“Are you growing a beard?” this five-year-old asked. A moment of truth. I somehow forgot to pluck out those few whiskers I would not be caught dead without plucking out (and cannot believe I am now writing about to the masses). A moment of truth. Working with children is a series of moments of truth. She was not trying to make me feel bad; her tone of voice lacked judgment. It was just a thought she let out openly, and I openly said, “No, I am not.” Moving on.
Working with children was never a career aspiration, but a simple coincidence I fell in love with because truthfully, children are wise AF. The more I work with young learners, the more I respect them. These are the five most important lessons I have learned from five-year-old’s as I taught them how to read:
1. Separate who you are from how you feel.
While I try not to jump to conclusions and over generalize things about other people, my students have shown me that it is important to not over generalize things about myself. Though I have a consistent temperament and personality, I am not the exact same person every day.
Some days I am more forgetful than others. Some days I do more kind things. Some days I want to quit anything that requires effort, while other days I love to work hard. There are days I complain about people who litter, and days I quietly pick up their trash. When I used to make mistakes or not reach my own standards, I would quickly put a negative label on myself such as, “lazy,” “dumb,” “stupid,” or “slow.” But I would not call someone else these things. I worked with a girl that would say things like, “I am so slow, today,” and “I am so smart today.” Keyword being today.
She was focused on the present. I modeled her behavior as I reflected: just because I cannot seem to write an article today does not mean I am not a good writer. It is just not a writing day for me. Or just because I happen to write one good article does not mean everything else I write will be just as good. I could still write a crappy blog post another day. This cute kindergarten girl was not taking life as a competition. When I worked with her, she seemed to understand that some days she was slow, and some days she was fast. Some days she felt smart, and some days she did not. Her state of being and her identity were two separate things.
2. Pepper your routine with enthusiasm.
“Having fun > not having fun,” I often remind myself. Sometimes I dwell in negative emotions while exciting things are happening around me. This little boy, whom I fondly refer to as my “Pumpkin Pie”, turned my perspective of daily life around! From the moment I met him, his enthusiasm was contagious. “Did you do your homework?” I would always ask. “Yes! I did my homework! I did all of it! I did all my homework!” In two years teaching him, I never saw him down. Maybe tired, but never really down. Whenever he walked in the room, everyone was guaranteed a good time! I also cannot forget the boy who would put his hands on his head and give a big smile as he learned new letter sounds. Or how every time I walked into first grade science, all the kids would run to hug me good morning! Though I walked through the same door, at the same time, every Monday and Tuesday, they acted excited to see me every single time. To this day (now they are in second grade) their joyfulness never gets old. But it was my little wild, bouncy-hair, ballerina-girl that took the cake with her stunned, wide-eyed look. “I’m going to start kindergarten! I am so excited!” Or the classic time she made her own song and dance to the lyrics, “I’ve got a loose tooth!.”
I constantly chase excitement by travelling to new places. I love breaking my routine with long flights, and free walking tours of old cities. But these children have taught me I do not have to chase adventure so hard. The comfort of my daily life can also feel exciting. It keeps that “this is getting old” feeling at bay.
3. Say thanks.
Gratitude has had a long-lasting impact on my mental health and relationships. Though I do not find it easy to feel grateful every moment, there is always someone I can thank for something every day. I thank my boyfriend when he gets up before me to make me coffee. I thank the cashier when she hands me back change, and I thank a friend for calling before we hang up the phone. Doing this does not always make me feel any different. But I know, from experience, that being on the receiving end of gratitude can make for a long-term, sweet memory. I worked with an eloquent, extroverted, girly girl for some time before she started first grade. I clearly remember her dislike for reading and writing. She much preferred to chit-chat about her puppy.
I always gave her time to tell me her interesting stories about her daily life, while I explained letter sounds and compound words. One day, as she was leaving, she turned around and spontaneously said, “Thank you for teaching me.” It changed my life. Not only did I realize I wanted to make a career out of working with children, but I also regained my faith in humanity and the future. I had been going through such a tough year when this girl plastered her gratitude on my memory. I learned that being grateful is not just something to feel quietly and passively. It is an active and easy way to be kind to one another.
4. Instead of avoiding problems, toy around with perspective.
A little kindergarten girl with a fiery spirit, and untamed black curls had the brightest face I have seen, and a profound dislike for math. I have always hated math; I understood why she hated math. But I did not want to deepen this feeling in a 4 year old or it could be a long way until graduation for this bright cutie. So while she worked on addition problems, I would close my eyes and she would do a half page as fast as she could.
She would scream out “DONE! Open your eyes! Surpriiise!” I exaggerated my response by complimenting her magic math powers. Toying a bit with perspective was enough to make those thirty minutes fly for both of us. We cannot always avoid doing things we dislike, but we can minimize the agony. These days, I spend about four hours commuting in and around Madrid while I teach in an elementary school and give private classes.
I love my job, but I despise those hours on a city bus and jam packed metro. Not only does it feel like a huge “waste” of time, but it often leaves me nauseous and completely spent. So I began to do things I love during my commute hours. If my stomach can handle it, I will get absorbed in a good book, answer e-mails and messages, eat breakfast, come up with writing ideas, meditate, listen to music, and on rare smooth rides I get to paint my nails!
My commute turns my normal schedule into a 12 hour day which totally makes my body feel locked up and tense. The great thing is that this has pushed me to practice yoga regularly at home, which has had countless positive effects on my sanity and my spine. Nothing lasts forever, and I might as well spend those four hours a day doing something that balances out the misery of long bus rides. It is not always a matter of getting rid of the problem, but rather playing around with different angles until you find something you can work with.
5. Making friends is easy.
I was working with two girls who were working together for the first time and they did not know each other. One of them asked the other, “Do you want to be friends?” And the other responded, “Sure!” It was that simple. They did not have an in-depth conversation about their interests and backgrounds. Bottom line is: very little is needed to create a positive relationship with others. Everyone I meet is now a potential life-long friend. Not everyone will actually become one, but I keep myself open.
One of my close friends who has two children said she loves teachers. She said teaching is a difficult job, so anyone that goes into it must love what they do. I do not know if I will be a teacher forever because writing also has a chunk of my heart. But I do know that my life has been made greater and fuller because I have come into contact with the biggest hearts inside the smallest bodies. Children are truly the wise ones.