Last night, in between story time and sleep, which is when Smoke is at his chattiest, he said, “We should do something nice for Mrs. N______”.
Mrs. N is, of course, his kindergarten teacher.
“Like what?” I asked him.
“I don’t know, like, maybe…make cookies with frosting?”
Tonight was curriculum night at Smoke’s school, one of my many initiations into becoming a public school parent. I walked into Smoke’s classroom and sat with the other parents in the tiny chairs. Mrs. N stood in front of us, reading from a children’s book. Mrs. N’s age is hard to place. She’s clearly older than the parents, but she’s leggy and sports a blonde bob and black eyeliner. Tonight she had paired a black pencil skirt and pumps with the requisite school spirit t-shirt.
I looked around the room, trying to take in the cubbies and the calendars, searching for any sign of my Smoke. Already my eyes were welling up. Shit, I thought, what’s wrong with me? I’d had the thought that this was where Smoke was spending so much of his life all of a sudden, a place that was mostly unfamiliar to me.
Mrs. N put down the book and addressed us. “This is my thirty-fifth year teaching kindergarten,” she said. “And every year I worry: this is going to be the year that it just doesn’t work, the year the kids just don’t get it and no one will behave. But then I meet your kids…” Now Mrs. N herself was fighting tears. “Your kids are great. I’m so grateful that you entrust them to me.”
I can’t tell you how many parents were also crying, because I was too busy looking at the table, swallowing, trying not to pass the point of no return. If I had let go, I could have kept it up for the full forty-minute session. Instead, I tried to listen. Here are a few of the things I learned from Mrs. N.
- For many years she taught kindergarten the way most teachers do. She stood in front of the classroom and led them through a project from beginning to end. But children, and kindergarteners in particular, move at different paces and have different skill sets. This way of leading a class, normal though it was, left everyone frustrated.
- After years of doing it this way, Mrs. N changed systems. Now she sets up multiple stations with projects. Some projects are required, and some are optional, but kids get to move through them at their own pace. Sometimes kids want to do a particular project but that station is full, so they get to learn about disappointment. This is one of the best lessons they get to learn in her class.
- Mrs. N has an elaborate system to help each child track his or her project, but I could not begin to explain it to you. Apparently, though, the kindergarteners can keep track of these procedures.
- According to Mrs. N, “These kids pretty much know exactly what’s going on at any given moment. You’d be surprised.” I was surprised. I can barely get Smoke to put his shoes on in the morning, or answer when I ask eight times what he wants for breakfast, but apparently he’s capable of understanding a complex behavior incentive system, staying in line, waiting his turn etc. when Mrs. N is in charge.
- Mrs. N reports that when the kids are working on their various projects, the room gets loud, but it’s the sound of focused learning. “I don’t do crazy,” she says.
- Please do not come into her classroom, watch the kids at their stations, and comment, “Oh, cute! They’re playing!” They are not playing; they are working. Last year, when a new principal came on, Mrs. N insisted that he sit in and observe her kindergarteners at their stations, because she wanted him to understand exactly how it worked. From what I can tell so far, the principal is a kind enough man, but I enjoyed imagining him in one of the tiny chairs, being schooled by the kickass kindergarten teacher in her thirty-fourth year of teaching.
- Every time there’s a change in administration, Mrs. N braces herself. She is totally prepared to retire if a new principal ever insists she go back to the old way of doing things. “I’ve been there and I was nothing but frustrated,” she says. “And I know I frustrated more than a few kids too.”
Three weeks ago, if you had asked me to imagine an ideal kindergarten teacher, I think I would have pictured a plump and patient woman, someone with no discernible edges. But I love Mrs. N’s edges. In fact, I feel the need to point out that I’ve done absolutely nothing to land my son in what strikes me as an exceptionally awesome kindergarten class. I didn’t pull strings or write letters. I didn’t visit dozens of schools. We go to this school because it’s two blocks away, and Smoke found Mrs. N because he was assigned to her. Also, of course, I have the privilege of living in a small city with a functional and relatively well-funded school system.
Because I’ve done so little, I’m left wondering: How do I show my appreciation for someone who manages over twenty squirrely little bodies every day, who has taught for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, and who has somehow maintained enough passion for her work that she gets teary-eyed when talking about her students? How do you thank someone for offering so much of themselves to your child?
I guess cookies with frosting is a start.