Let's talk -- over sushi!
Over the past few months, I've captioned several of my instagram photos with the #mshannahsstories, and I thought I'd explain and summarize my teaching experience in a little blogpost. And, since people like to catch up over a meal, I thought I'd throw in a few photos from a recent trip my mom and I took to what I think is the best sushi restaurant in the Princeton area.
My (former) job's responsibilities probably don't align with most people's preconceived notions of a teacher's responsibilities. In short, I was an associate teacher who subbed in for all of the teachers. I got to work with infants, toddlers, preschool, pre-k, kindergarten, and camp (ages 6-12)!
I know, that is a HUGE range of ages, but getting to work with kids of all ages was one of my favorite parts (I had the option to work exclusively with preschoolers or with campers, but I chose this position instead because I couldn't choose just one age group!).
Now to properly explain my role, I need to give a little bit of context: with each age group, there's a very specific teacher to student ratio that must be kept at all times. This ratio is even stricter when a center is "NAEYC" accredited, and the school I worked at was. The infant to teacher ratio was 4:1, toddlers was 6:1, preschool was 10:1, and the ratio continually increases by age. The tough part about keeping this exact ratio at all times is that teachers need time out for daily breaks and lesson planning. Some classes combined during nap/quiet time, and for toddler classes and up, only 1 teacher was needed in the classroom to supervise. This allows teachers to give each other breaks. This rule, however, does not apply to infant classes, so infant teacher breaks were much more difficult to schedule. I was needed to fill in for teachers during those daily breaks (I could almost always count on being with the infants for at least 3 hours each day), lesson planning times, and even when the teachers took vacation time. During the first few weeks, my hours were much more flexible, and I even worked as an all-day sub in one infant classroom for several days.
Something that I had to get used to was adjusting to different classrooms/age groups. Each classroom is set up differently, has different rules and expectations, and, most obviously, different kids. I keenly remember that my gym teacher, freshman year, made it a goal to learn everyone's names within 2 weeks (keep in mind, he has over 100 students). He consistently made the effort to learn both our names and who we were from the very first day; this simple but powerful gesture really stuck with me, and remembering this really motivated me to do everything I could to memorize each child's name and equally distribute as much individualized attention as I could.
So anyways, onto the literal job responsibilities:
as each classroom/age group is different, my job responsibilities changed from classroom to classroom. The older ages experienced more of a "Montessori" education, and got to do the traditional preschooler through kindergarten activities and lessons. The younger ages, infants in particular, had more of a "daycare" experience, but they did have a lot of "traditional", educational experiences (learn a little bit of sign language, baby yoga, story time, music & dance, art projects, water play, gardening, "science" - magnifying glasses/touching unique objects and experiencing new things). Given their wide range of ages, campers had a more relaxed experience, which included daily art projects, science experiments, quiet time/electronics time, free time to venture into personal projects (a group of girls filmed a horror movie on an iPad! it was awesome, and I was very impressed), and field trips.
When I went into the campers room/kindergarten room (kindergarten combines with camp during the summer), I talked to the kids, supervised the room, helped facilitate art projects. Easy peasy. I was more of a camp counselor than the camp director/teacher.
Pre-k is notoriously the most difficult, but only because the kids require a lot of attention, and there's only one teacher to distribute the attention. While I often came home exhausted after being in the pre-k room by myself during my last hour and a half of work, these kids gave me the most stories to tell :). I absolutely loved getting to know each student and hearing what they had to say -- and kids can say some crazy things, sometimes. I wasn't in the preschool classroom very often because there were typically two teachers, but my experience was very similar to my experience in the pre-k classroom. When I was in those two rooms, the students were typically rotating between activity centers or heading out to play outside. I had to supervise them, read stories, draw and play with them, settle arguments, assist them with various needs, uphold classroom rules (oh, believe me - this was nearly an "every other minute" occurrence ;) ), encourage them to find a center to go to, and give them the highly demanded attention they deserved. Their permanent teachers carried out the formal lesson plans, involving journal time, building reading/writing skills, science lessons, etc.
I subbed in for the toddler classrooms at varying hours of the day, so I had a lot of different responsibilities. Distributing snacks and cleaning up, reading stories, playing with the kids (indoors and outdoors), nap time/post-nap time routines, diapering, bringing the kids to the indoor play room. All the while, I had to entertain and converse with the students as much as possible :) The younger they get, the more you realize how quickly kids can grow and develop within a few weeks - the toddler age range is 18 months to 3 years; some of the kids can articulate some words/short sentences (one little girl seriously impressed me with how well-spoken she is), while others were still talking baby-talk :).
This realization is even more obvious when you're with the infants, the age group that I spent the most time with because of the stricter ratio rule (4:1). Infants ranged from 3 months to 18 months -- you'll hold the tiniest of the babies, and you'll also chase after the rambunctious 1 year olds (the 1 year olds recognize the 3 month olds as babies, while the toddlers, who occasionally see the 1 year olds when we take them for walks, point to them and say, "BABIES!!" ;)!!). I've been in the infant rooms from 1 to 8 hours a day, so I'm most familiar with the infant rules, expectations, and routines. There's morning snack (feeding the younger ones if need be), indoor play time, outdoor play/small art or science project, lunch, putting the kids to nap (not an easy task with 8 infants in each classroom -- this is an even harder task since they cry and discourage others from napping), supervising nap time (not all nap at the same time too), giving bottles every 3 hours, changing diapers every 2 hours, afternoon snack, more play time, outdoor time if the weather is nice (or indoor play room time), walks in buggies (they get SO excited when they see that buggy pull up to the door), do the laundry, and keep these kids entertained! What's hard about this age group is that teachers must cater to more individualized needs (unique nap times, for example), since they're too young to make drastic adjustments to adapt to a general classroom schedule. Most of them can't talk yet, either, so they can't articulate their feelings/needs -- that leads to some noise, to say the least ;). Though this age group is physically demanding, I had so much fun seeing these kids each day, seeing how their faces light up when I walk in, and having them climb into my lap when I read stories -- it's all so rewarding.
Now these responsibilities may seem simple if you're with one child, but when you're with a whole classroom of them (up to 15, in my experience), then they can become much more challenging. There are also sheets to be filled out for each student each day (describes their snack and nap times, time of diaper changes, and a summary of what they did that day, all for the parents' benefit), and a classroom-wide summary (involving photos!) that's distributed to the parents through email. Disciplining the kids is a big responsibility too, and was definitely my least favorite.
After a certain number of weeks, I was cleared by the FBI, meaning that I was finally allowed to be in ratio, in a classroom, by myself (basically the sole teacher). During my early weeks, I was always in a classroom co-teaching with another teacher, but after this clearance, I was placed in various classrooms by myself. This new freedom and increased pressure was definitely frightening, but it felt kinda fun too. I was definitely nervous at first, but being the sole teacher often means having fewer kids in a classroom, which made the classroom feel more intimate -- like we were all one little cute family :) (One of my favorite moments - I was the sole teacher in an infant classroom, and I found myself sitting on the floor, reading a story with one little girl sitting in my lap and three other cuties holding onto me.)
Working with and learning from the other teachers was also an amazing opportunity for me to learn parenting and teaching skills. But above all, I loved talking to them and getting to know each one of them/their stories (the infant teachers and I are particularly close since I spent so much time with them!). These teachers don't have easy jobs: 9 hour work days (very limited bathroom breaks and late lunch hours) involving physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting work on top of having only 2 weeks vacation each year, and very few holidays off -- not even New Years Eve, people! Just July 4th, Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday -first time they had that day off this year- , Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Day. Despite their tough jobs, however, they come to work and set aside their personal struggles and challenges to pour into these kids' lives, showing them the love that they need and deserve.
I hope this (not so) brief summary gives you a better glimpse at one of my jobs this summer! I have learned so much from this experience, but I gotta say, one of the most important things I've learned is that there's just nothing better than having a student run up and hug you.