Lessons I Learned as a Kindergarten Teacher

by Michael J. Brennan

Book Published Announcement

July 6, 2023 • Michael Brennan

Michael's new book, The Lessons I Learned as a Kindergarten Teacher, is now available on http://amazon.com Search in "Books" for "The Lessons I Learned as a Kindergarten Teacher" The easy URL is: http://iamtheway.org/kindergarten

Lesson 1

January 1, 2023 • Michael Brennan

How did I become a kindergarten teacher? It was never a goal. In fact, it was never even on the radar. Becoming an elementary school teacher was the unintended outcome of finding no openings in what I thought was my intended career - High School Guidance and Counseling.   When I burst on the scene with newly acquired degree, Guidance Counselors were not in big demand. However, school districts were looking for male teachers for elementary positions. I was elementary certified, but never intended to use it.   Desperate for work, I interviewed for a second-grade elementary position and, much to my surprise, was hired. Surprised because I was blatantly honest about my desire to move into guidance as soon as an opening was available. The need for a male presence in elementary must have trumped my ‘blatant honesty’ because I was hired. Thus my temporary teaching career began.    A few years later, when an opening in High School Guidance finally arrived, I decided that being in the action was now far more appealing than all the administrative stuff connected to High School Guidance. At that point, my elementary teaching career moved from temporary to permanent.   For the first fourteen years, I taught in almost every elementary position - except Kindergarten. I adapted well to all my unintended teaching experiences. Nevertheless, Kindergarten was never on my bucket list. The thought of spending my days with a people group whose attention span is measured in seconds never occupied more than seconds in my attention span.   However, sometime during my fourteenth year of teaching, our district decided to move from half day to full day kindergarten. That decision created a need to hire a lot of new kindergarten teachers. Being one of those teachers never occurred to me.    One fine day, our superintendent came to visit our school. As I was walking down the hall during a break, I was suddenly joined by him in my stroll back to my classroom. I should have known something was up because, as we walked, he put his arm on my shoulder and began to speak of the “good things” he was hearing about me.    By the time we got to my room, he had hoodwinked me into ‘trying it for a year’. The “it” was his desire to have a male kindergarten teacher among the new teachers and I was his choice. To be honest, I flatly refused. I told him straight forward, that besides snack and playtime, I had no idea how to teach kindergarten. He gently ignored me, and I reluctantly agreed to his “try-it-for-a-year” deal.   What he knew that I clearly did not, was that by the end of that year I would have discovered that Kindergarten really is the year that you (even as the teacher) learn everything you need to know to succeed.    Lesson One – NEVER HAVE A ‘NEVER’ ON YOUR BUCKET LIST.   A Rabbit Trail Lesson - Never Trust the Sudden “Arms-Around Your-Shoulder” Praise of your Boss

Lesson 2

January 8, 2023 • Michael Brennan

The reality of my ‘try-it’ agreement did not hit until just the week before summer was ending and school was beginning.   Now what do I do?   I wasn’t kidding - after snacks and playtime I was clueless. My plan was simple. Have a well laid plan for the first day of school, then fake it each day after that.   That first day proved to be a real foretaste of the coming year. The plan was one thing, the actual unfolding of the plan proved to be another thing altogether.   Here’s how it went. I was ready, really ready!! As the buses arrived, I was standing at the door with a simple three-part plan for each and every student coming into my room.   1. Greet each one at the door 2. Direct them to put their lunch boxes away and then pick a desk (big mistake) 3. Use the crayons and paper at your desk to color a picture of something you did during the summer vacation while I get a list of those buying lunch.    There are times when the word “simple” has the same meaning as “foolish”. Today, it had that meaning. With a happy face plastered from ear to ear, I enthusiastically greeted all my bustling newbies, encouraging all to pick a desk and begin to color the picture.   Whatever you are now picturing, STOP! That picture is not even close to the reality of that first morning of my kindergarten career. My well-rehearsed plan became an immediate disaster. The reason, in retrospect, is easy to discern. Each and every one of my newbies had themselves come with a of their own plan which totally trumped mine.   Those plans fell into five categories:   Category 1 - those who arrived anticipating that Kindergarten is a smaller version of an unrestricted Disneyland - meaning that immediately upon arrival it was playtime.   Category 2 - those who arrived suffering from the trauma of being ripped from the clutching arms of guilt-ridden parents - meaning that immediately upon arrival I was greeted with a flood of uncontrollable tears.   Category 3 - those who arrived who view me as simply the deposit box of all things brought to school - meaning that immediately upon arrival I was presented with all coats, lunch boxes, milk money, crayons, pencils, markers, extra emergency clothing, notes and etc.   Category 4 - those who arrived as former gang members who would then begin patrolling the room for opportunities to harass the others - meaning that immediately upon arrival at least half of my class would be in my face with complaints of abuse.   Category 5 - those who arrived with questions - lots of questions - Where do I put my coat? Where is my desk? Where do I put this envelope? What is for lunch today? Can I go to the bathroom? What do I do when I finish coloring this picture? Do I have to color this picture? Can I sit next to my friend, Sarah? What time do we go home? Meaning that immediately upon their arrival my role shifted from Teacher to Community Organizer.    On a normal first day in Kindergarten, the office would buzz my intercom about twenty minutes after the buses arrived asking for our “lunch count”. That first day they gave me an extra five minutes before they buzzed. What I needed was an extra five hours. When the buzz came, I fought my way to the intercom over the din of sobs of despair, the barrage of thousands of questions, the complaints of those being harassed, and the very real threat of one child dressing to go home to Mommy, NOW! I grabbed the phone and passionately declared, “I’M STILL GREETING - CALL ME BACK IN A WEEK!!” As I slammed the phone down, I turned just in time to see that Joey was indeed very serious about going home. I bolted into the hall and caught him just as he was approaching the front door to leave.   And so began my first day as a Kindergarten teacher. I would like to tell you that things settled down that day. They did - somewhat. It only took me an hour to get everybody at their desk with all issues resolved.   The rest of that morning included an introduction to circle time where I quickly learned that “Let’s form a circle” is a skill that would require several practice sessions and that “sharing” was also a learned skill. The first time we did a cut and paste project, I learned that not everyone comes to school knowing what a scissor is and that glue is not a food group.   I learned that bathroom time needs to be clearly explained including a brief tour of the difference between a urinal and a toilet bowl. I needed to frequently clarify that lunch was not an any-time-in-the-day option. By the time that morning was finished, I had come to the amazing conclusion that nothing was to be assumed and that everything, and I do mean - absolutely everything - needed to be explained again… and again …. and again.   After lunch, we had our first story time. I, once again, quickly learned that some children love to listen, and other children love to talk.   Our first outside activity time was another learning adventure. Not everyone comes to school with an ability to play. For some play time means it is now my time to terrorize the weak and defenseless. For others play means run wildly until you drop. And for others play is to be endured until one can return to the well-ordered safety of the classroom.    Our first rest time included two children that fell asleep, one child that spent the entire time in the bathroom, and several children who asked me repeatedly when we could have our snacks.    Not wanting to end the day as I started, I decided to begin preparing to go home with lots of time to spare. Joey had decided by this time that he would give this “Kindergarten” thing another day. Sarah had finally stopped crying and I heard her real voice for the first time. Jeremy had experienced the first of many consequences for harassing others. William was still groggy from falling asleep during rest time, and Lucy was just now discovering she had lunch milk money. Teagan was giving me a picture of a heart that she drew for me, and I was finally able to say to Kevin, “Yes, it is now time to go home.”   I have no idea how I survived that first day, but I do remember clearly feeling relieved and grateful it was over. I also remember making several adjustments to my plans for the next day’s adventure.   Lesson Two - WELL LAID PLANS ARE ONLY ‘WELL” IF THEY ACTUALLY WORK (“Well” might better be defined as learning to think on your feet when well laid plans explode)   Rabbit Trail Lesson – Over explaining works much better than under explaining.

Lesson 3

January 15, 2023 • Michael Brennan

Metaphors Do Not Work in Kindergarten.   When I harken back into the prehistoric days of my time as a student in elementary school, I vaguely remember that almost everyone brought their lunch. I don’t remember actually going to a place designated as a lunchroom. We ate in our classroom. Everyone had a bag lunch. The superhero lunch box was around but had not yet replaced the bagged lunch. P, b and j (peanut butter and jelly) was the most popular lunch. Milk came in a thermos, and we regularly swapped food and cookies.   It’s a different world now. Today’s lunch bringers are few in number because a very cheap lunch can now be purchased, either daily or weekly, in sets of twenty-five or even the life-time membership plan (slight embellishment).   One of the problematic offshoots the various school lunch buying plans is that some kids buy every day. It’s just easier for parents. The problem is that some days were hated by almost all lunch buyers. The dreaded “Fish Day” was one such lunch. Actually liking “Fish Day” was one of the universally accepted signs that you were weird.   So, I quickly learned various techniques to deal with the emotional drama that would regularly occur on the dreaded “Fish Day”. Such drama might include the full gamut of emotions from grumbling, to award winning tears, to threats on the life of the lunch lady.    The true motivation behind all my so-called techniques was to keep my lunch buyers distracted and heading to eat before they had time to voice their complaint. This rarely worked because dreaded “Fish Day” always had at least one hard case that required my attention.   On this particular day, I was announcing that today’s lunch was so good that it would grow hair on your chest. Please, I am a male teacher so I, naturally, assumed that I was expressing something desirable to all children.   My speech appeared to have worked. No drama that day! So, I leisurely drifted off to the teachers’ lounge for my own lunch. About ten minutes later, one of the lunchroom monitors peeked into the teachers’ lounge with a very concerned look and signaled me to come quickly. I obediently followed her into the children’s lunchroom where I was politely deposited in front of one my kindergarten girls weeping uncontrollably.    For several minutes she could only point to her lunch and cry. I squatted down, gave her a hug. Finally, she calmed down enough to blurt out in a gush of tears, “My mommy told me that I had to eat all of my lunch today but I don’t want hair to grow on my chest.”     I’d like to say that from that day forward, I retired from my self-appointed role as lunch ambassador. But I didn’t, mostly because the lunch drama never stopped. As I mentioned before, I am a man, so learning a valuable lesson would require several more mistakes. I did refrain from using my “hair-on-the-chest” speech ever again. Although I am still not sure why it caused such a fuss. After all, it is does help in winter, just saying.   However, I did quickly get into the habit of amending all my clever cliches with “You know I’m just kidding, of course???”   Lesson Three (Part A) – PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO THE PERCEPTION OF THE VALUE OF HAVING HAIR ON ONES CHEST (Apparently, boasting of the possibility of eating one’s way to a hairy chest is not an exciting invitation to fifty percent of the population).   Rabbit Trail Lesson – Metaphors do NOT work in Kindergarten.

Lesson 4

January 22, 2023 • Michael Brennan

Never Borrow a Child’s Cheeks   Here is a story that will bring “literal” to a whole new level.   In the mornings three times a week, I would have as many as five parents come into my class, for about one hour, to participate in some special hands-on motor skill training with my kids. (Besides the obvious benefit of having additional adults in my room, involving parents had the added bonus of placing the first time, doting, overprotective moms right in the middle of the action. Explaining how their child was doing at the first parent conference was so much easier since they had seen all the good, bad, and ugly firsthand.) We would divide the class into three groups and then ring a bell every 20 minutes and everyone would switch groups.   One day one of the moms who regularly came at the end of the day to pick up her child expressed that she would love to come in one of the mornings, but she couldn’t because she had Katie, her three-year daughter old at home. I had seen her three-year-old a number of times and felt that having her come with mom for an hour would not be a problem.   So mom came next time, and she brought Katie and it went well. She was able to keep an eye on her daughter and function with the other parents in our class with hardly any problem.   As she was leaving, I bent down to say goodbye to Katie. In the process of telling her that she had the nicest red cheeks that I had ever seen, I asked her if I could borrow then for a while. She smiled so I reached up and pretended to place her cheeks between my fingers, pull them off her face and put them in my pocket. Both mom and Katie left that morning smiling and happy.   The very next day, first thing in the morning, mom was at my door with Katie. This time, no one was smiling. She pulled me aside and, in whispered embarrassment, desperately tried to explain to me that her daughter had been crying all night because “Mr. Brennan had taken her cheeks and she wanted them back”.   My first thought was “You gotta be kidding.” But one look at her three old and I knew that mom was serious.  I bent down and asked Katie to come over to me. Holding mommy’s hand, she reluctantly came close to me. I thanked her for lending me her cheeks and asked her if she wanted them back. She sadly nodded. I reached in my pocket, took out her “cheeks” and carefully placed them back on her face. She felt her face and when she was certain that her cheeks were back, she smiled, let go of mommy’s hand and walked in my room as if nothing had happened.   Oh, how true it is that “perception is everything”.   Lesson Four - BEFORE BORROWING SOMETHING, ALWAYS CHECK FOR THE EXACT DESIRED RETURN TIME   Rabbit trail lesson - when you borrow someone’s cheeks, don’t ever keep them overnight.