Life as a Preschool Ninja

Yeah, you read that right. I’m a well-trained ninja. I can block flying items, catch falling kids, jump from the floor to my feet instantaneously, and open up doors using my knees when my hands are full. You might be surprised to see me in action. Most people don’t realize what it’s like to be a developmental preschool teacher.

In a classroom full of young students learning how to move their bodies and express their feelings, things can be rather unpredictable. In general, my classroom team intercepts danger and prevents injuries almost every time. But there are close calls that require quick action. My students climb in areas they shouldn’t, run when they should walk, eat things that aren’t food, and occasionally express anger by throwing things, biting, scratching, hitting, kicking, or falling on the ground unexpectedly. Obviously, my job entails teaching these young people better ways to handle situations. But it takes time for kids to internalize school rules and develop coping skills to express their very big feelings. In the meantime, the ninja skills come in handy.

Despite my quick reflexes and keen eye for danger, I’m not invincible. I injured my shoulder the first day of preschool this year while helping a new student calm down after parent drop off. He was frantically trying to climb over the fence, pulling me in different directions, and falling to the ground unexpectedly. (It’s scary for children the first time they come to school.) I could feel the soreness later that day and throbbing pain the next morning. Perhaps it’s age creeping up on me. Perhaps it was just the perfect storm of pushing, pulling, and jerking on my limbs. Whatever it was, it pierced through my ninja prowess and I haven’t been the same ever since.

I’ve been hurt plenty of times as a teacher, especially while teaching preschool students with autism or behavior challenges. When students refuse to walk or unexpectedly drop to the floor, your back takes a beating. I’ve never reported these incidents because the soreness seemed minor and I was typically back to myself in a few days. Now, I suffer from chronic back pain (a bulging disc) that is far too expensive to deal with on my insurance plan. If you are a young teacher, take my advice: Report your workplace injuries and get them treated. Don’t let pride or a sense of invincibility get in the way. You need your strength and range of motion to remain in the profession.

Honestly, special education teachers get hurt all the time (unfortunately) as powerfully described in this blog from 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham. He gives a charge to educators that we need to talk more about these stories. I agree.

I reported my shoulder injury to our nurse right away as a precaution. I felt silly about filing a worker’s compensation claim (my first one), but I was afraid not to. And four months later of physical therapy, following doctor’s restrictions, icing, heating, stretching, appointments, kinesthetic taping, using a TENS machine, and wearing a shoulder brace…I am still trying to heal from this injury. Yeah, really. (Talk about a blow to the ninja ego!) Here’s the thing: I get re-injured over and over again in my classroom.

Even when I’m extremely cautious, unexpected things happen during the day. Kids still fall, throw things, hit, kick, pull on me unexpectedly, and sometimes hug with great force. My ninja reflexes kick in automatically to keep the kids safe. If you’re a parent or a teacher, you know exactly what I mean. Caring about kids turns on your supernatural Spidey-sense.

I don’t think I’m the only teacher or paraprofessional getting hurt in the classroom. I’ve been amazed at the comments I’ve heard from various physical therapists and every single doctor I’ve seen. They say things like: I see teachers all the time, You guys get hurt so much at work, I can’t believe how physical your job is, and I’ve seen (insert big number) teachers so far this week. It’s time for educators to talk about some of these downsides of the job and recommend solutions to improve the outcomes.

Personally, I think Arizona teachers might have greater risk for injury in the classroom. Arizona has the highest student to teacher ratio in the country. Put simply, this means there is less staff available to keep students safe or intervene during crisis. Additionally, this means teachers have a greater workload: more students to know, more families to inform, more papers to grade, more needs to differentiate, and more behaviors to address. Could this decrease opportunities for self-care and exercise that prevents injury? I think so. Additionally, Arizona still ranks 49th in the country for teacher pay when adjusted for cost of living. This means teachers have less money to spend on healthcare and may also mean that school districts have to choose low cost (low benefit) health insurance plans. I truly hope that our state can address some of these factors that may increase the risk of injury for Arizona classroom teachers.

In the meantime, let’s keep this conversation going. Please take the time to login and add your comments. What factors do you find important to reduce teacher injury? What stories do you have to share about being injured in your classroom?


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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