How my nightmare became my top career choice
Volunteering in a grade one classroom inspired me to become a teacher.
Jan 23, 2019
It is entirely possible to poop glitter. I learned that on my first day of volunteering in a grade one class. I’m not going to lie and tell you I was volunteering out of the goodness of my heart. I needed a reference letter for my teaching portfolio and I figured this was the fastest way to get it. Plus, I’m kind of fond of little snot-nosed ankle biters; after all, I have one of my own and he’s pretty freaking perfect, if I do say so myself.
For those of you who are new to my story, I'm a full-time working single mama, tackling a bachelor’s degree on my own.
I figure if I survived the first year of that, then a classroom of first graders should be a cake walk; all they do is eat snacks and make macaroni art, right?
My first day on the job
I was eaten alive within minutes by the devilish little cretins. I can’t even begin to describe the horrors I witnessed that first day: what do you mean you peed in her lunch box!? You put what where!? Are we supposed to call a nurse for this? When I got home that night, my boyfriend didn’t even bother to ask how my day went, he just sat me down on the couch with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s while he cut sparkle-glue dreadlocks from the back of my head.
I cried so hard. If this was the career I’d picked for myself, why was I so bad at it?
I almost didn’t go back. If I hadn’t been so embarrassed about being bested by a bunch of first graders I probably wouldn’t have. I returned a little wiser, with a fully armed arsenal and ready for battle! Wipes? Check! Extra-strength Tylenol? Check! Bribes? Check! I almost stopped to grab my helmet as I walked out the door but figured that might be overkill.
My second day, I was prepared for the worst
On the second day I managed to sneak into the classroom during free reading. I was careful not to wear perfume so they wouldn’t catch my scent, but as I crept towards the story-time carpet I accidentally stepped on a rogue piece of macaroni art. The crackle echoed across the classroom. I held my breath, praying they hadn’t noticed me. No such luck. I watched in horror as Amaya’s head spun around in slow motion like something out of The Exorcist. I had been caught.
She happily skipped over to me and lay on my feet. Was this a six-year-old’s sign of submission? No, that was for dogs. Then it got weirder: she proceeded to pet my feet. “I like your cat shoes,” she said. I'll admit they were pretty bad-ass tiger print flats; obviously the girl had impeccable taste. The foot petting was a bit strange, but a girl who can appreciate a good shoe is all right in my books.
The second day came to an end much like the first. I stayed away from the glitter but somehow managed to get a bite mark on the back of my calf in exchange. I'd have to get that looked at.
Do children have rabies? They certainly seem to always have ooze crusted to their faces.
On the third day, a peace offering
The third day went a little better. A couple of them offered me part of a half-eaten cupcake as a peace offering. As gross as pre-chewed food is, I ate it. I am not one to turn down chocolate. These little minions weren't so bad. And so, each and every day one of my students did something so sweet and caring that I’d forgive them. I even found myself jumping to their defense in the staff room when other teachers referred to my kids as the class of little brats. Yes, they were little brats, but they were my little brats, and I was proud of each and every one of them … mostly.
An extra-special student
I had my hands full with one particularly devilish child. Jayden possessed a special talent for driving me up the wall. If there was a problem in my classroom, he was at the centre of it. I have no idea how many times I sent him to the office, took away his gym privileges, or called his mother. Nothing worked. He was a bad-ass in a six-year-old’s body and he knew it. My last straw came during the jump rope unit: he went Indiana Jones, wielding his skipping rope like a bull whip as he chased me around the gym. I finally snapped, and I yelled at him.
I have never ever yelled at a child in my entire life. I felt awful and I’m not sure who cried harder, me or him. Ashamed, I called in sick the next day. There was no way I could be a teacher. There was no way I deserved to be a teacher if I lashed out at a child like that. I would finish out the year with my class but that would be it.
I'd like to tell you it got better, but it didn’t. Jayden still drove me crazy, my class was still out of control, and I still came home every night exhausted and defeated, covered in Elmer’s glue and finger paint. I really was a terrible teacher.
Field trip to the zoo!
Finally, the year-end field trip to the Edmonton Valley Zoo arrived. I was dreading it. I could hardly keep my students contained to my classroom, let alone 18 hectares filled with wild animals! I had visions of the tigers using one of my students as a giant chew toy. But surprisingly my kids were well behaved, they listened and followed my directions and used their manners. I couldn’t help but puff up like a proud mamma hen—maybe the little ankle biters had learned something from me after all.
The field trip was going pretty well until the dark room with the bats. My kids were vibrating with excitement; apparently cramming into a pitch black room that smells like poop and rotting fruit is pretty cool. Once my eyes adjusted, I did a quick head count to make sure all my kids were still alive and accounted for. They weren’t. Jayden was missing. I quickly counted again. He definitely wasn’t there.
I burst into the hallway to find him. Yes, he was a pain in the ass, but no kid deserved to get trampled by a wildebeest or crushed by an elephant. Security found him an hour later huddled in a little ball next to the monkey enclosure, crying. My tough little man was afraid of the dark.
My heart shattered for him.
Breaking the rules
So I broke every teacher conduct rule in the book, and I held him. I tucked his tiny body close to mine and cried with him. I told him it was okay, and I would protect him. That he was loved, he was wanted, and everybody gets scared sometimes. When we were done crying, Jayden grabbed my hand in his small one and said, “I wish you could be my teacher forever.” I don’t think the gravity of his words hit me until later that evening when I was closing up the classroom and I saw a cheap motivational poster tacked up next to the hot lunch forms. It read:
“In this classroom…
You are amazing.
You are important.
You are creators.
You are scientists.
You are explorers.
You are loved.
You are readers.
You are risk takers.
You are a friend.
You are special.
You are leaders.
You are respected.
You are the reason I am here.”
I tucked that poster into my bag and it's now tacked up in my son’s room. It will be on the door of every classroom I teach in. It will be my mantra when my students get the best of me and I want to rip my hair out. They are the reason I am here. I went into that volunteer experience with an idea of what it meant to be a teacher, and I left knowing what it meant to be human. That is why I will teach. That is why I will be a great teacher. All it took was some free time, a volunteer form, and a classroom of first graders to teach me that.
*Students’ names have been changed
University of Alberta
Think being a student is hard? Try being a full time single mom too! I juggle potty training, working, and a full course load.
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