It’s amazing how different kindergarten looks with a teacher that fits my son’s personality. The last times I wrote were about how we were coping with kindergarten (not well) and our fears about starting kindergarten. Now we’re in week five and the view from here (thankfully) is beautiful.
Cavanaugh’s first kindergarten teacher just wasn’t a good fit for him. She was nice, experienced, knowledgeable, and very focused on rules and structure. Cavanaugh is quiet, smart, and well-behaved. He has already developed the behaviors his first kindergarten teacher was trying to teach. What he hasn’t developed are the social skills to be in a crowd, to raise his hand, advocate for himself, or to navigate a big school. Rules won’t help him with that. A teacher who can meet my son where he is emotionally and socially is what he needs. And he’s got her now.
After the first couple of weeks of school, it was clear that no matter how many requests we were making of Cavanaugh’s teacher, she wasn’t seeing him or meeting his needs, and she wasn’t hearing us. His dad (my ex-husband) and I went to meet with the counselor and discuss options. The principal was off campus so she wasn’t available to be in the meeting but the counselor assured us she’d confer with the principal and get back to us. It felt so good to be heard. Here was someone who had absolutely been trained in communication. She repeated back what we’d said to make sure she was hearing us right. She said she didn’t have any power to make the call about what to do for Cavanaugh but she listened to us and said she’d work with the principal to find a good solution.
After we left her office, at my request, she took Cavanaugh on a tour of the school. I asked her to get him oriented so that if he was ever lost anywhere, he would know how to get back to someplace familiar or to get help. She introduced him to the women in the front office and said, “This is Cavanaugh. If he comes in, he might not ask for help, so please ask, ‘How can I help you?’” She gave him the supreme confidence that he could navigate the school on his own, if he ever got separated from his class again. When I had lunch with him that day, he was glowing. He felt safe at school, finally!
That afternoon, I got a call that he was going to be moved to another classroom. But the teacher wasn’t anyone I’d heard anything about. And Cavanaugh was finally feeling a little more settled in at school: with the tour and having made some friends in class. Was moving him the right thing? How would I frame it to him? The counselor talked through the options with me. I realized that what Cavanaugh was feeling good about had nothing to do with his current teacher and that we still weren’t getting the communication from her that we needed. Only two weeks into school, though moving to someone new felt like starting over in some ways, it could make a huge difference for the rest of the year.
So I looked up the new teacher on the school website. I called Cavanaugh in to see her picture. I said, “You know how you’ve been saying you like your teacher yes and no? Well since the counselor has met you and really sees what you’re like, she has a teacher for you that you’re going to like yes and yes. It turns out there’s someone that’s a really good fit for you.”
Cavanaugh’s question: “So I’ve been in the wrong place this whole time?”
“No. You went to the teacher you were assigned to so you’ve been going where you were supposed to be. But different teachers work better with different kids and now that the counselor knows you, she has a teacher that is going to be a great fit.” We looked at list of teacher favorites, which the PTA compiles for staff appreciation. “Do you know what her favorite colors are? Blue and green.”
“Those are our favorite colors!”
“And do you know what her favorite candy is? Chocolate. And her favorite store is Target. I think you’re going to like her.”
So we talked through how the next morning he’d go to the counselor’s office and she would take him to his new class. He was so excited that night he couldn’t fall asleep. The next morning, as we walked into the building, we were telling our neighbors about Cavanaugh’s class switch and what we knew about his teacher. I said, “We think they’re going to have a lot in common.”
Cavanaugh said, “That’s because we do.”
Our neighbor asked, “Are you excited about going to a new class?”
Cavanaugh yelled, “Yeah,” then covered his mouth with his hand and whispered, “I’m not supposed to yell.”
I took Cavanaugh to the counselor’s office. She told him his new classroom was next to his old one and said that now that he knew his way around the school, he could show her how to get there. He started to go in the right direction and then turned to go the opposite way. She followed him. She didn’t tell him he was getting it wrong. She pointed to the front office, to the cafeteria, named where they were. She followed Cavanaugh until he figured out the right way to go. He looked so proud of himself to be figuring it out. The counselor’s plan had been to introduce Cavanaugh to the new teacher and then to some of the kids in the class so he would feel okay about going to a new place, but when they got to his class, she said he looked at her like, “Okay, I got it now. You can go” and walked right in.
He came home reporting that the new teacher has a son who likes Star Wars LEGOs too. That was a Friday. He told me more at the end of that school day, about just that day, than he had said about the previous two weeks combined.
The new teacher’s welcome to kindergarten letter had me in tears. She wrote “I know that sending your precious child to school for the first time can be a very anxious and exciting time for you. I want your child to LOVE Kindergarten and come away with positive memories for a lifetime. I believe that children need to feel safe and secure in order for meaningful learning to take place. I will dedicate myself to making your child feel respected, cared for and safe so that he/she will be responsive and ready for learning. …This is their time. It is the beginning of their future!’ Okay, I was in tears again type it now. I couldn’t have picked a more perfect teacher for my son.
She gives hugs, has a reading loft in her room, has a stuffed frog named Kelso to help the kids make good choices. She has three kids of her own and tells stories about them related to what the kids are doing in class. Cavanaugh’s been in the class for 13 days now and his feeling about school is totally changed. Though he still isn’t crazy about waking up so early and going five days a week feels like a lot, he is writing his name, has made friends, and is navigating school and feeling safe to do so. My best imaginings of what kindergarten could open up for him are all happening.
It reminds me of the poem “What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali. Cavanaugh’s new teacher is that kind of teacher. Just watch this.