“No matter where we are in our teaching career, the difference between how we envision our days with children and how those days actually play out can be kind of shocking, much like picturing the perfect date and having it go all haywire.”
Those are the words of author’s Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz, in their new book, Kids First from Day One. They say don’t hope for perfection, plan for growth.
Hertz & Mraz remind us children are the most important people in the room. They’ve discovered that putting that idea into practice can start right now, and their book shows how to combine your deepest beliefs and your empathy for children with practical ideas for creating environments and curriculum that engage students most effectively.
In Kids First from Day One, Christine and Kristi have given us a teacher’s guide for today’s classroom. My colleague Zoe, who is also the author's editor, began today's podcast conversation with Christine & Kristi talking about their journey to teaching…
See below for a full transcript of our conversation:
Zoe: Every teacher has a hope and a vision for their classroom. And in Kids First From Day One, you helped teachers make those visions come to life. Could you talk a little bit about how that process went for you both when you were coming to teaching yourselves.
Christine: So, I left college just bubbling with enthusiasm and goodwill for teaching and ready to take on the world and make it a better place. I was really well-grounded in my beliefs about children as competent citizens. I was well-grounded in theory. And really felt strongly about what I wanted my classroom to look like and sound like and feel like.
Then, my first year teaching, I can remember getting into the space and having 27 third grade students and just being completely overwhelmed by the demands of all there was still to learn. I was really convinced that all you needed to learn about teaching happened in the four years of undergraduate school. And then you should be able to go and you should be able to be an extraordinary exceptional teacher.
That idea of perfection was quickly squashed for me. That was a hard initial lesson, that teaching is about growth and practice and finding your practice and not necessarily having everything just perfectly so from day one.
Kristi: I think for me what's really interesting is when I went into the classroom, I don't know that I had any beliefs about teaching. Like, I don't think I knew what I believed. I knew that I wanted a pillow on the rug. I knew that I wanted clear bins. I knew that I wanted this particular pocket chart from this particular store. And I don't know why. I don't think I knew why I wanted any of those things.
Because of that, I had no mechanism for sifting what mattered from what didn't matter at all. I think it was really messy my first year because I didn't know how to choose important. So it was like, I wanted this pillow, but I didn't know why I thought a pillow should be in the classroom. It became about the pillow until I realized, "Oh, no. I think I believe that kids should have seating options. Oh wait, oh wait. It's not about the pillow. It's about seating options."
I feel like a lot of that first five years was trying to figure out why I did the things I did. And then realize that, oh there are beliefs driving all of this? Some of them were beliefs that I still have today. For example, that kids are not waiting to become anything. They are fully formed human beings who have all the same rights as adults. I still really strongly believe that.
But some of them sort of changed. Which is, I used to believe in order to have a smooth running classroom, I had to be “Miss Mraz” and I had to wear high heels. And I don't believe that anymore, obviously. So I think part of the work that sort of grew in this book came from a lot of matching your vision to your classroom is knowing what has driven your vision. And that allows you to sort of say, Oh, it's not about having the plants on the windowsill because I love plants, but what do I believe kids deserve? What do I believe a classroom should look like? And integrating that.
Christine: And what you can let go of. Every year, I think we let go of more and more stuff and more and more expectations for ourselves and replace them with different expectations for ourselves and for our students as well.
Zoe: So, you're talking a lot about beliefs. And I think one belief that probably all teachers share is that the kids should come first. The kids should be the most important people in the classroom. You were talking a little bit about this, I wonder if you could say a little bit more about what can get in the way of those beliefs? What can get in the way of putting kids first for teachers?
Kristi: So, I tell a story in this book, that like I wish I could pretend was about someone else, because I don't actually like owning to it. But, free therapy, right? Okay.
So, when I first started teaching, I really got into teaching because I was like, "I want to change the world and make the world a better place. And I'm going to make that happen in the classroom." You could see the stars shooting from my eyes, of like, "Ah, we're going to change the world through projects and all this. We're going to write letters to the president and recycle."
Then I got into the classroom and it was utter chaos. I was trying to teach with good intentions. It didn't go very well, I would say. The school I was teaching at, it was very common for classrooms to use color charts and clip charts. As my class basically cartwheeled between the lunchroom and the classroom and I... tried…
Kristi: No, literally. And as I tried to teach by just being louder, and louder, I started to feel like I must be doing it wrong because everybody else's classroom seemed so smooth. So, for me, management was a huge barrier between the classroom I wanted and the classroom I had. And I didn't have any skills.
So I started using the clip chart that was being used in some of the other classrooms. Very quickly my classroom dynamic changed. It got calmer, but there was also an undertone. I couldn't really pin what it was, until one day, I asked a kid to move his clip and he just shredded the clip chart. There was this half a minute and then kids cheered. I still get chills thinking about it. Because I'm like, what am I doing to kids? I still remember that drive home just processing that event and thinking about how I thought the classroom had gotten better, but that was from my point of view. And for a lot of kids, their days had gotten a lot worse.
I still, when I think about that, it just stops me in my tracks that choices that were made with good intentions really... Good intentions aren't enough to have successful classrooms for kids. I think that was my takeaway. It's never enough that it's a) working for me, and b) it can't be that it's good intentions; It has to be that it's actually supporting the kids in the classroom. And since that day, I've made a lot of changes and I've sort of rallied against the clip chart. We talk a lot about that in the book as well.
I always wanted what's best for kids in my room, but I didn't always stop to think if what I was doing was the best for kids., if at appearance sake it looked to be going well.
Christine: Yeah, and we've shifted our thinking from "what's best for kids in this space, in this confined nine month, ten month period?" to really thinking about our time with this child as one little piece of a long continuum of their entire life. It's not that it needs to be this wonderful third grade year experience or first grade year experience, but it needs to be that they feel valued as citizens in our community, that they feel like they have choice in what they're doing, that they feel like school is a place of joy and curiosity and wonder.
Every belief that we have is rooted in this idea that this is not about our one year. It's about this child's life and we just have the opportunity to be involved in one little piece of their life. Really, everything that we try to do in our classroom is reflected in that core belief that the kids just come first.
Kristi: And I think, just to add onto that, that one of the things that I think has shifted a lot, is I used to want to be my kids' favorite teacher. Do you know what I mean? I wanted them to go to the next grade and mourn me.
Kristi: How is that good for a kid to leave you? It's like the ex you can't get over. Is that a bad analogy to make about kids? But it's like, the experience exists within you, so that when they leave, every year should be better and better and better for them. It shouldn't be about having this teacher or that project, but what makes school powerful is how I as the student feel in it. Not that the teacher did wacky hat day. Not that you can't do that, but that can't be what you're pinning your hopes and dreams on.
Zoe: So, you just said a lot of really great things. I think that one thing that keeps coming up is that all of us, all teachers, are going to experience setbacks in the classroom. The shredding of a clip chart or whatever it might be on a given day. Something that you say in the book, you say, "Don't hope for perfection. Plan for growth." So, I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that. What would you like readers to do with that sentiment?
Christine: Several things that can really help you let go of that perfectionist ideal are self-compassion, really going easy on yourself, knowing things that trip you up, that really trigger your worries about your classroom, things that wake you up at three in the night, and just breathing easy and saying you'll work through these things. Building a network for collaboration, finding other teachers in your building, online, who can really be your mentors and support you, no matter how many years you've been in the profession.
Then choosing one little thing at a time can be really helpful to think about, "All right, so I'm really going to think about what time I'm having children do unstructured things versus structured." Then focusing on that for a week, a month, a year, and then working on growing in that regard.
There can be feelings sometimes where you're sitting in your car at the end of the day and it can feel like nothing's gone well. Often it happens in November, this long stretch from August until November. And there's this time where it feels like, "What am I doing? How can I do anything right?" I think recognizing that all teachers go through really tricky moments like that.
Then taking care of yourself. Going home, putting everything away for a little bit, find some good habits, and then coming back the next day with a fresh start.
Kristi: I think when it comes to planning for growth, not for perfection, I think it came up a lot for us when we were working on Mindset for Learning, the idea that you'll never be perfect. You have to drop the words, "I'm a good teacher, I'm a bad teacher" out of your mental vernacular and just realize that what makes you successful is learning from every day. That was really hard for me at the beginning. I like to be really good at things.
I'm like the poster child for a fixed mindset. If it wasn't a good day, I was in the car composing letters to other places to hire me. You know, like, "Please let me be your zookeeper. I don't have any qualifications, but I will try." It was really hard for me to learn from that, those moments, because I couldn't face them.
Only when I was like, "Eh, things happen." Just the other day, we were doing water experiments and I turned around and kids were drinking sewer water and I was just like, "I should've known better." But I didn't. If I had known better then I would've done better and now I'm about to learn better. Don't put out sewer water. It wasn't really sewer water. Home listeners, everyone's fine. I think.
Christine: I know a first grader who will just, every time something little happens that's a mistake that I make, she literally will chime up and say, "It's okay. Nobody's perfect." And that's the voice that we all need in our heads all the time. She's like so sweet, so kind, so understanding. And then it's like, "So what's next? Nobody's perfect, what's next?" So that idea that you're not going to be content in just letting things marinate the way they are, but that nobody's perfect, but what can we do next?
Zoe: So you're talking a lot about how important it is for teachers to think about themselves and to be kind to themselves. I think along with that goes the idea of empathy. You write about empathy in the book. I'm wondering if you can say a little more about how that fits into the classroom world.
Kristi: One of the things that kind of came up for us when we were writing this book was the idea that so much of what makes a classroom run well is our own mental state in some ways. One of the components that is so critical is that of empathy. And not just that kids should be demonstrating empathy toward each other, or taking each other's perspective, understanding kids' feelings, but that we as teachers can truly and honestly remember what it feels like to be five, or seven, or eight, or ten, or 15.
I remember being 15 too well, which is why I'll never set foot in a middle school. But, what I'm saying is that when we are able to remember that, it helps us design classroom with kids truly in mind.
I think about what it is to be five for the first snow. You realize, "Why am I trying to do this math? We should be out in the snow." You know what I mean? We should all be at the window talking about snow. We shouldn't be trying to power through. Because they're five. That's like, their fifth first snowfall. Or when kids are super excited because they open their lunch for the first time. Sometimes we can be like, "That's great," as we are trying to do eight other things. But those are the huge successes, that when we truly have empathy for our kids and are remembering what it's like to be in that place for them, we design classrooms differently. We think more carefully about how we're structuring the day, how much we're asking kids to be still versus move, how we respond to a kid shouting out on the rug.
I was a classic shouter outer. I feel like under "shouter outer" it's just a picture of me. But it was like I was dying to say this thing I knew. But as a teacher, the shouter outer, I'd be like, "Quiet signals." But that's so crazy. Because I'm in a staff meeting being like, "Oh, I've got to say something about this."
So, remembering that, I can respond to the shouter outer from a place of, "I get it. You're dying to tell me that you can see David's butt on this page. I get that.”
No David, by David Shannon. It's not some adult reading.
Christine: I think that really when you start creating a classroom culture that builds empathy to its very core, then it changes the way that you are as a teacher. Because now you're looking around and you're empathizing in every decision that you're making, and every small problem, you're really starting from a place of empathy to work through with children. At the same time, you're building a classroom community of children who talk about empathy, who learn different aspects of what empathy looks like and sounds like, how they can be more empathetic.
I think we've been saying for a little while now that we want our classrooms of today to really reflect the world of tomorrow. The reality for these children is that it's not about the world of tomorrow. It's what's happening here in our spaces every single day. We want to build spaces that are full of caring and kind children who celebrate the big successes and the first snows, but also will help us get through, what can feel like really big setbacks, as well, that we have kids go through every single day.
Kristi: Teachers make about 3,000 decisions a day. And you're making them this fast. So the closer you are to connecting in that relationship, the more likely those decisions will reflect what kids need. And you're living a model of what you want kids to be doing. How great would the world be if people started every conversation with, "I can see what you're saying."
Zoe: So, a lot of the situations you’re talking about like snow, or excitement about a butt in a picture book or something like that, could be triggers for disasters. But in the book, you talk about adapting practices to move away from what's traditionally known as a classroom management situation into more of a community building stance. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that?
Christine: We think about the word management and it automatically brings to mind everybody in neat little boxes filing their neat little paperwork, little cogs in the machine. As soon as you step foot into a classroom, you know that teaching and learning is a lot messier than that. There are so many variables happening all the time. 3,000 decisions a day a teacher is making, and so by Friday we have decision fatigue. And we're completely shut down. But, the thing about creating a classroom community versus creating a classroom management system is that the more you do up front to create that community, the less the teacher has to be the center of it as time goes on.
And so, instead of this teacher being the center of all of the wheels that are working around the person, then the community is kind of delivering its own checks and balances. We're working at, at home there are things that are going on. All over the space without the teacher being on top of everything. You can't see everything. You can't hear everything. Although, we do seem to see and hear pretty well, overall.
Kristi: In our sleep.
Christine: In our sleep where, like, that thing comes back to you like, "Oh my gosh. I know what they said." But what's more beneficial is that we start our work of classroom and community building by thinking about what we're asking children to do. So, we don't just teach engagement like, keep writing, long and strong, just do it, keep going. Instead, engagement is a byproduct of our community building practices. We don't need to teach, "stay in your spot and keep working" because if what we're asking children to do is in their zone of proximal development, and something they can access in, something they've had choice over, and something they're really excited about, then that engagement piece is there.
Now that saying, in every classroom, in every corner of the world, there are moments and there are children who still have some really tricky, difficult moments. And so there are strategies that we can use that can really support those children and those moments. We get into this more in the book, but there are specific protocols that have been backed by research that say first try this, then try this, then try this. We've both been there. Literally in the room, day after day, helping children work through these really intense moments. And it's hard. But I think, again, everything we're doing is coming back to building the community. So it's not about managing this really intense moment or this really tricky student, but instead it's about how can we wrap them into our community and find ways for them to be successful as well.
Kristi: I think what often happens is a lot of the classroom management, the stickers, the marble jar, the name on the board with checks, again that comes from a belief that kids need to be nudged into doing the right thing or rewarded or punished into doing the right thing. But one of the things that we've really come to believe is that kids do the best they can as they understand it.
We talk a lot about behavior as something you teach just like any other subject. If you wouldn't think to do it for reading and it wouldn't work to teach reading, then it's not going to help kids to develop the social skills or the social competencies that they need in the classroom. So, if a reader is struggling, you don't write their name and put checks next to it until they get the right word. Because they don't have the strategies for is.
I think I personally connect because I was a first grader who got put in the hall a lot. I spent a lot of quality time staring at the doorway into the classroom because I didn't have a lot of skills for waiting, hence the shouting out. So, the way I was managed is I was moved outside the classroom. What I really needed to learn were ways to keep myself patient, and I didn't really get a chance to learn them until later on.
A lot of what we talk about in the book is how do you teach behavior skills? When I removed my classroom management system, it didn't mean the behavior was automatically better. I still went back to that chaos. That was the thing. They ripped up the clip chart. I didn't want the clip chart anymore. But I didn't have anything else. Thus started this action research project on how do you teach a community to come together? And, spoiler alert, it's Section Three.
Zoe: Also, actually Section Two, where you talk about the physical environment sort of fits into what you're talking about now as well. How does the classroom space itself contribute to building community instead of control?
Christine: A lot of our physical classroom beliefs stem from work that's come out of the Regio Amelia community in Italy where they've done a lot of work in early childhood centers talking about the environment as a teacher. So, if you think about it, what you have in your classroom for children to explore, but also to have access to and to have control over, can really help them, then, become their own teachers in a way. So they're grabbing scissors when they need to cut something up. Or they're running over and grabbing that clipboard because they've decided to come and sit at the rug.
Again, going back to our beliefs about teaching, we've given children a lot of opportunities to make choices, but to also have ownership over the materials. One of our guiding principles was an aha a couple years ago, is that anything that's essentially in the grasp of the child, should be something that they can access when they need it. Maybe it's a thing of band-aids, so they can grab that when they need it, or a dustpan and broom, new lined paper. These community supplies mean that the room is theirs as opposed to, "This is the teacher area, and this is your area."
Once they walk in the door, the space is designed with them in mind. Nooks and crannies for little kids, spaces for older children to work on their own or in small groups, space for all ages to gather as a whole group. Then the space evolves over time. The more your classroom evolves with your group of children, moving furniture, putting things on the wall, the more it will feel like a community and a place they belong. That's one of those inherent needs in people is that you want to feel like you belong somewhere and this is your space. The more a child can feel that, the more they'll be engaged in this whole community.
Kristi: It’s room design with empathy. That comes back to the idea of empathy, which is, if you're going to have it exposed, then kids should be allowed and encouraged as they see fit and not necessarily dictating the rule of, "scissors are for this time" or "markers are for that time" but letting them be thoughtful about how and when they're using the supplies. And we talk about this. It's not Lord of the Flies. We're not like, "Scissors and knives for everyone" and then we just sit back and are like, "whoever survives come to the rug."
But instead the reason that you have community supplies is so they'll get in an argument over the red. That's the point of it. I don't want everyone to have their own marker because then we never learn how to resolve the disagreement of the red marker. Fast forward 30 years and we don't know how to work as a society.
I think sometimes as teachers, when we think I don't have time for them to argue over markers because we've got to get to the work. But the thing is, that's the work of being alive and we can't say, "Oh, I'm teaching readers and writers" aside from the fact that we're actually teaching people who read and write. And it's the people part that we have to keep coming back to, which is, we want to give the kids the right sorts of problems as five, ten, 15 year olds, so when they get to be 25, 35, 45, they have the right kind of skills. Because how I negotiate over that red marker is how I'm going to negotiate over a parking spot both of us want. That's a terrible example, but you get the point.
I think that it seems like such a silly thing, communal supplies versus personal supplies, but one of them implies something about the community and the other, what do we value? We value personal property? We value sharing and problem solving. It's all those little things that come back to your beliefs. And we believe that children have the right and we have the responsibility to learn how to exist together.
Christine: And another piece of that is, again, thinking of what you can let go of. So if you're thinking from a place of designing for empathy, designing from a place of empathy, and you think about something like your teacher desk, then what purpose does your teacher desk have in a classroom that's designed for children and for this community? Our answer was, well, none. So find a different way to store your stuff and pile your papers, which still happens. But you don't necessarily need your desk.
And what's the purpose of an assigned seat? Well, maybe it's so that everybody knows where to go to get right to work. But is there a way to do this with more choice for children? And more independence, and autonomy, and decision making on their part, and thinking about where it feels good to work. The answer is yes.
Kristi: That goes back to just our one big idea, which is, people will make a variety of decisions, I think it's knowing why you're making that decision that's going to help you chisel out your beliefs. So, oftentimes, teachers don't think that assigned seats are an option. They think, "Well, everybody needs a seat spot." Well, why do you think that? If there's not a belief backing that up, then dig into it a little bit and say just because it's been done that way doesn't mean it's always...
In my classroom, every kid doesn't have a chair to sit in. There's no way for everyone to sit in a chair at the same time. And that horrifies people sometimes. But tell me why they all have to be sitting in a chair. Give me that reason. You can email it to me or place it in the comments. It's pushing against the status quo and really saying, "What's the belief system that's driving those decisions?"
Zoe: So, Kids First From Day One is broken down into four parts. Could you take a minute and just walk us through the parts and how they work together?
Christine: Sure. So the first part of the book is all about the teacher mindset and different ways that you can work on yourself as a teacher, thinking about being growth oriented, empathetic, thinking about being flexible.
The second part of the book is all about building a physical space, the physical classroom environment.
The third part is about building the emotional environment, the social-emotional environment.
And then the fourth part of the book is about creating a responsive curriculum that really meets the needs of the specific students in your classroom.
Kristi: I think one of the big points we want to make about the book is that there are a few things you can do before the kids come, but the real catalyst for all of it is the kids themselves. One of the things that is absolutely true is you might read it over the summer and get filled with ideas, but the whole point of the book is, "but kids come, and then what?"
One of the things we really tried to be mindful of is talking about, in every chapter, in every section, how does this work grow and build with actual kids in front of you? How do we adapt our classroom as it moves forward? And then, whether you're in your first year or your 40th year, as we wrote this -- I'm in my 17th year, because I started teaching when I was 12, that's why I look so good -- at writing it I was refining my practice. That's one of the things we thought a lot about too, again, thinking about how to make sure the room feel playful, then in turn made me become more playful as well.
It's not like you'll read it and your life has been fixed. Maybe. Let us know if it is. Write a review on Amazon if that's the case. Yeah, five stars. But also, its designed to be your friend and be with you through the hard times, tear-stained, coffee-stained, wine- stained. In it, we really try to direct people to other resources as well. These are the friends who helped us through and we hope they'll help you through too.
Christine: I think that we do think of the book as a launching pad and so it's a toolkit, it's a guide, we're your friends, we're here to help. But there is a larger community out there that's really trying new things with their teaching, trying to make a change, just getting into it. So our hope is also that people come together on Instagram, and Facebook, and Twitter, and in real life, and in coffee shops, and figure out a way to make their classrooms more closely aligned to their vision of what they want in their space and in their world.
Brett: My thanks to Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz for their time today. Their new book, Kids 1st from Day 1, is available now at Heinemann.com. We invite you to watch all of the videos that accompany the book after you receive it. In these videos you watch the authors work with a class full of students. We’ll be sharing a sample of those videos on the Heinemann blog in addition to blogs from the authors. You can connect with the authors on Twitter and Instagram; we’ve shared links to how to connect with them on our blog which you can find at blog.heinemann.com. Thanks for listening.
To learn more about Kids First from Day One and download a sample chapter, visit Heinemann.com.
Christine Hertz is coauthor of the Heinemann titles Kids First from Day One and A Mindset for Learning. She finds great joy and challenge in helping all children grow as independent and engaged students. She is passionate about keeping play and creativity at the center of children's lives and curiosity and wonder at the heart of learning. Christine has taught in a wide variety of classrooms from preschool to fourth grade and as an adjunct instructor of education courses. She currently teaches in Worcester, Vermont. You can follow her on Twitter @christine_hertz or visit her web site at christinehertz.com. You can also find Christine & Kristi's Instagram at @kristiandchristine.
Kristine Mraz is coauthor—with Christine Hertz—of the new Kids First from Day One, which provides a practical blueprint for increasing the child-centeredness of your teaching practice. She and Christine previously teamed up for the bestselling A Mindset for Learning (coauthored with Christine Hertz), which provides practical and powerful strategies for cultivating optimism, flexibility, and empathy alongside traditional academic skills. She primarily supports teachers in early literacy, play, and inquiry based learning. Kristi teaches Kindergarten in the New York City Public schools. You can follow all of her adventures on twitter @MrazKristine, on Instagram @kristiandchristine or on her blog kinderconfidential.wordpress.com.