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facts & arguments

Despite the craziness of being a Grade 1 teacher, some days it feels like I’m a magician.The Globe and Mail

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I jumped around from contract to contract during my first two years in education, teaching everything from Grade 5 to Grade 12. Then I got a permanent gig and hit the jackpot – Grade 4! It's the perfect age. The kids are old enough to have mature conversations but young enough to still think their teacher is cool. I taught Grade 4 for three great years.

Then I moved school boards, applied for another Grade 4 position and got Grade 1 instead. I panicked. I had no idea how to teach six-year-olds: Whenever I had seen them in the halls trying to get their snow pants off, I'd always felt bad for their teacher. Now I was going to be that teacher.

A year later, I've survived, and for any teacher following in my footsteps this fall I'd like to offer up my field notes. Welcome to Grade 1, where:

1. Falling off chairs is epidemic. A Grade 1's physiology is comparable to a penguin's: They both waddle around aimlessly, have no ability to catch balls or use scissors and jabber on about things that don't seem to make any sense. They also have difficulty balancing themselves. Imagine 23 penguins trying to sit on chairs. This is what my classroom looks like. One week I took a tally. In total, my students fell off their chairs 44 times. There's a vast variety of falls – the backward flip, the wiggly-leg tangle, the forward bang, the sideways slide and the slow-motion smash. No amount of cautioning can prevent these falls.

2. Everything takes forever. My colleagues warned me that Grade 1s are slow, but slow doesn't do them justice. They are sloths. It takes them 40 minutes to write their name, even if their name is Bob. Erasing a letter takes 30 minutes. Opening a Tupperware container takes the whole lunch period. But the worst is Duo-Tangs: It takes an hour to put in one sheet of paper. After training for a month, we got it down to 20 minutes. One day, in an attempt to empathize, I limited myself to using my left hand (I'm right-handed). I am much more understanding now.

Eleanor Rosenberg for the Globe and Mail

3. Instructions? What instructions? In teachers’ college, we learned all kinds of strategies (and lingo) to help kids understand concepts and assignments. For example, when teaching them how to write a letter to someone, you would give them an example first (modelled writing) then write one with them (shared writing). Pupils then discuss their ideas (think-pair-share) and you create a checklist of what they need to do (success criteria). Finally, you model it one more time and ask if there are any questions.

“No questions?” I ask. “Are you sure?” I ask again. “Okay, then. Go ahead and start your work.”

Now comes the moment of the blank stares. After a short silence, one kid inevitably raises their hand and asks: “What are we supposed to do?”

To be fair, this happens in every grade, but only in Grade 1 does it happen when you are teaching how to sharpen a pencil. This is why I go to bed at 8:30 on weekdays.

4. Bladder control is still an issue. In the first week of school, two kids wet their pants. One was very comfortable with that fact. He walked around for 30 minutes until I realized why his pants were two different shades of brown. The other student refused to move from her seat and wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. At recess, she finally told me, but refused to budge until I offered to drape my coat around her. That night, I went to the dry cleaner and found out that coats are expensive to clean. Which brings me to expenses.

5. Half your paycheque goes to Dollarama. I kept a record for the school year – in total I spent $1,400. A lot of that went into building a classroom library – I teach in French immersion and French resources are pretty scarce. Buying your own books is expensive, even when you get your friends in Quebec to search for deals in used bookstores. Print cartridges make a big dent in the finances, too. Add to that the supplies your school board can’t provide, but that make life so much easier (a $120 heavy-duty sharpener, $40 worth of Lee Valley magnets, $30 for white-out that works) and you understand why my wallet suffers. It’s the Dollarama staff who know me best. When they see a shopping cart full of such random items as a bag of dirt, plastic cups, Popsicle sticks, straws, ribbon and Velcro, they know I’ve got a project in the works. I’m also a regular in their sticker aisle – most Grade 1s will do anything for a sticker.

Do I still pine for Grade 4? It depends on the day. Some days I feel like the ringmaster of a crazy circus, but other days I feel like a magician. Just imagine this: At the beginning of the year, my students spoke no French and could read very little or not at all. Now, they converse among themselves in French. They read French books, summarize those books and write about how the stories remind them of their lives, the world and other books they’ve read. They write short stories, make detailed observations in science experiments and can answer math word problems in paragraphs.

Is this magic worth all the chaos and frustration? Yes, very much so. And I’m excited to start again this month with a brand new batch of Grade 1 penguins.

Christina Heyding lives in Toronto.