Summer School teacher essay: Working to find joy in kindergarten

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The Sun-Times editorial page has launched a summer series in which area teachers weigh in on the big challenges facing education.

The latest installment, posted below, is an essay by Mia Valdez Quellhorst, a Chicago Public Schools kindergarten teacher. Her essay dives into what it really takes to help troubled kindergartners learn.


By Mia Valdez Quellhorst

When teaching kindergarten, nothing is taken for granted. If you work in the typical Adult World — an office or store — the textures of everyday interactions are drastically different from those of public school children. The school experience — lines, seats, group work, lunch time, cafeterias, hallway expectations, hand-raising, discussion, dodge ball, homework — is learned behavior. Schools exist as communities of people, living and learning together, containing myriad spoken and unspoken expectations about how to learn, act and feel, complete with alliances, disputes, tragedies and secrets. To be successful, one must learn to live these expectations.

In a room with 26 five-year-olds, I teach children how to interact, and we practice every day for a year as we work together to find joy.

In this setting, when I was teaching at a South Side school, D’Andre was a typical boy from a low-income, loving family. He was an amalgamation of the many needy, confused and huge-hearted children I teach. D’Andre had few socio-emotional skills. He grabbed; he yelled; he snatched; he pushed; he cried. He shoved things in his pockets, wailing, screaming and hitting at any show of kindness or lesson in personhood.

It is the social and emotional skills children learn or fail to learn in the early grades that point toward later adult success. Not just school-based success, but success as people. But D’Andre was struggling. He was a tempest in our teapot, causing hurricanes of emotions to roil through our room. To ease the strain of his tablemates, frustrated at their disappearing pencils and gluesticks, I sat D’Andre at a table alone.

I expected tears and outbursts, grief and protestations, but that’s not what happened. The socio-emotional skills D’Andre needed are undervalued in education when we fail to recognize that without them no meaningful learning occurs. I’ve been faulted for not strictly following a math curriculum that includes daily games. Great. I’m all for games, but it’s unrealistic to expect students to practice skills through games if they’ve never played games and followed rules. They don’t know how it’s done.

D’Andre couldn’t play games. He snatched the pieces to stack and crash alone.

Isolating D’Andre solved one problem, but presented another. Students learn in a more connection-filled way when exchanging ideas to build knowledge. But if a five-year-old, a 10-year-old, even a 25-year-old doesn’t know how to actively listen and respectfully respond to his peers? Collaborative learning isn’t possible.

Concerned that D’Andre wasn’t having these experiences, I asked one day, “Don’t you want to work with a friend?” He replied candidly, “What’s a friend? I don’t think I have any.”

The public is always looking for external measures to judge students, teachers and learning. I ask myself: Am I helping little humans to find their place? Are they learning and growing, gaining tools to navigate this crazy mixed-up world? Then I one day realized that D’Andre needed his alone table, relished it and blossomed because of it. Coming from a large family, he’d never had anything entirely his own. A cup of crayons, pencils, a notebook with his name on it meant he had a place in the world. At his table, D’Andre had no need to snatch and run.

D’Andre stayed at His Table, but began using it as an outpost while learning to read. He started inviting others to his table, sharing of himself. He improved academically, becoming a skilled mathematician and confident reader. Teaching is very much about raising tiny humans and equipping them with the necessary tools to be successful people. D’Andre did finally become a friend. Only then could true learning take place.

Mia Valdez Quellhorst is a kindergarten teacher at Chicago’s Horizon Science Academy Charter School — Belmont. The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for the Summer School teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.

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