Why I Wish My Fifth Graders Were Running The Country (TWEETS)

I was a fifth grade teacher for a lot of years. I’ve spent countless hours encouraging children to be thoughtful, moral, cooperative members of our classroom community. The idea was to help young people understand their place in society.

We worked on these skills every single day, all day. We learned, slowly, that we don’t have to agree with each other or even like each other. But if our small community is going to succeed, then all of us have to respect each other. We learned that sometimes it is our turn to talk, and sometimes it’s our responsibility is to listen.

Our classrooms were safe, functional, supportive places where all of us grew during our ten months together.

You have no idea how much I wish those kids were in charge of the United States right now!

Let me explain the rules that of a healthy fifth grade classroom.

Every member of the community has equal value and an equal right to be heard.

Schools are very diverse places. The community where I taught included children of various races, religions, and languages. Like every public school, we had kids with a wide range of intellectual abilities and academic skills. We had physically disabled kids, autistic kids, emotionally challenged kids. Kids who were blind and kids who were hearing impaired. Advanced kids, and kids with physical or musical gifts.

We included everyone in every lesson, every activity, every recess. We tolerated no bullies, and no excluding. We respectfully talked out our differences. We listened to each other.  It wasn’t easy, and it cost this old teacher a boatload of gray hairs, but we did it. Year after year, we did it.

Why can’t the people in government be that respectful and inclusive?

We never call people names. Not ever.

You know how kids are. It’s all too easy to call people names when you’re mad at them. We absolutely never allowed kids to call each other names that were hurtful. No “chubby”, no “dork”, no “loser.” It wasn’t allowed. If a classmate called you by a name you didn’t like, even a nickname, you were supposed to ask them to stop. If they didn’t, it was time for yet another class meeting.

I wish the people in power would learn this little lesson.

Everyone makes mistakes. We have to learn from them.

People learn best when they take intellectual and academic risks. If you don’t push yourself, you can’t grow. Good teachers support the idea of mistakes. We encourage kids to try, to give it a shot, to see what happens. Great science happens that way. Math discoveries happen.

But people make personal and emotional mistakes, too. Especially children around fifth grade age, when self-control is just beginning to develop and a sense of empathy is growing.

Sometimes kids do things that hurt other kids. They steal the ball, or they roll their eyes, or they sit down right where their classmate was planning to sit. Sometimes they make fun of someone or call someone a name.

And almost every child, every time, will deny having made that mistake, or will try to blame it on someone else. You all know what I mean. “He hit me first.”

Admitting that we made a mistake is a huge part of fifth grade life. I modeled that for the kids constantly at the beginning of the year. I owned up to every misspelled word on the board and every mistake in math. I stopped myself when I was getting crabby, and I told the kids, “I shouldn’t have raised my voice. I made a mistake.”

Now that’s something I’d like to see more of in government.

It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry.”

This is one of the hardest lessons for children to learn.

After getting a child to admit that they made a mistake and did something wrong, the next step is convincing  them that you can’t undo it just by saying you’re sorry.

“OK, fine!” I can pictures a fifth grader with a pout and tear-filled eyes saying. “Fine. I pushed you. I’m sorry!”

And then the culprit tries to wiggle away, thinking the whole thing is over.

Oh, but it isn’t.

Now it’s time to make amends. Or in the words of “The Responsive Classroom,” it’s time for an apology of action. If I took your seat, I might tell you that for the next week I won’t sit down in circle until you’ve already got a spot. If I called you a name, I might tell you that I’ll do your classroom job for a few days. Something that will show you that I’m thinking about what I did, and that I take it seriously.

Nobody in Washington, or in public life in general, seems to understand this! If we had a nickel for every elected official who cheated on his wife and then said, “I’m sorry” in public, we could pay off the national debt.

Kids gradually gain maturity.

It was hard being a fifth grade teacher, but I loved it. I loved knowing that I was helping to guide kids toward maturity. Children learn what we teach, and they become more thoughtful, more functional, more successful members of society.

Between September and June, fifth graders learn that for any community to thrive, all members have to respect and care for each other.

Why, in the name of every child in the world, can’t the people running our government remember that lesson?

Featured image via Ethel I. Baker Elementary School.



Karen is a retired elementary school teacher with many years of progressive activism behind her. She is the proud mother of three young adults who were all arrested with Occupy Wall Street. To see what she writes about in her spare time, check out her blog at "Empty Nest, Full Life"