“Oh, how nice,” they say. “You teach elementary school! I bet you just have the best time!”
“They” must not have noticed the significant changes occurring in the education world over the last decade or so, but I sure have! I don’t actually think that most people have any idea at all what goes into the day of your average elementary education teacher.
So let me break it down for you.
But first, this note: my class is not homogenous at all. I have students who speak two languages, and not always fluently. I have students who have mild to moderate learning differences who leave my room for core study with a special education teacher. I have students with mild to moderate learning differences who stay in my room all day. I have students at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum, with all types of family structures, and with literally all of the things you could imagine happening in their lives. Gang violence? Check. Nasty divorce? Check. Foster care? Got that too! Relocating in three months to the other side of the world? Oh, you betcha.
7:00am – Arrival
I arrive at school, full coffee mug in hand, to begin my day 1.5ish hours before my students actually arrive. On my desk is a long to-do list, and in my email inbox is an even longer list of brand new emails. They are all marked IMPORTANT! I have stacks of paper to grade, data to enter from yesterday, and meetings to have.
First order of business: assess yesterday’s in-class exit tickets for each subject (I teach math, reading, writing, social studies, and science daily). This will allow me to tweak my materials and plans for today. After reviewing the in-class work, I shuffle through my own lesson planning book and pre-staged papers to figure out what needs to be changed, removed, or added. Then I search online for free resources, and quickly scan TeachersPayTeachers for any additional tricks I can pull off the internet. I hit print, grab the still warm pages, and sprint to the copy room.
In line, I check in with my grade level team, as well as teachers above and below me, to see if I can scrounge any materials from closets. I need fifth grade or above level books for my advanced reading group, and second grade level books for my lowest readers.
Copies made, I dash to the restroom. I know I won’t get another chance until 11 or later. It’s currently 8:30am
8:35am – Student’s Arrive
Most of my 20+ kiddos can self-manage in the morning. We have a very firm routine: lockers to stash backpacks and coats, drop lunches into the lunch bag bins, move name magnet to show if they brought lunch or need to buy one, read the whiteboard for morning work, complete work, read silently. Everything is streamlined from the moment a child steps in the door: the magnet station is located directly over the lunch bag bins, which is beside the whiteboard, which faces their desks.
In my dreams, this is the time I use to assess who is here, finish an email, or prepare for the first lesson. Instead, I carefully coach a child through the minutiae of the morning routine, from how to hang up the coat to sitting at the desk appropriately. I do this daily. In between my prompts to this child, I need to stop another child from staring into space, find out if everyone ate breakfast, and explain again that soccer practice doesn’t trump homework or reading.
9:00am – Math
Today, I am using centers and the math teaching aide (TA) is scheduled to arrive. I LOVE days like this because I have an assistant to help focus on the most at risk students. The kids like it too, because the TA brings fun games to play.
I set up the groups and the rotation, arrange my supplies, and give directions. I have four kids assigned directly to the TA. They will be working on basic multiplication facts and problem solving. The rest of the class is working on fractions, decimals, and percents. They will be weaving in and out of stations: playing games, working on problem solving, reviewing basic facts with a computer program, and working on in-class work that I will review tomorrow morning for assess understanding.
If the TA wasn’t here, those four kids would be in a group with me or would be partnered with a stronger peer for assistance. Even though these kids don’t understand the basics needed to even grasp the concepts of fractions, decimals, or percents, most days they are forced to learn something that makes no sense to them. I try so hard to slow down, to pare down the workload, to see them individually or in small groups, just to give them a little more time to hopefully understand. In one week, the whole class will be tested on this concept and we will move on. Why? Because I have 5 more concepts to cover before the tests in April.
10:00am – Social Studies
This week is Social Studies, a combo of civics, geography, cultural studies, and history. Our next unit is science. Right now, we’re focused on the Civil War. This is a GIANT topic with huge underlying themes and causes and personalities. There are a myriad of teaching resources, never mind things I can read to bone up on it first.
I have 1.5 weeks to teach this topic, including the years leading up to the US Civil War AND the reconstruction period that followed the surrender.
My students need to know all of the major battles in our state. Given that we live in Virginia, it’s kind of a lot. They also need to know the causes of the war, the major political and military figures, be able to understand the turmoil surrounding slavery, and the manner in which Reconstruction changed the South. They need to be able to discuss it rationally. AND, because we are an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, I need to teach these required standards of learning through an international lens and make connections to other cultures and the world in general.
Did I mention I teach fourth grade?
11:00am – PE
No, I don’t teach this, but it is my 1 hour planning period today. I still have a giant stack of papers to grade, and it has grown only larger after homework being passed in and the work generated this morning. I have copies to make, too. I also have data to enter into my endless graphs: one for each subject, color coded; one set of graphs that I personally generate, one that is managed by the school and filled with standardized test data.
Instead, I’ll be in a staff meeting to discuss my team’s high needs students and the Response to Intervention (RtI) plans for them. Of my eight kids who should be slated for RtI, five are already in the special education shoot and receive additional time with their special education teacher during our dedicated RtI time. The same ratio is true for the seven other teachers in my team. We spend all of our time talking about the special education students, and not the children who are falling behind but don’t have IEPs.
I have a child working below the 45 percentile in math, without an IEP. This child will stay in grade level math because she seems to be doing “fine.”
12:00pm – Lunch/Recess
I pick up the kids from the gym and deliver them to the cafeteria. On my way back to my classroom, I check my mailbox and swing through the health room to ask for more bandaids and alert the nurse to a few kids that seem to be under the weather.
Today is also a team meeting day, which the principal will be attending. I scoop up my laptop, grade book, lesson book, and one of the assignments I need to grade, plus some stuff I need to prep for the next lesson. We talk some more about the RtI process and rehash the identification process and whether or not students with IEPs should take precedence over non-special education students for the groups that will be getting targeted, specific health.
I get nothing done.
12:45pm – RtI Time
I have students from all eight fourth grade classes. Some are high achievers who are borderline ready to move to the gifted and talented groups. Others are working below grade level.
I teach the “on level” group. I find this ironic every day.
To compensate, we do partner work using problem solving packs. Most of the kids can do the work. I pull the kids who struggle to work with me on a significantly modified problem solving pack.
This group is supposed to be exploring math concepts that are fun. Instead, I am spending time reteaching ALL of the topics that we have already covered.
1:45pm – Reading/Writing Block
From now until the end of the day, I will be teaching both reading and writing. We don’t have a writing program, and our reading program is brand new. I also need to teach grammar and handwriting.
I have until 3:30. That’s less than two hours to teach four subjects! Hooray!
First, a whole class mini-lesson: we read a short passage that is focused on author’s purpose, or why a person is writing in a certain style or topic or with a certain opinion. This will inform none of our small group lessons.
I have three reading groups to see today: super high, on level, and very low. I start on-level. We read our assignment and discuss the focus topic: character development. My low group is working on basic summarizing and my high group is talking about how historical and current events influence the author of their novel. This is what I am supposed to do: teach the whole class something and then in small groups teach them something different which is more focused on their needs.
Around the small group meetings, students are working on silent reading response, word study, handwriting, and grammar. For reader response, they read from a book of their choice and write me a letter about it. I respond to them in another letter, and the process starts again. Word study is a checklist, with at least five different lists of words in my class based on spelling ability level. On Friday, I will test each and every one of those lists.
Handwriting and grammar are independent. Students complete packets and pass them into me every other week for review. They know they have to complete at least three pages each week in each pack, and self-correct their answers before I see it. If I notice a problem, I pull kids in small groups for more specific instruction. Sometimes, one of the literacy centers will be to watch School House Rock videos on the current grammar topic.
In writing we are working on descriptive narratives. We’ve walked through what good descriptive narratives look like (and in fact, if I’m honest, I use the mini-lessons more to teach about our writing aims than about reading strategies. Ooops!) and have worked to create our idea maps. Everyone should be working on rough drafts, and I should be reading them.
Except I have two students who are pulled for reading, and they need to be caught up on grammar and their word study words (they were both absent on Monday). Getting them focused takes five minutes, and instruction in each subject takes at least 10 minutes.
Once I finish with them, I notice one child who is still on the second reading assignment. This is the child I coached through the morning routine. Afternoons are a struggle, too. I will need to sit with him, or physically write for him, in order for him to finish even a small portion of his assignments.
3:30pm – Reading and Dismissal
As we pack our bags, I repeat the instructions for the homework. I help a few students pack their bags and check four agenda books to be sure they wrote down the homework. I also check their backpacks to be really sure that they have the homework and all of their belongings.
Finally, we get to sit together and read our novel. We ended on a cliffhanger yesterday, and I really want to find out what happens.
4:00pm – The Work Continues
I’ll be at school until at least 5:00, if not 5:30, to wrap up some work. Before I can actually do anything, I need to straighten up the room: tucking in chairs, picking up pencils and erasers, mashing down the trash cans, and sorting the papers strewn around the room.
My next task is to sort the work that has been turned in. I sort first by actual assignment, then by name, then I arrange them into stacks by subject. I always pick math to start with, since it seems like that is where most of my focus ALWAYS falls. After I grade the top paper in each assignment as my correction page, I stick them into my “take home” bag. I’ll be grading tonight after dinner.
After I sort through the assignments for tomorrow, I try to arrange them by type and order in my folder system. I know nothing will work 100% tomorrow, but it’s nice to try.
Finally, I make the anchor chart for the next writing assignment: biographies. Since these are giant posters and I will need to add things to them by hand as I teach, I need to make a new one each year. And they will all be drawn by hand.
At 5:30, I glance at the clock, hastily grab my things, and dash out the door. I’m late for the daycare again, and still have to make dinner when I get home.