My very first teaching job was a grade 1 and 2 classroom on a fly in First Nations Reserve in northern Manitoba. I was so excited to have a teaching position and, of course, for my husband and I there were many changes, with our first year of living on our own as a married couple. I enjoyed my students and the experiences we had that year. At the end of the year, however, I remembered thinking that I never wanted to teach grade one again.
It had nothing to do with not liking my students or the experience. As I reflected at the end of the year I had to wonder if I had done enough for my young students. Had I given them enough of a foundation to carry them through the rest of their learning? Had we covered enough? Did they read well enough? Did they have enough basic math? Had I taught them the social skills they needed? The questions were never-ending and ran through my mind for a long time that summer.
As I proceeded with my teaching career I realized that I was better suited for teaching high school or middle years students and that is where I have spent the majority of my teaching career. It is a bit of a joke in my school that I am not cut out for kindergarten. Don’t get me wrong, I love all my students from kindergarten through grade 8, but I really think it takes a very special person to teach early years. Not all of us are cut out for it.
I have the absolute honor of working with a group of hard-working and caring early years teachers. They work well as a team and are an important part of the success of our students. I think some people might have a misconception about what early years actually teachers do. I have heard generalizations such as:
“How hard can it be, all they do is play all day.”
“You don’t really have to teach anything that hard or complicated.”
“You don’t really have to deal with any serious behavior problems.”
Recently I had a conversation with a high school principal I had never met, as I was calling to do a reference check. In the course of our chat, the principal implied that elementary school was boring and would not be a challenge for the individual I was calling about. I had to laugh a little bit after I got off the phone. I could tell that this individual had never spent time teaching early years. It is not what I would describe as boring at all.
The thing that amazes me the most about my early years teachers is the never-ending love and kindness they show to their young students. Early years are not just about A,B, C’s and 1,2,3’s, but more about learning the basics of getting along. How to figure out the difference between a tattle and a report. How to accept everyone even when they may not agree with you. How to share your time with others when you may be used to having adults to yourself, how to play fair.
So many simple, but complex things to figure out.
At times, when I am wandering around my school and am able to observe the small interactions and lessons within the lessons, I am truly in awe of the patience required by these teachers. Every day parents trust them with the most precious and important people in their lives. Relationships and communication are key to students success. Early years teachers really never get a break during the day. When older students are working independently, teachers can find a bit of time to do some of their own work, but in early years, this does not happen. The students require attention and support all day long.
I had one of my early years teachers ask me the other day, if I was going to be able to teach for less time next year and have more administration time. She felt that I had too much on my plate and had a lot to keep up with. The fact that my teachers would worry about me or each other, did not surprise me. That is just how we are as a team. What struck me more, was the fact that I think what she does on a daily basis is way harder that what I do.
So much more goes on in early years that what most people might think. So much more than curricular outcomes, so much more than math, ELA, science or social. Learning about the world and how it works, learning how to feel good about ourselves, learning to understand and accept differences, learning that we can make mistakes and fix them, learning how to fight our own battles, learning how to be independent, and the list goes on and on.
So the next time you are talking to an early years teacher, please thank them for the hard work they do and especially for getting all of our young learners off to such a good start.