Top 10 Things I Learned From Teaching First Grade

I recently had the privilege of teaching three first grade classes during an amazing, enlightening, and exhausting March morning. Our District had offered a Twitter Challenge to encourage more professionals to experience the wonder of this tool that can open eyes, classrooms, and foster new educational relationships.

One of the benefits–or perceived benefits–of completing the challenge was the opportunity to have the Assistant Superintendent (me) cover a class. The first grade teachers at West Haverstraw Elementary School coordinated their coverages so I could spend one morning in their school and cover three, first grade classes, one after the other.

That is how I found me introducing myself to a bunch of six years olds with a bag full of supplies in one hand, my trusty fidget spinner in the other, and a belly full of butterflies. I didn’t want to just survive; I wanted to provide the students with an amazing experience! I wanted them to tell their real teachers how awesome the “Sub” was and, at the risk of letting my narcissistic side surface too much, I wanted to be memorable.  

After reflecting on the day I am pretty sure we had some “Homerun” moments together, some singles, and a few strikeouts. I can only hope the students learned as much as I did that day because I left a changed man with a better understanding of how very special first grade teachers are. The entire experience helped to make me a better and more compassionate leader.

In the style of David Letterman, here are the top ten things I learned teaching first grade…

10- You cannot rest for one minute when teaching first graders

You must be on for every second of every day when you work with little kids. You can lose them in the blink of an eye if you fog out for even just a little while. Without clear direction, compassion, understanding, and a well thought out plan, chaos can quickly ensue.  First grade teachers are like conductors in a symphony orchestra. With a flick of the wrist, a nod of the head, or a well timed compliment, they make beautiful “music” with their students. Their music is in the form of learning, laughter, passion, and joy.

9-  You need a signal

You cannot keep little kids, or any kid for that matter, sitting in rows, hanging on to your every word.  They need to “do”. They need to play. They need to create. You need to foster that type of environment, but you better have a signal to get them back to you.  It can be something as simple as three claps. It can be telling them to do a “waterfall” Shhhh shhhh complete with hand gestures, or a bird call like the energetic Mr. D times 3 does with his students.  Just be sure to let them know what that signal is before you get started or you will end up yelling, which leads to tears, which I think even the most curmudgeonous teachers will agree is never a good thing when working with kids.

8- You need to connect with the kids

I was worried about connecting with the students in such a short period of time. I know how important relationships are in terms of classroom management, learning, and overall well being in classroom. This is why kids will do things for their teacher that they won’t do for anyone else. It’s because of the special bond they develop with teachers they love and who love them back. Is it such a shock that kids misbehave or refuse to learn for cranky subs?  I found that spending some time to connect with students right away helps to save me time in the long run. It’s the simple things like greeting them at the door and making them all give me a high five or fist bump, asking them to tell me their name and one thing about themselves before starting the lesson, and, the simplest and often the most effective, smile at them while looking them in the eye.

7- You need tons of patience to be a great first grade teacher

The little guys are so darn cute, but after the third time they tell you their dog’s name, or ask you if the Principal is your brother because you both happen be around the same age, or when snack time is, your patience is tested. It took me a little while to start to figure out how to deflect all of those questions and get down to the nitty gritty of teaching.

I finally got there and was really starting to get into the flow; I could tell I had them, but then a boy in the back raised his hand. I tried to respectfully ignore him, and when his hand started to move back and forth a little more urgently, I gave him a little signal by putting my finger up and nodded my head, indicating I would be with him in a second.

That put him at bay for about 10 seconds, at which time his hand moved back inforth incenstly and he started make some intelligible sound that was something like “bu bu I , nee bu”. When I couldn’t take it any longer I finally called on him.  It took him a few false starts, and a few I want to know and how abouts…..before he finally put his head down and said “ I forgot what I was going to say.”

I almost lost it until I remembered what an experienced and skilled first grade teacher had told me. “You have to be patient with them because even the most difficult ones just want your love and attention. They just want to impress you”  

6-  Kids need to move

I found that when I took some time to get the kids up and dancing, moving, or running in place, they seemed to not only be happier, but were able to focus longer on what I was trying to teach them. They loved it when we did head, shoulders, knees, and toes, and couldn’t stop laughing when I messed up the words or the moves.  We also had fun making up our own silly dances based on the book I read to them or the lesson I was teaching. The 30 or 45 second breaks proved not to be time wasters; they were time savers.

5- The best first grade (or any grade)  teachers worry about kids before content

First graders are babies.  They have only been in this world for six years. They only started talking 3-4 years ago. They still believe in Santa and can still be pushed around in a stroller.  It just made so much sense to me when I was told by an exemplar first grade teacher that you have to teach the kids love, understanding, how to be good people, how to play, how to deal with emotions, and how to regulate themselves before you teach them the curriculum. The content and the learning is certainly important, but not more important than their social and emotional well being. If they do not have those skills, they will never be truly successful in school or life for that matter.

4- Give out the same stickers

I was pretty pumped to give my first class stickers after they completed the activity for the day. I had bought my supplies the night before, things that allowed them to be creative and actually make something using their imagination. I was not going to be that sub who put worksheets in front of them. I also knew they loved stickers; who doesn’t for that matter?

I started passing out different stickers from my bag, asking the students which one they wanted. This started to take more time than I wanted as they hemmed and hawed, and changed their minds about which sticker they wanted. It got worse as I was getting ready to say goodbye to the class, hoping for some smiles and laughs. I was instead met by some tears and some sad faces because they had picked the wrong sticker.  Damn, why didn’t I know this? I had three boys and from past experience knew you get all three the same thing!

3- Embrace different

Some students just shine in class. They are outgoing, other kids gravitate to them, they follow directions, and they just seem to know what to do and when to do it.  These kids are a pleasure. If they were all like that, teaching and” “principaling” would both be so much easier. Yet if all students were the same–all people the same–no one would ever be exceptional. Instead, we would all be mediocre. When you can find the diamond in the rough, a child who looks a little different, thinks a little different, is a little more annoying and find their strength, you can change that student and the entire class’ perception of success. When you can find the positive and their “different” and point it out and celebrate it, you not only make a difference for that child, you encourage all of your students to be more innovative and to think and be a little different.  

2-You can’t know what being in the classroom is like unless you live it

I read tons of books, go to conferences, watch Ted Talks, spend time on Twitter and talk education with my PLN.  All of things have helped me to grow as a professional and a leader, but I learned so much more actually being in the classroom with students. It is more valuable to see what it is actually like in practice, rather than theory. Understanding that even though you have the best lesson plan, some days it just doesn’t work and you have to adjust on the fly. Seeing that some strategies will work with some kids and in some classes, but can fall flat in others. Realizing that students need so much more than common core. That teachers provide not only knowledge, but love. Teaching, if you are any good at it, is mentally and physically exhausting while at the same time being exhilarating and rewarding.  You can’t know what that feels like unless you live it.

1- First Grade Teachers are my heros

I have done just about every job you can think of in a district.  I have been an In-School Suspension Supervisor, Physical Education Teacher, Health Teacher, Assistant Principal, Coach, Athletic Director, Principal, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, and Assistant Superintendent for Instruction. Heck, I have even driven sports teams to games a few times. I have loved each and every one of those roles despite the challenges that came with each.  Yet, after spending that morning teaching first grade, I am not sure there is a more demanding, more difficult, or more important position than teaching first grade.

One of the best professional development activities I have participated in this year was to roll up my sleeves and cover classes. It has helped to keep me grounded and remember why I became an educator in the first place—to make a difference for the kids.

I hope to cover more classes and learn from the special people who dedicate their lives to making a difference….teachers!