October 5, 2021
Last week, I went to my school mailbox and pulled out a piece of lined paper with my name on the front. I opened it up, and it was a letter from a former kindergarten student. He wrote me a note sharing about how important I have been to him over his years at Wilcox (he is in his final year in the building). As often happens with these letters, tears filled my eyes, and I added it to my collection of drawings and letters that have been given to me over the years, a visual collage of memories that are entwined in my heart.
This time last year, I had no idea that I would be teaching anything other than kindergarten. I had dedicated my entire career to K and put my whole heart into each and every day. So much of my adult identity was encompassed in the walls of my kindergarten classroom. Who was I if not a kindergarten teacher?
The truth is, when I was hired to teach K in 2006, it was far from my first choice in positions. I never saw myself teaching K in my wildest imaginations. At the time, I was so grateful to be hired, as there was an extensive teacher surplus in the state of Michigan at the time. After going a year without a job in education, I saw this as my “foot in the door” that would propel me to the teaching I thought I was meant to do. Little did I know at the time that I was about to embark upon one of the most meaningful journeys of my life.
When I met my first class, I was terrified. The responsibility of being the instructor of a classroom of students washed over me like a tidal wave. I wanted to do my very best, but I was so nervous. Regardless of the preparation you receive from your education program, it never really prepares you for the day-to-day reality of the classroom. I had two wonderful mentors to guide me, but the minute-by-minute decisions in the classroom were mine alone. That year was messy, exhilarating, challenging, magical and ultimately full of hugs from my little learners. I made a ton of mistakes, but I know this: I loved each and every one of those students to my core.
Despite my initial hesitancy in teaching primary students, after my first year, I was hooked. There is so much creativity that occurs each day in a kindergarten room. I loved the singing, the dancing, the social play, the art, the cooking experiences, creating math games, exploring science through nature, the shared reading and writing, the show and tell, and most importantly, the books! Fostering a love of reading in my kindergarten students was my absolute favorite.
There were countless challenges over the years, but the magic of being a child’s first teacher was one that I loved and took seriously. There is nothing quite like teaching primary students. Every bit of learning is exciting, and their joy is infectious. Young children are innately kind, sensitive and helpful. Having the opportunity to build the foundation of a lifelong love of learning in my kindergarteners is the best experience I will ever have in teaching. Nothing will ever come close to it.
The unexpected gift of being a child’s first teacher is that you get the honor of watching them grow throughout their elementary years and beyond. The relationships with students and their families have meant the world to me. In 2019, my first class of kindergarteners graduated from high school. Many returned for a senior reception, hosted by our staff. As they walked the halls of their former elementary school in their caps and gowns, I was overwhelmed by the amazing people they had become. When we chatted together after, they shared memories from my classroom, which touched my heart in ways that can’t be fully expressed. A few days later, I sat in the audience at their graduation and watched those students receive their diploma. Teaching is the work of life.
Over the years, I have heard from many people that “you are just a kindergarten teacher,” like the idea of working with first-year students was less than some of the most important work in the whole, entire world. I realize that I will always be a kindergarten teacher. It is a badge of honor that I carry deep within me. The experiences, perspectives and the connections I have made over the years will forever be embedded in any teaching I ever do. I am so proud of that.
On my last day of kindergarten this past school year, I read “Miss Bindergarten Celebrates the Last Day of Kindergarten” by Joseph Slate. I had read this book on the last day of school for each class I ever had, its pages worn, the cover bent from age. After I was finished (I barely got through it), I had each of my students sign the book. That book is a physical symbol of all the love and joy that teaching kindergarten has brought into my life; 15 kindergarten classes, hundreds of students, and countless memories of the pure joy of teaching the littlest learners.
“When I was a kindergarten teacher …”
About Leah Porter: I am a third-grade teacher at Wilcox Elementary in Holt Public Schools. As an educator for over 15 years, I strive each day to help students develop into their most authentic selves. I value providing instruction that helps create leaders and competent, critical thinkers who will be strong voices and caring citizens in their community. As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2021-2022, I strive for all my work to be seen through the lens of equity and accessibility, and how to build educational systems for learners that will transform the trajectory of education across the state of Michigan and beyond.