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What I learned (and lost) moving up grade levels

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I was very lucky and blessed to work full time as a teacher assistant at Head Start in college. I took night classes in Early Childhood Education while I got to work during the day learning from college educated, NAEYC accredited teachers AND 3, 4, and 5 year olds. I didn’t realize at the time that I was learning most of my classroom management skills hands on and it would be one thing I could check off my list as a first year teacher. Oddly enough, I had most of my college experiences in kindergarten classrooms, with the exception of student teaching in both second grade and first grade rooms. When I began teaching kindergarten in my current district it was a natural fit. I started to wonder if I’ve spent too much time with little kids and what it would be like to teach “big kids.” Was I missing something?  So I began debating the decision to move up grade levels.  I debated for a year and decided to take the plunge and ask if I could move to second grade.  I’ve compiled a few things I learned when I moved up to teaching the “big kids.” Some things I truly believe have made me a better teacher. And a few things that I lost and need to refocus on..

Things I’ve learned moving up:

  1. Urgency- In kindergarten I feel like I had all the time in the world. If the kids weren’t able to focus on said lesson I had planned then I could literally push it to the side and go off onto whatever tangent or learnable moment they were currently in. I never felt urgency to get anything done. I knew that at age 5 they’re such sponges that I would still have them all (minus 1 or 2) at green on dibels for end of the year. I was absolutely never stressed out about how I could fit all my standards in.  In second grade that changed. Holy cow. If I could add an hour to my classroom day I would. I learned immediately there wasn’t enough time in the day to get through all of my standards and I constantly feel on a race against time in second grade. The timer has become my best friend. We don’t have time to sing songs during transition. You have two minutes to clean up and move, move, move. This may seem like a bad thing, however learning a sense of urgency has made me a better curriculum planner, and far more effective at time management. It also makes your day go very fast when there’s not one minute to waste!
  1. Slow Down- When I taught kinder I spent most of my day in small group instruction. The kids would be off doing a mix of independent work and then centers of their choice. I was the master of small groups. I had kids in and out and I was never worried as to what they were missing because it was kindergarten and the centers were always there. They were there for practice and if they didn’t get to practice writing their letters one day they would be there the next. Play dough and blocks would always be there. At second grade I came in with this same pace, raring to go all day. I quickly realized it wasn’t going to work. I would give the kids an assignment and they would get started while I pulled reading groups. When they finished they could choose their own daily 5 choice and go get busy. (I’ve never assigned students to centers or learning stations. Even as a kindergarten teacher. I assign work, my students complete it, they get it checked over, and then they go choose, on their own, what their center or activity is. I expect my students to make good choices and more often than not they do.) But I realized at second grade I had to slow down. I wasn’t giving my students time to complete their assignments and some kids were always in a small group for remedial instruction and then they would never get time to choose a center or daily 5 choice, giving them no independent writing or reading time. Honestly, one of the hardest parts for me as second grade teacher is standing back and letting kids work. I have to physically walk to my own desk and grade some papers or do some of my own work and it’s hard for me to do that. I can’t always be enriching the gifted, teaching the middle, or re-teaching my lows. I have to slow down and give the kids time to work independently.
  1. Curriculum- It is one thing to read the standards of another grade and it is another thing to actually teach those standards. My heart sank the first year I taught second grade as I quickly realized some very big areas that I didn’t focus on much in kinder that as a second grade teacher I wish I would have. In all honesty, I think if I went back down to kindergarten I would be a better teacher at kinder now because I know where my students are going. I understand where they are heading curriculum wise and what they need a solid foundation in. I was very happy with their phonics and reading skills in second grade but I was able to see gaps in math that I think I could have done a better job filling in kindergarten, now that I fully understand how those certain skills are building blocks for other concepts. I also noticed that I should have been a lot more diligent teaching handwriting and proper letter formation in kindergarten. (Sloppy handwriting is really hard to fix once it’s a habit!)
  1. It’s not any easier- When I was packing up my kinder classroom to switch to the second grade classroom so many older teachers told me “you’re making the best decision. You will love second grade and the older kids. They come in trained and it’s so much easier.” I wasn’t making the move because I thought it would be easier but I sure had a lot of people telling me it was going to be! My first day of second grade I started to panic when the kids came in and sat at desks, staring at me quietly. They were so quiet I could hear a pin drop and when you’ve spent years in preschool and kinder you learn that quiet is scary. Luckily, that didn’t last long and after a few weeks the kids were coming out of their shells. Because I had moved up grade levels I was teaching the same kids I had taught in kindergarten. I was so happy to see them finally acting the way they did in kindergarten. The same behaviors I spent my entire year as their kinder teacher trying to change. They were doing the same annoying things in kinder at second grade! They matured only a teeny bit and I still had most of the same classroom management problems at second grade that I did at kinder. (I realized that like my husband these might just be personality quirks that I can’t change.)

It was, however, A LOT easier in second grade because they weren’t so quick to “monkey see monkey do” as they were in kinder. I realized I didn’t need to be on the go 24/7 and classroom management at second grade WAS way easier. However, all the sudden I had to grade papers. A lot of friggin’ papers. And the student learning difficulties were much more pronounced in second grade than in kinder. The gap was very obvious. In kinder a lot of things are developmental and if they don’t get it then you hope it will click in first grade and the general kindergarten curriculum is memorization so it’s pretty easy to have them all on target by the end of the year. But in second grade the children who are struggling are often way below everyone else and their problems are much harder to fix. Interestingly, in second grade I feel that I work harder after and before school than I do during the day.  In kinder I worked hard all day long without a minute of rest but after school I was done and could decompress until the next day. Both grades have their own immense and unique challenges but neither one is “an easier grade to teach” than the other.

Things I’ve lost along the way:

  1. Child development– being only certified pre-K to third grade I obviously spent a lot more time in child development classes. I’m not 100% sure if it’s my college background or if it’s from working at Head Start that I’m more aware of child development. It was so very frustrating sitting through trainings (as a kindergarten teacher) that would talk all about “depth of knowledge” questions and I would want to scream “they’re 5 years old. They don’t have a depth of knowledge. They still believe in Santa Clause and magic and we should be more focused on setting a solid foundation for them than writing DOK level 4 questions for them.” I feel that whenever I would try to speak up then other teachers would think I don’t believe children can learn and I don’t challenge them enough. (This is one reason I made the plunge to second grade. You want me to teach this way then I need to move where the kids are capable of performing this way.) I came into second grade set on being the teacher I read that Marzano says is most “effective.”  Only to realize this is still an early child hood classroom. These children will still learn better AND more if we use best practices within our field of early childhood education. I was way better at this as a kindergarten teacher and it’s something I really need to go back to as a second grade teacher. Instead of spending an hour analyzing why an author used the word choice he or she did in a book ( an author by the way who is grown and has way more life experience than what I’m trying to pull out of a 7 year old) I need to spend more time letting kids explore and question and create. I need to spend more time talking with students in normal conversation instead of constantly questioning them and digging to find their “depth of knowledge.”
  1. Partnerships– when I worked at head start I got used to working very closely with parents and families. We had to do two home visits a year and two conferences. Parents were always in the classroom and it was just normal to me. Something else that was a bonus for when I began teaching kindergarten. I was used to parent involvement and I fully believe that it takes a village to raise a child, so why not to educate one? In kinder I had parents fighting to get into the classroom. I’m naturally very routine person and I don’t believe in people coming in to play or watch me teach so I would invite a parent who could come in during centers time and pull small groups and play a game or go through flash cards. I always had the activity prepared ahead of time and ready. I feel like I had great partnerships and understanding with parents and families in kindergarten. When I moved to second grade that stopped. Suddenly, no one wanted to come in and help. And I was suddenly so busy afterschool and constantly on the go I stopped asking. I stopped nagging and emailing and calling. And I realize now that my school home communication needs more work, even if it’s not as easy as it was in kindergarten.
  2. Fun– Ok this one is totally cheesy but I’ve gotten so wrapped up on teaching, teaching, teaching, all the time at second grade that I forget to add fun in. I believe with the new common core standards and the constant focus on testing and goals that this is so easy to overlook. I realized one day that my students will be completely burnt out of school by the time they hit 7th grade if they keep going at this rate. I need to remember to slow down, enjoy the small people in my classroom, and show them that even though education is hard work-it can be fun at EVERY grade level and not just kindergarten.

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