Everything I Needed to Know (about teaching) I Learned in Kindergarten (while teaching)

Everything I Needed to Know (about teaching) I Learned in Kindergarten (while teaching)

By Kristi Mraz (@mrazkristine) 

It’s probably better just to pretend you don’t have arms (both literally and metaphorically)

Every open school night, I make the same joke to parents, “The first rule of being a kindergarten parent is to pretend like you don’t have arms. Whatever you want to do for your child, clasp your hands behind your back and ask them to try it first. It’s time to say goodbye to your ability to carry a backpack.” Parents laugh, but for many, this is the first time families are asked to no longer see their offspring as babies, but as children who need opportunities to assert their independence and take ownership. This is my nudge to families to let go of making things perfect by doing things for their children, and let children work on making things their own.

unnamedKindergarten sets a tone for a lifetime of work, it is time to be active, it is time to be proud of what you can do, not what can be done for you. It is a rare moment, now,  in the classroom when I touch a thing- a backpack, a writing folder, a lunch bag- that belongs to a child, and not because I am busy, but because it’s not my work, it’s a child’s work.

It wasn’t always this way in my classroom. I would put things in backpacks, zip up coats, tie shoes, open tupperware, put on band aids, day after day after day after until, that one glorious day, nine months later when I was… putting things in backpacks, zipping up coats, tying shoes, opening tupperware and putting on band aids. I got really good at those things, but all my students got good at was waiting for me to do things for them. Just because we as adults could do things faster, doesn’t mean we should.

We are all guilty of these shortcuts when data is on our mind and we have twenty six students that need something. Wouldn’t it be better to get them most of the way there? Give them an idea to write about, give them the tricky words in the book, check off correct answers and not stop to study process? We, unwittingly,  ask children to become passive so we can get them where we need them quickly, not considering that the muscles you build on the journey are what keep you moving. Learning to pack your own backpack (flat things first!) is a small action in a line of small actions that leads towards agency and power. Feeling like you can do this one thing can make you feel like you can do the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.

In kindergarten, learning to zip your coat and fill your own folder are small and meaningful steps in the direction of agency and active learning. Putting on your own band aid (or 7,000 as is more likely) is a small act that carries a big message: “you can do this, you can help yourself when you think you need help”.

I don’t staple.
I don’t distribute tape.
I don’t pack folders.

By the end of kindergarten, children can do these kinds of things easily, but more importantly, they are getting a sense that school is a place where they have a measure of control and ownership.

School is a place where they make decisions and get to see them payoff.
School is a place to gain power and agency.
In some ways, this is what school is really about.

unnamed (1)When my kindergarteners staple their writing books the whole way around, making them as impenetrable as Fort Knox, I don’t take the stapler away with a ‘tsk’, instead I ask, “Hmm, what are you thinking you could do to get out of this pickle? Do you have advice about the stapler for other friends?” When a child asks to spell a word I say, “What can you do to help yourself spell it?” When a child gets stuck when reading I say, “What strategy could you try here?” Once I teach you a few tools, my job is teaching you to trust your tools, and your ability to build new tools.

So what if you don’t teach kindergarten? You can still teach as though you don’t have arms. Ask yourself, “What do I do for kids, that they can learn to do for themselves?” Maybe it’s as simple as asking a child what he or she needs help on, instead of telling her, or setting up partners to give feedback, in lieu of your red pen. Our job is full of big messages in small actions, and letting go of control so children can take over can make the difference between active and passive learners. Pack your own backpack today, become an informed citizen of the world tomorrow.

In teaching kindergarten, I learned that doing something for a child is like providing a stool to stand on, the child is able to reach their goal providing the stool is there. Now I teach the child to build the stool, so they can carry it wherever and whenever they need it, whether I have the arms to help them or not. In the comments please share your tips on teaching without (literal or metaphorical) arms.

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  1. Teresa Moslak says:

    I teach eighth grade and I still needed to hear this. Thank you for the reminder that self-esteem is the result of successfully handling problems yourself–not being constantly told how wonderful you are for doing the expected.

  2. Laurie Pandorf says:

    Thanks for such a great post Kristi! Lucky for me I saw firsthand how you develop independence in your young students. This is encouraged throughout the day, but hit me the most during Choice Time and Writing Workshop. With the freedom to explore and “to be,” I saw their imaginations sore alongside their interpersonal and academic skills. I was blown away during writing when every student was focused and ready to write. Not one child said, “I don’t know what to write about,” or “How do I spell ___?” Instead I observed two boys writing “All About” books on How to Pay and How to be a Ninja – practical and playful ideas, which I loved! I absolutely cannot stop singing your praises. Thank you for reminding us to step aside, so that we can allow our youngest students to move forward.

  3. Beth R. says:

    Teaching kids in ways that they can replicate is a key ingredient. This is such a well written and important post for teachers and parents who engage with kids of all ages.

  4. As the mom of a four-year-old I appreciated this post so much. Recently I started parenting like this and, while she is often frustrated, she has learned to do a lot more for herself. Sure I can do it faster, but if I build in more time to talk her through it, then eventually I remove that scaffold too and independence arrives.

    Your K students are so luck to have you, Kristi!

  5. Allison Hepfer says:

    Yes, yes yes! I also teach kindergarten. I often tell parents, once we release this adult “control” and allow these little ones to be independent, we are really showing them they we believe in them. They quickly learn that we are confident that they will be just fine and they really can do it all by themselves. Although I have to admit…it took me a long time to release control of the mighty stapler during Writing Workshop 🙂

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