Karen Henson: Kindergarten helps build a strong foundation
When you walk down the halls of our elementary schools the sound of silence is striking. Many would expect noise and restless feet everywhere, but it’s the sound of learning that flows from the classrooms. And, when you look inside and see the command the teachers have over the children, it is impressive.
This takes a lot of work, however, especially for Karen Henson, a kindergarten teacher at Bethel Elementary School with 15 years of experience.
“My job is to teach you to learn to read and do math, and your job is to learn to read and do math.” she tells the young ones who sit before her on a carpet. Twenty 5-year-olds are told that “we keep our hands to ourselves when we sit here on the rug. I can hear you; you don’t need to shout your answer. I pointed to Ashleigh to answer the question, the rest of you need to listen. Is your name Ashleigh? No, I didn’t think so.”
In the first half hour of the school day, the children sang the Hello Neighbor song as they moved around shaking each other’s hands and another song starring an alligator. As they sang, the alligator taught them to count backward from 5 to 1.
“When we sing this song, we are doing math!” said Henson.
Next, they counted how many letters are in Jaxon’s name, and added one day to the number of days they have been in school, counting from 1 to 11. “This morning we did three math lessons. You are the smartest kindergartners!” their very animated teacher exclaimed.
When she told the kids to stand and “get the wiggles out” they laughed and shook their bodies. She then had them sit back down and worked on their listening skills as she read a humorous story about learning to share.
“I want to teach you to share,” she reminded them many times. “What does sharing mean? Do you share with your brother or sister? One at a time. I can hear you; you don’t have to shout,” she reminded them again.
Soon it was time to move the children to “centers” around the room and keep 200 little fingers busy. Zachary was looking at a computer screen when he clicked on a link showing choices of pumpkins.
“Ooohh. Look, look, look,” he said as pumpkins of different colors and shapes popped up. He then noticed the adult sitting next to him.
“What color pumpkin do you want?” and then showed his new skill with a computer mouse as he maneuvered the cursor on the screen. “We’ll cut it out, shall we?”
It was now a little after 10 a.m. Other students were coloring and tracing, learning the letters of the alphabet on hand-held electronic pads, and looking through books in the reading corner.
“Thumbs up if you like to read,” Henson often said during the day. “If you do not know the words in the picture books, you can read the pictures. They help tell you the story and then you will begin to recognize the words.”
Another group of children were at a table learning to write their names using both capital and lower case letters with. Henson’s assistant, Tessa Rice. “You can’t do this job without an assistant,” said Mrs. Henson. “She brings another indispensable set of eyes, ears and hands.”
Henson, the mother of four, taught kindergarten children for eight years in Buncombe County and is now in her seventh year at Haywood’s Bethel Elementary. After graduating from Enka High School, she earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Mars Hill College and master’s degree in elementary education at Western Carolina University.
In addition to the classroom hours, like other teachers she spends an additional two to four hours at the school each day working on lesson plans, completing required reports, attending workshops and meeting with parents. Weekends are an additional six hours of work at home.
“Along with basic life skills, my goal is that my students will learn reading habits, believe they are writers, and have a sense about numbers,” she says. “Above all they will learn they are part of a community in my classroom and there are two ladies (Mrs. Rice and myself) who care and love them. My goal is for my students to grow up and become productive citizens in their community. You learn these basic skills in kindergarten. So yes, the saying, ‘All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’ is so true.
“Being a teacher is a lifelong commitment. It doesn't have a starting time or ending time each day. You are constantly trying to become a better teacher, your mind is constantly thinking about your students because they become part of your family and you become part of their family. For some children we are the only stable variable in their lives – the eight hours they are in our care, we need to make them feel valued and loved.
“I stay in kindergarten because where else can I go every day and be told? ‘You are so pretty! You are a good drawer. You are the best singer!’ Kindergarten is the foundation for a strong future in school. I am privileged to help build this foundation for so many children. Kindergarten is my LOVE!”