Teachers of novices are underrated

While teachers in general are underpaid and under-respected, I’ve long said that if only one little slice of us were to receive more cash and glory, it should be the kindergarten teachers.

For one year, kindergarten classes took up half of my schedule as a traveling music teacher, and it was during this time that while five-year-olds are very cute and often hilarious, kindergarten is not my shtick. 

In a formal setting like school, they don’t know how to function, and they don’t know how to learn to function, or maybe even that they’re supposed to. Many kids still don’t go to preschool and have no context for spending all day in a room with a bunch of other kids.

So sure, the content of what kindergarten teachers needs is very basic. Knowledge that most of us have, for sure. But the how? We don’t all have that. Nor the patience. Nor the excitement over progress at that level.

Teaching kindergarten is not easy. At all.

A friend of mine taught kindergarten for a over a decade and has moved into the upper grades. Recently, she said to me, “You know who doesn’t get enough respect? Beginning band teachers.” 

She went on to talk about how the middle schools and high schools and beyond don’t sound good without a strong beginning, and that the volume of not-yet-music in any beginning band room is substantial.

“You take kids who know nothing about these instruments and get them to be able to play songs that are recognizable. That’s no small feat.”

It’s true.

This prompted me to generalize what I have to say about kindergarten teachers and what she had to say about beginning band teachers. It really applies to any teacher of uninitiated students of any age. We see it easily in the arts, where being at the front end of the skill learning curve is obvious. The same is true of sports, where unseasoned players are easy to spot.

But it applies to any task completely foreign to the students. I remember being in an HTML coding class in college (late 90s, for context), and a non-traditional classmate sat at the computer next to me. In an attempt to move the cursor up the screen, she lifted her mouse into the air.

Not kindergarten, but comparable. Just like the five-year-olds, she simply didn’t know. And sure, to us it’s funny, but that’s because we already know, and we didn’t realize anyone was left who didn’t know.

Finding teachers who are good with beginners is difficult, largely because we prioritize content knowledge over teaching skills.

For example, when I was in college, I was a beginner on trombone. (I had injured my hand and wasn’t able to play flute and switched over to trombone.) My trombone teacher was one of the best classical bass trombonists alive and had been playing in the New York Philharmonic for longer than I’d been alive.

For my more advanced peers, he might have been an excellent teacher. For me, a newbie? We were not a good match. Some skills take time to develop, even if you work at them consistently, and he wasn’t interested in listening much to what I sounded like while I was working through that space.

The question wasn’t his content knowledge—he clearly had that—but his skills (or desire?) in teaching someone who lacked the basics.

We have all seen teachers, whether labeled teacher or coach or mentor or scout leader or whatever, who are amazing with their newbies. And we’ve all seen those who aren’t.

We’ve all had conversations with people who can’t remember that their audience doesn’t know all the jargon, or can’t talk about it without the jargon.

No technical language when you’re working with newbies. Not until you teach it to them.

We need to give props to the skill of teaching someone who doesn’t know which end is up. We need to give props to the skill of teaching, period, but because teachers need less content knowledge for teaching beginners, it’s consistently dismissed as easy or fun. 

While it might be fun sometimes, it ain’t easy. Go volunteer in your nearest kindergarten for a few days and see for yourself.

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