Back to School: A Focus on 5th Grade and Getting Off on the Right Foot
With Real Thoughts From a Fifth Grade Student and Teachers
Written By: Christy S. Renjilian
Ahhh, remember your fifth-grade self? And those feelings you had as you started the school year? Your interests, friends, and what made you, well, you?
You were geared up with whatever the new fad was. Maybe it was a bookbag brand, maybe a shoe, or those metal lunchboxes with the matching thermos. Either way, you were living your best life.
Hopefully, you had a strong, positive influence in fifth grade, too. A teacher or mentor who had a real impact on you. One who opened your eyes and mind, as you absorbed their lessons and really appreciated the space they made for you to grow in.
Kids this age typically start thinking more about abstract ideas, and not just about things they can observe.1
Today, we’re taking a look at the perspectives of a student entering fifth grade, a first-year fifth-grade teacher, and an experienced fifth-grade teacher, to shed light on how this pivotal time is experienced in each role.
And we’ll finish with some tips to help you get your fifth grader’s school year moving in the right direction. Or, any student, for that matter.
Before we do, I want to tell you about my amazing fifth-grade teacher. He was the first male teacher I ever had – Mr. Lifshitz at Shubert Elementary School in Baldwin, NY (pictured below). He was warm, caring, and committed to every student.
That was way back when, in 1975-1976, the Bicentennial year. That was a time marked by a lot of celebration of America, lots of red, white, and blue. The abstract idea and concept that stands out for me, learned from Mr. Lifshitz, was equality for the girls in the classroom.
He named me and my friend, Jill, to the Audio/Video Squad. We were the first girls in school history to be the ones to set up the movie and filmstrip projectors in classrooms. We pushed the big carts around, threaded the machines, and fixed them when they skipped and looped. He also picked, “Free to Be You and Me” for our class play. The TV special had been on the air the year before; it was created by Marlo Thomas and many others to address gender stereotypes.
Fifth grade is a big year. In some schools, it’s the last year in elementary school. For everyone it’s a year of in-depth learning and maturity, refining one’s ability to think critically.
Fifth graders no longer learn to read, they read to learn and are growing as independent thinkers. To have a teacher in 1976 recognize that his job was to provide equal opportunities for all his students was an empowering gift. I haven’t been in that school in decades, but if I close my eyes, I can still see his smile, hear his big laugh, and sense the support and acceptance he offered his students.
My wish for this new school year is that every teacher provides a safe, empowering environment for every student. And that every student and her family is able to receive the gift of care, hard work, and dedication from their teachers.
This year especially, as we begin a new school year, one filled with things our fifth-grade selves never would have dreamed of, we can begin anew. For ourselves, for our students, and for our children.
To better understand fifth grade today, let’s take a look at a few perspectives. Each helps us wrap our minds around all it takes to make a school year successful.
First, let’s take a look at how a fifth-grade student is viewing the school year.
Q: How are you feeling about starting 5th grade?
A: I feel good and happy.
Q: What do you hope to learn?
A: Algebra and decimals.
Q: What do you hope your teacher is like?
Q: What advice would you give your teacher about teaching you and your classmates/friends?
A: I would tell my teachers to answer questions we have.
In reflecting on these responses, it’s easy to see that our students enjoy learning, have unique interests and hopes, and simply want to be heard.
Next, let’s listen to the perspective of a first-year fifth-grade teacher.
Q: As a first-year teacher how are you feeling about the 2021-2022 school year?
A: I am nervous, terrified, cautious, excited, emotional, and uncertain.
Q: In one or two words, what mindset is most needed by students this year?
A: GRIT and GROWTH.
Q: What can we (families, community members, advocates) do to help support teachers?
A: Here are a few things that come to mind:
- Push for school reform, more funding.
- Vaccinate/take care of each other.
- Stay home when sick.
- Don’t project problems onto students/teachers.
- Send in supplies.
- Say thank you.
- Volunteer at the school.
- Read to students at home.
- Ask for help.
- Show up.
- Listen to what we have to say and genuinely do something about it.
Q: What would you like to say/ask your former 5th-grade teacher?
A: Thank you for allowing me to be an individual and pursue my interests. I am now a teacher because there were people like you that let me try it out when I was younger. I know what you do is hard – what you did was enough and worth it.
These words may take you back to a time when you were starting a brand new journey, one you worked hard to explore and put time and effort into achieving. It’s pretty special, the human experience, how good people step into leadership roles at pivotal times.
And finally, let’s check in with an experienced fifth-grade teacher.
Q: How are you feeling about the 2021-2022 school year?
A: I am looking forward to a more normal school year. Last year had many challenges. I think this year will as well, but I am hoping the changes will be less daunting for students since they have already experienced most of them.
Q: In one or two words, what mindset is most needed by students?
A: The sooner that students learn to look at their education as a gift and a pathway to a better future, the sooner they will value it. This is a tough concept for younger students, but a savvy teacher can help foster this idea.
Q: What advice would you give to families?
A: As much as possible, allow your child to have ownership of their education. The more you control it, the less they will value it.
Q: What can we (parents, students, community members, advocates) do to support teachers?
A: Trust them, they are professionals. Keep the lines of communication open.
Q: As you think back over your career, what advice would you give to a new teacher?
A: I would give the same advice that my cooperating teacher gave me, although it took years for me to understand it. Figure out your philosophy and stick with it. In other words, be true to who you are as an educator.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: It is not about clever lessons, it is about people. Specifically, it is about small people who are forming opinions about everything, including themselves. If you help them to feel good about themselves, they will want to learn. Also, never engage in a power struggle with a child because you will lose. What you will lose is much more valuable than whatever the conflict was. You will lose an opportunity to have a relationship with this child.
Such wisdom, such grace shared. A good reminder for all of us to remember it’s about people. It’s not about politics, shame, or conflict. It’s about being true to yourself, and in turn, modeling that behavior for the next generation.
Now that you’ve heard from a student and a few teachers, you may be wondering how you can help your fifth grader approach his school year.
If so, here are the top five things a parent or student can do now to set themselves up for success.
1. Gradually get back on a schedule.
If your child has been staying up late and sleeping in all summer, gradually help him or her get back on a schedule that aligns with the start time of school. Going to bed at a set time is essential. A little change of 10 minutes or so each night is much easier on everyone than a jarring shift a night or two before school starts.
Good-quality sleep helps improve your child’s concentration, memory, and ability to regulate their emotions and behave well. This all helps your child learn well. Getting enough sleep also strengthens your child’s immune system and reduces the risk of infection and illness.2
2. Read every day.
Your child should read something they pick and are interested in every day. Summer days. School days. Weekends. If you need help finding something your child likes, go to your library and ask the librarian for their suggestions. Or pay attention to the things they watch or participate in – there’s likely an age-appropriate book on the topic.
Did you know, only 35 percent of fourth-graders are reading at or above grade level?3
“The ability to read, write, and analyze; the confidence to stand up and demand justice and equality; the qualifications and connections to get your foot in that door and take your seat at that table – all of that starts with education.”
– Michelle Obama
3. Encourage your child to set goals for the year.
You’ve heard about vision boards and fancy dream catcher things. This isn’t those. Even if your child struggles with school, setting a few, realistic goals will be beneficial. Maybe your student wants to speak up more in class, try a new sport or activity, make some new friends, or be more organized. Let your child take the lead in setting their goals and have him write them down.
“Having goals makes learners aware of their actions, efforts, and even their time management skills. Setting goals obligates them to take action, regardless of the obstacles that may be in place. As such, it can encourage students to develop critical thinking skills, new problem-solving techniques, and a better understanding of how to overcome issues.”
– Julius Zigama
4. Develop a plan to stay informed and connected to the teacher.
In the age of quarantines, closures, and virtual schooling, plan out how you and your student are going to stay informed and connected to their teacher and school.
Is there an online system for sharing information? If so, make sure you have access and know how to use it. Do you and the teacher prefer email or phone calls? What time of day is best for you? For the teacher? If they aren’t in agreement, work out a compromise and plan this month. Remember if you change your phone number and/or email address to let the teacher know. Teachers know that all families want to be connected and informed. They just may need some assisstance to do so.
5. Take a deep breath.
This is going to be another challenging year. Remember that everyone – families, students, teachers, and school personnel- are doing the best they can with changing guidelines, trying to keep every person safe, and meet everyone’s needs. Patience goes a long way.
Deep breaths all around. For you, as a parent. And for our students, our educators, our school bus drivers, our administrators, and for every person who contributes to your student’s education.
P-S- In a bit of a full-circle twist, the experienced fifth-grade teacher actually taught (and inspired!) the brand new fifth-grade teacher interviewed for this article.
About Community Connections for Children, Inc.
Community Connections for Children, Inc. (CCC) is a nonprofit centered in the heart of Pennsylvania. They serve childcare providers and low-income families ‒ the ones that have been impacted the most by the pandemic.
For you and your business, CCC helps keep childcare options open for your employees ‒ saving missed work hours and lowering on-the-job stress levels. They work with early childhood education programs and home-based providers to improve the quality of care, ensuring that all children enter school ready to be successful.
Christy Renjilian serves as its Executive Director.
To learn more, visit childcareconsultants.org.