New Teacher's Aide Feeling Overwhelmed -- Is this normal???
September 8, 2013 8:51 PM   Subscribe

Hi Everyone, I recently took a job as a teacher's aide in a public elementary school. It's my second week, and I like it, but I'm feeling overwhelmed. I think I may want to become a teacher, but I'm having some setbacks that are making me wonder if I am cut out for this field. I feel like I am one step beheind everything and/or totally ineffective at communicating with the kids. Here are some examples (They are long-winded . . . my apologies)

example 1) I am with a small group of 4 kindergarten kids and we are working on handwriting. The kids in the group have varied levels of ability--2 low, one medium and one high. I find myself stuggling to help the low kids complete the work, because they are struggling with how to hold the pencil, attention span, ect. The high level kid is bored because they are already done and I'm giving them random things to do (like draw a picture on the back of the paper that starts with the letter we're working on) and the medium kid is getting almost totally ignored and I feel terrible about that. They basically get their work done, but I wonder if they really performed to their potential or if I let them slide by with sub-standard effort. (I have no way of really knowing) Some of the low level kids are special ed. I wondered if anything I tried to show them stuck, or if it went in one ear and out the other. Sometimes I feel like we are back to square one the next day.

example 2) I have a small group of kindergarten kids and I am working with them on the letter "N" and I tell them the differance between upper and lower case N. I have visual aides. They do a cut and paste activity and at the end almost none of them can tell me the words upper case and lower case. I have no idea what I did wrong and they can't remember. Additionally, almost 12 of them do not follow the directions that are given in spite of the fact that I redirected them during the activity. (I was repeating myself like a broken record.) I was using a sing-songy teacher voice and smiling and using their names, but to no avial.

example 3) I read a short story to a class of 20 kindergarteners in the afternoon and I had to stop almost every minute to redirect them so that they would pay attention to the story and stop talking/playing/fidgeting. I tried to read with expression, using different voices for the various characters to keep their attention, but it wasn't working at all.

example 4) I remind all the children CONSTANTLY about appropriate playground behavior, following the rules, ect. The kindergarteners are not getting it very well. Again, it's the whole broken record thing. I have having to resort to time outs and some negitive consequence stuff. The consequences are the only thing that seems to work for some of them and even then it only works some of the time. I am afriad that I am buidling a bad rapport with a couple of them.

Bottom line: I feel one step behind, I don't feel like I'm teaching the kids anything, and I feel like they do not listen to me at all sometimes. I come home EXHAUSTED! Mentally tired, physically tired and emotionally tired. It's not bad, but I am like 80% spent by 3:00. It's kindergarten for Christ's sake! We're coloring and gluing an singing the ABC'S and I'm feeling like it's really hard work. Am I just really not cut out for this, or is there something that I can change??? Is there a book I can read or a class I can take to get a batter handle on this???? Help! I LOVE the kids and staff at the school, but I am really concered that I just don't have the ability to do my job effectively. Thanks for reading my post and any giving advice that you may have!!!!

I am working at a public school on an Indian Reservation in North Central Idaho. The population we serve is considered "At Risk".

There is a great deal of poverty in the disctrict and the families struggle. Several of the kids struggle wth developmental ad physical disabilities.

Nearly 30% of the kindergarteners I work with came to school unable to write their own names.

Regular school attedence is an issue for a few of the kids.

I worked with kids before a little bit, but I only have like a year of experience previously from being a PSR worker in another school district.

I don't have kids of my own.
posted by neanderloid to Education (36 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's the second week. The second week! You're in a new and difficult job (and don't let anyone tell you that teaching small children isn't a difficult job). You are bound to feel overwhelmed in any circumstances, and these sound like fairly tough circumstances.

Maybe just take it a day at a time for now, and make a mental appointment to assess your abilities and desire to continue in this job in, say, two months? You don't have to be weighing up whether or not you're "cut out" for teaching kindergarten based on the successes or failures of individual students from day to day. That's adding unnecessary discouragement to exhaustion. Just remind yourself that you're learning how things work just as much as the students are.
posted by daisystomper at 9:06 PM on September 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do you have a mentor at school? What about the teacher whose classroom you're helping in?

Some of the low level kids are special ed

If students are in special ed, they have IEPs which -- in theory -- have their goals and how they're going to be helped to meet them. I don't know if you can see the IEPs since you're an assistant and not an actual teacher, but maybe you could ask someone who does have access to them if there's anything useful in there. (This is a very optimistic view of their IEPs. Some IEPs are wonderful, helpful documents, others are total crap.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:07 PM on September 8, 2013

So normal! Such a hard job, one I could never do. Be kind to yourself. It's good that you're asking for resources and trying to get better. Take it one day at a time and realize that you're going to have a lot of learning. Take time for yourself after school and be gentle.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 9:11 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not a teacher, but I'll pass along some wisdom from an amazing first-grade teacher I knew: Some people can learn things in one try. Some take ten. Some take a hundred. Some take a thousand. And all of those are OK.

That applies both to you and the kids you're working with - you're new to teaching, and they're new to learning. Don't be too hard on yourself.
posted by eponym at 9:16 PM on September 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think in Kindergarten it takes the first month or two to learn just the rules and how to mostly sit still. And even then you will have to be a broken record. So give yourself a break on assessing what they are learning right now, and try to just teach them how to learn. (And for the high level learner, can you give them any more letter practice sheets so that they can move forward on their own? Or if their handwriting reallly is perfect, ask them to write stories or something?)
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:17 PM on September 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think the kids and teacher are very lucky to have such a concerned and hard-working teacher's aide like you! Nobody new to any kind of career walks into a new job as a master. All jobs take time to learn. You will get there. In the meantime, just remind yourself that you are probably better than most teacher's aides.
posted by Dansaman at 9:17 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wish I did have some helpful advice for you, but I'm so gobsmacked by your description of your situation I can't imagine what might help. These are "at risk" Native American children, most if not all living in poverty, issues of school attendance and physical disabilities. These children are 5 years old. You are trying to teach them "handwriting" and upper and lower case letters. You are reminding them constantly of "appropriate playground behavior" which the little ones are "not getting very well." No sh*t. I'm guessing this is an entirely new concept to these kids.

And you have almost no experience, and it sounds like no special training. The exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed during the first few weeks of teaching small children isn't just you; it happens to everyone, and lessens only as your experience grows, and you learn more coping mechanisms. But you're in a special situation.

On second thought, I do have a suggestion. I know you may not feel up to reading at night, but besides whatever actual teaching tips you get, I think you would benefit hugely by reading "Killing the White Man's Indian" by Fergus Bordewich. You are dealing with a special population, and it will help so much to understand the context. If your nearby library doesn't have it (probably not) and you can't afford to buy it (you're probably getting paid peanuts), memail with your address and I'll send you my copy.

These children deserve it. They and their families have been so badly served by this country, and continue to be. Kudos for working with these children.
posted by kestralwing at 9:17 PM on September 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

You're new. It's OK to feel overwhelmed. That's probably pretty normal. I am not a teacher, but when I worked with individuals with developmental disabilities, all of the staff were trained in Positive Behavior Supports. It may not be the be-all and end-all solution for you for a variety of reasons, but there may be some ideas in there that you can use.
posted by whatideserve at 9:38 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Am I just really not cut out for this, or is there something that I can change???

OK, I'm not a teacher, so I don't want to talk specifics about something I'm not an expert in (though I have gabs of experience in child care).

Communicating with kids is a learned skill. Maybe some people are born with it, but for most of us it takes time and work -- but the time and work pays off. Think of it like learning to cook. Some people seem to be naturally talented, but there's no reason you can't be a great cook through effort and persistence if you're someone who really loves food.

I don't know what teacher accreditation is like in the states, but where I am it's a year-long program (after your bachelors) including coursework and practicums. You're explicitly taught the skills you're worried that you don't have. And the teachers I know are always learning new skills and techniques.

So, you know, maybe you aren't cut out to be a teacher. Who knows. But having trouble in your first two weeks teaching a high-risk group with little formal training sure isn't a sign of that. To me it sounds like you're in great shape, frankly.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 9:43 PM on September 8, 2013

I'm not a teacher, but my siblings are, so I'll pretend to know what I'm talking about.

It's kindergarten for Christ's sake!

Well, yeah, exactly. Googling kindergarten "herding cats" gets over 600,000 hits. It's a tough job.

Just remember that it's hard for the kids, too. You've got all year to teach them this stuff; it's not really fair to expect them to understand everything immediately.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:53 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

This sounds like pretty normal frustration to me. I substitute taught for five years, and was shocked at how much of it was classroom management and discipline rather than actual instruction. I came away from the experience quite disillusioned with our educational system. It just seems so unrealistic to expect one teacher to serve the needs of so many differing students in the way that most of our traditional classrooms are set up. I opted to become a children's librarian instead. I'm an introvert, and was just too exhausted by day's end from all the disciplining and performing that the job calls for. I have the utmost respect for the men and women who choose to teach. It is not an easy job, at all. You may find that you are a bit shocked by the newness of the situation and learn to thrive. You may also, as many student teachers do, find that this job is not for you, and that's ok too.
posted by Jandoe at 9:58 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hello, I've been you! Not a reservation, but a very poor school district where most of the population was at risk, and many of the children had disabilities. I worked there for about five years as both an aide and a sub aide/attendant, and many members of my extended family (mother, mother-in-law, three aunts) are teachers, so this is a thing with which I have experience.

What you are feeling is normal. Everything the kids are doing right now is also normal. Most of these kids are probably in their first-ever school experience, right? The first month--several months, really--is going to be teaching them how to listen to you, and how to listen to a story, how to hold a pencil. Which feels really defeating, but is still important stuff for them to learn, and sets them up for future learning.

It got a lot easier for me when I recontextualized: I'm not trying to teach them [letters and numbers and whatever], I'm trying to teach them how do to school, and the letters, etc, are basically a bonus. And, ok, that's not entirely true--but my experience has been that the first half of the year you see great strides in appropriate behaviour, and the second half of the year you see great strides in academic stuff.

To other people answering the question: in at least some parts of the US, a teacher's aide is viewed as an unskilled position. It requires a high school diploma and the ability to pass a background check, and not much else. Pay is often not much more than minimum wage. This is changing, but slowly. (The district that I used to work in now requires that aides have an associate's degree, though people who were already in the positions were grandfathered in.) The OP is already miles better than many aides I've worked with--in many rooms, they're people who can be counted on to hand out worksheets and take (toilet-trained) kids to the bathroom, but nothing else.

OP, the fact that you're worried about this stuff, even though it's stressing you out, means that you're more cut out for this work than many people who have made a career of it. I think that most people who work with kids (in any capacity, but especially as teachers/aides) come home totally wiped out at the end of the day, especially early in the year when everyone is still adjusting. I used to leave work and sit in my car and cry before I drove home. It's a hard, hard job, and one that many people go into, through no fault of their own, without nearly the preparation that they should have been given. These things don't make you a bad aide or not cut out to be a teacher--they make you someone who's a new employee in a very demanding job. Don't write yourself off just yet. Cut yourself--and the kids--some slack. It gets easier as the year goes on, I promise.
posted by MeghanC at 9:58 PM on September 8, 2013 [28 favorites]

Best answer: Right now I get the sense that even though you feel like this is mostly your thing to deal with, you're also looking at this group of kids from a deficit perspective. It's the second week. You don't know these kids at all yet. Kindergarten is all about learning the basics of academics and social interaction. Stop focusing on what you think these students can't do and start focusing on what they can do and use that to help them do new things. Don't even use the "low, medium, high" perspective anymore. It's wrong and it puts you in the position of automatically assuming things on the part of a student that are typically not accurate, and that doesn't help anybody.

Here's what I'd do:

1. This is a population of children whose families have largely been historically RUINED to disastrous levels. This probably means that they're coming from a context you aren't familiar with, so you need to get to know this population so you can really work with its students. Talk to their parents, talk to their families, learn about their specific tribe(s) and their history as a people. Take note of what may or may not be impacting your students' abilities to focus, access academic content, and interact with peers.

2. Talk to your teacher about setting some really clear classroom management strategies in place that the teacher can model for you over and over until you feel comfortable reinforcing those routines yourself.

3. If you're allowed to, get acquainted with your school's systems for supporting students with special needs. If you do truly have kindergarteners who already have IEPs and diagnosed learning disabilities (this is rare IME), your teacher needs to be following the learning plans set forth in those IEPs. Do NOT start diagnosing kids yourself and presuming things about them based on your diagnoses.

4. Ask for help. Let your teacher know you need support and that you're feeling overwhelmed. Ask if there are classes you can take outside of work. See if professional development opportunities are open to aides as well as teachers. Go to those opportunities and listen.

5. Remind yourself that these are kindergarteners and they're as new to the school situation as you are.

6. Pick up Teaching Children to Care and Setting Limits in the Classroom and pay special attention to how important language is in working with students at this age.

7. Breathe and cut yourself some slack.

You can do this. Take it slow. Don't blame the kids. Don't blame yourself. Look for the positives and use those to work on the stuff that isn't going quite right yet.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:03 PM on September 8, 2013 [13 favorites]

Best answer: It's the second week of kindergarten. I imagine that most of the kids in your class didn't attend preschool, so this is really their first academic experience, and they're probably overwhelmed and unsure what to do. It sounds like you're dedicated and doing all the right things, but I bet it will just take some time for the kids to get comfortable with you and with the school setting before things start to "stick." Don't get frustrated!

Kindergarteners are funny. When my cousin started kindergarten, he came home on the first day and was reluctant to talk about it. My aunt thought he seemed sad and prodded him to tell her how it went. Finally, he sighed deeply and said, "Well, I guess it was okay. Except there's this really big girl there and she thinks she's the boss of everyone." The "really big girl" in question was his teacher!
posted by easy, lucky, free at 10:05 PM on September 8, 2013 [13 favorites]

Best answer: It's normal to have multiple levels in the same group, and what you describe is pretty typical. The fast learners finish early and are bored. The slow learners get all the attention. This happens at all grade levels. For the fast kids, talk to the teacher you are supporting and ask if there is a task or station that they could go do when they finish early. For example, "reading" a picture book, a color matching game, etc.

The key to learning anything is repetition. You cannot tell anyone one a thing once and expect them to remember that thing. It doesn't matter how good a teacher you are, you have to build the pathways in the brain. Just keep reinforcing every day, and one day they'll remember.

Several posters above said that kindergarteners are learning how to be in school. Exactly this.

Also, the first year of teaching is hard. You feel like no one is learning, you are behind on everything, and you aren't used to the physical exertion and you will be exhausted. This doesn't mean you aren't good at the job, it just means it's your first year! You'll get the hang of it. I'm in my fourth year, and I still feel all those things, but it's getting easier and I'm getting better at it.

It sounds like you are doing all the right things, but you just have to give it time. Two weeks of school is hardly any time at all. Hang in there!
posted by rakaidan at 10:27 PM on September 8, 2013

Best answer: This is normal. Stick with it. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in a classroom. Even now with many years of experience, when I face a totally new environment, it's hard. A few things:

You're the aide, right? I don't think I saw anything in the OP about the lead teacher. They should be helping you find your feet. At least that one summer I worked as an aide in special ed they did. Maybe I got lucky.

Yep, it's kindergarten. Teaching young kids is exhausting, but it sure can be fun, too. I started teaching in junior high schools and elementary schools. It took me months to feel comfortable enough to begin to enjoy it. I moved to university and adult ed later. Then, for completely unfathomable reasons when I took a job teaching police officers, I was also given some kindergarten time. It was hell. About the third lesson one kid head butted another hard enough to draw blood. I figured I was going to get canned. Nope. The parents were not surprised in the slightest. Whatever the kids get up to in class, they've had that much more time to do it at home too.

You wrote "I am really concerned that I just don't have the ability to do my job effectively." Nobody does--at least at first. But, you want to, and you'll learn. 20+ years on as a teacher, I'm still figuring stuff out. That's the way it works--and what keeps it interesting.
posted by Gotanda at 10:32 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Well, I guess it was okay. Except there's this really big girl there and she thinks she's the boss of everyone." The "really big girl" in question was his teacher!

That is awesome!
posted by Gotanda at 10:34 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I made a career change from law to teaching. I have never been more exhausted than this year. And that's dealing with well-behaved older children. I can't even begin to imagine how kindergarten teachers/aides do what they do. Your story sounds completely normal. Make sure you have support from people inside and outside the workplace, and it will get easier as you get used to it. Good luck, and thank you for the important work you do.
posted by robcorr at 12:13 AM on September 9, 2013

Best answer: I can't speak to the teaching aspect of it, but I can speak to the new job aspect. I think it takes people at least six months to get their feet under them in a new and complex job, and a good year to start to develop wisdom. I can say that's not true of all jobs, but when you get older and you start having jobs that can't be done by nearly everyone else on the planet, it starts to take a while. For some jobs it takes even longer than that.

You have a tough, complicated job that takes time to figure out from the practical aspects (teaching kids of differing skill levels in a small group) to the deeper aspects (understanding the families and population you serve) so it's going to take a good long time. Have patience with yourself as you figure out the practical ways to resolve specific problems. Take your time.

Just as I was typing this I thought of something that might be useful? Little Llama was in a small swimming class recently--she's five--and the instructor worked with each kid individually in turn doing a small exercise - like taking the kids out six feet while holding them in the water, and having them kick their feet. Then they'd go back and get the next kid. As each did that, the rest of the kids would be 'practicing their kicking' as they held on to the wall. Maybe you could do something like that--very quick short lessons geared to each kid in turn, so that it didn't go on so long the more advanced kids got bored but still got individual attention to the kids further behind?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:44 AM on September 9, 2013

Best answer: I come home EXHAUSTED! Mentally tired, physically tired and emotionally tired. It's not bad, but I am like 80% spent by 3:00. It's kindergarten for Christ's sake! We're coloring and gluing an singing the ABC'S and I'm feeling like it's really hard work. Am I just really not cut out for this?

No, that's pretty much teaching pre-K and K. It is bone crackingly exhausting. It is really, really hard work and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about. (You know those teachers who seem sort of permanently slightly removed? I'm convinced that's not burnout or disinterest so much as it is simple conservation of energy. For, like, survival.)

Anyway: it's the second week of school. Back your agenda off. The kids cannot learn to write until they learn to hold a pencil. They cannot learn to love story time until they learn to sit attentively for more than 60 seconds. For some of them, some of these fundamentals will be entirely new skills, mastered only through modelling and repetition.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:19 AM on September 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Also consider that teaching might be a great career for you, but that teaching kindergarten might not be. I love teaching and working with kids - also in a high-poverty school with all kinds of problems - but kindergarten? Forget it. Kindergarten teachers are a whole other breed of amazing humans. I think I'm a pretty good teacher but I could never in a million years work with kindergartners all day.

If you have the opportunity, look for an aide position with slightly older grades (2nd and 3rd grade kids are great!) next year to see how you like it. It's all of the great, fulfilling things about teaching, with only about 20% of your time spent "herding cats" instead of 90%.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:25 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

If these kids are new to the whole story time process, try scaling back expectations of what a Kindergarten-level book is. Toddler/PreS books may go over better. (as long as the subject matter isn't toooo young, like "what do babies do all day?") Try books that are shorter, with rhyme and lots of repetition. Try to find something where you can have the students fill in a refrain or animal noises or something. It's much easier to keep kids engaged with a story if they are helping to tell it. "Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?" is a great example of this. There are some amazing picture books out there that just aren't good read-alouds for younger kids. There are some crappy kids' books out there, too, that somehow find their way into classrooms anyway. (Donations, usually). Your school or local librarian should be able to help you find something that suits these kids' attention spans.
posted by Biblio at 4:32 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

The "learning" in kindergarten is almost exclusively rote learning and since this is teh first time these kids are in school, being a broken record sounds about right. I'm almost 30 and I still remember songs from kindergarten about letters, probably because we sung them approximately 8 billion times through the year in an attempt to beat it into everyone's head. You see the same thin in children's shows like Sesame Street even, where they will have a "Letter of the Day" and have a bunch of skits about it shoved into an hour.
posted by WeekendJen at 5:14 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's the thing, you're expecting too much.

These kids are from a completely different culture and background. The rules you think are obvious are alien to them.

They went from being at home with no structure to a highly structured environment. Read up on how children are treated in their culture. Some NA cultures let kids do whatever they want until they reach the age of reason.

One of the smartest things I was told as a teacher was to grade the kids where they are. I had a lot of ESOL kids, so if I gave a writing assignment, some kids would turn in an essay and the ESOL kids would turn in a post card. They did what they could do, where they were.

The mainstreamed classroom is a frustrating place to be. Kids at different levels, some with disabilities, some gifted, of course some will be challenged, some will be bored. Accept that it's the case.

Ask the high achiever what she'd like to do once she's finished the lesson. Maybe she'd like to sit quietly and read (that's what I liked to do.) Have the other kids teach each other. This is a great way to reinforce the lesson.

But primarily, meet the children where they are. Work on different things in increments. If sitting still is a barrier, work on that BEFORE you work on reading and writing.

Give up the notion of where you think they should be. Many reservations are third-world countries, with different customs and languages. It's okay for the kids you're teaching to not get it.

One thing that I noticed when teaching high school to high risk kids, was that my ESOL kids would be FOB (Fresh off the Boat) with no English and if they rolled with the class, and I accepted what they gave me (even if it was a picture instead of words) that within the semester they would all be speaking English with some decent fluency. All of them.

So keep doing what you're doing, just expect a lot less. Praise often, smile a lot, and enjoy the kids for what they can teach you.

I promise, by winter break you'll be amazed at how far they've come.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:27 AM on September 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Normal. This is what kindergarden aged kids are like. Don't worry, you're doing fine!

Also, they might seem to be retaining nothing when they're in class, and then you'll get a parent telling you about how they're doing all kinds of this stuff at home, and be very surprised! That used to happen to me a lot when I worked with kids. Just love them, the learning will come.
posted by windykites at 7:19 AM on September 9, 2013

Best answer: Like other have said, teaching is hard. Really, really hard. When I was teaching junior high, I came home from work every night and cried myself to sleep. I estimated it would take five or so years for me to become truly good at my job.

Which bring me to my second point - presumably you don't have a teaching degree. Which means you haven't had classes in language acquisition, early childhood education, special education teaching, or other things that might be really helpful to you. Perhaps your supervising teacher could recommend some textbooks or resources for you?

Third point, your question doesn't mention your supervising teacher much at all. She/he should be mentoring you, overseeing you, and guiding you. Don't think you have to do this perfectly all by yourself in the first weeks. Ask for help.

Also ask your supervising teacher for some real world insight into what she/he sees every fall in their incoming class. You seem surprised that 30% of them can't write their name, and I'm actually thinking it's great that 70% can! They would've learned that either from parents, or preschool, which aren't universal values. I had students in junior high who were not fluent in any language - no one spoke to them at home and they could barely read. It blew my mind at 23, but the special education teachers were so kind to help me understand how students could end up in these situations.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:15 AM on September 9, 2013

Ruthless Bunny, I respect your input, but I strongly disagree with your assertion that this population of kids is coming from an unstructured environment at home. That is a big presumption that does not apply at all to many Native households.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:28 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

My mother in law is a kindergarten teacher's aide and she works with special needs kids. The thing she stresses repeatedly when she talks about work is that she has a great team. They've been working together for a while and they can all read each other, know when one teacher needs to take a break. who works best with which students, etc. They have a great thing going on but it took time to get there and they still have off days. But it took time for all of them to get where they are.

I would dial back your expectations just because I've found that when I have any expectations for an experience, I'm usually disappointed. And since everyone has a favorite teacher and remembers what it was like being in a classroom, I'm sure you have some expectations of what it would be like. Very, very few days are like they are in the movies.

Little kids are exhausting. I love my goddaughter, she's a 7 year old genius, but spending a day with her is overwhelming. And she's just one kid and she's smart. So maybe eventually you might want to think about working with older kids but see how the next few weeks go first.

I think what you're feeling is totally normal. I've heard good things about a book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Maybe that will help, maybe not. But keep your chin up. Give it time. And take care of yourself.
posted by kat518 at 8:35 AM on September 9, 2013

Best answer: I get that the classroom is mainstreamed and there are kids of all different levels in the same room, but I wonder what the Teacher is trying to achieve by giving you that specific group of kids. When I helped out in a teacher's classroom, or when I was teaching my own classes and was lucky enough to have an Aid, it seemed like a good use of the Aid's time to help those kids who needed extra help, leaving the advanced and average kids in the general population under the Teacher's care. Having an Aid was specifically one of the methods the Teacher could use to implement multiple learning levels in the same classroom: by isolating one group of kids on the same level.

So I'm not sure if this is a good suggestion or not, but you might ask the Teacher if your small group work can be more focused on kids with the same abilities. It could be advanced kids needing extra enrichment, or slower learners needing extra practice. But it doesn't seem like a good use of the Aid's time to have to manage multiple learning goals within the same small group. If you could spend the entire time helping kids who need it to learn how to hold a pencil (for example), that seems like a much better achievement than having you try to implement 3 different levels of writing practice where no single goal or student gets enough attention.
posted by CathyG at 9:07 AM on September 9, 2013

> Here's the thing, you're expecting too much. These kids are from a completely different culture and background. The rules you think are obvious are alien to them. They went from being at home with no structure to a highly structured environment.

Not necessarily. While I don't want to downplay problems caused by poverty and racism, chances are also good that the kids watch Dora and eat pizza and have bedtimes and speak English and all that. Don't panic.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:39 AM on September 9, 2013

I was a substitute teacher for two years, in an urban district. Teaching is *exhausting.* Don't feel bad about yourself that you feel overwhelmed and exhausted and are struggling with classroom management, because that is all completely normal. It doesn't mean you are or aren't cut out for teaching, or really anything much at this point -- it's only the second week!

Just remember that these are very young kids, and many of them (or all!) are at least as overwhelmed, exhausted and frustrated as you are. They are in the care of strangers, surrounded by a sea of other children, have no control over when they leave, what they eat, don't even have the authority to go to the bathroom whenever they want, are trying to follow many rules that are likely new to them (and which may be explained in a foreign language) -- and they're told to tackle academics, too. I think your expectations are too high. Right now everybody just needs to find her feet. Once the routine is in place and the kids feel safe and settled, things will go a lot smoother, but transitions are always tough and starting school is a *huge* one.

Look for help from the lead teacher, from textbooks, and all of the resources listed above. But also give the kids a little time. They don't need to be first-grade-ready in Week 2. This is the time when they're *supposed* to be learning things like how to follow directions, to sit still for storytime, to get along with the other kids at recess, and how to hold a pencil; that's exactly what they're in school for right now, and those are important skills that they'll need for the rest of their lives.

More specifically -- in most classrooms I've been in, kids who finish early can leaf through picture books or read to themselves (whatever is age appropriate), and rhyming books that kids can participate in go over really well at storytime. My personal favorite, which I still remember my kindergarten teacher reading to us over and over was Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.
posted by rue72 at 9:48 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ruthless Bunny, I respect your input, but I strongly disagree with your assertion that this population of kids is coming from an unstructured environment at home. That is a big presumption that does not apply at all to many Native households.

That's not what I meant.

ALL kindergarteners come from unstructured environments. They've been home with their families, and not lining up for this, or at a proscribed time, doing that.

Even if they were in pre-K, Kindergarten is much, much different.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:59 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Echoing Ruthless Bunny, if this is a small town in a rural environment, the kids run around outside more than urban kids.
If you're not used to rowdy outdoor play, you might think they're too rough on the playground, but it might just be that you have different ideas of how kids (esp little boys) play.

In your class, they're learning how to sit still, keep quiet, take turns, line up and all the rest of it. I wouldn't panic about upper case vs lower case--some of these kids might not have any books at home of their own.

"Nearly 30% of the kindergarteners I work with came to school unable to write their own names." This doesn't strike me as all that odd. They're like 5, right?

I think reading some other teacher's blogs might be helpful, and asking the advice of older teachers.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:23 AM on September 9, 2013

Warning: very long, very, very long.

I don’t know the system you work within or your exact situation, and haven’t worked as a teacher myself in years, but I trained as a kindergarden/ primary school teacher a lifetime ago, and worked in a system which had its own challenges: I worked in a school where German was the language of instruction, but most kids didn’t speak it, so most of them were at a great disadvantage. I myself had not been trained for this particular situation (there was socio-political context, with wholesale emigration of the German minority to Germany from my home country, and with historically German schools losing most native German speakers within the space of a year or two).

What I have to add are random thoughts and memories which may or may not be useful for a TA in your particular circumstances. Apologies also if this is 101 and old hat for you (I’m quite removed from teaching these days, and don’t know how to distinguish between what is common knowledge in the US, and what is truly helpful)…

Also: apologies for length, and for potentially confusing terminology – I did my teacher training in German, not English.

1. When I started my first job as a kindergarden teacher (after 4 years of training), I was completely lost. COMPLETELY. What helped was support from my colleagues, preparing rigorously for the mini-lessons we had to teach daily, and just knowing that I had to do it somehow.

2. I wasn’t a teacher for long, and, at best, I was mediocre. But the one thing I got good results with was telling stories. Somewhat to my surprise, I was good at it, enjoyed it, and managed to use them quite well to further my teaching objectives. So, on storytelling: I worked with 5-6 olds (kindergarden, prep. for school in my country) or 6 – 7 year olds (entry level school kids), and found that at these ages the listening attention span is very short – much shorter than you can expect in even slightly older kids or adults. At this age, a child’s capacity to listen to something might increase if you use different voices for characters, if you read with sentiment etc, but not by all that much. What I found to work very well were 2 things: a. ACT, don’t just read/ recite the story. If someone in the story says “wow is me!”, don’t just say it in a different/plaintive voice, enact someone feeling sorry for themselves, or desperate, or whatever: slump over in an exaggerated fashion, magic an almost crying expression onto your face, clutch your head in your palm and shake it (this is our own convention for mimicking “wow is me”), whatever other things cross your mind (and, as someone said above, the closer you can get to story-telling conventions in the community the kids are from, the better – if such conventions exist). In general, tell your story in as physical a way as possible. An example: the one class I really remember teaching is the one on the letter “B”. The story was about Benno the Baker, who liked to eat bread, so he was a big man and had a biiiig belly (at which point you are mimicking walking around with a big belly, maybe supporting it with his hands). At some point in the story there was something about his being a jolly soul who liked to laugh a lot, so he had big round cheeks (“Backen” in German), so as you say that bit, you pull a face where you blow your cheeks up, which makes your eyes pop out a bit, which children find very amusing etc. And this brings me to point b., already mentioned by someone above, which is participation. For example, in the Benno the Baker story, you can ask the kids, after doing it yourself: “how were Benno the Baker’s cheeks?”, and then the kids all plump up their cheeks and pull faces, at you, and each other, then you can get them to say “B, B, B” with their plumped up cheeks (if you plump up your cheeks and blow air out, you easily get a sound that’s a bit “B”, a bit “P”), so they also get the sound part which goes with the graphic sign “B” etc. Participation, especially physical participation, can be built into anything: children clapping, children trampling, children acting out something, do a story-related physical task etc.

PS. This used to be a VERY physically intensive activity for me; story-telling (and other classroom/ playground activities as well) easily doubled as my own personal fitness regime.

2. The same principle extends to most other issues you encounter – start everything as a game, and as time passes, and skills have been acquired this way, they can graduate to “serious” (this is frequently a matter of months and even years). This includes discipline: for in-class/ in-group activities, make it a game: from now on and until x moment in time which is teacher defined, we are all playing the game where we all whisper (and you whisper too, just really loudly). Or: we all lock our lips with a key and throw it away (and you do this as an activity as well: children press lips, children make locking motion with their hand in front of their lips, children make throwing motion away from them). It is amazing how children will play at this kind of make-believe, and how frequently it will be effective. Warnings: this kind of ban on speaking/ disturbances is not ALWAYS effective, the effects don’t last too long – and it’s best if you “lift” it, after a few minutes, and sometimes it can even be the start of a fooling around session, where kids just end up making faces at each other etc, and you struggle to regain control. Personally, however, I have found such make-believe games to be quite effective. Also, if successful, after the start of such a period, you pretty much have their undivided attention for a couple of minutes, and A LOT of learning can happen in a couple of minutes of rapt attention. You might find other similar little games which tie in closer with the kids’ daily life experience (whatever a kid-talented adult would do in the community, for instance).

3. On discipline in general and appropriate behaviour in the playground: this one used to phase me greatly, too. What helped was advice from more experienced colleagues, especially colleagues who knew the kids. So, maybe talk to your colleagues and ask for some guidelines re. what to look out for. What kind of behaviour is prohibited? Do they have methods for dealing with stuff that cropped up?

The best advice I got was to have a clear idea of what my desired outcome was. Asking about school norms and observing other teachers whose playground management skills you admire will help you form realistic objectives and expectations. For example, I found that a certain degree of rowdiness, of fighting even, is best tolerated, but needs close monitoring for does and don’ts. Additionally, what served me most was to develop a sort of sixth sense for situations which are apt to escalate, and to learn how to stand with authority. Two or more kids having a verbal fight/ playing just this side of rowdy? Move to where they are and make yourself felt as a presence. Again, it may sound stupid, but this frequently worked to diffuse situations – not looming threateningly, but just silently being there, all tall, attentive and ready to intervene if necessary.

A note on “looking authoritative: the same ex-colleague with a knack for quelling quarrels advised: someone has authority when they know what they want, set achievable goals, know how to go for them, and, ideally, look the part. I only got 1 and 2 right – I’d have had no idea what to do if things had escalated and I’d have been faced with rebellion, as it were, plus I was really young and puny, so I didn’t really look the part. But 1 and 2 went a long way…

4. On learning letters (with apologies if what I am saying is old hat): as an adult, I found it difficult to understand what leaps kids have to make when learning letters. We tend to think about it as learning a new graphic symbol for a sound, but the effort, for kids, is double, if not triple, than the one we would have to make as literate adults, if we were to learn Cyrillic script, for example. A child learning for the first time to read/ write doesn’t just learn a sign, at the same time it learns the sound for the sign (which is, in a sense, the meaning of that sign), and it learns about the existence of language sounds as… language sounds (sorry about the terminology). So, a child who learns to write or read “N” needs to associate it with the sound for it, and to figure out how saying “n” relates to her/ his real world experience using language. After a couple of months and a few letters, kids get the hang of it, but the first few letters are very, very difficult. And I’m saying this as someone who taught in languages with much more regular spelling than English (German is more tricky, but my other language has phonetic spelling, so a breeze compared to English; to me it remains unfathomable how any English-speaking kids manage to learn reading and writing). I don’t know how this ties in with your tasks, but the way we were taught during teacher training was to start off with the easy part (the sound part), and work our way to the sign part, so when kids learn to write “N” or “n”, they make a sign that they associate with real-life things – the sound “n” like in nose, nail, north, nibble, no one, never, whatever.

5. A thing which I don’t remember from my teacher training but which I’ve heard from friends who are still teaching is the distinction between active reproduction and passive recognition of knowledge. It seems that this is, in theory, generally admitted and embraced by teachers, but few of them know how to work with this concept in practice, including how to admit and celebrate passive recognition as a success. But passive recognition is a vital step towards active reproductive knowledge, and neglecting it frequently demotivates kids who are in this necessary intermediary stage between knowing and not knowing. Examples of passive recognition versus active reproduction, or gradual reproduction: underlining/ circling all “N”s, then all “n”s in a short text, or finding all “N”s/ “n”s in a group of letters etc versus writing the “N”/ “n” from scratch, transforming two parallel lines into an “N”/ same with twigs in the outside playground, or toothpicks, again, versus just writing it; in terms of the “n” sound, clapping when they hear the sound in words said by the teacher versus volunteering words with “n”, in terms of recognizing the sound at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of words – clapping once for beginning, twice for middle, three times for end, versus saying words with the sound in the respective places, etc (there are many games like this, which work with knowledge the child has, or is in the process of acquiring, without being yet able to use actively). This is incredibly empowering even for children who have less ability – they frequently have way more knowledge than teachers or parents assume (given that the child can’t yet operate with it in an obvious manner), but not enough to be successful in the situations which tend to be created in classroom situations, so the child never feels proud and is ultimately demotivated.

6. Children learn a lot from their peers, so the kids themselves are frequently an asset in the teaching process. Kids with higher levels of knowledge in a particular area can be a valuable resource for their colleagues, as long as they don’t dominate or use all the teacher’s time. Their involvement can help jog memories (like in a choir, when some people know all the words, and the rest joins in after hearing the first few words from each stanza), start a process that can draw everybody else in as it rolls along; they can function as the kids’ representatives as co-creators of the lesson, disrupt the monotony of frontal teaching and create new sparks of interest etc (of course, there is a risk that they end up being purely disruptive, but this can be managed).

7. To counter-balance the above: in my (admittedly brief, mostly indirect these days) experience with kids: there genuinely is no kid who is not “high level” in one or the other regard, barring very, very serious problems. School frequently prioritizes certain perspectives, so there are kids who don’t get their hour of glory within the system, but with time and a little attention from a caring adult everybody can get “discovered”, and be proud of one achievement or the other. This is from my own childhood: I was an abysmal first grader (could hardly sit on a chair, absolutely no understanding of what I was supposed to do, crappy writing, scattered, disorganised workbooks, the whole nine yards, fail grade after fail grade). After a year, I switched to a teacher who, in a very matter-of-fact sort of way, managed to discover excellence about all the children in her class. She was appreciative of things people normally don’t dream of appreciating in a kid, such as the fact that you played with energy and enthusiasm, the fact that you enjoyed the breeze in your hair, that you found beautiful pebbles, that you had an eye or a feel for their colour/ texture/ size, the fact that you knew how to climb trees, any tid-bit of knowledge we kids rolled in with; she loved every scrap we brought in for her, in autumn the leaves (she must have carted home sack-fulls of pretty leaves), gleaming chestnuts, everything we found, everything we did, everything we said was weighed seriously by her, and she reacted to the good stuff as though it was a joy to her and like a gift from us to her, and she validated it as our personal excellence. She also made sure that we were aware of each other’s achievements, so we all felt like equals (even if Daniel was best at maths, and Delia had the most beautiful handwriting etc. I think if you manage something like this in a natural manner, just by being open around the kids and curious around them, you can do more for a child’s self-esteem than you can imagine, and this can have a knock-on effect in other areas of their life, such as strictly academic accomplishments.

8. For different skill levels in the same classroom: always prepare more activities for the children than you think will be necessary. As children finish with the activity set for them, they can start on another activity, rather than sit around being bored (and restless) whilst you are working with the kids who are slower/ have difficulties. For example, the kids who have finished writing the letter “N” can draw the letter N in different colours, different sizes, or draw things beginning with the letter N, or pick out the letter “N” from a collection of letters in different fonts you cut out from magazines or from elsewhere, pick their favourite, glue it on a fresh sheet of paper and draw a thing with “N” as a gift for their mum, cut out objects beginning with “N” from magazines (if they can be trusted with scissors) etc. Always have 2-3 activities in excess of what you think you will manage with the class. And since you will devote a lot of intense attention to the slower kids, balance that out by playing little games with the other kids – for instance, each of them gets a “secret” task (one game like the one above, or drawing something in particular), and once they are done, they have to whisper it to the next quicker finisher etc, in a sort of Chinese whisper of tasks. Or you can make a to-do about drawing tasks out of a hat – than they also have the suspense of the drawing stuff out of a hat kind. This way, the quicker kids don’t feel neglected, whilst your closer, still playful and light interaction with the slower kids takes place. And if you manage to keep it light and all in the spirit of “everybody has their own task/ plays their own game”, the slower kids won’t end up feeling dumb. Important – draw everybody together again with a final activity before the end of the lesson.

9. Lesson plans were really life-saving for me, and probably the most useful thing for my non-teaching life. I won’t go into them here, since this comment is already monstrously long, and you might know all about them anyway, but if you would like to know more, MeMail me, and I can tell you how we did them and why they were so important.
posted by miorita at 2:24 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just thought of a couple other ideas that might help, or that at least helped me (apologies if these seem obvious or if you already have ways of doing things that you prefer -- I learned these the hard way and it was a gruesome battle). The take away from both is basically, consistency and clarity are key.

-- Be as direct and clear as possible in your communication. What made me think of this was your mention of using a "sing song" voice with the kids. Your communication style may sometimes be contradicting what you're actually saying, resulting in a misfire, where the kids don't know whether to pay more attention to your (pleased, relaxed) body language/tone or your (corrective, serious) words. You want them to pay attention to the words and correct themselves but in my experience, they're more likely to pay attention to the body language. If you're like me (and mannnnnny women), you were socialized to do things like smile to soften criticism or to stay cheerful and positive if at all possible or to phrase things delicately to keep from offending or to minimize other people's problem behavior. *Do not do these things with children.* These "social niceties" send confusing mixed messages, and undercut your authority. If you are not happy with a kid's behavior, you need to not only tell them to stop, but your body language and tone need to also convey that you want them to stop. Some teachers will make exaggerated facial expressions (ie, mouth set in a hard line, bright cheery smile, etc) and even point to their faces to make extra clear how they feel about whatever behavior the kids are involved in. That sounds bizarre, but it's actually very effective. I found it *extremely* tough -- exhausting, endless, fake -- to stop softening/undermining my words through my body language and tone, but the kids will never understand what you mean or know how to respond until you match what you're saying with how you're saying it.

-- When pointing out incorrect behavior, always be very clear about what the correct behavior would be (give a specific example). So if a kid is running where it's dangerous to run, don't just say, "stop running," also say that she should "walk quickly." If you tell a kid not to do something but don't give an alternative for her to do, she's probably just going to freeze for a second and then go back to the incorrect behavior, because obviously that is her go-to behavior for this specific situation -- you have to be very direct about what the *right* thing to do is.

If you think that's too authoritative, you can also ask the kid if he's doing what he's supposed to be doing and give him a chance to suggest the alternative correct behavior himself (but make sure he says the correct behavior out loud, so you're certain that you and the kid are on the same page). If you're having more of a back-and-forth, though, always do it privately -- otherwise, a run-of-the-mill correction can easily become a counterproductive and mean humiliation session for a kid, because his classmates will likely want to react ("oooooh," etc) or jump in to "correct" him, too. A kindergarten classroom shouldn't have a culture of fear! :P

It's also important that the kid feels capable of pleasing you/exhibiting the correct behavior, so you're probably not going to want to end the interaction until you see the correct behavior in action and give the kid some praise/attention for it. You don't want the kid getting more attention for bad behavior than for good behavior, and you also want to reassure the kid that even though his behavior was "bad" you aren't going to hold a grudge or think he's bad as a person or anything. If you give too much attention to bad behavior and not enough to good, you're going to accidentally reinforce the idea that you're looking for bad behavior from the kid, which will spur him to give you lots of bad behavior. Praising and giving the kid attention for good behavior can be as simple as smiling at him or giving him the thumbs up when he's doing things correctly. Just make sure that the kid knows you noticed the change and that you like it.

If the kid is refusing to correct himself, he might be trying to test your limits to find out what those limits are (which at this stage, so early on, lots of kids might). In that case, I would also be very clear about the specific consequences of both the incorrect and correct behavior (ie, if you continue to X, Y will happen. You should do A, because then B will happen). If you tell the kid exactly what the limit is, she might not feel the need to learn it the hard way. This will really commit you to following through on what you said the consequences were, though -- so make sure you are being realistic. Even young kids will know when you're BS-ing and will notice if the actual consequences don't match what you told them the consequences will be -- which will only make them distrust you. Another reason to make the consequences realistic is that you're going to have to follow through with those same consequences *every time* this same issue comes up -- you need to be as consistent as possible, because it's likely going to take more than one go-around for any particular kid to actually learn/internalize the connection between X action and Y consequence, and that learning process be a lot rougher if X action is as likely to result in A consequence or B consequence or nothing at all as it is to result in Y consequence).
posted by rue72 at 2:55 PM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: THANKS EVERYONE! This is tremendously helpful!
posted by neanderloid at 9:56 PM on September 10, 2013

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