The first day of school is a mix of excitement, dread, nervousness and anticipation for everyone. It marks the end of the carefree days of summer with late evening sunshine and swimming. In my household this year, the first day of school was monumental because our firstborn began her school journey as a kindergarten student.
As a former teacher, I was amazed at how different it is to be on the “other side” of the first day of school. I spent long summer days preparing my classroom materials, decorations and activities. Staff meetings were held to unload the 1,764 things that had changed over the few short weeks of summer. The newly waxed floors sparkled and everyone was anticipating the quiet hallways being filled with boisterous kids. Then on the first day of school, the cars rolled in and the buses pulled up and all these kids streamed into the building. Some faces bore confident smiles and others looked to be on the verge of tears and they timidly tried to find their way. My fellow teachers and I were there with a friendly smile and a hug, ready to guide each young student to their classroom for the longest day of the entire school year. We knew so much about school, teaching, curriculum, classroom management, how to fix a jammed copier and all the other essential components of an elementary school.
I had the opportunity to teach kindergarten students for all of my 6 years of teaching and I loved that age more than any other. The growth and change in each child is remarkable. They arrive in August not knowing how to drink out of the water fountain or carry a lunch tray and leave at the end of May reading and writing. It’s an amazing process to watch and be a part of!
But this year, sending my own child to kindergarten was an entirely different experience. A postcard arrived with the name of Josie’s teacher on it. I prayed that this stranger would love and treasure my little girl as much as possible. I got all sentimental thinking back over the past half-decade and all the late nights, teaching, sickness, discipline, fun, learning, growth – did I mention discipline?! I realized like I never could have as a teacher what a huge honor and responsibility it is to welcome a child who five short years ago arrived as a scrunchy faced newborn into a brand new world.Will our strong willed, outspoken girl be loved and nurtured? Will her strengths be encouraged and her challenges addressed? Will she be a good friend and have good friends? Where are all these other kids coming from?
I couldn’t help but think back to my very first year as a kindergarten teacher. I was thrilled to be offered a position at an amazing elementary school in the same county where I did student teaching. I was partnered with a wonderful kindergarten classroom teacher who became like a sister to me as we taught in the same classroom every day over the next four years. I was teaching students with disabilities and it was my dream come true. I’m not sure that I slept much the night before school started because I was so excited but mostly nervous. Sure, I had taken all the classes about how to teach kids and done some reading, research and experience on my own about disabilities. But, I had never had full responsibility for taking the wheel and making sure that my students learned in the way that was best for each of them. I can’t help but smile now thinking about how I was so enthusiastic and unsure about what I was about to encounter.
What an amazing experience it was to meet the little faces of my students and their families. One good thing about starting a teaching career in kindergarten – the families, students and teacher all learn about starting school as they go! I marvel at the trust that these parents placed in me as a 22 year old rookie with their babies. We were doing full inclusion with kids who had significant needs and delays – autism, hearing impairments, apraxia and other not-yet-discovered challenges. That means these kids were in a regular kindergarten class all day, every day. So we had a team of kindergarten teachers & paraprofessionals who were new to this style of teaching, a fresh out of college rookie special education teacher and a handful of challenging kids who had never done this “big school” thing before. I remember wearing a lanyard around my neck the first half of the school year with big Boardmaker pictures of emotions so the kids could express what they were feeling. Talk about learning experiences! It was wild, crazy, creative and awesome!
But you know what happened? Everybody learned SO much! The kids who came to kindergarten with little to no verbal language began to communicate more in so many ways (signs, communication devices, words, gestures). They learned letters and then words and then they read little books! They had friends – such sweet friendships! Everyone played together, learning to take turns, learning to do things differently. Everyone learned that some people are different from us and that it’s ok. These little kindergarten babies grew and learned so much. It was a magical experience.
Not that it was all sunshine and roses. There were tears, difficult meetings, long waits to achieve small goals, trying new tactics and then throwing those out and trying something else. But over time, like tending a garden, we saw everyone’s work paying off.
I left the classroom in 2010 to pursue a new dream of mine – establishing and leading a nonprofit organization. I wanted to take the concepts that I had learned in the classroom and apply them in a community setting. The concept: we all benefit when everyone (with and without disabilities and differences) participates together. We are seven years in now and the theory still holds. In the words of my friend & high school classmate Katy Wilson, “When we work together, everyone wins!”
One of the great aspects of my job now is that I am able to keep in touch with the kids I had the privilege of teaching when they were little. Except now they are not little anymore!
I had the honor of shaking hands with 18 year old Evan this past Friday at our pool party while he looked me in the eyes and said, “Hi Mrs. Daniel!”. I could have never imagined when I first met Evan that we would ever have an [unprompted!] interaction like that. It’s incredible to see how far he’s come and I still marvel at his gift of art and his memory to recreate a drawing of things he has seen. It started with drawing signs, moved on to school buses, then maps.
Thanks to social media, I am able to keep in touch with some other former students and imagine my thrill when I learned about Sam who has a truck, pulls trailers (which I don’t even know how to do), loves to swim in rapid flowing rivers and has future aspirations to be a bus driver. Sam, Evan and I started kindergarten together and we learned so much as a team.
Then there’s Charlie whose love of dinosaurs in kindergarten has led him to create really intricate Godzilla videos and movie reviews. He’s also working hard to keep his grades up so he can continue dominating on his high school swim team. Charlie is also a gifted artist (he used to draw a little volcano beside his name on all his papers!) and has plans to work in graphic design or animation. Confession: I have a stash of Charlie’s drawings from first grade along with a few other student-made treasures tucked away at home. Below, you can see one of his kindergarten drawings alongside a current dino.
It is truly astounding to see how much these kids have learned as they have grown into adults.
So, back to my daughter’s first day of school. I saw several friends as I was walking Josie to her class yesterday but I didn’t say much. Not because I didn’t have anything to say but because I was choked up. I remember laughing at the “Boo Hoo Breakfast” the the PTO hosted for kindergarten moms when I was a teacher. I thought I would be doing a victory dance down the hallway and patting myself on the back for keeping my little human alive until kindergarten. But, that didn’t happen. The past 5 years played through my mind like a movie as we walked down the hallway and it hit me that this was the first day of a 13+ year journey of Josie growing up. It’s the first true test of our family, parenting skills and our daughter’s own judgement skills. I was leaving her in the hands of people I didn’t know. And I know she’ll do great. (Side note – she’s in an inclusion class and I’m thrilled!)
I kissed her and walked down the hallway and out to my car. Sorry to the parent who left the classroom right behind me. I didn’t turn to speak to you because I couldn’t. We’ll catch up next time. I have a feeling that you we’re interested in chatting at that moment either.
The words of a former co-worker echo in my mind: “Parents are sending you the very best they have, no matter what.”
Thank you parents, for trusting me as a fresh faced novice teacher. Thank you kids, for all you taught me when you were so young. Thank you teachers, for helping me have a much greater understanding of the “flip side” of the first day of school.