“I need you to teach for me.” This from my lead 2nd grade teacher as I walk in at 12 noon. 

“No problem” I respond. After all, how hard can a 2nd grade math class be? 

“What am I teaching?” I ask. 

“Subtraction, here’s the lesson” she says as she hands me the omnipresent lesson book that all elementary school teachers live by. 

I take a quick look and shrug. Seems pretty self-explanatory. Just have them break down 221 into its long form and then start taking numbers away. Then, two pages in their math journals. 

Again, no problem . . . 

As an aside, I am not completely new to this. After moving to New England last summer I thought it would be interesting to see what was really going on in K-12 education, not just what my former college faculty colleagues assumed was going on. I signed up to substitute teach and was eventually hired as a Title 1 aide for a rural elementary school after a few months of subbing. 

But I am still new enough to be naive, and naive is never good in 2nd grade. 
So, on this particular Monday I was about to find out the hard way that the elements that made for successful teaching in college do not apply in 2nd grade. Things like whether or not the students “like you” and can “relate to you.” Or a little thing we call “content expertise” in higher ed. Or even the ever-popular “Hollywood performer lecturer.” All of these, with a dash of preparation and a dollop of experience make for a pretty successful college teaching career. And if you bother to grade the student’s work in a timely fashion all the better. 

But 2nd graders don’t care about any of that. (I am still exploring what they do care about, but it’s none of the above.) 


As their regular teacher left for her meeting and I stepped into her role I had a sudden feeling of stage fright. As a former professional ballet dancer I knew what I was feeling: A brief lurch in my stomach, small beads of sweat on my forehead, and an ever so quick look around the classroom (for what, I’m still not sure). I heard myself saying things like, “Settle down.” and “Let’s pay attention, ok?” at an ever increasing decibel level. But it was not OK, – and my simple lesson in subtraction became a free for all. 

For one, right off the bat I had made the critical, rookie mistake of saying, “You will all need your base ten boxes” before they absolutely had to have them. The race was on for who could get the best box, – the one with all the right pieces, or the one that wasn’t broken, or just the one the other kid was reaching for. 

I actually couldn’t tell them apart, but they could… 

From there things quickly devolved into chaos. A teacher who had heard the ruckus from next door appeared and told the class to behave and pay attention to Mrs. W (that’s me), but everyone ignored her, even me. 

I realized how bad it had gotten when I walked over to two girls who had been building a structure with their base ten pieces and then flicking them at each other with their forefingers. Their math books were blank where their answers should have been, and yet they passionately assured me that they had been working on it, they just didn’t “get it.” A few sarcastic remarks from me about how hard they must have been trying and I split them up, to their very obvious displeasure.

Ah, the joys of teaching: Beautiful children listening attentively as words of wisdom drop from their teacher’s lips.)

But, frankly, I had no one to blame but myself.

At my elementary school in rural New England they have a saying, “Own It.” It means to be accountable for your own actions. I realized it was my accountability that was in question, not theirs. True, they had taken advantage of my momentary lapse, but what eight year old wouldn’t? No, it was simple conceit that had gotten me into this mess. 

The one-on-one aide in our classroom (who is there specifically to help a specific child) turned out to be my lifeline. The moment of truth came when one of the boys flung his base ten box full of little wooden pieces of tens and ones into a corner of the room. He then started yelling. I was so distracted by some other kids that I barely noticed. I also didn’t know what to do about it, but the one-on-one aide did. She calmly walked over and told him he had to stop yelling and needed to pick up his pieces. He refused, loudly. She continued to talk to him and suggested he go with her to student support. As I joined the conversation she explained that it was better for him to be out of the room for everyone’s sake, including his. I agreed, and gratefully watched her gently but firmly insist he go with her. He did. 

That settled the class down a bit. I don’t remember much else. I think I sat down again with one of my flick-the-pieces-at-each-other girls and tried to help her, -- to no avail. 

I have rarely felt so helpless, so distracted, and so useless. 

When the real teacher came back in the room I felt like hugging her I was so relieved. So was the class. Kids know, without all the words, when someone is in control and when they’re not. They like the teachers who are, even if they hug the ones who aren’t. They know they will learn more with the ones who have that skill, – the skill of looking at a class of 20+ kids with varying issues and abilities and knowing what to do for each one of them. 

It actually is more of a talent or a gift from God than a skill. But it sure is impressive, and I don’t have it. Their teacher does, in fact, all the teachers at this school do. It’s amazing. 

Back in my college professor days I spent a lot of my free time researching how to become a better educator (not just more knowledgeable in my chosen field). I eventually got better at teaching not just knowing. It earned me the Teacher of the Year award at my college one year. 

I laugh now at that award. Where was it when I was trying to explain subtraction to an eight year old while keeping eighteen other kids on task? Nowhere, that’s where. 

Einstein once commented, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” 

Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard might take Einstein’s observation further when he says,“Once you understand something, you forget the difficulties a beginning learner has.” He quotes his Harvard colleague Steven Pinker as saying this is the “Curse of knowledge.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9orbxoRofI

What both scientists would surely agree on is that to really understand and be able to communicate that knowledge is the role of a teacher. 


So, don’t ever say “no problem” until you know what you’re talking about. And don’t ever underestimate how hard and how vital elementary school education is.  

Chaz WilcoxenEducation