Teen Talk: Middle School - Kindergarten Part Two?
Teen Talk - Live
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It may seem strange in a series of articles about teenagers that I would want to talk about my experiences in kindergarten. Stick with me here. Of all my experiences in and around the classroom, it was my short time in Kindergarten that taught me the most. By that, I mean that period where there was the greatest differential between knowledge and assumption going in, compared to how I felt when I left. To be accepted onto the teaching program at Durham University, I had to spend time observing in two different age classrooms.
My first experience was set up in a wonderful little school where I was to observe a kindergarten classroom for two weeks and a year six/fifth grade classroom for a further two weeks. I was still working as a police officer at the time, but pending my resignation was given three weeks of “light duty”. This meant that for a while I was, quite literally, a Kindergarten Cop.
My first observation was that you couldn’t actually observe in a kindergarten class. You are there, you are thus part of it, and nothing but 100 percent participation is expected, not only from the teacher, but also from the munchkins. The teacher was not exactly thrilled to have a neophyte in her room. I believe that, in her eyes, I was simply another child who needed to be hand-held through the day. Her opening statement did not exactly bode well.
“Men do not belong in kindergarten. Are you ‘funny’ or something?”
Her second comment set the tone for the week.
“There are no idle hands in my classroom.”
The assumptions came tumbling down. First, there is no such thing as a kindergarten “class”, as in a collective, as in a group that can be addressed as a group. Each child is an individual and thus expects to be addressed as an individual. The image of electrons whizzing around the nucleus in an atom, comes to mind, or a room full of cats, each individual fully engaged in their version of what they think they should be doing. Or not.
If you explained something to John, you then had to explain the same thing to Ann who was sitting right next to John, but you weren’t actually talking to her. I watched, in something akin to awe, as the teacher repeated herself ad infinitum throughout the day, smile on her face, and love in her voice. I was so close to “I’ve said it a million times!” on so many occasions I realized that this age group required more patience than regular humans actually possess.
I learned that the attention span of the kindergartener does not bear any relation to a forty-five minute time slot that was so neatly written on my schedule. Somewhere between a minute and three minutes seemed to be the norm. The classroom was continuously in flux, with the most common question being, “what do I do now, Miss?” (In England teachers are normally called Miss or Sir). The only time I saw the class sit, as a class, quiet and attentive, was when the teacher read to them at the end of the day. I recall making a note that it was fully five minutes before a student decided to tell her own story and the magic was broken.
Now, I have experience with all grades, and there is no “easy” grade to teach, but to this day I remain somewhat in awe of good kindergarten teachers. I also realize what great middle school teachers they could be; similar egocentric students, just bigger bodies. (And if we are lucky a slightly expanded attention span.)
At this point it may be instructive to reread the above paragraphs, remove the word “kindergarten”, and insert “middle school”. The fit is uncanny; keep that in mind as you read on.
My “mentor” was of the opinion that watching her for one day was all that was needed to be able to take over, so on day two she decided to sit at her desk (Something you never see kindergarten teachers do normally) and “get on with some paperwork.”
Let the humbling begin.
It was raining that day, and the energized and enthusiastic munchkins poured in from outside wearing raincoats and Wellington boots. There were labels above the coat hooks, which the children recognized as theirs, so the coats were hung with minimum fuss. (I now wonder how long that had taken to choreograph.) I realized that the boots (this was before yellow and frog face green boots) were all very similar, so I carefully had them put their boots on the floor space under the coats. All neat and tidy, the systems and structures of the day started to fall into place and by the time first recess came around I felt that I could, if fact, handle this teaching thing.
Somehow, in less than a second, the entire thing fell apart. I walked over to where the children were putting on their coats and boots and witnessed chaos. I had children in tears, some with two left boots, some with none; some with a boot on their arm, and inexplicably one child who had stripped down to her underwear. The boots had no names, no identifying marks and a small, but confusing, range of sizes.
The coats were on coat hooks with their names, resulting in a close to one-to-one match, child and clothing. The boots, well they were only in the vicinity. This is nowhere near specific enough for kindergartners, and I now knew why. I sent those who seemed reasonably appropriately shod into the playground and slowly whittled the remaining crying group down to the last child. It was at this point when the headmaster chose to pop his head into the classroom and remind me that I was supposed to be outside with the students.
It did not immediately get better. My ‘mentor’ looked at me with barely disguised disdain and nodded at a box of clothes pegs next to the door. “You clip them together with the Peg that has their name on it,” she said, as if instructing the world’s most stupid dog.
The next time I grabbed the boots and paired them up correctly.
I think this is exactly how every parent feels at certain points in their child’s life. We feel ill prepared, we juggle, we think on our feet, and we make it somehow, only to have an outsider (often our parents) judge our efforts as wanting. Strangely, most experts, familial or otherwise, remain pretty tight lipped about parenting teens. Very few would ever claim to have it absolutely right. Most have horror stories about how they turned into the parents they swore they would never be. Then, reaching new heights of frustration and responding with the exact phrases their parents used when they were frustrated with them.