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A New Love For Elementary Education

alec vanderboom

I'm a Jane Come Lately to the joy of elementary school teaching. By my nature, I'm a secondary school teacher. High School Government, Art, and AP English--easy. My husband could teach college Organic Chemistry while in a headstand. This is the stuff that we talk happily around the table at dinner. My daughter was the one who knew how many times a single strand of DNA could wrap around the world in second grade, but still didn't know how to read.

The way I approached elementary education at first was "we're just going to struggle with some of this reading/phonic stuff" at first--but it will pay off when we're having a blast together in future grades.

Part of being a fantastic teacher is knowing yourself. Even before I figure out how to crack the code of an individual kid's learning style, I needed to figure out MYSELF first. Because teaching is patience. I can't be patient and kind with my kid/student, until I've figured out how to feed my own soul first.

I'm a big picture girl. I couldn't get excited about teaching Elementary School until I put together WHY grades K-5 are so critical. So this is my wondering attempt to clarify my thoughts on the matter. Call it my manifesto.

I think every kid slips out of the womb with a unique set of traits, interests, and talents. Magic happens with your personality and interest collide with the needs of the world. Religious people call this "the work of the Holy Spirit." Secular people call this "Innovation"--such as Steve Jobs, the CEO of Starbucks, etc.

My goal as an educator isn't simply to get a student proficient. My soul is to get that kid on fire!

I'm a firm believer that every kid needs skills in math,reading, science and art! A social butterfly needs math and a nerdy math guru needs a gym class. However, not all kids are going to approach these common set of skills in the same way.

Elementary school is cool because it gets kids on fire! The goal is to get a kid by the fifth grade to be self-confident and self-aware. When a girl knows who she is, what skills she kills at- and what career goals to shoot for--she can set up a path to get an awesome job/college/life by age 18. My job as a teacher isn't just to get a kid with a perfect ACT score into a "great college."

I want my students to have a great life! I want them to be doing things often that they truly enjoy. I want them to have the social skills and the inner dedication to stick it through the pieces of the job that "suck now, but will pay off later."  In a tough economy, I want my students to be working!  That means finding the unique match up between their strengths and the worlds needs.

The old economy has crashed. It's not coming back. The model that I followed was "get great grades so that a great company will hire you!" I look around now and the landscaped has changed. My nine year old kid and I were talking during his Math Lesson today and sighing over the fact that NASA basically doesn't exist anymore. The whole time I was watching my techie son as a 1 to 5 year old, I kept saying "That's my NASA guy!" The kid is so into Math and Technology it's awesome. Now NASA doesn't exist! Who knows what kind of job my son is going to get at 18 or 22?

So I can say from the outside "Okay, Alex. Focus in on that Science and Math. Get good grades. Go to MIT. Intern in the Summers at NASA." There is NO FIRM RECIPE for success in the new economy. Maybe my son will got to MIT or Caltech. Or maybe he skips college altogether to go to a Virtual Gaming Start-Up in Austin, Texas at age 18.

I can have general goals for my students as a teacher and a parent. Be employed! Have good dental hygiene habits! But the specifics about how an adult turns her or his talents into cash in the new economy is as varied as the sun.

Elementary school is the cool part. It's were a student herself figures out am I a future vet/horse trainer/ zoo keeper? (The animal science interest tread). Or am I a video gamer/ comic book artist/computer programmer. Most kids have interests that are diverse, but there is a common theme. Elementary school is where a good teacher can uncover some hidden themes. "Wow, you have some freakish skills in paper folding. Lets get you an Origami Book at the Library.... Wow, you did awesome with that book. Lets get you 3 more. Wow, you finished all 25 Origami books in the Library in only 3 weeks, maybe there is some sort of future career aptitude here!"

My 1st Grader is a Baker. One morning we were making a cake together and she said "Mom, do you know what my three favorite school subjects are? Baking, Math, and Business. Those things go really well together."

I looked at my kid in shock. Where I grew up, six year old girls did not say "I love Math and Business!" I also figured out how awesome it is that a future baker loved Math and Business, in addition to baking. Being great at math and business is the difference between being a future great chef, and being a future successful business owner!

Elementary school teaching means watching a kid figure out who they are in the world. By the time you teach College (my natural interest) a kid already knows if they want the Culinary Institute of the Arts or an English Major at Smith. Elementary school is where you start sowing the seeds of future success.

Everyone loves it when babies coo and smile. The years of Birth to 5 are really critical years. I'm so grateful I got to nestle my babies during those important days. Yet I'm also graced to hang out often with my kids in their elementary school years. I'm the one that gets to say "Wow, you're freakishly awesome in _______ Lets figure out how to get more of that into your life!"

I'm not eager to ship off my kids to Elementary School at age 5. I don't want to get the quote "out of my hair." Even though, man the list is super long with things I want/need/dream of doing in my life.

Being an Elementary School Teacher is a trade-off. I gave up some free time in my day. I gave up the chance to earn a little extra money for my family, or play-catch up with the household chores. I gave up the chance to "nap when the toddler naps" because I'm always teaching the "hard stuff" while my nosy, messy, and adorable toddler Abigail Clare is out of commission.

Yet the things I gain are priceless. I with my kids as they figure out how they learn. I can give them little tips and critiques to help them learn better and faster. Teaching is more than a science, it's an art.