If I’ve learned anything in the last three months, it’s that I’m not meant to be an elementary school teacher, but I can survive it. Yesterday ended my brief career of team-teaching an unruly 3rd grade class, and now that the dust has settled, I’m left looking back, pondering what I’m supposed to take away from the experience. By all appearances, my work was successful. The class didn’t transform before our eyes – they’re still the mischievous trouble-makers they always were. But at least with me there, they were able to function as a class. Learning happened. I watched my team-teacher take on some of my more firm mannerisms (that was weird – watching another teacher act like me). I even formed some sort of bond with some of the students and they responded well to me. However, I have not been converted to an elementary teacher. I missed high school students!
Nevertheless, since I’m writing a blog post about the experience, I thought I’d point out some of the differences I noticed, for good or for bad, between teaching elementary school and teaching high school:
- Physical contact. I never would touch high school students nearly as much as I touched the 3rd graders. I guided them back to their seats with a hand on their backs or shoulders. I placed pencils in some hands and removed toys and other items from other hands. They gave me hugs. That was weird. Every high-school-teacher-trained fiber of my being avoids giving students hugs (except maybe at the very end of the year when I say goodbye. That’s it. Even then, I try to keep it to a side-hug.) It’s too easy for someone, even just an outside observer, to get the wrong ideas and cause trouble. But apparently my private school elementary-teacher coworkers hadn’t gotten the same message pounded into them, and they hugged their young students on a regular basis. So I went with it. It was a little disconcerting, but kind of sweet.
- The pencils. I’ve never had so many problems with pencils in the classroom in my life. If a high school student doesn’t have a pencil, that’s their problem for not being prepared for class. But not with the 3rd graders. “Mrs. Roberson! Someone stole my pencil!!” “She broke my pencil!” “That’s my pencil! Give it back!” “I can’t write! My pencil’s broken! The sharpener isn’t working!” And yes, the exclamation points are necessary. They yelled these things. And the problem was that they did steal each other’s pencils. They broke each other’s pencils. They threw pencils at each other. And yes, most of the time, the pencil sharpener was broken. Early on I brought in a pack of pencils to use in emergencies so we could move on with the class. Within a week, my emergency pencil stash was used up. Yikes.
- The crying. High school students will swear, complain, grumble, and yell, but when they’re angry, they usually don’t cry. At least not in front of me. As soon as the 3rd graders realized that my threats weren’t empty and they were in fact going to the principal, they planted themselves on the sidewalk and cried, begging not to go.
- The discussions (or lack thereof). I missed the ability to have a strong class discussion. Mainly that’s because these students needed so much structure that we simply didn’t have the freedom for a general discussion. I tried a few times during religion classes, and sometimes we came close to something that was like a good discussion, but then a student would make an inappropriate joke and I’d lose the whole class to laughing at fart noises. Yes, I know teenage boys still laugh at fart noises, but I can usually get them back on track quickly. I couldn’t get the 3rd graders back.
- The gifts. To end on a positive note – even though I yelled at these students more than I’ve yelled at any other job, they constantly showed me their appreciation in the form of gifts. Students drew me pictures and folded origami for me (and my husband, whom they never met). They brought me presents on my last day, too. High school students just don’t do that as much. I know the teenagers appreciate me, and I have received some amazing presents from my students before (check out my post “Remarkable Teens: Jacob” for one example). But gifts from high school students are less common. The 3rd graders gave me things all the time. Even though I yelled at them. Amazing.
Despite how out of my comfort zone this job was, I’m very thankful for it. Not only did it provide consistent employment and a paycheck for the few months I lived in Florida, it also gave me a place to belong. The teachers welcomed me with open arms and the students appreciated me. It allowed me to cling to my professional identity as a teacher. I could have lost that so easily this year, moving every three months. So I remember my 3rd graders with a smile, even as I appreciate the rest my voice is now getting.