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  • LoveTeaching Week

How Third Graders Helped Me Love Teaching Again

This past August I transitioned back into the classroom after a year of service to the state of Michigan as the 2021-2022 Michigan Teacher of the Year. While I had taught for many years, this particular start was my first as a third grade teacher. I had spent the previous 15 years teaching kindergarten. The last of those years were fraught with stress, worry, and overwhelm at systems and structures. It was never the students, but I felt myself slowly crumbling as an educator and felt lost in all aspects of the profession.

Moving grades had been the tiniest whisper in my mind for many years. Making the final decision had been difficult, but felt like the only option if I was going to remain in the classroom. I didn’t want to give up on teaching, and knew that this was my only chance at rediscovering all that I loved about the classroom.

I had no idea what to expect on that first day of school. I was nervous in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was walking into the third grade with feelings that many of the students were likely experiencing: excitement, anxiety and uncertainty. I knew I had two goals: to support these kids in building positive feelings about school, and to do all I could to foster a love of reading.

This class was composed of new students along with many of the kindergarteners I had taught during the 2019-2020 school year. This cohort, I felt, was the most vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. They lost the last several months of their kindergarten year, and spent the majority of first grade in a remote learning setting. This was followed by second grade- in-person, but in a classroom full of restrictions.

For all of us, we would need to take it slow and build a genuine community of learners. I wanted to do all I could to push away the outside pressures of pacing guides, standardized testing, gap skills, learning loss, and focus on the humans that sat in front of me. We were both coming into this as voyageurs of the new frontier that was the 3rd grade, and I was ready and excited to learn right along with them.

What I discovered in those first days was the kids were equally as needy for a real change. They were tired and frustrated from the last three years of school, and were ready to take this journey alongside me. I admitted to them from the beginning that we were truly on this path together as we were all experiencing third grade for the first time. They laughed in the moment, but I wanted them to know that I was going to stumble regularly, just as they were likely to do, and that we were all going to figure this out together.

When I made mistakes, started days not as prepared as I should have been, and when lessons (many, honestly) went disastrously, I owned it all. I wanted to show them that making mistakes is part of life no matter your age, and that it is what we do after those missteps that defines our character and how we will grow from it. At first the students were taken aback by my honesty, but it equalized the playing field for us all, and they began to see me as a human too. My courage to be vulnerable with them and show my failures, began to empower them in how they persevered through learning that was challenging and overwhelming.

I witnessed a slow change over many months with vulnerability and risk-taking in students, specifically in math and writing, where the greatest divide of missing skills would surface. In the beginning, there would be kids that would shut down, avoid, and sometimes cry over new learning. Each of them needed something a little different, but I spent a lot of time structuring our community meetings as safe spaces to discuss and reflect on hard moments and how we handle them. Sometimes it was modeling breathing, other times it was reading inspiring true stories of real people who faced challenges and figured out a way to overcome those obstacles. We explored how each of us has the opportunity to lift someone up, and that all of us have successes and failures. We had many conversations around the idea of growth mindset and what we do when we feel stuck. I made sure to provide other learning opportunities and activities outside of the four major content areas to provide experiences of success for those that stumble regularly in those areas. We would do drawing activities, origami, robotics, board games, and more. This provided the opportunity for others to shine and support those that didn’t always feel the learning struggle on a daily basis.

Our biggest joy came from reading every day. At the start of the year I asked the class to share with me their feelings about reading. I had a few students that loved to read, and had been successful readers from their first days of kindergarten, but for the majority of my class, their feelings about reading were quite negative. Most said they did not enjoy reading. As a lifelong reader and literacy advocate, this broke my heart. I knew, this too, would take patience and time.

At the beginning of the year, inspired by author Donalyn Miller, along with a classroom visit to see author and Michigan native, Colby Sharp in his classroom the previous spring, I created a 40 book reading challenge for my class. If you could have seen the look on their faces when I told them! After I announced this, I told them that the challenge was set as a goal, but regardless of what they read, even if they read just a couple of books this school year, it would be a couple more than they had read before. I let them have full choice in what they were reading and I made it a priority to block out independent reading time EVERY DAY. We built structures in how that looked, and I slowly introduced books to them. I began having discussions with students about what they enjoyed and gave them book recommendations. I would read myself during this time as much as I could to model that I also prioritized this reading time. It was a struggle at first, but as time went on, by modeling my own love of reading, doing class read aloud everyday and sharing collective moments of joy and sadness through the pages of a book, I began to see a transformation with my class. I was getting messages from parents sharing with me that their kids were asking to purchase books and they were watching them choose to read at home in their free time. I was watching kids pulling out books when work was completed to keep reading. For many, I had to get their noses out of books while I was teaching (Yay!). I had kids asking me to purchase the next books in a series and they began donating their own books to the classroom. I watched them share books with each other and listened to students have conversations about books. With giving the students autonomy, what had happened naturally was the creation of a reading community unlike anything I had experienced as a classroom teacher.

This school year isn’t over yet, and I don’t know what lies ahead tomorrow. But I do know that by making this change, slowing down, and prioritizing kids, I have witnessed a community of learners who have inspired me, and brought immense joy in teaching each and every day. I know there will be difficult days and challenging seasons in this profession, but what I have witnessed these past months has reminded me of why I chose this profession in the first place: because I wanted to make a difference in a child’s life. And while I know, for my students, I will eventually be a faint memory, I hope they will never forget how they felt this year, as we all learned to walk together and find joy and love within the walls of the classroom.

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