Everything I need to know, I learned teaching kindergarten

This old thing was drafted during the years I wasn’t teaching. I’ve dusted it off and posted it so you can appreciate everything I knew circa 2012. Every. thing.

Break tasks into the smallest possible steps.
The first time I ever got observed as a kindy teacher, I tried to wow the head office with a very involved arts-and-crafts project. I brought all the ingredients for kids to make paper pizzas: paper plates, colored paper, tissue paper, glitter, stickers, gold and silver paint pens, markers, crayons, pom-poms, you name it. I explained every step to my kids: take a plate, glue on some red origami paper, okay, well, tear the paper first, then put on some stickers, and if you can be careful, dab some glue here and there and sprinkle the glitter on it, wait, but, put the stickers on first…

I made a pile of materials on each table and the class went into meltdown. They glued the paper in clumps, stuck the stickers on the back of the plates, spilled the glitter, and drew on everything with that damn silver pen. My observer explained to me that I should have given them just one item at a time and showed them one step at a time. In fact, I could have taken two days to finish the project. I felt bad because in my inexperience I had set them up for failure, but I learned something that day: Kids can’t make pizza. 

Provide an example
It’s no use to explain to twenty five-year-olds how to fold a piece of paper into an origami frog from scratch. They aren’t going to visualize a frog while you’re talking. You need to have an already-made example to show them what they’re making. Next time it’s your turn to show your colleagues how to make origami frogs, make a few examples ahead of time to compensate for their inability to conceptualize frogs.

Do a little something every day.
I taught kindy  at a school that provided us with a vague schedule and some teaching materials without expecting us to follow strict lesson plans. This gave experienced teachers a lot of latitude when it came to deciding what to do each day. But there’s no way twenty kindergartners can all cram a semester’s worth of English phonics in the last week of classes before their assessments like a bunch of undergrads strung out on Ritalin. Baby steps. That goes for you in your 40s trying to learn how to hula hoop or play the guitar.

You have to learn how to learn.
Kids literally know nothing when they are little. Most adults don’t know much. Why? Because they don’t know how to learn. In kindy, this means memorizing lots of information about the way we categorize the world and also learning to look for and identify patterns–colors, numbers, correlated events, phonics patterns, etc. Show me a kid who never picks up a book on their own because they don’t know how to read it until it’s been taught in class, and twenty years later I’ll show you the people who need to be walked through the Starbucks menu like it’s a whole new world every time they go. Every.single.time. Nobody likes those people.

Do it right AND fast
In Taiwan, even my kindy kids had to prep for an entrance exam into the next level of the program. The test was difficult, but it was also timed. Other teachers were generous with their students, requiring the whole class to move no faster than the slowest kid and letting them finish their practice tests at their own pace. In my class, once I was confident my students knew how to finish it, I put pressure on them to finish it quickly. Time limits and prizes for the fastest kids had them working at high speeds. In the end, more of my kids passed the test than anyone else’s. WHAT’S GOOD, DEBBIE WITH THE SHORT HAIR?!

Fake it til you make it
The parents of the students at my school expected their kids to be reading age-appropriate English books within weeks of studying English. It was kind of nuts. BUT their spongy little minds could memorize books in just a few days. The kids didn’t know they weren’t reading, but neither did the parents. Mom and Dad were happy, the kids were happy, and so the teachers were happy. And by the end of the three-year kindergarten program, the kids were actually literate. Like once I started reading about the wine I was drinking, I got tasked with ordering the wine all the time. The extent of my knowledge was “Merlots are generally fruity and accessible”. I ordered a Merlot, everyone loved it. I was a superstar because none of them had seen Sideways. You got this!

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