Secondary to Primary: Encouragement for those Switching Grade Levels

I had planned to teach high school social studies. In 2014, I was 24 and had recently completed my master’s in secondary education. I did my student teaching in an 11th grade American History classroom. I was young and daunted by the small age gap between myself and these 17 year old students.

But God. 

I was offered a middle school position in 2014. It was an answer to prayer in ways I couldn’t comprehend at the time. A classroom of my own, students I loved, a mentor teacher who spoke to my heart as well as my practice; it was a perfect start.

I had planned to stay teaching in the upper grade levels. I enjoyed my school but occasionally took a peek at job listings for high school positions. I knew I couldn’t handle those “little kids,” though. It would be too much. Teaching ALL of the subjects in one day? Plus, God knew I was terrible at math.. He made me that way, right? I called around to other schools. I interviewed at two different high schools. I prayed deeply about keeping my current posting, yet, my heart was not at peace.

But God. 

One day, the third grade teacher at our school needed a sub for an hour. It was my plan block. “Sure,” I said, “I can handle an hour.” This hour changed my life. I read a single chapter of The Hobbit. They were rapt in their attention, hanging on my every word. I used funny voices and inflection. We laughed! I had so much fun.

Okay Jesus. I’m listening. 

When speaking with my current school, it turned out that the third grade teacher wanted to change positions. I told them I would move into the third grade spot. Over the summer of 2017, I moved all of my materials from the social studies room into the third grade room. It felt good. It was the right move. Wasn’t it?

Back when I had been interviewing for high school positions, I had called Desert Christian Schools seeing if they needed a secondary social studies teacher. No, “We’re staffed,” Ron told me, “but we’ll give you a call if anything opens up.”

But God.

I had this itch in the back of my brain. I prayed for peace, and I prayed for contentment. I heard back, “Call Ron.” Okay, Jesus. When he returned my call he said, “Wait, aren’t you a middle school teacher?” Well, I was.

Fast forward through moving all of my teaching materials (again) and setting up a cute new classroom I prepared the way I knew how. I made plans and copies, lessons and tests. In the midst of teaching the first few weeks of my first class of 4th graders, it hit me. Uh oh. I’m in trouble here. This isn’t as easy as that hour was… The kids pushed my limits, they couldn’t do things to the level I expected, they struggled with what I was trying to teach.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew HOW to teach – I could read the standards and curriculum, I could write lesson plans and objectives; but I couldn’t teach 4th graders right away. Why? What was so different? Truth was, I didn’t prepare myself the right way.

When switching grade levels, there are a few things teachers must keep in mind.

Each grade level is its own ball game, and students go through tremendous growth each and every year. It’s often hard for teachers to notice because we’re with them all day long, all year long. The striking realization of the growth happens at the beginning of the next year, when you get a whole new group of kids and remember how little and young your students are when they walk in on the first day of school. Imagine watching 8th graders graduate to high school in May and getting a group of itty bitty 4th graders in August! It was a huge leap, and one I hadn’t fully prepared for.

If you’re set to enter into a new grade level this upcoming school year, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Seek God in Prayer

We should always, as our first action, seek God in prayer. Ask for guidance, direction, an open mind to new learning, and a soft heart ready for trial and error, correction, and impression. Be prepared to accept the challenges of a new class along with the joys and excitement. Also be open to asking for prayer from others in prayer groups or Bible studies. Prayer works big time. Seek out Guidance
Do Your Homework
Read blogs, find Facebook or Instagram accounts, look at Pinterest and get an idea of what others in your new grade level do. Start creating lists of ideas that stand out to you. Familiarize yourself with what is age appropriate for the kids in your new grade level. The internet has thousands of available resources to help you prepare.
Plan Ahead
If possible, seek out your new teaching team. Who will you be working closely with? Arrange a time (or several times) to get together and form relationships. Arrive with open ears and an empty notebook. Take plenty of notes and have a humbleness to admit when you need more guidance. Consider how the team has set up its scope and sequence (what you’ll be teaching and when). If you’re alone or on a team with another new teacher, you’ll want to create a scope and sequence using the grade level standards. Again, check the internet for ideas. No need to recreate the wheel if you can glean some ideas from others.
Expect the Unexpected
Whether you’re going up in grade level or down, be prepared to be at least a little bit shocked. What they know and don’t know, what they’re capable and (most likely) incapable of will be different in every class, every year but even more so in a new grade level. Keep expectations low and use grade appropriate assessments to find where your new class is currently, without judgement on where you think they should be.
Don’t be Afraid to Apologize
Outside of curriculum differences are the differences in behavior and relationship that come with a new grade level. When I started teaching fourth graders, I was used to disciplining middle schoolers. No, it is not the same by any means. The change of levels taught me a great deal about the humanity of the kids we teach every day. They are humans, capable of conversations and relationship building. With that comes the reality that we make just as many errors as they do. Do not be afraid to apologize to students individually for any slip ups such as snapping at one in frustration or making a joke that wasn’t actually funny. In similar terms, be prepared to apologize to the whole class when necessary. When your lesson flops or you raise your voice in a moment of anger, apologize. No need to go heavy handed, but a quick, sincere acknowledgement of your error goes a long way. They will see you as human and it will only do good things for your relationships with your students.
Give Yourself Plenty of Grace
This is an exciting time of change for you. God does really good things when we are unearthed and exposed. He teaches us new things, shows us places of past fear or hurt, and can more fully establish Himself as Lord of your life. Be open to the changes, be ready for the challenges, give yourself time and rest. Mistakes will happen, but keep yourself humble; keep reflecting on your relationships and teachings, adjust when you need to, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seek God first and you will have a fantastic year!May God bless your new classroom and your new school year!