Salamanders don’t go to Walgreens and other things I learned during my first month of teaching

“So Ms. Smogard, when a salamander grows legs it can leave the water right?”


“And then it can go places in the city? Like Walgreens and stuff?”

September – and my first month of teaching – is over and I am left with more questions than answers. How do you encourage factual accuracy and also limitless creativity? How can I make uninteresting things fascinating? Why does there have to be a ‘to’ and a ‘too’? How do the baby mammals come out of the mother – does her stomach explode? (I actually do know the answer to this one, but I said I didn’t). How do I stay patient when we are all having off days and I don’t want to be around 10 year olds anymore? How do I get my students to love learning and not simply tolerate school? How do I set them up for success and also push them? How can I possibly do this every day for the rest of my life when I am so tired all the time? And on the best days – how could I possibly do anything different?

Ok, so let’s talk about this banana.

Can my praying mantis be the one who killed JFK?

I think I’m going to pronounce business as buzz-eye-ness because that makes more sense to me.

My salamander is going to be named mega-mander and he is going to go through….megamorphosis!

In addition to the hilarious things they say every day, I try to keep track of what I observe. Of what I am learning. So far, this is what I’ve noticed:

  • Students will succeed if they can. Not all of them love school and as they get older the desire to ‘please the teacher’ shrinks so doing work for the sake of doing work is hard…but nobody likes to fail. Nobody likes to be in trouble all the time. Nobody likes to consistently receive poor grades and be confused. In the vast majority of cases, children who are able to succeed will. If they aren’t, there is a reason and it is the job of a teacher to find out why and what to do about it.
  • On the days when I am grumpy and tired and sad, they notice. I am supposed to be my students’ constant. I am never supposed to be too high or too low, too lax or too rigid. I try my best, but a small smile cannot hide the circles under my eyes that prompted one of my students to ask if I had bruises. One little girl gave a shout out in homeroom last week to the tutors because “even when they are tired and sad and they didn’t get any breakfast and they miss the bus, they still come here with smiles to help us learn”. Truly touching, but also…how sad do you think our lives are?
  • A smile goes a lot further than anger, but it is much harder to muster in the throes of misbehavior.
  • Speaking of which…you can’t take things personally. Misbehavior, lack of interest, not doing something after the thousandth time you have asked – kids are kids and nothing is personal.
  • The teacher is the gatekeeper to all knowledge. After I explained where apostrophes are supposed to go, one of my students asked me – mind-blown – if I studied apostrophes in college. Despite my insecurities and the worlds of information I know nothing about, they think I know everything.
  • They also think I’m cool in the way that teachers can be both cool people and uncool grown ups at the same time. The fact that a salamander once bit me and that I once killed a tarantula and that a monkey once peed on me is, like, so unbelievably awesome. When asked if salamanders have teeth, I described what it was like when a salamander bit me and my student exclaimed, “Where have you been that all of this awesome stuff has happened??” Perspective, right? While we all compare ourselves on social media and think that we are failures if we still don’t have furniture and aren’t eating real meals and watching more Netflix than news (ahem), the people around us (especially the impressionable ones whose opinions matter most) are thinking the opposite.

Waking up every morning is difficult, especially as the world gets darker and colder. Moving into October, my mantra is the reason I am here. My daily goal and life long ambition. The weather is chilly and the colors around me are warm and I am embracing October with a refreshed sense of wonder where every day I will tell myself this:



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