After 20 years in the field of education, I had a career first this summer. Like many teachers, for the first 8 or so years of my teaching career, I had a summer job. Teaching, while very rewarding, is not generally one of the most profitable careers, so I spent my summers teaching summer school.
This was actually relatively fun for me since my school at the time had money to fund enrichment courses during the summer and I got to do middle school drama workshops. Every summer I spent 4 weeks teaching a group of 11-14 year olds the ins and outs of a theatrical production, complete with an actual performance for all of their friends and family members.
After my son was born, however, I gave up summer employment as day care costs would have basically negated any summer time salary. Not to mention that I cherish the time I get to spend going to museums, or bowling, or running around the park with my kids during the summer. The little bit of extra cash I could make in the summer is not enough to make me give up this time with my little ones.
This year, however, my district decided to offer a rather unique opportunity to our elementary students: Camp Invention. This camp, which is sponsored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, is designed to introduce elementary students to STEM activities and the power of inventing.
Not long before spring break, one of the teachers at my children’s elementary school sent an email to every employee in the district advertising the camp and looking for potential camp instructors. The camp looked amazing. A full day of STEM activities is pretty much my son’s idea of heaven. When I found out that if I was accepted as a camp instructor not only would I get paid but my kids would be able to go to camp for half price, I submitted my application the very next day.
Now, I should be very clear here: I am a high school English teacher. For the last dozen years or so, I haven’t even taught freshmen. And for the last 6 or 7 years, I have exclusively taught juniors and seniors. Yes, I have some limited experience working with elementary school students during plays, but that was over a dozen years ago and both times I had help in the form of student directors and a musical director who was in charge of all my Munchkins.
Still, the application asked for skills that would qualify me for this camp position and it even listed a background in theater. So I wrote a paragraph or so about my former drama program and a few weeks later, the director of the program emailed me to let me know that my application was the second one she received and as long as they got enough campers, I was in.
And in I was. The program defied expectations by enrolling 60+ kids. So there were four instructors hired, which meant four different programs for kids to participate in each say. I was told my program was called Duct Tape Billionaire. I had no idea what this meant, but I like Duct Tape, so it sounded fun to me.
About a month before the camp started, I got my curriculum. Without the materials, portions of it didn’t make much sense to me, but I poured over it. I watched the videos provided by The National Inventors Hall of Fame. As soon as the materials arrived, I rushed in to sort through them so I could figure out exactly what I was supposed to do.
I thought I was pretty darn prepared. Then 60 some kids aged 5-12 showed up.
And no amount of planning could have every truly prepared me. I am a good English teacher. I know this because not only do I get great evaluations from my administrators, and have students who score well above the state and national averages on standardized tests, but also because I keep in touch with my former students and they tell me how prepared they are for college because of my classes. To me, that’s the only feedback that really matters. I say this not out of arrogance, but because I want to make it clear that I am no slouch when it comes to teaching. I know my material and come up with new and innovative activities for my kids each year.
I am not, however, used to teaching someone else’s curriculum, in a completely different subject area, in someone else’s room, in a completely different building. I am also not used to teaching 5 year olds. But teach 5 year olds I did. And 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 and 11 and 12 year olds. At least the 12 year olds were almost in my area of specialty. Almost.
My day actually started off pretty easily. My first group was full of 10-12 year olds and despite being a little excited about seeing friends and being at camp, they listened. They answered questions. They asked relevant questions. They followed directions. They were a bit rambunctious, but totally in control. My son was in this group as was the director’s son (who also happens to be the son of one of my department members) and that may have helped. We got through all of the material with plenty of time to clean up, stow our creations and have a snack. I hardly needed any assistance from the high schooler assigned as their counselor. I was up and walking around constantly, but that was great, right?
My second group was full of 8-10 year olds. They were…well…they were a riotous bunch. They could not sit still to save their lives. They yelled at each other. They answered questions, just not the ones I asked. They had to be constantly redirected and told not to mess with the materials yet. I knew one of the kids in the group and thankfully he was about the only well-behaved one, so I had a helper of sorts. But chaos had clearly arrived. The poor high school student assigned to this group already looked haggard and we weren’t even two hours into camp. When they left, even though I knew I was going to have to supervise them at lunch, I was thankful for the few seconds of quiet. My feet were really starting to hurt.
Supervising lunch was fairly uneventful. I had to open a few packages and remind kids to clean up after themselves, but otherwise it went off without a hitch. Then, I got a glorious 25 minutes to wolf down my own lunch and look over my lesson plans again since the afternoon was going to be filled with little kids and the curriculum has differences based on ages. As a teacher I am used to eating in this kind of rush while multi-tasking, so this part was no struggle. And, I finally got to sit down. I realized it was the first time I’d done so since 8 am.
After lunch I had the littlest of the kids. They were mostly 5 and 6. They were adorable and for the most part, well-behaved. It was easy to get their attention and to get them redirected. Plus, they were the smallest group and they had two teenage helpers, which made a world of difference. True, it was difficult to get them to understand concepts like sales pitches and investment capital, but I managed it on at least a basic level as with only a little help they could do each activity.
That’s right, I was teaching 5 and 6 year olds about venture capitalists, marketing and trademarks. I was also helping them come up with inventions of their own which they then had to market, pitch and get investors for. All while also trying to make them understand that they were not just supposed to be grabbing items from the upcycle room that they just wanted to take home. This was actually the biggest issue in all of my classes because people had donated old toys, balls, game pieces, etc. to the upcycle room to be used as part of other projects. I thought a fight was going to break out over a couple of broken drones. Trying to make the kids–mostly that 8-10 group–understand they had to use the upcycled items as part of their invention was difficult. They didn’t understand why they couldn’t just say they were making a drone. The whole “new invention” idea was lost on some of them.
I finished my day with my daughter’s group, which was full of 7-8 year olds. With the exception of my daughter who was overjoyed at finally being in my class, they were fairly subdued. Well, until day three when there was some drama among the girls which I still do not understand and frankly thought they were too young to be getting caught up in.
By the time the day finished at 3:00, I had already clocked over 9,000 steps according to my Fitbit. My feet were killing me and I just wanted to go home. Of course, I couldn’t. I had to get everything ready for the next day. While I was technically free to go at 3:30 after all the kids had left and we’d had our team meeting, my kids and I stuck around for an additional 45 minutes so I could get everything ready for the next day’s lessons.
It was a truly exhausting week. Despite finding my groove, getting to know the kids better and having more time each day given to project work time for the kids, I never left the building before 4 pm or with less than 9,000 steps. While I know that if I was actually an elementary teacher the situation would be much different (a degree and experience teaching elementary children, my own room, all the supplies I need, established rules and discipline procedures, a curriculum I’d planned target to one age group, and only one group of students who I actually knew), this experience did reconfirm a fact I’ve always secretly known: I could not be an elementary school teacher.
It was a fun experience and the camp itself is wonderful. But next year, I think I’ll just send my kids and spend the hours of 9-3 with some much deserved me time!