Sunday, March 29, 2009

Which teacher has the hardest job? OR, I quit!

For years I have pondered which grade level or classroom subject is the hardest to teach.  Was it the high school music teacher who had to know all the instruments, form a musical unit and do parades and concerts?  Perhaps it might be the chemistry teachers who has to order certain amounts of chemicals as well as know all the rules for disposing of said chemicals.  Maybe it was the first and second grade teacher who had to get the children to understand these strange letters and make them into words and sentences.  And then again it could easily be the mathematics teacher at the high school teaching advance mathematics--all those strange formulas and proofs--a total abstraction. Indeed, it could easily be that math teacher who had the hardest job in teaching.

But, no.  Over the years I really considered the middle school teacher who taught the grades  sixth, seventh and eighth grades.  Those kids, ranging from eleven to thirteen or fourteen were just experiencing their new hormones.  Voices change in the boys, girls begin to blossom and both sexes take great excitement in developing their personalities.  Yes, it had to be the middle school teacher who has the hardest job in education. 

I have an interesting story about a middle school teacher.  Jack was well liked by colleagues and the students--a solid teacher who worked hard to get his kids to learn about themselves and the world around them.  I had a student teacher in his class--don't remember much of the student teacher but I always remembered Jack. One day I was standing at the back of the room talking to Jack about how things were going in the class with my student teacher.  He interrupted me,  "Hold on, look at the kid over at the reading machine--he is smiling."  The machine was a 3M sort of a tape recorder/player.  It had cards with tape at the bottom and the teacher could write a word on the card, say the word.  Then a student could insert the card, listen to the teacher say the word, then the student would say the word.  Finally the student could hit a button to hear the teacher say the word again and compare it to what he/she had just said.  The machine was good for saying medical terminology, science words and just new English vocabulary.  But as Jack had noted, it wasn't a device in which kids would smile.  Something was up.

It turned out that the kids had found the button that the teacher could use and were adding digs at others in the classroom, at the teacher and at the student teacher.  We found this out when the kids went to another class and we could insert a card and found the mischief that was being added to the cards.  I asked Jack if he was going to address the class about this problem....that is what I would have done.  "Oh, no. Got something better."  He then took a number of the cards and added a word or two of his own...."I heard that!"  or "Hmmmm."  He probably did only about ten cards out of the hundred or so the kids were suppose to review.  

When the kids came back into the classroom, the next student to use the 3M recorded went back to the desk, inserted a card.  For several cards, he just smiled.   All of a sudden, he sat up straight and looked over at Jack....eyes wide.  I couldn't stay to see the finish of this but heard from student teacher that several of the students in the class voluntarily went through the cards and "cleaned them up."  Jack told me later that talking to the kids would have been alright but getting them to made the behavior correction to correct the cards was much better.  Kids of this age he said need to learn how to correct their behavior on their own.  They won't always have an adult following them around to tell them what to do.  Brilliant.  So for a time I thought middle school teachers had the hardest job.

But I have picked a different grade as the hardest to teach--kindergarten.  During my brief grade school music teaching career, I was at a school three days after it had opened in September. Early on the morning of the first full week of school,  the principal was looking harried and he grabbed me and said, "please go look after the kindergarten--the teacher just called me and quit."  Apparently, she had decided on this Monday morning that she didn't want to be a teacher.  So I walked up to the kindergarten room at the far end of the building.  By now there were no mothers to contend with and the children were playing, yelling, running around the room.  I walked in and most of the children began to cry.  Apparently the teacher who had just quit had told them if they didn't behave the principal would come to the room and the children thought I was the principal.  Band teachers really don't have the skill to deal with this type of crises and crises it was.  

I finally got the kids to sit on the rug in front of the classroom--not enough chairs and desks.  Did you know you have to teach kids how to sit together, not hit each other, feet tucked under themselves, not taking up all the space, hands in the laps, not hitting the kid next to you.  It must have taken me a good half hour getting the children to settle down.  And quiet enough for me to talk. Oh lordy, how they could talk--all at the same time.  That is what kindergarten teachers do--teach taking turns, sitting quietly together on a rug, raising their hands to say something (children don't raise their hands at home to speak)--and my oh my did they wiggle and squirm.  Once they knew I was not the principal, one little girl came up and gave me a hug.  Then everyone on the rug wanted to do the same thing.  I was behind the curve on this one.

I do remember telling them a story and during the story one little boy raised his hand (I was making progress) and asked if he could go to the bathroom.  Now this kindergarten room had two bathrooms at one side of the classroom--one for boys and one for girls with appropriate icons on the door as well as the proper word.  I gave the little guy permission to go and he went into the girls bathroom.  A few kids twittered and I turned around and said, "go use the other bathroom, please."  "Why?"  I didn't have an answer so decided to let it be.  But then he didn't close the door and proceeded to drop his pants.  I said, "close the door."  And his reply was, "My mother said to never close the bathroom door."  I continued on with my storytelling.

Kindergarten teachers teach so many things that we grade school teachers take for granted.  How to share, how to get along, how not to fight, and an important skill, how to line up.  Every time I line up at a bank or grocery store I think of kindergarten teachers.  I wonder how they do it  

So I nominate the kindergarten teachers as having one of the hardest jobs in education.  My hat is off to them.

If you know a kindergarten teacher, be sure to give her a hug for me too.

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