A peek inside kindergarten

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On my first day as a Teacher’s Aide in kindergarten, I sat perched on a silver bench outside the classroom, watching the stream of children and parents ebb and flow around the Stage One courtyard. What seemed like an ocean of children washed up around my feet, squawking and chattering like a flock of seagulls. There were more children in one class than in the entire tiny school where I had last worked, and I wondered if I would ever get used to the noise and apparent chaos. A woman crossing the courtyard towards me caught my eye and smiled. I smiled back immediately, as if in recognition of a kindred spirit. She had short, black spiky hair, a mischievous smile and a spark in her dark eyes. I liked her immediately. “You must be Sara,” she said warmly, grasping my hand. “I’m Maria. Welcome!”. At that moment a parent approached with a question and she excused herself, promising to return. I watched her go, both majestic and motherly, adults and children halting her progress every two steps or so.

As I got to know her better, over days and weeks of interrupted conversations, I would discover a deeply dedicated teacher with a huge heart and a wicked sense of humour. She has a creative, occasionally chaotic mind with an ability to hold and solve a myriad of tricky dilemmas and impossible conundrums while juggling a dozen tasks and projects. I was in awe of her dynamism, and often felt like her slow younger sister, scurrying to keep up, sometimes slightly bewildered. She works long hours, starting early, finishing late and coming in on weekends. The school day does not leave teachers much time to plan, organise or attend to the multitude of other teaching tasks, such as phoning parents, writing letters, talking to health professionals, organising excursions and performances or God forbid, planning lessons. My experience of teachers over the past eight years of my own childrens’ schooling and two years of working as a teacher’s aide is that they are extraordinarily hard working. They put in many hours of overtime, pay for resources out of their own money and do all kinds of unexpected and thankless tasks. In my mind, they are the unsung heroes of our community.

“He’s a lovely little boy”, Maria had said the night before when briefing me over the phone on the child that I would be looking after as part of my job. “You won’t have any trouble with him. He’s ASD and has some speech difficulties. There will be a speech therapist coming in once a week to work with him and I want you to sit in with them so that you can work with him on the other days.” Education seems to have more than its fair share of indecipherable speech terms and acronyms: ASD is code for Autism Spectrum Disorder, a blanket term for a multitude of behaviours and symptoms. It tells me absolutely nothing about what this little boy was like. Would he like me? Would I like him? What would be the best ways to help him? Did I have the appropriate skills and knowledge? I felt suddenly nervous and inadequate.

I was filling in for an existing SLSO (another acronym!) who was finishing the last year of her High School teacher’s degree and was on a seven week work placement. Teacher’s Aides or Student Learning Support Officers (SLSOs) are funded according to need, and that need is usually one or more students who have an official diagnosis and need support of some kind. In the school that I am working in there are two kindergarten classes and one K/1 class, each of which has 18 children and a full-time SLSO. The school has decided to supplement the aide funding for kindergarten as a way of acknowledging the heavy, hands-on workload for kindergarten teachers. So, although some of my funding is provided by one child, I am considered the aide for the entire class.

I soon realised that the recipe for success for a teacher’s aide in kindergarten is not complicated theories on childhood education or learning strategies. It was much more simple than that: love + patience, and you could never have too much of either.  At the end of first term, there were still some children who were four years old in among fives and the odd six year old. There were children who had never been away from their mothers, and most had not attended preschool full-time. Some were ready for school, some would be once they settled in and some would have been better off staying at home until next year. Some kids thrive in the structured environment of a classroom, some will get used to it, and others will probably always struggle. For an aide, it doesn’t matter which category a child was in, because there is one thing all children thrive on: attention.

There is no average day in kindergarten. I never really know what kind of day I’m going to have, because it all depends upon the children. Will D be peaceful or a warrior princess? If her hair is unbrushed and she has her fanciest patent leather boots on, it usually means that she has got the better of her mother that day, and we’re all in for it. Has S had enough sleep? He has a lot of trouble sleeping at night, which makes him tired, wired and over sensitive. How is B today? She is a most delightful child with big grey eyes, an expressive mouth and a halo of curls, but she often misses her mother and has a sadness that all the fun can’t hide. C isn’t here yet, but that’s normal – Before he came to school, he had never been away from his mother for even a day. He is bright but very sensitive. He is distraught when he can’t do things as well as he’d like to or when things don’t go to plan, which is often when you are 6. I could go on, but the bell has rung, and it’s time to go into class. Uh oh. L is sitting by himself, arms crossed, a deep crease between his eyebrows and a face like a thundercloud. I go up to him and ask if I can be his partner, and the light returns to his face. He slips his little hand in mine and we walk to the classroom steps.

The children sit on the big blue and white mat at the front of the class, eating their fruit while their names get marked off the electronic role on the interactive whiteboard. Everyone that is, except for C who doesn’t eat fruit, but likes to have it so that he doesn’t feel left out. Maria quickly briefs me on what we will be doing for the day, what she would like me to do (check homework folders, do word lists, take this to the office for photocopying, listen to these children read, sharpen pencils, hang these posters up on the line, add these photos to the photo collage outside the classroom, sit with these four boys at the jellybean table while they do their writing so that they actually do some work, draw and paint some stage decorations for a performance and see if you can tidy up this area if you have time) and any issues with the children that I need to know about. I take N for word lists, and he is shocked that his homework bag is here: “Mum must have snuck it in!” We sit down at a little table outside the classroom and I point to the first word on the list: TOP. He uses his detective finger to point to each sound, saying T-O-P…top! He stares in surprise at the word and then at me. “Top! How did I know that?” I grin gleefully and tell him that he has secretly learned how to read without knowing it. We go down the list, and to his surprise and delight he knows most of the words. I am not surprised but I am delighted.

I return to the classroom and look around. Maria has made four round tables and covered them with brightly coloured plastic, and the children sit in groups of four or five around each table, with pots of coloured and lead pencils in the middle to share. G, an intelligent, gentle but anxious boy, with a habit of rubbing his head and biting his lips when worried, has finished first as usual and Maria asks me if I can sit and do some more nuanced writing with him. He has the ability, but it is more important to him to be finished his work quickly than for it to be great. So, we sit outside the classroom and talk about the event they were writing about (a dance they did for Open Day) encouraging him to remember and describe things in more detail and then put some of those ideas into words. When I go back in, N and I want to show me their good work, C is under the table crying, mortified because he didn’t know all his words in his word list… and it’s time for me to go to morning tea.

The day literally evaporates under my fingers. I don’t think I have ever had a work day go so fast as a day in kindergarten. We end the day with a story, and I sit with the children and listen and laugh as well. The children nearby edge back until they are touching me. S wants to sit on my lap, but I know from experience that if I allow one child to do that they they will all want to, so he sits as close to me as he is able to and listens. Even with all of the new technology – the ipads, interactive whiteboards and instant internet access – a story will still hold their attention, just as it always has. The parents, grandparents and carers have started to gather around outside the classroom, and one by one, the children get their bags and greet them happily. My own daughter will arrive shortly – her class is on the other side of the school – and I look around our classroom. It looks like a bomb has hit it, but I know that Maria will be here until 6pm doing all the things that can’t be done in a school day, and by tomorrow morning it will be completely repaired. Sometimes we have time for a quick chat when the kids have gone, but not today – Maria is on bus duty and has to hurry up to the bus lines so that she can connect children and buses for the next 30 minutes.

She sends me a message that night:

As usual did not get time to chat really. Thanks again for everything you do amidst the mayhem that is school. Tomorrow we can just chill write read and be prosperous without interruption. We might have a crack at a cube mobile tomorrow and some 3D classifying, dinosaur writing etc I will put it all on paper so you don’t have to read my cluttered mind. I love having you with us and really appreciate all you do.

The Bear is amazed that I  am working with kindergartners and loving it – you’re so cranky and prickly! – but for some reason, that part of me doesn’t come to school. Maria worried at first that the work was not intellectually challenging enough, but I assured her that I get plenty of opportunities to be clever, and that’s not what I’m here for. My patience is definitely tested at times, but can I tell you a secret? Not by the kids. I can’t get cranky with them, it’s just impossible. Everything is so new, the world is so big, and they are so small and vulnerable. I feel open-hearted around them, like the muscle that works acceptance and unconditional love is being exercised continuously. If they suffer, I suffer. If they are happy I am happy. If that is the case, then it is in my self interest to make them as happy as possible. Perhaps kindergartners are teaching me a much bigger lesson than I could ever teach them.

21 comments

  1. I’m married to a former high school teacher. I couldn’t agree more that teachers are SO under-appreciated. Every time I see a news story that suggests another thing be added to the school curriculum, I want to send that person into a classroom for a few weeks and see if they still feel the same. (actually, that is my thought after wanting to strangle them 🙂 I spent quite a bit of time in pre-school and primary school when our daughter was attending–enough to know I was not made for it at all. Like you, I did love the children and had plenty of patience but it made me overwhelmingly tired. Just too much stimulation for my psyche. But it certainly gave me deep appreciation for what my husband did and what all our daughter’s teachers and aides did over the years. I tried to do my part from home by sending to them a well rested, polite, happy child. Thank you for this insight, bless you for loving your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I tried to do my part from home by sending to them a well rested, polite, happy child.” Omg that’s half our work done for us – extra points for feeding them well too! I hear you about the work that teachers are expected to do and the miracles they are expected to work within the space of a school day/week/year in the confines of a curriculum. I mean, come on people. I find it terribly tiring as well, especially full time, although like every job, there is a work fitness that develops.

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  2. Sara what a beautiful read.. I so admire you and all teachers who devote their lives to helping educate and bring joy into the lives of so many children.. I love the age group you are working with.. Having a 5 and as she often says a Half when asked her age I often am enveloped within their world.. And doing the school run often I can appreciate the mayhem it at times must feel like
    I am so thankful for teaches and their assistants who have and bring so much love and patience into the classroom

    So different from my own schooling of having pieces of chalk thrown at you and living in fear for doing wrong.
    So pleased that times have changed..
    My daughter in law is studying and has a part time placement voluntary at the moment one day a week in a Primary School 5 to 11 yr olds. She is working with the Foundation class of new starters and loves it.. And is hoping to get her qualification to work full time with them as she has another job 2 days a week at the moment..

    Well done, I know how draining those young enquiring minds can be where every other question is WHY?

    Love and Hugs and have a great week at Kindergarten and at home with your family
    Love Sue ❤

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    • Gosh yes, times have changed, for sure. One day last week I worked with a semi retired teacher in her 60s who is doing a bit of casual teaching. She surveyed the room of children and said, “I love working with small groups like this, it’s so different from when I started. The first class I taught had 59 kindergartners.” My eyes bulged – “59? with one teacher and no aide?” “Yes – there were 39 when the year started, and then another 12 came in the April intake. We had to be very structured.”
      Far out. We do get better for sure, and most teachers are there because they love working with children and education. It does take a special skill set to work with kindergarten and 1st class though – they aren’t the same as the rest of the kids.

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  3. What a fantsstic read, the warmth and depth behind the words carried me along, joined with my memories of school which I loved, and took me back to being 5 years old seated on a mat listenening to my wonderful kindergarden teacher reading a story. Similar to the kids you describe, lots going on at home but at school I was just me, felt the same as the other kids and until now had no idea of how much work went into enabling that ♡

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    • Thanks Dale, your comment is beautiful. It’s amazing how long our kindergarten years stay with us. And yes, the work and dedication that it takes to create that experience is phenomenal. The teacher that I wrote about in this piece is embarrassed by all the attention, but she so deserves a bit of love!

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  4. I love kids (though I admit I’m perhaps not as patient as you are with them) and this was such a heartwarming read. You described the atmosphere so well that I could almost hear the kids in that classroom with you, in all their boisterous, sensitive glory. My one experience with a class of kids was when I acted as the piano accompanist for a choir class of 1st graders. And you are absolutely right when you say that no matter what kind of personality they have, all kids thrive under attention. My favorite thing to do was to pick out the shyer kids, who tended to hover on the edges of the group of kids who’d surround me during break and say hi to them. Just a simple “Hi there!” was often enough to light up their faces in surprised delight that someone noticed them. I’m sure your classroom kids love you and Maria also sounds like a wonderful teacher. 🙂

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    • Hi Lillian 🙂 Patience with kids has only come about about after years of raising them. I could never have worked in a classroom unless I was a mother, because before then I had no clue about them. It’s lovely to see the barriers melt, with even the shyest kids – they mostly just take the longest to relax, that’s all. And, Maria is lovely, although she is wondering what on earth all the fuss is about!

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  5. Thank you Sara for your wonderful description of teaching and school. I don’t think people who have not been classroom teachers and workers are aware of the complex nature of what we do, the many split second decisions we must make, and all the skills and emotional strengths we have to bring to bear in the classroom. I just completed my first week of the new school year, and it is my last year of teaching. I am retiring at the end of this year. So as I do everything, I am keenly aware that this is my last time–Last time setting up my classroom (and last time for David to come and help me do it), last first week, etc. This is my 24th year teaching (always 8th grade English) and it has gone by so quickly. Your description is correct. The days fly by faster than one could believe. Teaching is a constant whirl of activity, thoughts, and interactions. Interestingly, there is not such a great difference between what you describe in Kindergarten and what I experience with 14-year-old students. They still, most of all, want our attention. And yes, love and patience are most important.

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    • Dear Diana,
      Your last year! How momentous. Everything will be poignant this year I suspect. It’s a whole new stage of life to explore. Exciting!
      It is such an eye opener being in a classroom, which seems strange, because our nation’s children are educated without many parents knowing what goes on in their classrooms. As you can see, I am not really satisfied being that kind of parent. I am always curious,and I guess that’s what lead me there in the first place. I am still curious, which is a good thing for me. Thank you for your lovely comment, it is always nice to read you here.

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  6. Sara, what a wonderful and thorough description of the Kindergarten day of an aide, a teacher, and lovely students, I’ve fallen in love with Maria and the students, and of course, you, with your patience and commitment. Of course your story brings back memories of my Kindergarten days and the teacher, Miss Warnicke, a tall, pencil thin, dear woman who could hold up a pad in front of her and draw backwards, which fascinated me. She once washed my mouth out with soap, but I deserved it, for spitting at someone–though that particular brand of soap was the most evil tasting on the market.

    My wife, Diana, is a teacher, of course–she already wrote you a comment. My son is a school principal, and his wife is a high school counselor. So when we all lived together (while they were looking for a house) the subject at dinner was, “how was school today?” Which I loved, because it was so different from my day of hammering away at a keyboard.

    Thank you for the post. It was such a great pleasure to read. I recognize too the skill it was written with. That’s typical of you.

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    • Hello David, it’s lovely as always to see you here. It must have been very interesting to be living in a house with all those kinds of educators – well, I would think so anyway. I love talking to teachers :). It cracks me up (and shocks me) that teachers would wash out the mouth of a kindergartener, or any child for that matter – how times have changed. I can just imagine the furore that would land upon the head of a teacher that did much less these days. Now a parent will be incensed if their child gets a detention, is spoken to crossly or even has a bad day, as though the teacher is somehow responsible for that as well.

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