Self-confidence lessons I learned from my kindergarten students
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week! Even as we’re celebrating all the professors, tutors and inspiring educators out there, one of our readers is flipping the script and honoring her own students—and we love her for it.
When I got hired as a kindergarten teacher, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting myself into: days filled with nursery rhymes, Play-Doh, sing-a-longs, and the occasional bathroom accident. Most of my friends chose to enter the business world or the medical field, and I felt thankful to have chosen a career path where I could essentially be a kid forever. Having the power to teach children how to read and somehow having negotiated the ultimate benefit of having summers off, I couldn’t quite imagine a better job. Or at least that’s how I felt until the first day of school at my first “big girl job” had arrived. Forget about left and right, my fresh students didn’t even know the difference between the number 2 and the letter V. When tested for letter recognition, one girl identified an uppercase P as “broccoli.”
Since then, at the start of each new school year, I view my students as some sort of helpless alien race. Unable to tie their shoes, spell their names, or generate a word that rhymes with “fig,” I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by all the things I have to teach them in just 180 short school days. Imagine my surprise, that around day 2 and a half I came to learn that I wasn’t the only teacher in the room. It turned out that my five-year-old students had unintentionally developed their own curriculum of material to teach to me. Each day, I find new reasons to strengthen my hypothesis that kindergarteners should run the world.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my kindergarten students:
You can choose who you want to be
As an adult it’s easy to get consumed by all of the “supposed-tos.” We are supposed to get “practical” jobs, work each day, go to the grocery store, make healthy dinners, keep our gas tanks more than a quarter full, etc. Before we know it, we wind up being on some sort of supposed-to-be adult autopilot. You can lose track of your true self.
Ramere* who prefers to go by “Bumblebee” doesn’t believe in the supposed-tos. Bumblebee is the kind of kid who marches to the beat of his own banjo. He has more imaginary friends than anyone I know, a pet superhero worm named “House Destroyer,” and writes his letters upside down. Some might go as far as to say that he’s a boss. After all, someone has to be a stuntman teacher when they grow up, why shouldn’t it be Bumblebee? When I stopped doing what I thought I was supposed to do, I wound up finding that it’s okay to eat hummus and peanut butter cups for dinner, leave the house without making my bed, and call my ex when I’m sober.
You can make your own rules
Learning is fun, right? Or at least it’s supposed to be. Based upon my experience observing elementary students for the past four years, I’ve come to find that by the third grade kids are #overit. Learning letter sounds, counting to 100, and memorizing sight words can become pretty tedious business. In order to alleviate the monotony, I create games for teaching and sharpening these skills. When I initially spotted students playing games, games that I spent my Saturdays creating, by their own rules, I was annoyed. But when I took the time to observe them, I couldn’t help but admire them for their creativity. Not only were they learning their sight words, my students were quite literally being game changers.
Why does it matter what path someone takes to get to a goal? And why are there so many rules in the first place? Go to college. Get a job. Get engaged. Get married. Buy a house. Have a kid. These are just some of the paths people take that can feel like rules, like rigid requirements for life. But you know? Everyone has their own internal logic. My students have taught me opting to play The Game of Life more like Candyland can often yield sweeter results. You can pretty much make it up as you go along.
Don’t be afraid to try a backflip now and then
Somewhere along the line to adulthood, we learn to focus on what we can’t do rather than on what we can do. In doing so, we can rob ourselves of the joys of risk0taking. But kids tend to invest in themselves. They take risks. Really, every failed attempt is actually a victory at trying something new.
During recess in the gym one day, Neveah decided it would be the day she’d attempt to do a backflip. Of course, when I saw it, I had a mini heart attack. Jumping up and down, Neveah celebrated her flip with her friends as I sprinted across the gym to give her a rule of caution, “Neveah! Be careful. I don’t want you to hit your head.” The smile evaporated from her face, and I realized I was robbing her of a much deserved celebration. Thinking quickly, I backpedaled, “Are you in gymnastics? That was fabulous!”
It turns out she’s not a gymnast. Neveah entered recess with the determination to do a backflip and she did it. She didn’t calculate all the ways it could go wrong or bog herself down with fear. Simply by believing in herself, Neveah accomplished her goal of the day.
Remember to be sweet to people. It really makes a difference.
As a kindergarten teacher, I focus a lot on social and emotional development. I teach students to give each other presents in the shape of words so that they can make one another feel warm and fuzzy inside. After all, who likes feeling all cold and prickly?
I’m certain five year olds have some sort of sixth sense and can read when adults need a pick-me-up. This year, I split up with my boyfriend of almost eight years. Consequently, nights became sleepless and I was doing a lot of stress eating. When I temporarily moved back in with my parents, the reality of my situation started to sink in. It was around this time that my students began to shower me with compliments or, as I like to call them, warm fuzzies.
One day after recess, Jordan called out, “Miss V! I like your hair” which was followed by, “Miss V, you’re so funny.” The compliments poured out, and I decided to milk it. Eventually Amari exclaimed, “Miss V you’re so fancy.” Being the ham that I am, I responded by singing, “I already knooooooow” to the tune of Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. Before I knew it, my carpet time turned into an episode of Glee. It was a hilariously sweet teaching moment that I most certainly will never forget.
Singing (even poorly) is the best medicine
During my first year as a kindergarten teacher, I had a runner. I could never predict when Gus would decide to flee the room, but it would happen between two to five times a day. It was difficult to maintain control of my classroom while worrying about Gus’ whereabouts and safety. It didn’t take long for me to learn that yelling after him was not an effective method.
One winter’s day, the spirit of Aretha Franklin overcame me and I belted out Respect in response to Gus running from the room. Perplexed by my response, Gus returned to the classroom and joined his classmates in observing their odd “adult” teacher with a sort of mysticism.
Since that monumental teaching discovery, anytime I feel myself losing patience, I sing instead of react negatively. It makes repeating directions less frustrating and puts a smile on my students’ faces. I’d suggest that everyone does the same. Sure you might not be the next American Idol winner, but I’m certain that even the worst singing sounds better than hollering.
It might sound cliche, but it’s true: Being in the classroom means they’ve taught me as much as I’ve taught them. Except I already knew how to tie my shoelaces.
*Note: All names of the students have been changed
Barbie V., is a 26-year-old kindergarten teacher by day and a writer by night. Currently, she studies sketch writing at the Arcade Comedy Theater, dabbles in the land of stand-up, is working on two children’s picture books and a satirical novel, and is striving to be the Serena van der Woodsen of Pittsburgh.