I am, however, brand-spanking new to kindergarten. And since the biggest question I get these days is, "So...how are you liking kindergarten?" (delivered in the same tone as you would expect for "So...how are you liking your prison sentence?") I thought I'd reflect on it openly here today.
I knew last year that I was ready for a change, and I was very interested in what's been happening in kindergarten in the province in recent years. My daughters were past that age (turning 10 and 8), which I saw as a good thing, as I'm not sure how you can both teach and parent kindergarteners at the same time (though somehow last year I taught and parented a Grade 2 student at the same time...and when I say "taught", I mean she was literally my student. That's a whole 'nother blog post). Also, last year's kindergarten teacher was also looking for something new, which made for an ideal trade. (By the way, leaving my school was not an option - it's amazing.)
It seemed that I surprised many people with my decision - including close friends and family, some of whom could not hide their reactions. "What? You? Kindergarten?" (Apparently it was a general consensus that I would next teach at an older grade level, not younger, or else head for administration.)
Being the new kindergarten teacher started early, as the principal asked me and my soon-to-be Registered Early Childhood Educator partner (I'll use ECE for short) to run April's Welcome To Kindergarten event, so while I was still thinking about Grade 2 First Communion and Grade 3 EQAO, I was already welcoming next year's new kindergarten students.
Switching classrooms after seven years was also an event. I've moved several times over the course of my career, of course, and no matter how neat and tidy the outgoing teacher is, my personality dictates that I must go through every last item in the room (in our case, two classroom spaces) to decide whether to keep or purge, and where each kept item should be stored. Sarah (the ECE) and I spent the final PA Day of school as well as our first day of summer holidays getting this done (luckily she is just like me when it comes to organization), and I went in on the first Saturday of July - my birthday! - to paint cupboards and bulletin boards, so everything would be ready for the new school year.
Then, as the holidays were underway, Sarah called to tell me that due to seniority-related shuffling of ECEs within the school board, she had lost her job at our school. I won't get into her personal circumstances, but I can tell you we were devastated! I had heard from many teachers and ECEs that the partnership was so essential, and I signed on in part knowing that I would get to work with Sarah. We spent a crazy summer checking job postings and seniority lists frequently, trying to analyze moves that might be made and how that could impact us.
The first day of school I met my new partner, a lovely ECE who unfortunately had been bumped out of her local job to drive almost an hour to this assignment. She was great to work with, but I knew she would be looking to return closer to home, and by that Friday she had secured a position much closer to where she lives.
The second week of school - after months of stressing about it and nights of lost sleep - I was reunited with Sarah, and when she left later in the fall for her maternity leave, her temporary replacement turned out to be another hardworking and organized gal with lots of initiative, so it all worked out (yes, yes, just like my husband and Sarah's kept assuring us it would).
Completely aside from the new aspect of working with another adult so closely in the classroom, there were a whole bunch of things that made kindergarten different from anything I'd taught before.
It's different for the parents, to start - many of the kids were coming to school for the first time, and even for those with a child in the second year of the program, I was new to them. I established email lists before last school year ended, and throughout August sent weekly updates with tips to help with the transition to school, and to inform them about things they may not know. Parent communication is always a high priority for me (which connects to my TV appearances, magazine articles, and even this blog) and kindergarten parents always need more information. While by Grade 2, I could just say "Christmas concert Tuesday at 6:30", new parents have no idea what that means - Where is it? What should the kids wear? What doors do they go to? Who can attend? How long will it go? What happens after? It's all new, so I try to foresee what information they will need and provide it.
Plus, of course, some Year 1 parents need to be encouraged to "let go" - and if you happen to be one of my parents and think I am referring to you, you may be right - but it's definitely not just you! 😃 I have to say I've been fortunate to be working with very supportive, positive parents which really helps to make my workplace a great place to be.
And then there are the kids...everything is new for them. The idea of "indoor shoes" (which all of my former students had mastered years earlier) seemed especially to mystify them. ("But...I just changed my shoes?") Even the most generous child who takes turns with a couple of siblings at home is thrown into a crazy situation of taking turns with 28 others. The concept of backpacks is a novelty, and they need a lot of practice to check for their communication bags and other items each day...though it certainly comes with routine. And there were many questions I never had to answer before, even from Grade 2s, like "What's recess? Why is that bell ringing? What's an assembly?"
I've found the physical aspect a huge change as well - on my feet even more, assisting with outdoor clothing as I never had before, helping with "accidents" without actually going into the bathroom with the kids, helping them learn to wipe their noses (all typical in kindergarten, by the way)...and I have to say the germs did get the best of me, as I was sick this fall more than ever. (I mean, come on, who gets pleurisy? And still has it, even though it's the new year, I might add...)
While Grade 2 and 3 students already knew exactly where their buses were and how to behave in the parking lot, I feel very responsible for making sure the kindergarten students are safe and sound (older bus buddies are certainly a great help), and I always have to remind myself that safety rules which were old hat to my former students were completely new to these little ones.
While of course I am vigilant about student health concerns at any age, having a five year old in the class with a peanut allergy keeps me even more aware, as well a sweet little guy with Type 1 diabetes. I'm telling you, it's pretty impressive to see a four-year-old independently test his blood sugar level two or more times a day, and I'm learning so much about this disease from him. (On a related note, if your child has a health issue, I'd strongly recommend you follow the example of these parents and communicate frequently with the teacher, providing thorough and accurate information and showing your support. You want staff members who work with your child to be aware and alert, not paranoid and panicked.)
Next, of course, is the newness of the kindergarten curriculum - updated this year and new to all K teachers, not just me. Of course I had to read every word of the document before beginning, and it's a huge change for me. There's been a lot of buzz about Ontario's kindergarten program, and I can tell you that I definitely see the importance for young children of learning through play (and I certainly appreciate that I no longer have to bring marking home). That said, "balance" is always a key word for me (luckily my ECE feels the same), and I feel trusted by administration to personalize my program based on my own teaching experience as well as my own research - it's true that you really can find research to support any position - including opposing ones. Wine is good for you - yay! Wine is bad for you - boo! I don't even drink wine, but I was tempted in September...
If you asked me about my new position during the first two weeks of school I would have said that I didn't know what I got myself into. (Someone once used the expression "herding cats" and I wouldn't say they were wrong.) However, I like to think that classroom management (which requires building relationships with students, setting expectations and providing routine) is a strong point for me, and that's what was really needed to get the school year going smoothly.
Now that we are four months in, I can tell you that I love my job (as I have every other teaching position I've held). This age group is so incredible, and I feel like it's such an honour to be the one introducing these little guys to the idea of school. They are so ready to learn, and particularly hang on my every word when I'm reading a story, which is very cute. Reading and writing is huge for me, and it's amazing to watch as these skills begin to take hold for the very first time. Kindergarten students can also be so sweet...I certainly get a lot more compliments, hugs, and "I love you"s than ever before (way more than the 7/8 class gave me last year!)
Seeing students learn through play is fascinating, and my heart swells when I hear them repeat my own phrases back to me, like when a little one called me over to something he was working on and proudly announced, "Look, Mrs. Winn! I'm growing my brain!"
It's also a great age for having fun with kids, and we had a great time with Christmas in particular. As a Catholic school, we have the green light to focus heavily on the religious season, and while we set up the drama centre as Santa's workshop and wrote letters to the big guy in red, we also shared stories, activities, crafts and videos focused on the key people in the Nativity story, which many of the kids were learning for the first time. It was so special to be part of that with them.
After establishing relationships with 29 kids, 28 sets of parents (there are sisters in the class), and three ECEs, as well as setting up the routines the way I want them, I can confirm that I am very happy in kindergarten. It reminds me a lot of parenting - to put it bluntly, sometimes you feel like it's sucking the life out of you, but then you turn on a dime and it's the most rewarding thing ever. And though I could, both legally and morally, give up being a kindergarten teacher more easily than I could a parent, I still wouldn't want to.