I've taught in different places around the world in very different contexts. In every school I learned more about my craft as a teacher, and meeting the very different needs of the wonderful children in my care. My first teaching job took me a reception (kindergarten) class in the north of London, where I learned a very important lesson about words.
The four and five-year olds in my care were brilliant. We had worked hard in the first few weeks to settle into the routines of school, and the time had come for them to start doing PE. As was the case in London, the children all came to school in their regular uniforms and changed into their PE kit for the lesson, then back into uniform afterwards. I'd prepped the parents to encourage the kids to dress and undress at home independently. I'd talked it through with the kids. We were as ready as we'd ever be.
The day of our first PE lesson came, and we were all over it.
"OK, everyone needs to be standing behind their chairs. Make sure your chair is tucked in about halfway so you have room to change but also room for your kit on your chair."
"First thing I want you to do is take off your shoes and socks, put your socks inside your shoes."
"Now, put your shoes under your chair."
"Don't walk around the place! Make sure you stay in your space right behind your chair."
"When you are ready, make sure you are looking at me."
"Well done! You are all doing great! Listen carefully now...all eyes on me...we are going to take off our jumpers now and put them on the back of your chair."
"Great! Next, take off your shirt and put in on top of your jumper...Great. Now I want you to take off your pants, and put them on your chair too...Don't walk around, remember to stay in your place..."
I looked around and noticed one little guy struggling with his buttons, so I gave him the attention he needed for a few moments, and then turned back to survey the scene. And what a scene it was. All around me, little people were giggling and pointing at each other...as they stood STARK NAKED all around the room. Naked?! What!?! Why were they all naked?? Internally panicked, I cut right away to the oh-so practiced 'stop' signal, singing, "Everybody stop!", and thrusting my arms in the air as we did a hundred times a day. And of course, each and every one of these children obediently followed suit, turning to face me with their hands in the air, the full extent of their birthday suits on display. As I drew breath and stood dumbstruck in the middle of the room, in walked the school nurse. "Blimey!", she cries. "What in the 'eck's going on 'ere?"
"I don't know what's happening, they all took their undies off! Children, put your undies back on! Don't take your undies off, just your pants. Put your undies back on!"
Blank little faces and round eyes looked back at me, as the nurse fell on the ground in fits of laughter. A timid little voice came from in front of me. "Miss Nash, what's undies?"
By this time, our oh-so diligent nurse had composed herself enough to explain to me that undies are in fact called pants in the UK, and what I called pants were actually trousers. The ball dropped. And then the fun of thirty small children trying to get their underpants back on began. There were children falling over their feet, struggling to get these tricky things in place, children delighting in this new word for pants, and swinging their undies around in celebration. And all the while, I am trying to compose myself and wanting oh-so desperately for private parts to become that once again. I could only imagine the stories the children would tell their parents that afternoon - indeed I knew that with all the build-up to this event there would be several parents asking at the school gate. And what would the principal have to say? It was too much to bear thinking about in the moment, as the nurse and I began to move about the room pointing and instructing, not wanting to go too close to any of the action unfolding before us.
Thankfully we had two adults in the room, and we were finally able to stop the panic (on my part) and giggles (on hers) as order was finally restored. Those thirty little bodies filed out for a much-shortened PE lesson, and I reflected on the very important lesson I'd learned about the importance of words.