My short career as a first-grade teacher

By Lewis C. Hatfield - White Mountain Independent

Having retired after three sparkling decades as a public high school teacher in Washington state, I decided to apply for a license as a substitute teacher during a two-month visit to Lakeside. On Nov. 9, 1981, feeling a little shaky and insecure, I reported to the principal of Lakeside Elementary for my first assignment.

Soon I found myself facing a class of first graders. I felt considerable trepidation because grade school is, of course, quite different from high school, both in of the age and maturation of the students and because the teacher is expected to reach quite different learning objectives.

By the end of the first day, I was much reassured. I was substituting for a male teacher named “Mr. Hahn,” whose well-organized classes made it fairly easy to fill in for him. I confided to my students that I was a 58-year-old former teacher who lacked the training and skills to teach first-graders and that I needed all the help they could give me. They rallied around me.

“Mr. Hatfield, you are supposed to count how many of us are planning to eat lunch here in school.” So I counted the raised hands.

Mr. Hatfield, you have to send one of us to the office with the count.” So I chose one of the eager volunteers to do the task.

And so it went during the day. With their help it was easy to be a first-grade teacher. I soon discovered that they like to touch me, lean against me, hold my hand. Conversely, they like me to pat them and put my arm around them. I take my turn as a playground supervisor. When I sit down on the edge of the playground sandbox, within two or three minutes, I have a half dozen first- and -second-grade youngsters clustered around me. I have to turn them down, however, when they invite me to join them in a game of “Red Rover Come Over.” I was appalled to see a couple of sharp nails protruding from the sandbox, so I repaired them the next day.

When we came in from the playground, they instructed me to form them up in separate boys’ and girls’ columns outside the restrooms, then to check their hands for cleanliness when they rejoined the column to march back into the classroom. They automatically lined up in columns of two every time they went from place to place: to recess, to lunch and back again, to PE or to music.

Most of them are willing to apply themselves to their learning activities, as long as they don’t last longer than 15-20 minutes at a time. Some of the less mature and dedicated are easily distracted. I get many requests to go to the lavatory. I tried to control this kind of traffic to no more than one at a time.

The pupils want to be your ally, so they often reported transgressions of the rules: “Mr. Hatfield, Paul didn’t ask for permission to sharpen his pencil.” That’s how I learn of that particular rule. I have a succession of pencil tips shoved into my face for inspection prior to being inserted into the pencil sharpener.

They also are “stool pigeons”: Billy didn’t put his workbook away.” “That girl punched me when she went by my desk.” “Andrea threw her waste paper on the floor.”

First-graders can’t read well enough after 2-1/2 months to make out instructions in workbooks, so I have to call on my meager high school background to figure out one set of instructions after another in math and phonics. Even though I have asked them raise their hands and wait for me to come to them, the students sometimes follow me around like a bunch of supplicants, with their workbooks held out toward me.

Each class has three to four students who are more demanding of teacher time or more manipulative: “Can we work on our Christmas play, Mr. Hatfield? Mr. Hahn lets us do special projects sometimes on Friday afternoon.” So I look over Mr. Hahn’s meticulous class schedule notes — no mention of “special projects.” (Hmmm. Could these cherubs be capable of stretching the truth?)

Some pupils have assigned seating places because of past violations against classroom decorum. In a fourth-grade class where I later substituted, poor Bobby has to sit on a chair close to the teacher’s desk.

Andrea comes up to my side at the teacher’s desk and asks me — with tears rolling down her cheeks — “Why won’t the kids vote for me?” Having no idea what she is talking about, I pat her little arm, say a few words of (probably) empty reassurance, wipe off her tears with my handkerchief (at the same time removing a large smear of pencil lead on the side of her nose), and send her out for a drink of water.

The next day she gives me a drawing of a cheerful flower-decorated house, with a very slanted, almost horizontal chimney, smoking furiously at a crazy angle, with two animals heads, apparently lions, at the top of the page, a complete lion (or dog?) at the bottom, and the words “I LOVE YOU” across the top of the page. (Sob!)

During a 15-minute time segment, a second-grade teacher brings her class over so I can tell the combined classes about a “Buffalo Jump” in Montana where I had dug up some bones of buffalo driven over a cliff by Montana Blackfeet Indians who killed them for food. Then I allow the children to pass some of the bones around hand to hand while I invite them to ask me questions. Most “questions” consist of dubious stories about their own family members — usually fathers, uncles or brothers — killing buffalo. These stories are topped off by a little boy — whose eyes shift back and forth in a manner to cast doubt on his veracity — telling the class about the time he broke a buffalo’s leg with his BB gun.

During “Show and Tell” the next morning, one of my first-grade girls brings in a nondescript piece of bleached bone and another girl displays an equally undistinguished piece of rock, which we are invited to accept as more buffalo bones. I encourage them to take their items around for the inspection of their classmates.

One day I even had the “pleasure” of a quick visit by the school principal, Horace Rieger, and the superintendent himself, “C. Dow Rhoten. They never shared their observations with me, but the next substitute assignments I had were with high school classes. In retrospect, I hope they were satisfied with the performance of this high school teacher who was transplanted temporarily into the alien soil of elementary classrooms. For my part, I was disappointed to change to high school assignments. I loved my first-graders.

Lewis C. Hatfield is now 92 years and living in Auburn, Wash. He recently recalled this experience and thought it might be of interest to those first-graders, now matured into their late 30s.

July 14, 2015

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