I’ve always assumed teaching elementary school was – well, pretty easy. How hard could it be? The kids aren’t old enough yet to be any good at being mean. The content is common knowledge.  And how long can it take to grade a spelling test? Child’s play.

Over the course of this series, I’ve been schooled.  A former colleague who ended her career providing tech support in elementary schools led off:  Watch elementary teachers for a week, she challenged me. Nobody works harder. With hand-me-down technology and practically no classroom budget, they turn their classrooms into homes. They multi-task all day long with little, if any, down time.

My colleague worked on the software on evenings and weekends, when she assumed classrooms would be empty. “Not in the elementary,” she said. “About the only time there wasn’t someone working in their classroom was 8 p.m. on a Saturday. Hopefully, they were home by then, having a drink!”

Do elementary teachers drink? Clearly, I’ve been out of touch. Since it’s summer, I couldn’t watch elementary teachers work, so I sought them out – online, on the phone, and yes, over a beer. I came away with a profound respect. Just listen:

“I’ve been hit, bit, spit at, scratched, and barreled into. By second grade, you start to see which behaviors are related to disabilities and which kids need special services. But in kindergarten, you just deal with it.”

“So many kids come to school hurting and hungry and scared. The Common Core has raised the bar, which is wonderful, but the standards require more thinking, stamina, and executive functioning than many of our kids possess. Teachers have to bridge that divide.”

“In a classroom of 25 fourth-graders, you’ll have some who are reading at the first-grade level and others at the ninth-grade level. You have to differentiate instruction to reach them all. With the higher standards, the constant testing and data entry … it’s a lot.”

“My first year, I kept a log. I cried 10 times. This was my second year, and I only cried three times … but once was in front of my students.”

“You have to be able to multi-task: Slice an orange while you find a mitten and explain the Golden Rule to this one while you introduce fractions to the rest. You get exhausted, but you never get bored!”

“Planning takes so much time. On paper, you’re only teaching four subjects, but you have to plan to teach them in increments that match abilities and attention spans. Depending on whether you have specialists to help with some groups, you’ve got maybe 24 lessons to plan. Every day. But if you don’t plan – oh, my. You don’t want that.”

“I can’t believe how often I have to repeat myself.”

“You don’t just teach a subject. They’re kids! They interrupt, get distracted, start distracting their neighbor, crumple things, melt down …. You know how annoyed you get when your own kids do that? Try it with 28! You have to figure out a way to teach each one – not just how to read, but how to behave.”

“Half of my students need help with literacy and math. So there are meetings all the time [involving the principal, the intervention specialist, the school psychologist, the special ed teacher and me]. For each student [all 12 not “at level”], we review the data, come up with a plan, identify the mileposts, implement, collect data, assess, meet again. It’s a lot of meetings, a lot of data entry, teaching and reteaching. But it works!”

“It works.” The thing that impressed me most about these elementary teachers was how often they use the expression, “research-based.” They know what works, what sparks that magic we call learning, and how to deliver, measure, and reinforce it.  I seldom hear that expression from teachers in the upper grades, to include higher education. It’s telling. 

Elementary teachers are not just nice people who spend their days reading Dr. Seuss and playing counting games. What they do is not magic. It’s the product of ongoing professional development centered on research-based approaches that keep all students highly engaged in learning. A constantly expanding body of knowledge informs “what works,” and elementary teachers live and breathe it.

Unfortunately, the rest of us haven’t even read the Cliff’s Notes. So when funding is inadequate, what works goes south – manageable class sizes; paraprofessionals and intervention specialists; current materials and technology; professional development. Bluntly put, budgets get balanced on the backs of elementary teachers.

Because anybody can do it, right? Yet some Montana school districts have to go as far as the Philippines to find people who will.

Over the course of the summer, Mary Sheehy Moe is writing in this space about the reasons we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share, please contact Moe by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com.