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Learning with littles

"Your son is disrupting the classroom.” The notes and phone calls from the teachers of my three sons came periodically throughout their early school years. For one child, they came more frequently. To be honest, at times I became annoyed and even questioned my son’s teacher about the seriousness of the disruption. Sure he was the class clown but he’s only five-years-old. Surely an adult could get a five-year-old under control.

That was a long time ago. Fast forward to 2008. Now, I was the kindergarten teacher. Well, substitute teacher. I’ve been filling in for a teacher for the last five weeks. While I haven’t had to speak to a parent about their child being disruptive, I now can relate to teachers and their cries for help.

Take Lewis* for example. He’s bright and full of energy. He’s like a sponge and when he receives one-on-one attention, he absorbs instruction and thrives. Without the personal attention, he tests my patience by talking or teasing other students. When I turn my back, it’s not unusual for Lewis to sneak away from his work to another part of the classroom. His behavior causes disruption, making it more difficult for others to focus on learning. While his behaviors may sound minute, consider this: out of 22 students in my classroom, there are six others just like Lewis.

Thank goodness for my two teacher’s aides, who help keep order in the classroom. When I’m asked about my job serving as a substitute teacher – I immediately say “it’s overwhelming in every way!” I thought running for Congress was challenging.

I’m not going to pretend I know everything there is to know about teaching. All I know is what I experienced and witnessed during five weeks in the classroom. When people want to know what it’s like in a classroom with 5-year-olds, the only thing I can compare it to is a roller coaster ride.

Five-year-olds are full of energy with short attention spans. There are highs (when they all listen intently) and lows (when they are all distracted). Keeping their attention can be very challenging. The teacher I filled in for has been teaching kindergarten for 35 years. She is top-notch and I’ve been told she expects her students to adhere to strict rules. These teachers deserve many pats on the back. A highlight for me was hearing a parent say “Thank you for teaching my child.”

I learned quickly how important it is to one, have a lesson plan, which helps structure time and two, teach students so they can meet learning markers and can be assessed properly.

My students mirrored society’s personalities. There’s Bianca, the calm in the storm, an ideal student who never had to be told twice what to do; Kenny, a sensitive soul, who cried if you looked at him the wrong way; Isaac, the class clown, who didn’t just enjoy making people laugh, he enjoyed life; Allie, the talker and disciplinarian; Tim, a quiet instigator; Susie, bossy with a no-fear attitude; Trent, the smallest boy who refused to be bullied and Sarah, who melts you with her smile and likes being the “teacher’s pet.”

Students were given homework almost on a daily basis. The return rate was about 25 percent. I spoke to another teacher about this, and what she said makes sense – it boils down to the health of the family unit and parent involvement. A child’s reading level also depends heavily on parent participation.

Of course, this isn’t a new revelation. Many a study about parent involvement can be found on the Internet. For me, however, studies don’t compare to seeing first-hand how critical parent involvement is to the educational success of a child.

For example, Brian is far behind his peers in reading. With one-on-one attention, he can catch up but in a classroom of 22, it’s just not going to happen. This is where one-on-one support at home can make a difference.

Sadly, in many Indian communities, many factors come into play. Poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and split families all play a role in determining the health of a family unit.

I left my classroom feeling excited and sad at the same time. Excited because our Indian children are just as bright as the next students. Sad because without a true partnership between parents and teachers, most at-risk students just won’t perform to his or her potential. You, the parent, grandparent or guardian, are your child’s best teacher. Just reading more often to your child and helping with homework will go a long way.

Making sure children are in school is also important. According to an official with the Arizona State Department of Education, the absenteeism rate for Arizona Indian students is 21 days. The national average for at-risk students is 12 to 18 days. The absenteeism rate for non-at-risk students is less than half those days. Studies show high absenteeism leads to poor performances in school. How can a child learn and be prepared for student assessments when they’re missing so many days of school?

In pre-European times, everyone in our Indian villages shared educational duties. Today aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings can still make a difference. It’s not too late to bring back an old tradition.

This week I’m filling in at the junior high. That’s another story for another time.

Here’s a recommended Web site for parents who want to learn more: http://www.pirc-info.net./
* The names of students have been changed.

Mary Kim Titla is a journalist living in Arizona. She can be reached at mtitla@hotmail.com.