This past week, I had the good fortune to be able to tour Maureen Joy, a local charter school which serves students from the ages of kindergarten to 8th grade. I haven’t been inside an elementary school since I was, well, an elementary student, but I found the experience to be enlightening. This was especially helpful to me because it looks like I’ll be teaching elementary school after I graduate from college. Here are some of the things that I realized about teaching elementary school from this school visit.
First, there is a noticeable achievement gap even at early ages. I suppose I shouldn’t have been as surprised by this as I was. The research is clear: achievement gaps start very, very early in life. I’ve even written about the 30 million word gap on this blog before. Still, I was genuinely stunned to see the discrepancies that existed among young students in a class I visited. Some were able to work completely independently on a math assignment, and seemed very comfortable with age-appropriate mathematical reasoning, while others struggled to apply even the most basic mathematical concepts to their assignments. It was, frankly, a little disillusioning, at least in the moment. I think that there’s a pretty encouraging method that can be taken away from this, though. Knowing that the achievement gap is still as stubborn as it is only increases my desire to be a teacher, and to do what I can to fight it.
Second, teachers don’t have to choose between being liked or being respected. This was another big misconception that I had, and I didn’t even realize how wrong it was. The teachers that I saw had a remarkable ability to set high standards for behavior in their classroom without always being stern. I don’t think my teachers necessarily had these kinds of skills when I was in elementary school. I grew up thinking that if a teacher wanted to be liked by their students, they had to let students get away with everything. What I realized in watching the teachers at this charter school is that setting high expectations, and being consistent about how students are expected to behave in the classroom, negates the need for excessively mean classroom management. Especially at younger ages, kids are eager to please, and they don’t want to be disruptive. The key for the teacher is to harness that energy in ways that can always direct the kids to do the right things.
Third, and this is obvious to any teacher, this is not an easy job. Many teachers needed to keep up inhuman level of energy. They used words like “rockstar” and “cheerleader” to describe their own teaching styles. This is necessary because teachers, quite frankly, can’t afford to slow down. If they start to lose energy, their kids absolutely will. When I start to teach, I’m sure it will be a very interesting challenge to try and navigate the occupation of teaching without become emotionally drained.
Overall, I’m more excited than ever about becoming a teacher, and I can’t wait to spend more time learning about the profession of teaching before I graduate.