Your young students aren’t babies

I know, I only teach in elementary school. But I started out teaching middle school-aged kids. Coming from a high school background in teachers’ college, I was prepared for 15-year-olds who came to class high and students who had more tattoos than me. Even teaching 7th and 8th grade for the first year, I felt like I was out of place. I felt as though the young students I taught were babies because they just seemed so young to me. I quickly learned that even 12- and 13-year-olds were quite responsible and capable of mature lessons, discussions, and even lectures.


Then I got moved to a grade 4 class. On my first day, I welcomed close to 30 students who all stood a few inches over 4 feet tall. With no experience with the junior mind, I thought to myself, how the hell am I going to get through this year with these babies? Naturally, I adopted a quasi-traditional style of some Mary Poppins-like teacher and talked to my students in a goo-goo-ga-ga language that I thought would be appropriate in the classroom for their age level. I mean, these were kids who hadn’t even hit double-digits in life yet! No clue about 9/11, no idea who Vince Carter was, shoot, not even born for the millennium experience of extra water and power outage fears! I would talk about rappers and make silly puns about sitcoms and movies that I thought would be relevant and they looked at me stale faced. They probably thought I was crazy. After the honeymoon phase of that first month of school, I realized that my students and I were growing apart.


I wondered why there was a fracture. After one of my failed attempts at getting them engaged in some lesson, a kid bravely spoke out without putting her hand up. She said, “We’re not babies, you know…”


In treating them like the 9-year-olds that they were, they quickly became disenchanted with my style and failed to connect with me as their teacher. The moment was watershed for me. I told them, “You know I came from teaching Intermediate students. You want me to talk and treat you the way I treat them, okay, no problem, but that means you’re also going to have to step the bar up.” From that point on, it was no more spending fifteen minutes on a lesson that I thought should take five. There were no more multiple warnings for behavior I thought I was juvenile. Sarcasm on my part re-made its entrance into the classroom (since I was told that little kids don’t get it). Little kid bullshit was no longer tolerated and it was understood that this was how my class would be operated from here on out.


Guess what? My students responded. I started an instant-tradition of ending my math lessons with a “Here is some work to do, but for y’all, this is baby food!” They responded by pushing their limits, and stretching beyond, to meet the curriculum requirements. Halfway through that year, many of them were doing the 5th grade math curriculum because we would cover the 4th grade basics in a few days. My students were all about writing 5-paragraph essays, learning about what a thesis statement was and starting each paragraph with a topic sentence, evidence to support, and wrapping up conclusions with a “’so what?’/further implications” section. There were no more explicit reminders to get them to line up for gym class. I simply waited for the students to get on each other to pack up, hush the talking and wait on my direction. “This isn’t my gym class I’m wasting, I don’t get to play, I am going to the gym after school, if y’all want to go, you better get with it and act like it” was a phrase they heard any time we had Phys. Ed. towards the end of the day. With that, they got to it and were ready way quicker than any of the other goo-goo-ga-ga tropes I would cite. My grade four class told me they weren’t babies, so I didn’t treat them as such. They responded appropriately.


If you have the fortune of teaching a primary or junior grade, try to approach it in a way that affords your students a level of agency in their learning experience. For me, it came explicitly from my students. That day I was told by a student that I shouldn’t “treat them like babies” we had a class talk and their consensus outweighed my opinion. For many, this may be a naïve and unexperienced reflection on how to handle a classroom. But for people like me, it is a reminder that even though your students may be young, it does not mean that you can encourage them to exceed their level of maturity by treating, talking to, and teaching them like they are older. An agreed upon understanding of what maturity means is probably different in your mind than what it is for your students. So have a candid discussion about it. And remember, most times, your young students aren’t babies.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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