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Still Learning: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Classroom

Small Priorities

by Julia Sneden

As I was walking down my street the other day, a car pulled up beside me, and the driver leaned across to speak to me. It was the mother of a child I had taught in my kindergarten class, ten years ago. The woman had spotted me on my morning hike, and stopped me to tell me that she and her husband had just reviewed her daughter's school records. She wanted me to know how pleased she was that my anecdotal report had captured her daughter's personality so well, those many years ago, and she noted that what I had observed had, to a remarkable extent, held true.

"...and it was so well-written," she said in a surprised voice.

I am sure that she meant only to give a nice moment to an old teacher, so I thanked her politely, but I found myself wanting to snap: "And why shouldn't it be well-written?"

I am a graduate of an excellent college; I was reared in a family of readers and writers; and before I was a kindergarten teacher, I had earned a decent living as a writer and editorial functionary at a good magazine and two major motion picture studios. (Decent = far more money than kindergarten teachers make).

The above incident wasn't the only or even the first time I had come up against other people's expectations concerning kindergarten teachers. It's ludicrous to think that writing well seemed an anomaly to her, but then, there was also the parent who had swooped down on me after a Parents' Night and enthused: "That was very interesting, and you are so well-spoken!" My fellow teachers never allowed me to live that one down.

Condescension is condescension, even if it comes out of an impulse to be nice.

Teaching kindergarten was something I chose to do after I had three children of my own. We had moved to a small, southern city where there weren't any jobs of the kind I'd held before the children were born. After a disastrous experience with the public school system, we enrolled our children in a remarkable private school, which meant that I needed a job to cover their tuition. The chance to teach kindergarten at that same school gave me work with hours that corresponded to their needs.

So I came to kindergarten teaching through the back door, so to speak. It seemed like an easy answer to our situation. In fact, I soon discovered that it is anything but easy. I had to scramble to catch up on many things I didn't know. I enrolled in classes at a local college, seeking to change my teaching certificate from "English A" (permission to teach high school English, which I had never done but was granted by the state in light of my college record) to a classification called "Early Childhood." Despite many hours of classes, I never completed that changeover in all the 25 years that I taught, nor did I learn much from the classes. They simply left me with a distaste for Education Departments.

I was, however, blessed with a colleague who was a master teacher, and she was my guide. By observing her I developed classroom techniques and interests that opened a whole new world for me. I fell in love with teaching kindergarten, and in fact stayed with it for the next twenty-five years, long after my children had grown and left home. I am quite sure that during that time, I learned far more than I taught.

I have developed a firm belief that teaching small children is a vastly underrated profession. I am sure that the first five years of school are the most important of anyone's educational journey. If you turn off a child's natural thirst for learning during those early years, it's highly unlikely that he or she will have success in school later on.

Our very best teachers should be teaching the youngest children, and they should be properly compensated for their expertise. Teachers who create the kind of atmosphere that makes children long to come to school (and cry when they get sick and must miss a day) lay the groundwork for success all through our educational system. Children who have absorbed the earliest lessons of how to get along with peers, and think logically, and express themselves well, will as they mature become the kind of highly motivated self-starters who love the process of learning for its own sake.

What happens instead, in our schools? In the earliest years, we shove little children into classes staffed by underpaid, undereducated people who work for minimum wage.

Standards and pay are a bit higher for certified elementary school teachers, but they still suffer in comparison to what is spent on high school or college needs. Lots of money is supplied for sports teams and band uniforms and stadiums for older children, at the expense of music and art and physical development specialists and equipment for young children.

Elementary school teachers are probably the most underpaid, overworked professionals in America. Many of them are creative, patient, and caring people who deserve respect and better pay.

What can senior women do about all this?

Lobby your school boards. Demand to see their budgets. Question their priorities.

Volunteer at a local school.
If you have grandchildren, get to know their teachers.
If you have a talent, share it.
If you like to build or paint or garden, offer your services to improve the campus of an elementary school.
If you know of an exceptional teacher, make others aware of him or her.
Write a letter to the newspaper.
Nominate him or her for an award.
Write a letter to the principal.

Above all, look deep into your own heart and root out any preconceived notions about what makes a good teacher. Don't make assumptions. And don't be surprised if kindergarten teachers know how to speak or write well.

Some of us can even read.



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