Childhood is a journey, not a race—that’s a bumper sticker on my classroom window. It serves as a constant reminder to me that if we don’t slow down and enjoy the journey, then we’ll surely miss the details of the day. On the first day of school this year, my twentieth first day as a teacher, I reminded myself of this simple thought. Each of those twenty first days of school has been quite the roller coaster ride in many ways. Emotionally, physically and mentally these days are exhausting. The night before the first day I sleep very little, but I usually sleep very well following the first day of school. And it’s true that hope springs eternal, never truer than that first day of school.
On that first day of school, as I stand in the hallway, eagerly awaiting those beautiful babies (they are someone’s baby after all), I am full of butterflies even after all these years. What will this group of children bring to the class? How will we be able to take this incredible conglomeration of children and mold them into a community that will learn to love and support each other? Even realizing how much my awesome assistant, Sharon Prince, and I did in advance to prepare the room, my mind is still racing.
There’s the constant tick, tick, tick as I mentally ensure I have the details of the day in order: Do I have everyone’s name on tables, clothes pins for attendance, helper boards and Falcon Nests for behavior management? Are those names spelled correctly? (That’s no fun having to rewrite a child’s name on all of the above mentioned items, but even more embarrassing because we all like to feel pride in seeing our names spelled correctly.) Did I get my first day read aloud books out and ready? Do I have enough planned to prepare them for the day? (Even though we’ll be practicing those school-wide procedures all day and all week long!) And one of my greatest concerns is will I be able to take this group of children, each with their own beautifully independent and individual personality, and teach them how to think of others first and remember to consider the needs of our classroom family in their actions? Simple things like sharing crayons, pencils and snack with others on the first day gives me an idea of what I will face in the coming 180 days. Oh no, actually only 175 days since we start a week after first through fifth graders!
But the most important goal on that first day is for each of those five- and six-year-olds to understand one thing, even if it’s the only thing they take away from that day. We gather on the rug, and I look each child in the eye and I say, “It is very important for you to understand this. From this day on, for the rest of your lives, I want you to know that I will always love you, and you are a part of my family. I’ll always be here for you if you need me, and I’ll always be honest with you. I might not always like your behavior, but I will never stop loving you.”
I heard a former principal say, “Children only learn from those they love.” It stuck with me and has proven true. Sure, we learn from those that we don’t love, or even like, but the deepest and most valuable lessons come from those we love, and I want to be sure that every child in my class knows how much they are loved. I even remind my parents each week to NEVER waste a chance to tell their child they love them. So that first day and week are spent reminding the children how much they are loved and supported.
My wife jokes that I am the biggest five-year-old in the class, and she is correct! I love the nuts and bolts of teaching children and seeing their progress throughout the year. Watching their growth and maturation is what validates what we do and keeps us coming back. It’s definitely not for the paycheck! But my wife, Carol, years ago hand-painted a sign for me that sums it all up, “Children might not remember what you teach them, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”
And that first day of school is the first step in a long journey of learning with the children in my class. Hopefully, I can remember each day that it is indeed a journey and not a race.