I have a tremendous amount of respect for anybody who teaches the little ones in kindergarten, first and second grades. While I love and adore these children, I could never spend the entire day with them. But I am blessed to have several friends who are amazing primary teachers, and I love to listen to the stories they share about their daily adventures.

While I can only speak for those I know, I’m sure many other K-2 teachers would agree: there is much more to teaching 5, 6 and 7 year olds (and even 8-10 year olds) than just addressing the academic standards. The work my primary colleagues do with our youngest students focuses a great deal on teamwork, collaboration, and building community. My friends who teach these grades take pride in the relationships they build with their students, the relationships their students build with each other, and the family atmospheres in their classrooms. This community and collaboration has always been a catalyst for the work their students complete in every subject area.

We’ve lost valuable team-building time

One thing my primary colleagues have shared more and more over the past decade is how their instruction for our youngest students has changed. With the more stringent approach to academics and assessments in public schools, our primary teachers have watched the time they had to develop community relationships and collaborative skills dwindle away. They try to fit in these activities when they can steal time here or there, but it’s challenging when the value of community building is being questioned at the top. In some schools, the time for these team-building activities has been completely removed from schedules. It seems strange, with the emphasis on anti-bullying programs, that this would be the case, but my friends have lamented the fact that they just cannot work on developing classroom relationships and collaboration skills like they used to.

As an intermediate teacher, during the early years of my teaching career I took for granted the  foundation of classroom cooperation and teamwork that my colleagues built. I always complimented them for sending me well-prepared, sweet, hard-working students. But at some point in the 2000s, I began to notice more and more that the kids just weren’t working together as well my newly arrived students once did. There was more bickering, less listening, more trouble making.

It was sad, but we all knew our hands were tied. With so many guidelines being put in place and so much professional choice being taken away from us, the time for bonding activities was simply going away. While it was challenging in my school, where teachers were able to sneak in a few things here and there, it was even worse in schools under strict state sanctions. ALL academics, ALL the time, with no thoughts for the relationships that were being lost.

Students don’t know how to work together

Fast forward to this year, as I try to shift my teaching, make inquiry a major focus in our classroom, and have my students be the leaders in their learning. One might assume that my biggest difficulty is finding time to do project-based learning in a public school setting. Nope. You might think that the challenge is incorporating PBL with my required curriculum. Wrong again.

The biggest challenge I face is that my students have no idea how to work together.

Even with my efforts during the first months of school, which were inconsistent due to flooding and other issues, and my continued emphasis on strengthening collaboration skills, a majority of my students struggle to work together. They don’t listen to each other. They want things done their way and only their way. They don’t share. They aren’t respectful. And it’s frustrating. This should be the easy part, and it’s the hardest part of all.

Let’s steal the time back

You might be wondering, what can I do? What can I, one little teacher in one little classroom, do to affect a change in education and make this grand shift that everybody talks about possible? I say to every teacher at every level, but more so to our elementary teachers: we need to steal the time and make community building a priority in our classrooms, from the first day of kindergarten. If it takes subversive activity — so be it. It’s a critical success factor not just for teachers but for our students, who will have a lifelong need for the 21st century skills of  communication, collaboration and group problem solving.

Teach your students how to be team players. Help them learn how to build relationships. Show your students the beauty and wonder in working together to discover new things. Help the kids understand how much more we can gain when we work with somebody, whether it’s in person or online, instead of doing everything all by ourselves.

No shift in education or in society as a whole will ever be successful if we continue to train our children to be solo players who can fill in bubbles but don’t know how to communicate and work together. Let’s take a stand, take back the time we need for community, and help our students grow into well-rounded human beings who are truly connected in all the ways that matter.


Images: Creative Commons, woodleywonderworks

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Becky Bair

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