How Oprah Validated My Career

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It’s hard to believe but here we are — at the end of summer. Time to get the kids all those new school items: notebooks, pencils and crayons — and that’s just the list from me, their teacher.

I’ve taught elementary school at one of Detroit’s Hebrew day schools for more than 24 years, the last 18 or so in a kindergarten classroom — and yet every new school year is like the first day on a new job.

It’s always exciting and even a bit scary. Yes, teachers are anxious on the first day, too. We’re faced with new students’ names to learn, new parents to adjust to and new administrators to please.

Every year, as that first day approaches, I’m concerned, feeling like there’s no way I’ll be prepared. (Just what every parent wants to hear from their child’s teacher.) But, somehow, I always manage to make it.

A new school year is a time of change and challenge. Each new crop of children is different from the last, complete with varying personalities and abilities. It’s my job to meet the challenge head on with confidence and to transfer my passion and excitement for education onto them.

I’ll begin this school year under my sixth educational director (when I started teaching they were called headmasters), my seventh principal and my second early childhood director. What does that say about me? If you answered, “She has staying power, is dedicated and, most importantly, loves her job,” you’d be correct.

One of my newest joys is having moved on to “the second generation,” where I’m now teaching the children of my previous students. How strange it is to hold a parent/teacher conference with the parent who was previously the student.

When I host curriculum night at the beginning of the school year, I give my parents an important piece of advice: Don’t believe everything your child tells you about me and I won’t believe everything they tell me about you.

(And believe me, 5 year olds share a lot, so be careful. I’ve heard it all — from your eating habits to speeding tickets, snoring dads and much, much more.)

I also encourage parents not to be worried when you receive the canned answer to the inevitable question, “What did you do today?” and the answer is, “Nothing.” I give my parents a poem explaining that “nothing” can mean many things: I learned to add today; I wrote my name the correct way; I learned to tie my shoes; or I made a new friend. Or, put another way, lots of nothing. Learn to ask the right questions and you will get the right answers.

To me, being a kindergarten teacher is the greatest job in the world. It’s true what the novelist Robert Fulghum said, “Everything you need to know you learn in kindergarten.” We learn to share, clean up our messes and be aware of wonder — all skills that serve us well in the future.

Teaching and learning has changed a great deal over the past 24 years. The 3 R’s? Forget it. Reading? No need with books on CD and computers that speak. Writing? Not sure as to why that is one of the “Rs” since it begins with a “W.” (Unless, of course, you are using “text” language and that is why we no longer need to teach it. Spelling is now done phonetically, actually not a bad idea; so u don’t hv 2 learn all those strange English spellings like “tough.” ‘Rithmatic? (another “R”?); also no longer necessary since we have calculators on our phones and computers.

Who needs fingers anymore? I’ve had many a 5-year-old teach me how to use a new app on my iPhone. When I get stuck on my computer, I can always count on them to help me out. Kids today are a whole lot smarter than they were 24 years ago — but I still know I have a lot to teach them.

I saw an Oprah show where she taught a kindergarten class for a day while the teacher was sent off to a spa. Within five minutes, two children were crying, another had wet their pants and the rest were off doing their own things. At the end of the day, Oprah declared that the hardest job in the world was being a parent — and the second hardest was being a kindergarten teacher.

It’s a difficult and often thankless job, but I wouldn’t trade with anyone, not even Oprah.

Susan Goldman is the kindergarten teacher at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield, Mich. She and her husband, Marc, have two grown children and live in Farmington Hills.

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