This past summer, I joined one of my community’s Rotary Clubs. For years I had gone to Rotary as a teacher and requested funds for this or that project or to share this or that school update or student success. I decided it was time for me to give back. One of the first projects I was asked to help with was to organize the Rotary Dictionary Drive, where we give every third grader across the community a dictionary. Awesome! That is a task I could accomplish.
I worked to figure out how many third grade students we had at each site and how many teachers. I called the charter and private schools and talked with them, too. Our district warehouse was kind enough to take delivery of the dictionaries, and I collaborated with my fellow Rotarians to sort and stamp all the dictionaries.
I taught high school for 14 years before becoming an administrator. I recently renewed my National Board Certification. I was going to develop an awesome lesson about how to use the dictionary and every third grader in my community would be amazed at my teaching ability. The lesson I wrote would be taught by a team of volunteers, and it would be transformative. I sent my lesson off to the third grade teachers and let them know when we would be in.
Please mind you, I have never taught a single day of elementary school.
A benevolent 3rd grade teacher emailed me back to let me know my 15 minute lesson would actually take the kids close to an hour. She reminded me that third graders do not already have dictionary skills, and this is a foundational skill they would need to be taught. She must not know what an awesome teacher I am, but fine. I edited a few things here and there and added some support.
And thus, I started teaching my first of 21 third grade classes about the dictionary.
In my first class, I learned that third graders are not at all like high school students. My mere presence or proximity does not let them know they should stop talking and pay attention to the speaker. As I stood giving “teacher eyes” to third graders, their teacher let me know that I needed to cue them. If I simply said, “class, class” the children would say, “yes, yes” and then be ready for learning. My first few classes were rough, and I was thankful to have teachers and Rotarians in each class to help students as I worked to refine the lesson.
As I continued teaching the lesson throughout all of the third grades in my community, I again saw huge differences between elementary school and high school. As a secondary teacher, my students had the general skills needed to be successful; I needed to work to make the content accessible by sparking their curiosity. Elementary students were very different. These students were naturally curious, but still needed the skill sets and support, so they were able to access the content. I had to work much harder to explicitly instruct how to use a dictionary than I ever would in a high school class. That was very different work than I was used to. In every room, we needed to let the students know that we couldn’t answer any more questions even if we really wanted to. We could have stayed for hours answering questions and listening to stories each day.
By the last time I taught the lesson, I was very sad to no longer have to teach third grade any longer. I let my substitute coordinator know that I am ready to substitute a few times a year.
It was joyful being back in the classroom as an instructor, even if only for a little while. I am reminded why I do what I do and again of just how much work goes into teaching even a 15 minute lesson on the dictionary. I am thankful I was able to teach my lesson multiple times to work on all the areas of weakness that I originally had and grateful that the third grade teachers in my district could see me as a teacher who works to make herself better.
I am hopeful that other administrators will follow my lead and make their way back into the classroom: we can all be better teachers and leaders if we do. And lastly, I must say thank you to the Lake Havasu Rotary Club for their endless work in supporting literacy in our community.