Webster School kindergarten teacher Dorothy Helwig has been a veteran of 37 first days of school, so she knew exactly what to expect when the first schoolbell rang Wednesday.
“There was a time when there was a lot of crying and emotion,” Helwig said. “But not that much anymore. It’s much different now. People asked me if it was an emotional day. I said, ‘For them or for me?’ I’m the one who cried more this time.”
For Tony D’Angelo, it was a totally new experience. While the veteran of the Weehawken school district has been involved with kids for 30 years, Wednesday marked the first time D’Angelo opened the school year as a principal – and it was the first time he experienced the kindergarten anxiety firsthand. D’Angelo became the principal at Webster School last January, but this was his initial first day of school at the job.
“I was concerned with the separation anxiety, but we really didn’t have that many,” D’Angelo said. “The teachers did well. They’re old hats at it. It was a new experience for me.”
While there were a handful of emotional children and equally emotional parents at Webster for the first day of school, the numbers of screaming, crying 5-year-olds are way down.
According to some of the kindergarten teachers at the school, the reason the day isn’t as emotional as it was in the past stems from the children already experiencing school-like settings in the Webster School’s early childhood pre-kindergarten program or in other daycare facilities.
“They usually all come in prepared for school now,” Helwig said. “They have everything they need and they’re ready. They’re so accustomed to being in school now that it’s old hat to them. It’s not as emotional as it used to be.”
Helwig said that she had a child who was a little sad that his father was leaving him alone for the first time.
“He said he wanted to kiss his father goodbye one more time,” Helwig said. “He didn’t press the issue. I told the boy that he already kissed his father and that his father was gone. He was sad for a little while, but it was only about two minutes or so, then he was absolutely fine. If the parent stays around, it only gets worse.”
Helwig said that she has plenty of personal experience with separation anxiety. Her daughter apparently cried for almost two months after leaving her mother for the first time.
“I thought she needed to be with other children,” Helwig said. “I know what it’s like to leave a child crying. I didn’t know what it was like until I did it myself, what it’s like to walk away. It’s not easy.”
The biggest challenges
Laura Gagliostro has been teaching kindergarten for 13 years. She also knows that the first day can be emotional. “It can be emotionally trying, both on the parent and the child,” Gagliostro said. “But because most of these students attend Pre-K, they’re used to getting ready for school in the morning and they know what they have to do. We really don’t have too many criers anymore. There are a few tears, but nothing that lasts more than two or three minutes.”
Gagliostro said that she also had personal experience this year, as her son attended kindergarten for the first time.
“I knew exactly what those parents were feeling,” Gagliostro said. “I have a lot more sympathy for them now.”
Gagliostro said that during the first few days, the students just want to know when they are going home.
“So you have to tell them exactly what they’re doing, that we’re going to have a snack, then play, then color and after they color, then Mommy is coming,” Gagliostro said. “It has to be very structured. Children need that. After you get through the first few days, then everything is a breeze.”
D’Angelo said that perhaps the biggest challenge of the first day of school was weeding out the parents in the school’s hallway.
“They all have their cameras and camcorders,” D’Angelo said. “It’s almost like a graduation. They’re all fighting for position to take pictures of their kids and they don’t want to leave. Eventually, they got the idea. That was quite a change for me. It was unique.”
Helwig said that things have changed so much in the last 20 years, thanks to the Pre-K preparation.
“The only problem I have is that I’m now teaching the children of children I once taught. Now, that’s scary.”
Helwig said. “Besides that, everything went well. The kids all got on the right buses and they had a nice day.”
Helwig said that the real challenge starts Monday when the full-day sessions begin.
“When we get to lunch period and they’ve already eaten their lunch during the day, then that’s the next big challenge,” Helwig said.