When kindergarteners make you feel like a fraud

Thursday 13th April, 2023

I've never actually been run over by a street sweeper and then finished off by an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer, but I think I know what it feels like after I "taught" kindergarten for one day.

Those tiny humans might not have much in the motor skills department, but they sure do know how to band together and ruin the substitute teacher's life and self-esteem. The old saying, "When the cat's away, the mice will play," couldn't be more apt. For these kids, their highly organized and exceedingly-competent teacher was out of the building, so they were out of their minds, on purpose.

When other teachers from the building stopped by the classroom to see how I was doing (obviously to make sure I was still alive), they witnessed the coup, firsthand. Every one of those teachers said, "Would Mrs. S approve of you acting like this?" And as soon as the teacher's name was even uttered, the students stopped in their tracks because they knew they were unhinged, and they knew they were busted with a capital B.

But that didn't stop them. It just reminded them that today was a "free" day. They would accept the consequences tomorrow, and even kindergarteners believe in living in the moment. #YouOnlyLiveOnce

I will give credit to the 3 students, out of 25, who acted like human beings. But the other 22, they were feral cats, rabid animals, foaming at the mouth with their newfound freedom. And there I was, trying to contain their crazy, while trying not to get bit or scratched.

Mrs. S left a lesson plan, math worksheets, a specific schedule of times to follow, benchmarks to reach, skills to go over, and even some extra "stuff" in the Sub Tub if I needed some additional materials. As a 20-year veteran of the classroom, I intended to do my best at accomplishing what this teacher expected.

But the reality of the situation was, I couldn't even do the basics. I've never felt like such a failure, as a teacher and as a person. "Just make sure everyone survives the day," so many colleagues told me. All 25 of those kids made it through the day at school, minus one who went home because he threw up. (I don't even think he really threw up, but the thought of having 24 cats to manage rather than 25 gave me a glimmer of hope, so I supported his "story" when the nurse asked me what happened.)

I'm the only one who barely made it.

I made an honest effort to teach subtraction, but Ethan was doing cartwheels, Meghan was stealing snacks from other students after she shoved her fists in their face, Jermaine kept poking me and telling me what he wanted to be when he grew up (a 28-year old dad who has a gym teacher job), and Jody was ransacking the teacher's desk for candy and post-it notes while Emily was shutting Ahmad in the classroom bathroom (and continuing to hold the door shut). This is just a 30 second snippet of what was going on as I was up at the board writing 4-3 and 5-2. The three students who weren't acting rabid, did their work, completed the problems, and sat at their desks like nothing was even going on.

For the most part, I couldn't even get them all to sit at their tables, in their own chairs, at the appropriate times… even for a moment. It was like the game Whack-a-Mole. You get one in a seat, and two more pop up, run around the room and punch their classmates, all while some of them are nipping at your heels, standing so close that you can't even move your own feet, poking you to get your attention. Crying. Tattling. Needing something. Anything to get attention.

School started at 8:00 am, and I felt like I had the flu by 8:47 am. My body ached all over, my head was pounding, my throat was scratchy from speaking up too much, and I was nauseous. Time stood still; the clock, in that classroom, was the only thing that never seemed to move.

My constant thought was, "How will I survive the day?" I felt exhausted and hopeless. I kept looking at the teacher's schedule for today's class and thinking, "Surely, these kids can't be in this room all day." I convinced myself I must have been reading it wrong.

Nope. Aside from a short time in gym class and a 25-minute lunch, those feral cats were supposed to be contained, with me, in that room all day.

When 9:15 am arrived, I gladly marched them to gym class (it wasn't nearly as orderly as it sounds), and when I walked back to the classroom, I sat down at the teacher's desk, shell-shocked. My heart was pounding, and I was in a cold sweat. That was the only time the clock moved - when the students weren't in the room. Despite being nauseated, I wanted to stress eat every frosted animal cookie, goldfish cracker, or pretzel I could find in that room. I thought to myself, "Lisa, you need your energy - you need to carb up for when they get back. It's totally fine if you eat their snacks. They owe you." I carb-loaded and then reluctantly, at the last possible second, walked down to the gym to pick up my cats, I mean, my class.

While the cats zoomed around the room, I attempted a reading lesson; however, the books barely got passed out and ended up getting collected because cartwheels, mini fist fights, bathroom shenanigans, and the class clepto reigned supreme while education took a backseat.

Another colleague came in to do a wellness-check on me, and I looked her right in the eyes and said, "I cannot do this. This is not what I signed up for. I am never coming back, and I am probably going to kill myself with a dull pencil."

My therapist tells me I have a flair for the dramatic, and yes, even I know I shouldn't have told a fellow teacher that I was going to kill myself. But death seemed like the only alternative at that point. Making threats on my own life must have been the red flag because shortly after that, the vice principal came down and told me I could move to the 2nd grade classroom for the last half of the day.

In the back of my mind, I knew that if that 2nd grade teacher was willing to come to kindergarten that she was trying to escape something, but I wanted to believe that there was hope on the horizon. See, I haven't totally fallen into darkness, but I am Italian, and we are born and bred to "trust no one." Despite that, please let my therapist know how much I'm progressing. For me, this is growth - being slightly hopeful yet still remaining realistic.

I passed the 2nd grade teacher outside of the classroom, as we switched places, and she said, "Don't be too quick to thank me for this." Wow. I KNEW IT.

I traded those five-year-old feral cats for a group of seven-year-old, second-grade savages.

When I arrived in the second-grade classroom, the students were just as disorganized, unruly, and unmanageable as the kindergarteners. They were supposed to be playing some educational games on their computers, which meant many of them were sneaking music videos on YouTube, some were slyly trying to play video games like Mario Kart, and one kid was looking up how-to videos on making an axe out of notebook paper. Savages.

I sat down at the teacher's desk to look over her lesson plans for the rest of the day (look at me, thinking I might get something accomplished), and one little girl approached me. She repeatedly asked me, "Are you OK? Are you sure you're OK?" I reassured her that I was fine, even though I clearly wasn't. I thought, "How sweet. This kid can see I'm not well, and she's checking on me." Later, I saw her eating a tiny chocolate bar that had been on the teacher's desk. Turns out, her concern for me was just a ploy to get close enough to the teacher's desk and to nab that little Hershey's bar. Savages.

Everyone who knows I'm a comedian said to me, "Just think of the material you'll get from working here today." That's the thing - I can't tell the jokes if I don't survive to tell this absurd tale.

I know, I know - that's just me being dramatic again. But my moments of doubt GREATLY outweighed my moments of certainty on that day.

Thank God I actually had a therapy appointment scheduled at the end of the day. And thank God I had enough time in between school and therapy to stop at the liquor store. I bought cold whisky, straight from the fridge at the liquor store. When I got to my therapist's office, I pulled that cold whisky out of my purse, cracked it open right in front of him, and poured it right into my coffee cup. I never drink straight whisky. Unless I'm "teaching" elementary school, I guess.

I have become that person. Glug, glug, glug. Let's hear it for coping mechanisms, even the unhealthy ones.

My therapist had little sympathy for my wild day with the feral cats and the savages; he simply told me, "Well, Lisa, this will just make your other substitute jobs seem that much easier." He's not wrong, but he's definitely still annoying. Him and his damn spot-on perspective.

I will say that I did appreciate the few sweet souls who gave me hugs. I smile when I think about the one girl who ran up and told me I was pretty and then she ran away, and the boy who drew me a picture of a tree, colored it, shoved it in my face, and said, "Here, lady, use this as a bookmark." I put that tree in my planner, as a reminder that there are twinkles of light, even on our darkest days.

There was also one moderately calm moment in the morning, in the kindergarten class, when some students were slopping up their breakfast and others were coloring. I was walking around helping with the breakfast and commenting on the pictures that students were drawing. One little boy, Tahj, had a cute smiley face on his paper; the face he drew had giant, round eyes. I said, "Tahj, I love your smiley face. You did such a good job!" (Feigning that kind of excitement over a child, that is exhausting for me.)

Tahj quickly corrected me. "These weren't supposed to be eyes. I drew boobies." His classmate Mariah quickly piped up, "Tahj is inappropriate, so I fixed his picture. I made a smiley face!"

There's always a "fixer" in every class, and what I loved about Mariah is that she wasn't a tattletale. She handled the situation all by herself.

Mariah, just so you know, your teacher comes to school for kids like you. On the days when Mrs. S doesn't really want to do her job, she thinks of you and how you make her job easier, not harder. It takes a village, a tribe, a herd to keep Tahj in line.

I kept thinking to myself, "How can I stand on stage as a comic and make people laugh while I regulate an audience full of chatty folks, drunk people, and wannabe comics, but yet, I can't handle a group of kindergarteners?" I have never felt like such a fraud.

I hope Mrs. S has better coping skills than me with my covert classroom carb-loading and my counseling session shots of Crown Royal. I hereby relinquish all the teaching awards I won as a high school English teacher, and I turn them over to Ms. S and her elementary school colleagues. They are the real heroes here.


All students' names have been changed, not to protect the "innocent," but simply so no one can accuse me of defaming five-year olds. These kids are guilty-as-charged. Except for Mariah, the "fixer."

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always has been, always will be

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