MILLERSBURG — Even with several years of teaching experience, Andrew Davidhizar still felt nervous standing in front of a class of 5-year-olds in January.
It was his first time leading a class of kindergarteners as a substitute teacher. Before that, he spent two years as a Title I instructor at Millersburg Elementary, helping students who struggled with math or reading.
Kindergarten was new to him. Between the lessons about letters and numbers and the boys in class who tried to test his patience, he wasn’t sure if he could do it.
But he knew how to talk to kids. After all, he was the father of a 2-year-old daughter.
Now, eight months later, he’s starting as a full-time kindergarten teacher at Millersburg Elementary.
Davidhizar is one of many Elkhart County teachers preparing for their first day of school. It’s not all seating arrangements and homework assignments though, as teachers have to think about how to make their lessons approachable for students of different ages. It’s the difference between what gets kindergarten and middle school students excited for class each day.
Davidhizar said he’s been busy “putting up bulletin boards and student names on everything.” He’s been planning, getting everything ready and talking to fellow kindergarten teachers about what the first day should look like.
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Classes start Aug. 14 for Fairfield Community Schools. This will be the first time some of Davidhizar’s students have ever been in a school.
“I venture to say a majority of my kids will be Amish and have never been in pre-K or preschool,” Davidhizar said.
Their first day will consist of teachers showing children about the school, from where to find the bathroom to how they should behave in the cafeteria.
Davidhizar expects a lot of crying.
“These kindergarteners are going to be scared, fearful, apprehensive,” Davidhizar said. “I know when the first day rolls around, I’m going to have a smile on my face, speak softly and be polite and as friendly as I can be.”
Davidhizar, 30, will draw on what he learned as a substitute teacher. He will use soft tones when speaking to his students so they will not be frightened. His explanations will be simple and his few instructions will be easy to follow.
Davidhizar is 5 feet 8 inches, and he thinks his students will be around 4 feet tall. He’ll make sure to crouch down to their level whenever he has a conversation.
But students change physically, emotionally and intellectually as they enter middle school, and that calls for a different approach.
Amanda Hicks, whose first day as an eighth-grade science teacher at Goshen Middle School was Thursday, Aug. 7, said she knows how difficult middle school students can be.
It’s their hormones flaring up, she said. Girls get catty, boys get mean and they all pick on one another. When students enter the seventh grade, it’s all about looking cool, being in the “in” crowd and saving face.
“Seventh grade is the worst year in the history of public education,” said Hicks, who taught for nine years in Michigan and Arizona.
Eighth-graders are a little more mature, but they’re still not going to raise their hands in class to answer questions. Not many students in that age group are interested in school, Hicks said.
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While Hicks may approach her eighth-graders a little differently than Davidhizar will his kindergarteners, it’s still about care and respect.
“The kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” Hicks said.
Hicks said her former students are more engaged when she treats them like adults. She learns what her students are into so she’s able to tie their interests into her lesson plans. Hicks also shares stories about herself so students get to know her as a person.
“They have weird thoughts about you,” Hicks said. “I had a student ask where I slept in school. They don’t have a concept that a teacher can have a life. They see you at Walmart and ask, 'What are you doing here?'”
Lastly, Hicks said teachers need a sense of humor to get through the day. It’s all right if her students laugh at her mistakes, as long as she can laugh along with them.
“Every class dynamic is different,” Hicks said. “What works in one class might not work in the other class. I learned to just roll with that more.”