At curriculum night last week, I parent asked me to share what a typical day was like for first grade. I felt like the guy in the truck commercial. My mind flashed to all the things that had happened that day:
First, a child’s tooth fell out in the middle of math. It’s honestly one of my favorite things about first grade. I remember the triumphantly joyous moment when it finally breaks free and you know the tooth fairy will be visiting that night. It is a magical moment. It is also impossibly distracting to the math lesson. So I stop teaching, grab the box of little plastic tooth necklaces, and hold it open. “Put your tooth in here.” I direct my bloody, drool-y first grader. Obviously a veteran of the dentist’s sink, he instead leans over and spits blood into the white, vaguely-cup-shaped necklace. And all over my hand. Sigh. I throw it away, explain again that it’s for his TOOTH, and open a new necklace. Then explain how to rinse his mouth out in the sink to get rid of the blood. Then wash my hands. Then tape the necklace closed so the tooth doesn’t get lost. Then finally get back to the math lesson.
In writing, a student who is learning English wrote that for his birthday the night before he had “lots of sex for $20.” After several minutes of patient questioning, I finally discovered that his relatives had given him “sacks,” as in gift bags, with money in them. Then we worked together to correct the spelling.
After recess, a child came into the classroom crying because the door holder wouldn’t give her a high-five. A small thing to my adult mind, but devastating to her six-year-old heart. The temptation was to hand her a Kleenex and move on, but her tears meant that there was no way the reading lesson would be possible until she was comforted. And if it was your child, wouldn’t you want to know her teacher took the time to listen?
Over the weekend, the facilities crew had been in my classroom trying to fix the pipe that had been dripping into the room for the previous three weeks. As of that morning, the leak still had not been fixed, and the ceiling tile had been removed. During science, a nail fell out of the ceiling and bounced off a child’s head. So we paused the lesson and moved the desks even further out of the way. Now not just away from the drip, but away from the entire section of ceiling so that no one would be hurt.
What happens in a typical day of first grade? I teach my students to understand numbers, to read, to write stories about their birthdays, to explore the laws of physics as they roll balls down ramps and record their observations. But there is so much more that happens each day. So much that is not written in my plan book, not tested and quantified, not supported by state funding or addressed in teacher accountability measures.
As a teacher, I want to teach. By which I mean math, science, reading, and writing. But that has to happen in the context of children who are safe and supported. And that has to happen in classrooms that are funded sufficiently that the ceiling isn’t leaking and the adult-to-child ratio is low enough that I can listen to their stories, illuminate their confusions, comfort their broken hearts, and celebrate their lost teeth.