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6 Early Childhood Tips. . . From a 5th Grade Teacher?

Whatever grade you teach, your students will notice the messages you send them, the assumptions you make about them, and your expectations about their learning.

April 10, 2015
Two young girls huddled together reading a book in the library

Last year, the seven-year itch hit me hard, and after being quoted many times saying, "I was made for first grade," I decided that it was time for me to make a change and move up, way up to fifth grade. I thought my transition would be cut and dried, like how you end dinner and begin dessert -- but as with a lot of other changes in life, it was much messier than that. Now, seven months later, I'm still finding myself stuck somewhere between the lower-grade and upper-grade worlds, with a savvy co-teacher and 25 eager ten-year-olds by my side.

With middle school on the horizon, fifth grade is high stakes, and while I'm enjoying myself, I'm not sure how long I'll stay. But there's one thing I know for sure -- this experience has taught me more about early childhood education than another year in first grade ever could have. Teaching some of the same kids in the same school has created the ideal conditions to constantly wonder, "What did I do (or what should have I done) when teaching first grade to prepare these kids for this stage?"

Over the past seven months, here are six things I've learned that early childhood educators should do every day:

1. Be clever with your compliments.

Some of the same students who were once saying, "I'm bad at math" are still saying, "I'm bad at math." Statements like these are signs of a fixed mindset. They trick you into believing you are either "good" or "bad," and that growth isn't possible -- which is why it's important to tell them exactly what they are good at in each subject area, starting in the primary grades. Then they will understand that they have strengths along with their areas for growth, and by the time they get to fifth grade, hopefully they won't be saying, "I'm bad at math" any more.

2. Teach into being an ally for everyone.

Recently Danny hasn't wanted to come to school. He puts is head down for most of the day. Last week, he walked out of the classroom without permission -- twice. I've had lots of conversations with Danny, and in each one, he reveals that nobody likes him and he'd rather stay at home. My co-teacher and I pulled the class together, presented them with this problem, and asked, "What should we do?" It was Maria who took out her soapbox and said, "We need to start treating him with more respect. It's not that you have to be best friends with everyone. It's that you have to support everyone, because learning is hard." And there you have it. Maria said it best.

3. Talk about diversity.

In my class, we talk at length about Eric Gardener, why girls might not be playing football at recess, and what it means to be middle class. Research shows that fifth grade students need to talk about these things, but we must prepare them to do so by starting this conversation in kindergarten. My students are prepared -- they came to me that way, because every teacher before me has taken the time to bring up topics of diversity in strategic, logical, developmentally appropriate, thorough ways. In kindergarten, they study skin color. In first grade, they define diversity. In second grade, they analyze who has access. . . and so on.

4. Trash your assumptions about their families.

In first grade, Felipe was angry about a lot of things including his parents' divorce. Fast forward to fifth grade, Felipe is still angry (although less so) about a lot of things. Starting on day one, we decided to address this situation differently. This time, we included both Mom and Dad in our conversations about Felipe. In first grade, we assumed that living with Mom meant Dad had less insight to offer and less of an impact on Felipe's daily life. Wrong! Now, we talk to both Mom and Dad, and while Felipe is still angry, he feels more secure in my class today.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize: the big ideas.

I'm both in love with and overwhelmed by teaching history! Luckily, John, the fifth grade teacher across the hall, is nothing short of an expert and reminds me every time we meet that it's less about the details and more about the big ideas. For example, while it's not important to learn each and every Jim Crow law, it's important to know how those laws affected the daily lives of people in the South and how they affect our lives today. We only have ten months with our students, so what exactly do we want them to learn?

6. Celebrate hard.

The saying "work hard, party hard" is legit. In fifth grade, we're always finding reasons to celebrate because the expectations feel so high -- but I'm starting to realize that they always were. My first grade class learned how to read! They did more mental math in ten months than my grandmother does in ten years. In September, they told stories in pictures, and by June, they were telling stories with words on lined pages. And we forgot to party. What a bummer.

I encourage all of you to make big changes, to stretch yourself far beyond what you thought you were capable of doing, to leap out of your comfort zone, from early childhood to upper grades -- for the sake of your students, yes, but also for the sake of learning more about this profession we love so much. If you have done that, well, please tell us, what did you learn? How did it go?

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