job in Kuwait and was informed that I would be teaching 5 year olds. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I was a qualified and experienced kindergarten educator. However- I am most certainly not. After 5 years of teaching, I have taught mainly at the high school and middle school levels (which I was trained to teach) with one year of elementary (grade 1-6). Initially I thought I would pack up my bags and leave Kuwait at the thought of being trapped with sticky, noisy 5 year olds all day. However I stayed, I accepted the challenge and now, I am so glad that I did! As requested by my avid readers, I am writing this post to share some of the differences I discovered between teaching kindergarten and Middle/High School.
You adjust your speed… and expectations.
When you teach older learners, you can give them instructions while writing the lesson objectives on the board as one of them hands out the novels to the other learners. Within the first 5 minutes, your lesson is in full swing.
When I started in kindergarten, I looked at the small, expectant faces sitting on the carpet and I wondered how we would read together. I handed out a few books to the kids sitting at the end of the row with the instruction, “Take one and pass it to the next person.” Responses ranged from:
- Passing one on and keeping the rest for himself.
- Putting all of the books in her lap and smiling widely.
- Taking one book and hitting himself on the head while the others tried to grab the rest from his lap.
I quickly learnt the beauty of showing them what needs to be done by leading by example. I learnt to make sure that I have their undivided attention before giving instructions. And I learnt how to use my tone of voice to emphasize what was important. Yes it takes longer before they know what is expected of them… but I am the person who showed them how to hold a book properly. Lifelong skill!
2. I had to alter my perceptions… Big time.
Everybody knows and respects what high school teachers do. Yes I used to hone public speaking skills, grade essays, plan pageants and offer life advice to teenagers traversing their way through adolescence. I am ashamed to admit that I assumed teachers who taught younger kids were just playing all day and learning how to count. What a fool I was! If you aren’t a teacher, you would be shocked to realize what 5 year olds are actually expected to know. It is not simply ABC’s and 123’s but rather things such as: fluently adding and subtracting within 5, quantifying and classifying objects, adding and subtracting within 10, reading CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words and high frequency words, observing and participating in science experiments and of course so much more!
I was utterly taken aback by what kindergarteners are supposed to know. Last week we were doing geometry (YES I KNOW) and I taught them the difference between the vertex and the apex. I had to look them up before I attempted to write the lesson plan! I have since altered my terribly wrong perceptions.
3. Life lessons can be taught in different ways
One of the things I really used to enjoy about teaching older learners were those lessons where we learnt things that were not on the curriculum. We would talk about which boys they liked, which girls they were trying to impress, their interests (which kept me aware of pop culture), sexual myths, advice on careers and so much more that helped them develop their intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.
I thought I would miss that when I started in kindergarten but I discovered that sometimes life lessons aren’t always delivered verbally. Kindergarten is actually probably the most important year for teaching children lifelong social skills. Things such as taking turns, conversations with peers, how to handle when you don’t get your way, managing emotions and sharing feelings. Those things are taught and cultivated each day in kindergarten and do not just “happen.” They also aren’t easy to teach and require showing them what to do, talking them through difficult situations and providing an endless source of comfort as well as hugs and love! If you are a parent then you know what I am talking about and you can only imagine what it is like to teach these skills to 25 kids on a daily basis.
4. The things I thought were so important are so insignificant now.
When I taught high school, I had such strict rules and high expectations. From how I was addressed, to the way they wrote the date in their notebooks, I was pretty stern.
Kindergarten has made me forget about all of those petty things. Yes there is the one kid who never calls me by my name and just says, “Teacher! Teacher!” whenever he wants my attention. I have learnt that even though bins don’t normally move, at least once a day there is always a student wandering around the room with dirt shouting, “Teacher, where is the trashcan?!” When they interrupt me as I am speaking to my assistant, it doesn’t even faze me; I continue with my conversation and just put one finger up; then they know they need to be silent and wait for me. Not much irritates me and I just don’t take myself very seriously anymore… I dance with my kids, sing in the assembly and make up silly rhymes to help them remember basic concepts.
Of course I have my rules and I am still strict in my classroom. But now I know that their innocence and joy about the smallest, seemingly insignificant things is much more important than what they call me or how they sit. They teach me to appreciate the little things in life everyday.
5. Cute does not mean predictable!
When I taught middle and high school, both in South Korea and in South Africa, a lot of my students were larger, taller and more intimidating than I would care to admit (Yes I am petite). The majority of my students were not particularly ‘adorable’ and adolescence frequently made them arrogant, insolent, sassy and prone to intense emotions at any moment. When I set eyes on my cute little KG students, I thought it was going to be so easy teaching these little munchkins. I sent photos to my friends and family of my kids and they agreed that I would be so stress-free with these lovable faces. They are cute, yes. They are lovable, yes. However, they are also 5 years old and learning how to deal with school.
Their social skills are emerging and depending on personalities, each day can be very different from the next. They cry, have tantrums, lash out, need support, are irritable, and so much more. It took me a while to adjust to this realisation and now I accept any reaction that is thrown my way. I realise that it is my job to help them deal with their feelings, just as I did when I helped my high school students. It just, however, isn’t always so “cute.”
It is enough to be present at the start.
Some of the kids I taught when I taught high school are already at university now. They send me beautiful messages from time to time about the impact I have had on their lives and of course it makes me feel amazing. I know my KG kids may never remember me and if they do remember anything about their year with me, it might the time one boy called me, “Sexy mama!” and we laughed so hard that one girl fell off her chair.
Ultimately as a teacher of older learners, when you encounter difficulties teaching a child a particular concept, you often go back to basics. But in kindergarten, you are the basics– there is nothing to go back to. So I need to teach those basics well enough to carry them not just through 12 years of school but also, through life. So it is ok if my kindergarten kids don’t remember my name or what I taught them; just knowing there are people out there who learnt to read or count because of me… it is more than enough… it is everything.
With teaching, each year is a new beginning. It’s like you can shake off the things you didn’t think went so well last year, and you are given a second chance. In my case, I have been fortunate enough to teach learners of all ages and many different cultural and religious backgrounds. For me, every year-actually, every day– is a challenge and I never find myself bored, which is why I love what I do. Teachers know exactly what I mean here. Teaching is NEVER the same from one day to the next. The constant flux of variables: students present in class, student moods, time of year, time of day, other events in the school, lessons for the day … all these variables make this profession a never-ending kaleidoscope of variety and change.
Being a teacher is not a boring job! Frustrating, yes, sometimes. Difficult. Yes. But boring, no! For someone like me, who loves adventure, you go on many journeys right within the walls of your classroom. Journeys of growth as students grow, you grow, and the class as a whole also grows. It doesn’t matter whether you teach high school or kindergarten, teaching influences every aspect of our students’ lives and shapes them into the adults they will later become. Each level comes with its own set of challenges and it is all about how you can learn to adapt, accept and inspire in spite of the trials. So whether I teach kindergarten or any other grade, my goal is evolve, to teach better each year than the year before, and to keep learning and growing.