10 Things I’ve Learned as a Third Grade Teacher

I have been in the world of elementary teaching for five years now. Not that this makes me a wizened old sage, and I’ve long abandoned my secret hope of being awarded “Teacher of the Year” but I’ve been increasingly aware that my time of read alouds and recess duty, teaching the nines trick of multiplication and having Danny Tanner level heart to hearts is quickly coming to a close. I’ve been reflecting on all the ways this job (which has never been “just a job”) has shaped and changed me. While I’m still in the thick of it, and certainly more reflections will come, I wanted to share some things I’ve learned that have spilled over into my life, some truths I’ve come to carry inside me from my time inside the classroom.

classroom1.  It will never all be done.

The first grade teacher I student taught with said this to me with a sigh, one of our first days working together. “You need to know, going into this job, that there will always be more that you could do, should do. It will seem like the noble thing, to work yourself to the bone, but it is so important to have a life. To find balance.” This has rung so true for me. As one who is wired to prize productivity, being a teacher has forced me to let things go, to make peace with my humanness and leave the classroom with tests ungraded, with copies left to be made, things not put away. This hard truth has spilled over into other areas of my life, and I have a feeling it won’t stop being true once I’m not a teacher anymore, but I’m thankful that my worth doesn’t lie in my ability to Get It All Done.

2. People really are all trying their best.

This truth is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, having read Brené Brown’s discuss this in her book, Rising Strong. It’s hard to know whether or not this is actually true, especially when frustrating evidence seems to be pointing to the contrary, but I do know that when I choose to believe this about people, I have a lot more compassion. That parent that calls and spends 10 minutes yelling at me is just scared and exhausted and trying the very best they can to advocate for their child, the one they love more than anything. Behind the acting out and the defiance in my students are hearts that are longing to feel secure and loved. I need to be continually reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

3.  Boundaries make me a nicer person.

The battles I’m most often fighting are ones over boundary lines. I went into elementary education imagining that I would be like a cross between Miss Honey from Matilda and Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. I imagined my classroom being this warm community of spontaneous learning moments and adoring children skipping from one authentic learning discovery to the next. When I tried to be only nurturing and soft, I would let little things slide to the point where chaos crept up quietly and I became more like Ms. Frazzled than Ms. Frizzle. Rather than the soft spoken, gentle Miss Honey, I felt more like the evil stepmother figure, (if not externally, at least in the inner monologue.) This year, while walking to recess (which involves traipsing down two city blocks past business people walking to lunch) these suited professionals with their hour long lunch breaks and their extravagant per diems would smile affectionately at the chaotic parade that I was trying to corral, and I would loathingly yell in my head “Wipe that smile off your face mister! These kids are not cute! They are terrors! I’m at my wit’s end and it’s only 11!!!!” These moments of inner fury came as a result of months of boundaries being tested, of expectations being set and not kept. Actually, the times where I have stuck to being a “mean teacher” (a teacher who says what she means and means what she says, one who sticks with the boundaries I have set to help create a calm environment) I am actually a much more compassionate, kind, and happy person. My classroom has become like a microcosm for me in so many ways, as this truth so absolutely applies outside the classroom as well. Any time I am annoyed or frustrated or exhausted, nine times out of ten, it is a boundary issue. (Also, I watched Matilda awhile back with my students, and you know what? Miss Honey is kind of a pushover! And not the childhood hero that I remember. And Ms. Frizzle, love her to death, is kind of a flake. I’m my best when I choose to be fully myself with my kids.)

4. You cannot change people.

Not with enough sympathy, not by trying to work harder than them or doing the work for them, and certainly not by shaming them or using force. Granted, you might be able to modify someone’s behavior, or fix a momentary issue, but lasting change happens when someone decides for themselves that they want to change. I think so much burnout happens in the world of education when we take it upon ourselves to be the sole savior of the kids that come into our classrooms. We can impact them, we can lead them to moments of truth and provide resources, but people are not like an engineering problem, that can be fixed with a formula.

5. Don’t take on burdens that aren’t yours to bear.

This is a phrase that I often have to remind myself of, another variation of my battles with boundaries. Whether it was school politics or a girl drama at recess—the times where I tried to insert myself into something that wasn’t my problem often didn’t end well. See, there’s this subtle but ugly pride that comes from needing to be needed, but it leaves me exhausted and resentful, when my stepping in wasn’t required in the first place. As a fifth year teacher, I’m much more practiced at responding to problems with “Oh man. That’s a bummer. What are you planning on doing about that?” which is much better than my old knee jerk response of “OK, I’ll take care of that.”

6. Flourishing happens when we give others the dignity of being taken seriously.

I can see my kids recoil when someone regards them with sugary “Oh bless your heart” fakeness. They know the difference between authentic listening and the bemused half distracted charade of listening. I have seen so many quiet kids unfurl like a tight blossom at the nourishing sunlight of simple unbroken eye contact and still, consistent, genuine care. In busyness, in getting wrapped up in our own swirl of Very Important Problems, it can be so easy to cariacaturize other humans, especially children, to see them as their label or simply a distraction. This is what The Little Prince encountered with frustration, on his journeys beyond Asteroid B-612.

“The grown-ups are very strange… One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people.”  (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

7.  True learning happens when we are given space to fail safely.


As the adults in kids lives, or in any relationship where you see someone you care about struggle, there is such an impulse to rush in, to fix, to save others from the pain of failure. This has created entire generations of people who have a crippling fear of not being perfect, and who have not had the opportunity to practice resilience. So much of my work in the classroom has had little to do with multiplication or determining the main idea of a text, but much more so about the unlearning of perfectionism, and cultivating a mindset that mistakes are not only okay, but necessary. It takes trust to believe that the sting of failure in the short term will lead to something better, but it is a leap we must make, and one we must foster for others.

8.  I have a voice that I must use with honesty and courage.

It has always been my impulse, in moments of tension or stress, to withdraw, to get quiet, to doubt myself and be engulfed in paralyzing shame. Slowly, messily, I am being freed from this tendency. As I’ve stepped into “adulthood” with a professional career, it has been so valuable to watch women show up with confidence and speak into challenging dynamics with grace. At times when it would have been so much easier to keep my opinions to myself, to close my classroom door and disengage, wise women have counseled me to trust my intuition and to speak up. “I just don’t think you’ll ever regret being honest and speaking up for what you think is best for kids,” were the words that one teacher said to me a few years ago, words that have stuck with me. I sought that same teacher out when I was feeling very lost as a teacher this year, when I was grieving over feeling like I had lost all confidence in who I was as a teacher, she told me fiercely “You have to fight for finding your voice.” As a teacher, as a professional, as a woman, I have to know my voice and I have to trust that what I have to say is important. Who am I not to?

9. Change is just plain hard.

It’s such an interesting time to be a teacher. Even in the last five years, the way I approach my job and what my day to day life looks like has drastically changed. There has never been a year where I have been able to recreate the previous year, simply tweaking and improving certain aspects. It has more been a minefield of massive learning curves, one after another. There are big shifts and changes is the way we think about education and how to best foster the learning process, but just like puberty, the change has come with growing pains and a whole lot of uncomfortable awkwardness. It came up in a conversation I had with my co-teacher last week; change always comes at a cost, and I don’t think it will ever stop being hard. Yet it is inevitable and trying to deny that never ends well. Being in a field that is drastically changing has forced me to enter into the process with more open hands while at the same time learning how to honor myself well in the midst of this revolution. I’ve had so much practice, learning how to adapt in the moments of unexpected curveballs that comes without warning and I’m still learning to be graceful with myself in the process of transition that lingers in the aftermath.

10. We all really do want to believe in magic.

ChildrenThe moments I will treasure most in my half decade of being a classroom teacher will be those moments when I looked up from the book I was reading aloud to see eyes alight, captivated by the story, hanging on my every word. Or the sheer delight in their eyes when we’d get mail delivered in our “magic mailbox.” Third graders are in this sweet spot, on the brink of discovery and first stretching their new muscles of abstract thinking, and yet they still (for the most part) hang on to their innocence fiercely. They will actively suspend their disbelief to hold onto the magic of childhood, their wisdom more profound than they know. Spending copious amounts of time with eight and nine year olds, I’ve come to see the inner third grader, still very much present in friends and strangers alike. I’ve seen the ways that we long for that magic too, some of us still seeking it and drawing it out in others.

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