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Teaching is Like a Chess Game: or What It’s Like to be an Early Childhood Educator

(Note to the reader: Ages and identifying characteristics of the children may been changed for privacy reasons.)

A friend said that my days teaching in an early childhood classroom are simply one long play time.

Um, no.

So I decided to document one 40- minute learning period in my classroom where I teach pre-k 3, pre-k 4 and kindergarteners in a public school/Montessori classroom.

During this 40-minute learning time, I had four evaluations to complete and one lesson to teach:

It’s the third week of school. I can meet with 5 students, right?

I started with a five-year-old boy. In his Learning Book I wrote his name and asked him to copy it.

He picked up his pencil and then said as fast as he could, “My cat loves to sit by the window so he….”

I cut him off and asked him to tell me about his cat later and that right now I wanted to see how well he could write his name.

He placed his pencil on the paper and began to write his first letter. Then he continued his cat story, only this time he spoke even faster so he could get more in.

“He is a good cat except for when he forgets he’s a cat and…”

“Only writing.” I said. “Please write.” At the end of the day I would ask the boy what his cat does when he forgets he’s a cat, but the boy had no idea what I was talking about.

I missed my chance; now I’ll never know.

That’s how it is when you’re a teacher, either I get my way or the kid gets his way and no matter what, I’m left to wonder.

I took note of his pencil grip, how hard he held the pencil, how far he leaned over as he wrote, how hard he pressed the pencil to the paper, how large each letter was, whether or not he could write on a line and more.

I was very busy gathering information when a kindergarten girl approached the table where we were working in the middle of the classroom.

“Miss Holly?”

The boy remained focused on his work. I turned to the girl, “Yes?”

The girl with dark hair leaned in close to me and said softly, “You’re a chicken.”

“Me?” I whispered. “Are you sure?” I looked at my hand carefully and then consulted my ID tag. “No. I’m not a chicken, I’m a teacher.”

The girl threw her head all the way back and laughed a full-belly laugh.

It’s always a good day when a child gives in to a full-belly laugh.

I tapped the boy’s learning book and told him to write his name again, this time he should write his name as close to the green line as possible.

He picked up his pencil and wrote close to the green line.

The girl leaned closer to me. “No. You’re a chicken.”

I had this same dark-haired girl in my class when she was three and again when she was four; this is the third year we were playing the same exact game.

I pretended to eat my arm and said that I tasted delicious, then told her to get back to work.

She laughed and returned to her letter work as if our game had never happened.

After the boy wrote his name a third time, I asked him to evaluate which of the three names came out the best.

He said the second name was best and drew a purple circle around it.

My Notes:

· Kindergarten Boy:

· Great focus

· Can evaluate neatness

· Can write his name from a model

· Can write close to a line.

· Have him carry his name tag around the room so he can write his name by himself. After a while he will tire of the inconvenience of carrying the tag around and will write his name w/o a model.

A four-year-old boy tapped me on the arm and told me that he was writing his numbers up to 100 billion.

I suggested that he take all the time he needed and said that it was okay if he needed to take a break if he got tired.

I sent the boy who wrote his name back to work and motioned for a light-haired kindergarten girl to sit at my table.

She hurried over and huffed, “Finally. Now I can learn.”

I smiled and put the date into her learning book. I made a grid on the page and populated the squares in random order with the letters she was learning, “S, M, A, T.”

I told her to find all of the letter “S’s” and put a blue circle around them. I modeled the first letter.

She picked up a blue crayon and found an “S” in the middle of the page. Then she circled one below it and circled another one on the left.

I noted that she didn’t know how to track left to right. She moved her eyes up and down the columns and jumped around the page. I had noticed that when she looked at books, she looked at the right page of the book before the left page.

Good to know. I took notes on the speed that she worked, her ability to focus and the fact that she needed some lessons in moving her eyes from left to right.

A three-year-old girl tapped my knee to get my attention. “I need help.” She whined.

I looked at her. She wasn’t wet. There wasn’t a glue stick stuck in her hair.

I asked her softly, “What do you need?”

“Make me a rainbow.”

I told her that she needed to make it herself and that she could sit at the table where we were working so I could watch her draw.

“No.” She said. “One other teacher will rainbow me.”

That’s the thing about teaching in a classroom where we have three adults; it ups the probability that a student can find an adult to do her bidding. She headed towards my teacher assistant.

I instructed the girl at my table to find all of the letter “M’s” and draw orange circles around them.

She nodded her head and began circling the correct letters with her orange crayon.

Rainbow Girl approached my teacher assistant who was teaching a sequencing lesson to two students. The girl stuck her bottom lip out in a perfected pout and with a voice that might mimic the soft cries of a hungry kitten, she whined that she needed help.

My teacher assistant looked up at her and asked her softly. “What do you need?”

“Make me a rainbow.”

He said that she should get a start on the rainbow, maybe start with the color red and that he would be over in a few minutes to check on her progress.

She walked over to my co-teacher, stood behind her and watched as she taught a letter lesson to three children. Rainbow Girl asked for help in making a rainbow. She asked. And asked. And asked. She didn’t seem to understand that whispering to the back of my co-teacher’s body was not the best way to get what she wanted.

The girl wandered off, which was fine with me; she could try make her own rainbow.

The girl working in her book let me know that she was ready to circle the “A’s” red.

I nodded as she picked up a red crayon and got to work.

A four-year-old boy approached me and said, “Miss Holly, I didn’t know that you were nine-years-old.”

I asked him what he was thinking.

He explained that he knew I was older than a kindergartener, so I must be nine.

I tilted my head to the side and nodded. “I like the way you think.”

He returned to his sorting work.

I smiled.

I watched the kindergarten girl haphazardly searching for letters on the page. I noted that she could remember what letter she was searching for. What a relief to see that her memory skills were strong.

I could use her memory skills to teach her how to track letters. She wouldn’t be able to read until she could track left to right.

Kindergarteners are expected to read by the end of the year. We don’t waste any time in figuring out what objective skills they need to get to that goal.

If a child can’t hold a pencil and draw a picture, then he/she will have trouble writing letters.

So at the beginning of the year, we encourage children to draw in their free time. Drawing is linked to reading and writing in the brain. The more a child draws, the easier learning will be.

Drawing would help this girl learn tracking. When she was done with me, I would have her draw a picture of her family.

My Notes:

· Kindergarten Girl:

· Needs to learn how to track left to right.

· Draw more

· Draw lines across a page of paper from far left to far right.

· Practice drawing the sideways figure 8 “Race Track.”

A kindergarten boy motioned to me from the bathroom door.

I walked over, hiding the feeling of doom that bathroom issues bring to the classroom.

I opened the door. He stood in front of me fully clothed. His clothes were wet.

He said that he missed the toilet, again. I looked around the small, tiled bathroom: the walls were wet and there was a puddle on the floor in front of the toilet.

How was it that his clothes were wet, and the wall was wet too?


I found his extra clothing in his bin and handed him a plastic bag and directed him to stay close to the sink where it was dry.

No we don’t have a shower at school to clean him.

No we can’t touch his body to clean him.

The last time this happened, and I handed him a wet wipe; he used it to wipe his hands.

I know. I know.

I set three wet wipes on the edge of the sink and reminded him to use them to clean his body.

Luckily his shoes were still dry.

He repeated the directions back to me:

1. Put the wet clothes into the bag,

2. Wipe the area under my underwear and

3. Put on the clean clothes and the shoes.

I closed the door and motioned to my teacher assistant to call a janitor.

I stood guard outside the door. The only thing worse than a bathroom issue would be for another child to walk through that urine.

Yes. It’s happened before. Not this year.

A few minutes later when the boy came out in his clean clothes, I sealed his bag of wet clothes and instructed him to put it in his backpack and then closed the bathroom by rolling a shelf in front of the door.

My assistant took the boy to the back room to wash his hands even though the boy insisted that he already washed them.

I went to the adult bathroom in the hall and washed my hands. And took a few deep breaths.

Back in the classroom, I found the girl-who-wanted-a-rainbow sitting at a table with an older girl. Rainbow Girl held a perfect rainbow in her hand.

I was stunned. Wait, really? My sending her off on her own worked? She made a rainbow by herself? At three-years-old? Why was she asking for help if she knew how?

She had great control. The rainbow was perfect with colors all arching in order.

“You made this?” I asked her.

“Yes.” She said, clutching it to her chest. “It’s my rainbow.”

The kindergarten girl working next to her nodded her head in agreement.

I whispered to the kindergartener. “Did she really draw this?”

“No.” the girl whispered back to me. “I made it for her so she would be happy.”


A four-year-old boy told me that he was not going to go to the bathroom today.

Translation: I have to pee right now.

I told him that it was his turn for the bathroom, but that he would have to wait until the janitor cleaned it. I asked him to stand on the “Blue Dot,” the place where the next person to use the bathroom waits for a turn.

He readily stood on the dot.

Another three-year-old student said that her mother said she had to go home “last week” as she headed for the door.

I reminded her that she would see her mother at two o’clock and told her to go back to work.

She did.

Usually, children are more argumentative and disagreeable. I appreciate days where children don’t resist the rules.

I called the next girl up for her reading test. I put her name and the date on the form where I would track her answers.

I handed her the book and told her the title and asked her to repeat the title, then complimented her on reading the title just right.

I told her that now it was her turn to read.

She put her finger on the first word in the book and tapped the word with each syllable as she said: “I don’t read books because I’m only five and kids can’t read until they are fifty hundred days old.”


“Great try.” I smiled as I scored her test. “You can go back to work now.”

My Notes:

· Kindergarten Girl

· Teach 1-1 correspondence so she knows each word in the book equals one spoken word.

· Draw more.

· Teach sounds and letters.

· Help stretch out sounds.

· Start pre-reading texts to help her understand that the words you speak are related to the letters and pictures on the page.

A kindergarten boy joined my table for his reading test.

He said that he felt sorry for me because he didn’t know how to read books.

“I will help you learn.” I said.

I appreciated his empathy, because I don’t always like testing nonreaders at the start of the school year when they don’t know their letters or letter sounds yet.

The boy said, “I can only read candy wrappers.”

Maybe he can read, after all. “You can read candy wrappers?”

“Sure.” He insisted. “You just point to the wrapper and say, “Candy.”

Point taken.

I sat at the table holding the forged rainbow while the three-year-old demanded that I give it back to her.

I was about to start the reading test.

Rainbow Girl lunged for the rainbow.


I stood and put it on a top shelf where she couldn’t reach it.

(**Note to the reader: This "Top Shelf" trick does not work if you teach high school students.)

If she took that rainbow home, her parents would be confused.

We try not to confuse parents.

A girl called to me in a quiet voice from the next table. Her face was frozen. Her eyes were at half-mast. Was she having trouble breathing?

I stood slowly and watched her as I stepped closer.

Her head bent forward.

I dropped to my knees next to her. “You okay?” She wasn’t playing with small objects, but maybe she was choking.

She looked at me and her eyes closed.

“Hey. What’s going on?” I asked playfully. Was she having a seizure?

My teacher assistant watched from nearby.

The girl’s head fell back so far I stuck out my arm in case she fell backwards.

All at once, her head came forward quickly as she let out a sneeze.

An enormous sneeze.

My body was covered in the mist of her germs. Onto my face. In my hair. In my eyes.

Yes. In my eyes.

I instinctually held my breath, but that wouldn’t stop the germs that made their way into my eyes.

Remind me to one day invent an antibiotic eyewash for teachers.

The girl smiled. “That’s what I had to tell you. I had to sneeze.”

I exhaled slowly, reminded her to cover her sneeze and told her to get a tissue and then wash her hands.

Chances were that whatever virus or cold this girl was harboring would show up in my body in the next few days.

I went to the back room to wash my hands with the sudsy soap I brought from home.



I returned to my table, dated the reading test and wrote the boy’s name on the top.