Why I’m Not an Elementary Teacher (It’s Not Why You Think)

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December 16, 2019

When I was a senior in high school, my school district allowed seniors to drop their sixth hour if they had enough credits for graduation. I did, and so at the end of first semester, a few times a week, I started volunteering in some classrooms at a local elementary school. I had already made up my mind that teaching was probably for me, and that it would be elementary. Thinking back on it now, I probably assumed this because I couldn’t really envision myself teaching high school seeing as I was currently IN high school.
I can’t recall now which classes or teachers I helped. What I can say is that this was the beginning of my realization that teaching elementary students is much more complicated, intricate and difficult than my limited experiences as a student had me believing.
Later on, after I had completed my coursework at Western Michigan University, I began substitute teaching. I needed money, so I basically said yes to any job. Again, I went into these elementary classrooms with all of my young teacher assumptions, only to realize the vast and varied amount of information these people had to know — about kids and about ALL of the subjects. 
And now, 22 years later, as I visit schools, helping out however I can in mostly lower elementary classrooms, I am reminded of how completely inadequate I am for the task of teaching our youngest students. These are just a few of the interactions I’ve seen just over the last few months:
  • Watching an information literacy specialist calmly direct kindergarteners on just their third day of school
  • Listening to a third grade teacher artfully explain directions for math rotations, while multiple adults flow in and out of the room for various reasons
  • Observing a kindergarten teacher seamlessly flow through an entire morning routine, where students have roles to play in the business of their classroom
  • Overhearing a transitional kindergarten teacher quietly remind a student how to use words to convey his frustration with a classmate
Now don’t get me wrong, here. I am not one of those people who says things like, “Oh, I don’t know HOW you DO it! Being around little kids all day?!? You are a saint!” Nope. I do not believe teachers are saints (side note — we are also not martyrs or charity workers or angels). What I have come to understand and respect about my elementary colleagues is that they are highly skilled professionals who have worked to hone these specific skills over time, much as I have with my high school teaching skills. These are skills I do not have, and I’m ok with that. Just as I also have never learned to argue a case in court, complete a medical exam, maintain a computer network or weld an engine blade.
I write all of this to really make one point: We all — teachers included — have to remember that this job is not only hard, but it requires practice and skill. We are not all the same, and the different levels, subjects and roles are equally valuable, but not interchangeable. I am so incredibly thankful for elementary teachers, not only because of what they do, but also because I cannot do it myself
So THANK YOU, elementary teachers, for doing the job so few are qualified to do. It has been a highlight of my experiences this year to see you in action, and I promise you that when those kids get to me, I won’t let you down.

About Cara Lougheed: I am a white, straight, cis-gender, non-disabled, married, middle class woman with 21 years of classroom experience in a suburban public school district in occupied Anishinabewaki land. My pronouns are she/her/hers. Anything you find here is based on my perspective, but I acknowledge that perspective has been limited by my experiences, choices, biases (implicit & not), and the unearned privilege I have had in my life. I hope to learn and grow from my colleagues across the state in the coming months as your Michigan Teacher of the Year.
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