Within the past few weeks, hundreds -- if not thousands -- of Hendricks County parents have sent their precious little cargo bundles to school for the very first time in their wee ones' lives. The first day of kindergarten is often a tough time for parents.
I've done it twice. My daughters are in third and fourth grades now, but I still vividly remember the lump in my throat on each of their first days of kindergarten as the doors on the school bus closed, and the big yellow vessel rumbled down the street with my babies on board.
Have you ever wondered what the first day of kindergarten is like from a teacher's perspective, though? I don't have to wonder anymore. I have now experienced it.
I'm just a substitute teacher, but every day that I spend in a classroom provides me with a new respect for what real teachers do on a daily basis. Kindergarten teachers on the first day of school? They deserve a medal. Probably even a bronze statue in their likeness in front of the school.
Let me tell you about my experience.
I got the surprising phone call late in the afternoon on the day before school -- a kindergarten teacher is suddenly going to have to miss the first three days of school due to circumstances outside of her control. (Trust me, no teacher wants to miss the first day of school, and this teacher is no exception.)
I was able to attend the Meet the Teachers night after I got my assignment, so the kids and parents were able to meet both the real teacher and me in advance of the first day of school. We explained the situation to everyone, the parents were very understanding, and it provided me the opportunity to meet the kiddos, touch base with them, and give them a face and a voice to look for in the morning.
Afterwards, the real teacher went over her lesson plan with me so that we were on the same page about what she wants to happen over the next three days.
This is my third year as a substitute teacher for the Danville Community School Corporation, and I have spent a lot of time at North Elementary over the years as both a parent and a sub, so I know the staff, the layout of the school, and the basic routine. I've subbed in plenty of kindergarten classes, and I've coached softball players of that age, so this assignment was going to be easy-peasy.
I came home from Meet the Teachers night feeling totally confident.
That didn't last long.
On the drive home from school, it occurred to me: I am going to be the first school teacher that these kids ever have in their lives. As my wife pointed out when I got home, what I do with those kids on their first day could make or break them on school...FOREVER! (She even added a spooky voice to the word "forever" and an evil laugh at the end of her sentence for added effect.)
It also occurred to me that the real teacher is going to expect me to get her students on the right track with rules and procedures and such, and by Monday, she'll know how badly I screwed up with them. I like this real teacher, so her opinion of me matters, and I don't want to make her whole school year difficult because I failed in the first three days.
The pressure was on.
I didn't get much sleep, lying there staring at the ceiling, anguishing over all the ways I might forever warp the minds of a bunch of five-year-olds.
My day started with the retrieval of car riders at the front of the school while the teacher's aide assigned to my classroom retrieved the bus riders at the back of the school. As I expected, the car line was total chaos with parents learning the rules of the line, tens of thousands of pictures being taken of their kiddos' first day of school, and a handful of tears from anxious kindergartners not enjoying the separation from their parents.
(Tip: Parents, I know you mean well by staying to comfort your child, and I know it breaks your heart to "turn your back" on your crying kiddo, but it only makes things worse by having the parents linger. Just drop and go. By the time I got my students back to the classroom, tears were dried and everything was okay. It's normal for kids to be nervous and upset, but they recover and adapt very quickly.)
By the time the tardy bell rang, we were nowhere near the end of the car line, but none of the real staff seemed concerned at all. The objective was simply to get all of the kids to their proper teachers and where they needed to go.
Then I spent virtually my entire day teaching the kids things I never thought I'd have to teach -- because kindergartners on the first day of school know absolutely nothing.
With the help of my unbelievably outstanding teacher's aide -- without whom, I'd have never survived the day -- I taught kids how to unpack their backpacks, where to store their stuff, how to get in lines, how to behave in the hallways, how we handle the bathroom process (including step-by-step instructions on how to wash hands afterwards), how to get breakfast, how to get lunch, where to eat, the rules of recess, where to find supplies in the classroom, proper behavior in the classroom, and a brief overview of the color chart that the school uses to monitor each child's behavior.
Every little detail of behavior that I had taken for granted in my previous experience as a substitute had to be taught and learned on this first day of school.
Schedules went straight out the window. All of the teachers tried their best to get their kids where they needed to be at the time they needed to be there, but we were all in the same boat. You'd be amazed by how long it takes to get 24 kindergartners down a hallway on the first day of school in something that sort of resembles a line.
Recess ran late, lunch ran late, snack time ran late, everything ran late. I noticed, though, that the staff didn't care about that. We were all just trying to show the kids the ropes, not lose any of them, and start a semblance of the routine that will be fine-tuned over time to include punctuality as the kids become more accustomed to everything.
I also noticed that the staff bonded together all day long. With kids going every which way, every staff member's head had to be on a swivel, and everyone watched out for everyone else's students -- and for each other. Several times throughout the day, I was asked, or observed someone else being asked, "You doing okay?"
The ongoing sentiment was that we're all in this together, and we'll survive it together.
In my class, we did some coloring, and I read them a couple of stories. I answered eleventy-seven billion questions (mostly about when lunch is, and when recess is, and when we get to go home). We had a mini-assembly in the gymnasium, we had recess, we ate lunch, and we made 4,927 trips to the bathroom. We even celebrated a student's birthday.
By the time the afternoon rolled around, the kiddos were wearing out. A few kept their heads down on their desks out of fatigue. That was cool with me. They weren't bothering anyone, and I felt as tired as they looked. Behavior started to wane for some of them. I heard "I wanna go home" more and more from the kiddos. Everyone was wiped out from the huge expenditure of nervous energy throughout the day, and up until today, some students were probably used to taking daily naps.
There was no learning letters of the alphabet, no practicing handwriting, no introduction to math, no reading instruction. That will all come later.
No, the first day of kindergarten was all about blazing a trail that will quickly become the highway of learning throughout the rest of the school year and beyond. Today was all about social and procedural instruction.
I finished my day by putting every child on the correct school bus while my invaluable teacher's aide handled the car riders and the kids going to after-school care.
After all the kids were loaded up, I stood there for a few moments with the other kindergarten teachers, and we all had the same battle-weary looks about us. One of the experienced teachers assured us all, "It only gets easier from here." Very timely words of encouragement.
At the end of the day, I still had 24 kindergartners, so that was good. I'm pretty sure they were the same 24 that I started with, so that was even better. I think they all had a good time today, and I don't think I psychologically scarred any of them, so that's the best part of it all.
I nervously hung out in the front office until every last child had been picked up, cringing with every call over the radio about kids who weren't in the spot that the staff was expecting them to be in. Somehow, though, my teacher's aide and I managed to get all 24 kids where they were supposed to be. Hopefully fortune smiles upon us the same way tomorrow.
I was then able to go home. No other real teacher or staff member was leaving, though. They had to stay and prepare for tomorrow. I couldn't imagine having to stay for another hour or two or three or whatever, because my goose was cooked, and I couldn't wait to get home and take a nap.
Real teachers and staff members, I salute you. I don't know how you do what you do on a daily basis.
I received countless offers of help today, as well as an outpouring of thanks for being there. I definitely felt appreciated and supported, and I thoroughly enjoyed my day, despite the ensuing exhaustion.
On the way out the door, the school principal gave me a high-five and a knowing nod and smile. Not a word was exchanged. We didn't have to. We had all survived the first day of school -- together -- and it only gets easier from here.
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