On Being Both the Teacher and the Student

KIPP Austin Comunidad Kindergartners

By Sarah Elizabeth Gonzales, Kindergarten Teacher, KIPP Austin

I am sure that many of you KIPPsters (teachers, parents, students, administrators) out there are well aware of your school’s mission and have it ingrained in your memory. I know I do. “KIPP Austin will empower under-served students to strengthen the academic skills, intellectual habits and character traits necessary to thrive in and graduate from a four-year college or university, giving them the freedom to positively affect their communities.” I’ve said it, read it, heard it a thousand times. I’ve tried hard to uphold it and follow through with this awesome promise. In doing so, I’ve noticed a change in my own character strengths, intellectual habits and yes, even academic skills. I hope you enjoy the following lessons my students and fellow teachers have taught me!

On Google and never giving up…

Let’s be honest, teachers don’t have all the answers; but on questions about language translations, Google does.

Although I speak Spanish fluently and teach across all subject areas in Spanish, I am not a native Spanish speaker. I cannot count the times that a child has asked me “How do you say…..” or “What does ____ mean?” Sometimes in the middle of a lesson I’ll come to the realization that I need to use a word that I don’t know how to say in Spanish. For example: consonant blends. Not easily embarrassed, I have often pulled out my iPhone in front of the students and simply searched for my answer on Google Translate. After a few instances of Googling words for students, one of my boys, Greyson, asked me if he could do it by himself. Without hesitation I replied, “Of course! Do you want me to show you how?”

In an epitome of a “teachable moment” I pulled up the computer on the big screen and showed my five- and six-year-olds how to type in a word on Google Translate to see the word in a different language. After finishing this mini lesson and going back to our scheduled lessons, Greyson looked at me and said, “It’s okay if you don’t know the answer, Ms. Gonzales; but it is not okay to give up.” Truer words have never been spoken.

On apologies and forgiveness

Kindergarten is one of the most important years in the social development of a child. In the midst of teaching my 44 students how to read, write, listen to books, think critically and perform basic math skills, I’ve also had to help them learn how to share, ask for help, wait their turn and say “I’m sorry” and mean it. During these moments when we are discussing what is means to “be nice” closure often relies on the person who has been wronged. They must forgive the wrongdoer. I now understand this is the harder of the two lessons. Saying “I’m sorry” is easy. Saying “It’s okay, I forgive you” is not. It’s not easy to forgive someone who just broke your favorite pencil in the whole wide world. It’s not easy to forgive someone who just drew a big red line across the beautiful paper you just finished. It’s not easy, but it is part of being nice.

As my partner teacher confessed to me one morning during one of our cherished “adult moments” she too had to work hard to be nice to someone who had wronged her. After an argument with her spouse she told me that he had apologized to her for hurting her feelings. “All I wanted to do was shrug my shoulders and walk away. Then I thought about what we would say if we saw a child do that to another child. We would be disappointed.” So even though she wasn’t ready, she forgave him. “And you know what’s weird?” She commented, “in that moment, saying those words, I felt better…I felt free.” Practice what you preach; preach what you practice…either way you say it, it is true. You can’t teach others to forgive unless you are able to do so yourself.

These two stories are just glimpses into the many lessons I am taught each day. Through helping students strengthen their character, I have strengthened my own. As a child my parents were often told “Sarah needs to think before she speaks.” Now as a teacher trying to impart this same wisdom on my students, I have finally learned this lesson and many, many more. Next year I will be teaching first grade and I look forward to all the new lessons I will be teaching and all the new lessons I will be taught.

To learn more about what it is like to teach at KIPP, click here >