The start of school was still two weeks away, but Kim Hohlbein was just about finished getting her classroom ready for students.
The display boards were covered with construction paper in bright colors and prints. Student name cards were posted throughout the room, and the supply closet was filled with everything her class would need, except crayons. She’d just been informed that the crayons were on back order.
“Yeah, we’re going to need to those,” she told the woman on the other end of the conversation. “I’ll have to figure something out.”
While students were off enjoying the warm weather of summer, teachers cut their breaks short to head back to the classroom and prepare for the upcoming year.
Early preparation is key for Mrs. Hohlbein, a kindergarten teacher at Crissey Elementary in Holland. She started planning for this year’s class at the end of last school year, sanitizing learning tools and cleaning shelves, lockers, and knee-high tables and chairs.
Room 50 is where she’ll greet her students each school day. The room has a homey feeling to it. Different shades of blues and greens make the class feel warm and inviting. On posters, images and illustrations accompany the text, because it’s unlikely the students can read yet. Artificial plants sit atop bookcases and on shelves throughout the room and near photos of Mrs. Hohlbein’s family.
“I really work on building a relationship with them, so that they get to know me and feel comfortable with me. I want them to know all about my family and the things I like to do and I invite them to bring a picture of their own family,” Mrs. Hohlbein said. “No learning is going to take place if they don’t trust me.”
A bathtub with a blanket and colorful pillows add to the homey feeling and is used to encourage reading.
Mrs. Hohlbein has taught kindergarten for 18 years. She specializes in brain-based learning, a concept that focuses on keeping the right and left sides of the brain working together. She greets each student at the door every day and welcomes them into the classroom, where the air is filled with classical music and lemon grass or peppermint aromas to create a calming affect.
Kindergarten is unlike any other grade. Room 50 will be the first structured learning environment for many of the 25 students in her class this year. For several, it will be their first time in a large group setting, and the longest they’ve ever been away from their parents.
Mrs. Hohlbein has three adult children of her own. She, her husband and children all graduated from Springfield schools. She knows first-hand the struggle parents face when sending their children to school for the first time.
“The parents are as nervous as the kids, leaving them for a full day, especially if it’s their first or only child,” Mrs. Hohlbein said. “I still remember my oldest daughter’s first day of school. Her class was two rooms away from the door and I was petrified that she wouldn’t find it. Those things that I remember help me [with parents of my students], because I’ve been through it. I know the anxiety of your kid being one of 400 students all leaving at the same time to go to the bus.”
Kindergarten is where students begin to learn all about the world and how it works. It’s where they learn that 1+1 = 2 and new words, but for the first two weeks in Mrs. Hohlbein’s class, there’s no curriculum. Instead, the students work on learning class procedures and daily routines, which are critical for progress.
“They don’t know how to line up at the door, to push the chairs in, or unpack a bookbag. I have to teach them how to use our bathroom and wash their hands,” Mrs. Hohlbein said. “They want structure and consistency. Don’t mess their day up by doing stations in the morning instead of the afternoon like it’s always been done. They can’t focus.”
Mrs. Hohlbein leads a full-inclusion class, meaning that all students, regardless of learning or physical handicaps, are in a traditional classroom. She said the setting has taught the students a lot about children who have special needs.
“They’re much more accepting. They learn empathy,” Mrs. Hohlbein said. “I tell them, he may look different, but he’s still your buddy, the one that you build Legos and eat lunch with.”
Throughout the school day, Mrs. Hohlbein wears many hats, including those of teacher, peacemaker, nurse, and counselor. A storyteller and children’s entertainer in her spare time, Mrs. Hohlbein spends much of the school day in character. She uses puppets and other props to keep her students excited and interested.
“The attention span of a 5-year old is six minutes, so when I’m up here, I need to be in character, changing my voice and moving things along,” Mrs. Hohlbein said. “It’s engaging to them and they enjoy the characters. They’d rather talk to them than me.”
A lot of first moments happen in kindergarten — students writing their name for the first time, or learning to tie their shoes — and for each milestone, Mrs. Hohlbein makes a point to celebrate. Her favorite is when a student loses a tooth. The students get a flower from the “tooth plant,” tooth-shaped cutouts taped to pencils and stuck in a flower pot, and a pack of sugar-free gum. She even comes to class dressed as the tooth fairy once a year.
“I’m a 20th-century tooth fairy, with a silver astronaut costume, and a tool belt loaded with toothbrushes and toothpaste. The kids love it,” Mrs. Hohlbein said. “For them, I try to make that the most memorable experience. They need to know, no matter how small you are, you’re still important.”
Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.