“The kids at this table are my low ones. I usually sit here while they’re finishing their worksheets. The two tables in the middle are just regular kids. Over there are my high ones,” she smiles as she gestures to the other side of the room.
I nod and look around, shifting uneasily. Still, it’s not bad. Could be worse, as I now know. No fly traps. It’s clean and bright. Looks like a Kindergarten room. She looks like a Kindergarten teacher up there in front of her students who crane back their little necks to view the book she’s reading.
For the second time in my brief career, I’m taking over a kindergarten classroom in the spring while the teacher goes on maternity leave. I sit in the back jotting down the schedule, lyrics to the little songs, routines, names of children. 8:00 to 8:15 – pledge, attendance, “character education” lesson. 8:15 to 8:45 – calendar songs. 8:45 to 9:30 – snack and recess. No, this time was going to be a different ball game, I could see. When I arrived in the spring last time, all but three of my students were already reading. Here, many students were still missing 5 or more letter sounds.
“This is a rough neighborhood. Lots of ESL kids. You know,” she warns me.
Again, I shift slightly in my chair to contain an argumentative remark. I want to believe I learned something from the past fall and will keep my mouth shut, close the door, and show these kids what they’re capable of.
9:30 to 10:30 students dance to a little alphabet song, copy sentences off the board, listen to a story, complete a worksheet requiring them to trace letters and draw lines between pictures with the same initial sound.
“No talking, please, Maria, finish your worksheet and you can go look at books on the carpet.”
10:30 is music class. When we arrive to pick them up, they are calling out the names of music notes. “Half note!” they shout. 11:00 is recess and lunch. 11:40 to 12:10 is a math lesson followed by another several worksheets. Then free play until at 12:45 they are packed up and trotted out to the gate to meet their parents. I remember the conversation I had with the director a few days prior: “Your work day ends at 3:30.”
“And what are my responsibilities after the students leave at one?” I asked, a bit confused. I can’t seem to stop myself from asking questions.
“Oh the kindergarten teachers really need that extra prep time. You know… all that cutting!” She makes a motion with her fingers as though they are scissors.
Indeed, when we return to the classroom that afternoon, the teacher is cutting out identical flower shapes from construction paper. “For their writing craftivity tomorrow,” she explains. I nod.
A few days pass and the baby arrives. I’m up to bat. Doing my best to replicate the schedule, feeling frustrated and bored, students piping up, “No, Mrs. Garrison, that song isn’t next. You forgot the color song.”
“Well, don’t you know your colors already, friends?”
“Yessss!” They intone, smiling as though I was asking a very silly question.
“Then maybe we don’t need to sing that song anymore.” They look at me a little blankly, uncertain.
After a few weeks, I try to incorporate small group-style learning centers. Less worksheets, more collaboration. It’s not pretty. I sit with students holding paper books, leaning in to listen to them sound out words. A parent volunteer shhhh’s the students writing poetry. They stop sharing rhyming words and bend their heads back down to the paper.
At lunch with the other Kindergarten teacher, I get an unexpected lesson on classroom management. “You see, the kids are always rowdy when it’s windy like this. I’ll probably let them stay out for a bit of extra recess. And you know, Thursdays are always really rough days for some reason.. Mondays too. Thankfully, Friday is a ‘fun day’ with no math lesson and early dismissal. And they have P.E. that day.”
We pause to take a few bites.
“What was your school like where you moved from? I heard you taught Kinder before?”
“It was pretty different,” I say.
“Oh, well, you know our kids come to us so low. Most of mine didn’t even know how to hold a pencil. It’s the neighborhood. The parents either don’t parent much or they don’t speak English.”
I’m not sure where she got the idea that my previous school – a public elementary school in Chicago – was homogeneous. I try to clear it up. I can’t seem to stop myself from batting at her veiled explanation for the kids’ mediocrity. I knew she meant well. She was kind and loving to her students. She wanted them to learn to behave. It was my problem really… I wanted more. Too much, some would say.
The following week, after another messy, loud round of centers, I return to my classroom to have lunch in peace. Only now the parent volunteer is lingering in the back, pushing together stacks of cut-out butterflies. I thank her again for her help and take out a sandwich at my desk.
“You know, I think (the other teacher) had a good set up in here. It wasn’t so rowdy.”
“With the copying off the board?” I respond. I wonder if she can hear the contempt in my voice.
“Exactly!” she smiles, glad I understood her. “I’ll be here next week!” She waves cheerily and closes the door. My heart is pounding, my sandwich swimming in my vision through hot tears. I throw it in the trash, unable to eat. Unable to think.
It could be worse, I tell myself, thinking of the drives home from the school in the country. Unable to see the road from crying so hard, unwilling to pull over because I wouldn’t feel safe until I was far away from there. I think of the fourth grade classroom where I spent time substituting. The chart on the wall with the students names and results from the last standardized test. Far Below Basic: Kendra, Dario, Cruz, Perla. Below Basic: Jamal, Wesley, Ricardo… It could be worse. Thinking of the special education classroom where I filled in for a week. “Bring a book with you,” the secretary chuckled before she hung up. The four classroom aides ran the routine like clock work – changing diapers, passing out papers, turning on a DVD. “Can I help?” I asked.
“Sure! I think Eddie needs help with that puzzle.” Eddie was in third grade – autistic. I sat with him as he chanted names of dinosaurs. I counted about 18 different types, but some were repeated. He spun the puzzle piece around in front of his face.
“When does he go back to his classroom?” I asked, having been accustomed to full-day inclusion.
“This is his classroom,” they chuckle. My brows came together. I said nothing.
When the parent volunteer returned to the classroom the following week, it was just as noisy. “Did (your son) show you his poem about butterflies?” I asked hopefully.
“He did!” Then she added, whispering “I told him it was lovely, even though it didn’t rhyme.”
At the end of the year I was asked to remain at the school as a first grade teacher. “Any requests for students in your class?” the director asked. I didn’t know I could do that…
“Maybe (the parent volunteer’s child) could be in the other class? You know – since I already got her help…” I trailed off weakly.
“Of course!” she replied brightly. Later I realized that the same request had likely already been made in reverse, so it had been an easy one to accommodate.
“Too much noise,” I imagined her saying, “my child can hardly think.”