Teaching kindergarten has absolutely been one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime. And, not gonna lie…it has also been one of the most exhausting, mind-bending, and character-building experiences too! (If you are a first-year teacher – never fear! Just keep reading! 🙂 )
It could very well be that since I didn't start my teaching journey until I was 40, perhaps I was a bit more set in my ways. It could also be that since my first career was in country music – and was anything but predictable and routine – that I wasn't too keen on the (VERY early) day-to-day at first.
I've since learned that every day spent teaching kindergarten has been as unpredictable and lively as my days in the music business. Actually, it's reminiscent of all those years up on stage, trying to keep the attention of often very drunk show-goers!
“Wait…I'm sorry, did you just compare sweet 5-year-olds with drunk adults?”
Yes. Yes, I did. If you've never taught kindergarten – reserve your judgment. If you have – I KNOW you know what I'm talkin' about!
I've now spent ten years teaching kindergarten, and as the new school year approaches, I thought I'd share ten helpful tips that I think are the MOST IMPORTANT for first-year teachers to know and to always keep in mind.
First Year Kindergarten Teacher
So, I'm curious. What made you want to teach kindergarten? Did you have a choice? During my student teaching, I spent some time in 1st and 2nd and liked it fine. I spent some time in 4th and didn't really love that at all. I spent some time in kindergarten – and it just felt like it FIT.
They say that you either ARE a kindergarten teacher or you AREN'T. I'm sure there's some truth to that – as I know, I'm NOT a middle or high school teacher. For MANY reasons!
When you are teaching kindergarten, you have to be ok being called mom (or grandma or dad, for that matter)! You have to be ok with the occasional bathroom accident alongside a wide range of academic skills. You need to really be good at or open to learning excellent tricks involving classroom management for kindergarten. And all day, every day, you need to have patience. A solid sense of humor also helps – but seriously…you need PATIENCE.
I hope you'll read through this advice for new teachers and take it to heart. If something you read tweaks your gut a bit – write it down and stick it in your wallet or tape it to your desk where you can see it and easily be reminded.
Trust me – anything I share here was learned the hard way. Now, without further ado…
10 Helpful tips from 10 years of teaching kindergarten
1. You Can't (and WON'T) Be All Things To All People. Period.
You've probably heard this before, but how does it apply to teaching kindergarten? Well, believe it or not – you won't be everybody's cup of tea. This goes for your co-workers, the parents, AND the kids.
“Wait…WHAT? Are you saying there will be some parents who may not – *GULP* – LIKE ME?”
Correct. And it does, in fact, sting. It likely won't happen very often. But, if you DO teach for a while (and I hope you DO), you will have some parents who…challenge you. 🙂
Let's move on to co-workers.
Just as in any place of work, there are all sorts of personalities. All those personalities are also dealing with their own set of personal circumstances that you may or may not be privy to. Put personalities together with circumstances, and sometimes you get…friction.
Now – look in the mirror. YOU have a distinct personality, and YOU also have your own set of circumstances. Some days will be great, and some not so much. That's life. Just keep in mind that EVERYONE is living it.
You may or may not become best friends with everyone on the staff – and THAT IS OK. No matter what – be YOU. Be kind. Be respectful. Act like you expect your kindergarteners to act.
Treat others as you want to be treated – and be ok if you aren't their favorite.
2. Stay True To WHO you Are and HOW You Teach.
This one comes on the heels of not trying to be everyone's cup of tea.
As a first-year kindergarten teacher, you are going to have to give yourself some grace as you discover who YOU are as a teacher. Take time to settle into your sweet spot. I remember my kindergarten teacher, and I adored her. She was soft-spoken and sweet, and I don't recall anything rattling her in the slightest.
I – am NOT that teacher. I wanted to be. Tried to be. But I repeat – I am NOT that teacher.
I am loud. I sing constantly. If I think I need to, I will climb up on a counter to make a point. 30-second dance parties may erupt at any given moment, and yet I set high expectations for my kids to work hard and maintain our space WITH me.
Teaching kindergarten is NOT a one size fits all position. If you are quiet – don't feel like you NEED to be loud. If you LOVE bright colors, but Pinterest classrooms are making you think you're supposed to have a neutral room – don't give in to the khaki!
As long as you are building community in your classroom, growing your kids academically and socially, and being an effective educator – then all is well. HOW you do it – is up to you.
In other words, you do you, Boo.
3. Parents Are Humans Too.
I can honestly say I have been truly blessed in the parent department. Both schools I've taught in have had wonderful parent support and involvement, and I realize that's not always the case. I can only speak to my own experience.
Over the years, I've had some kindergarten parents turn into dear, dear friends of mine. There have been occasions, however, when parents have been so worried about their child or a situation at home – that they have led with their strong emotions.
When a parent leads with those emotions during a conference, or in an email, or at pick-up…it can leave you feeling a bit off balance. I used to take it personally – which meant I would take it home with me, mull it over and over, and usually end up crying to my mom on a phone call.
I MADE IT ABOUT ME.
This tip is especially hard if you are a people pleaser. I've learned to take whatever big emotion is coming at me and not react or attack back in the moment. I'll vent to a trusted co-worker or friend who helps to put perspective on the situation and lets me get it all out. Then I try to put myself in their shoes. Their kid's shoes. Sometimes it's not easy.
If you have an especially hard interaction with a parent or an ongoing tense situation, you may want to consider sharing it with your principal. Start documenting too. I used to keep any tense interactions to myself because I automatically assumed I'd done something wrong. Sharing a situation with someone in admin who can help guide you through it can be so beneficial. Trust your gut.
4. If You Find A Work Wife (Or Husband) – Marry Them.
Teaching kindergarten – or any grade for that matter – can actually be quite lonely. Of course, the kids are there, but I'm talking about adult interaction. Not only that – but planning, brainstorming, problem-solving, venting, dollar store runs for popsicle sticks and foam – YOU NEED A SIDEKICK.
Thelma and Louise. Bonnie and Clyde. Laverne and Shirley. Will and Grace.
If you find a teacher soulmate…PUT A RING ON IT.
You may not find them in your first year teaching kindergarten. You may find they teach in a different grade. If you find them – you will know. This doesn't mean you won't have many friends and teammates that you work well with and can count on – but having a teacher bestie can make a bad day good.
Now…don't be desperate. Don't be clingy or weird like an early rejected contestant on a dating show. Approach this just as you would find a friend or any solid relationship. But when you DO find it – DON'T LET IT GO.
They will be your saving grace on so many days and so many occasions. Cherish them.
5. Work Hard. Get Help.
All the laminating and cutting do not have to be done by you and you alone. You might have parents volunteer. (Have a sign-up for them on your back-to-school night!) Some schools have office staff that will be happy to have something to work on. There will ALWAYS be something to do, but that doesn't mean it always HAS to be done by you and you alone.
The first year I taught at my current school, my now work wife handed me a stack of spiral-bound agendas and told me how they “lined” each child's agenda for them. Every week in advance – for the whole year. HUH? Yep. Mon-Thurs every week, a different color for each day – four lines on each weekday for school and five lines on each weekday for home.
Is this a HUGE help for kindergarteners to be able to follow along with directions? 100% YES. I took all 20 of my kids' agendas home and started the process. I got two agendas done in one night. TWO.
The whole time my mind was spinning out on everything else I needed to get done before the first day of school, and though math is not my strong point, at the rate of 2 a night, I was not only NOT going to finish them, but nothing else on my MUST DO list was going to get done.
I enlisted the help of my husband and two best friends. We skipped weekend dinner plans, and after doing two each, they left me and went out. They said, “You need to figure out a different process for next year so you don't lose so much time – or our friendship.” 😉
I asked my team if we could come up with a way to save our sanity. We now ask for parent volunteers to each take 4 or 5 agendas home and line them for us. They are so happy to help, and we have HOURS back to do the stuff parents can't do for us.
Don't be afraid to GET HELP.
6. Leave It There.
During my first year of teaching, it took me a minimum of 45 minutes to get to work. With no traffic – it only took about 20 minutes. The mornings – which aren't my thing anyways – were always tense and made me a bit crazy.
Nashville traffic has been an ongoing source of maddening hilarity to me. One commute that I'll never forget: standstill traffic forEVER…and I started fearing the worst, afraid there had been a horrible wreck. It was, in fact…a BOOT in the road. I was also NOT lying the day I pulled in late to school – because I'd hit a large, plastic igloo cooler going 70 on the highway.
Why am I talking about traffic? Because I dreaded it so much that I started staying after school WAY too long to avoid it. I formed a very bad habit that took a toll on me.
When a dream position came open about 4 minutes from my house – I immediately jumped at the chance. I still make it a point to leave most days as soon as I can. For me, having a workout class scheduled at 4:30 gives me a limited window of time to leave school behind and mentally break free.
YOU NEED A BREAK. Just as you will give your kids brain breaks – you need them too.
Now, will there be pushback? Possibly a snarky remark or two from a co-worker who stays late EVERY day or a raised eyebrow from a principal? Maybe. I've had both. And you know what? I'm ok with that. If you are leaving your room a wreck and not getting your work done, that may be a different story. But try your best to use every moment you can to stay organized and work SMARTER – not LONGER.
You will be a happier human with a social life, some downtime, and time for YOURSELF.
7. Start Stretching. You're Gonna Need To Be FLEXIBLE.
One thing that you will learn is that just when you think you know what you know – you will be told you don't. Just when you get the hang of a certain curriculum or way of teaching, your district will tell you that no, in fact, that wasn't working, and THIS is what you should be doing now.
Sometimes it will be a relief. Sometimes you will stare blankly and mutter, “But…I just laminated everything for next year and filed it into alphabetical units...” You may wanna scream.
NOTHING IS IN STONE. EVERYTHING IS CHANGEABLE. BE…..FLEXIBLE.
This was super hard for me, especially in my first few years. Just when I found my footing, something would shift. My mom (who was a teacher for K-5 music and then taught 3rd and 4th grade) got MANY a call from me whining about the changes in curriculum or procedures. She'd say, “Kace…if you stay in it long enough, what they throw out will come back around with a fresh coat of paint.” You know what? She's right.
Start doing yoga, my friend, because you can either let it drive you crazy or just KNOW it's coming. Vent a bit with your team, then start stretchin'…
8. They aren't “JUST” 5-Year-Olds.
I have a BIG pet peeve.
Whenever anyone (a parent, admin, friend, etc.) uses the phrase, “It's ONLY kindergarten,” or, “It's JUST kindergarten,” – ooooooo them's fightin' words. Steer clear of me if you dare use them.
In kindergarten, like it or not, we teach them to read. That's pretty important. (I mean…if you look back at #7 – this could not be the case at any given moment! 😉 ) We teach them how to “do” school and SO MUCH MORE.
I believe kindergarten is where we have the privilege to set them up with a LOVE OF LEARNING.
It is not “only” kindergarten or “just” kindergarten. It's not a daycare or free babysitting.
However, you WILL hear this phrase. When you hear it from admin or other grade-level teachers – it really and truly STINGS. It diminishes all of the hard work you do to set them up with a strong foundation for “school.”
So, what is my piece of advice here? Hmmm. I would say to prepare yourself to hear it. When you are in tired teacher mode, it won't send you spiraling. And when you do hear it, just grin and nod your head slowly. Bless their hearts; they know not what they say.
They don't know what they're saying – because anyone who says that – has NOT TAUGHT KINDERGARTEN.
9. Be Sure to Laugh At Yourself. Because they will.
Did you know you're a comedian? No?
Well, did you know you're a princess, you are 1000 years old, and you have always dreamed of having a gift made of mulch and a stray bead?
You are. You are. And you did.
Teaching kindergarten is hilarious – but you gotta go with the flow. When they tell you how much they love your boots, soak it in. When they tell you that you are THE BEST in the whole world, let it take root in your heart. Because…
They will also tell you that you are OLD and that your joke wasn't funny. Roll with it. They still love you.
10. Evaluations are REALLY important – but not rEALLY.
Ok, ok…evaluations ARE really important – but not so much that you let it define who you are as a teacher.
Every single teacher pulls out all the stops for an observation lesson and prays that their kids will have gotten a good night's sleep and woke up on the right side of the bed that day. We ALL get nervous and try to do ALL the things we know we are supposed to do – because those things are all typed up in the most detailed lesson plan EVER.
They will never ever go exactly as planned. EVER.
EXAMPLE #1: In my first classroom, I had a couple of waist-high bookshelves that divided my little library area from the rest of the room. When the kids would show me they had learned something awesome, I would often stagger into that little area and dramatically faint. I would usually stick my legs straight up in the air – always a crowd-pleaser.
On the day of my first big official observation, I said, “WOW! I just don't know what to do! Y'all just blew me AWAY!!” One little fedora-loving honey shouted, “YES YOU DOOO! Go take a nap in the library like you ALWAYS do!” They all started chanting, “TAKE YOUR NAP! TAKE YOUR NAP!”
The assistant principal's eyebrows arched high on her forehead as she kept typing away.
EXAMPLE #2: During my first observation at my current school, my principal provided me with a transcript of my ‘teaching':
“Ok! So we've learned that Charlie put your shirt on please fire safety is super now, please Charlie important and that stop licking your shoe there are things we can SHIRT. ON. do to protect ourselves!
I could go on, and on, and on. Do not let your evaluation score define you. Even if it's high – you can always learn how to hone your craft. Learn from other teachers. Ask for feedback.
Just as the numbers on the scale don't necessarily define how fit you are – neither does your evaluation score.
Final Advice For New Teachers
Teaching kindergarten is a roller-coaster ride. Some days you will be screaming, “Let me off this thing!” and other days, you will want to run as fast as you can back to the front of the line to do it again. If I can offer up a last piece of advice for first-year teachers or to teachers new to kindergarten, it would be this:
If you are in a rough patch at home or just got a not-so-great evaluation score, or you are feeling just overwhelmed…stop. Breathe. And call a little family meeting.
Sit in a circle and look – REALLY look into the eyes of those 5-year-olds. Take turns saying something silly and random – like your favorite color and the funniest food name you can think of. Purple macaroni. Silver spaghetti. Listen to their laughter. Watch their faces scrunch up, and their heads tilt up towards the ceiling. Let that sound wash over you for a moment. Allow a reset.
That sound is why I love teaching kindergarten. Yes, I love their excitement when they realize they just read something solo too, and a jillion other things. But their JOY – is contagious. Catch it.
You got this. You're gonna be great. They are gonna LOVE YOU.
(OH. LAST THING. The secret weapon word to make ANY 5-year-old lose their mind laughing is… “underwear.” You're welcome.)
If you would like some extra help with classroom management for kindergarten – READ THIS!
Need some inspiration for the first day of kindergarten? READ THIS!