The Skills I Use in Law School, I Learned From Third Graders

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Category: Legal Education, Marquette Law School, Public
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When I first came to law school, I thought that I was at a disadvantage compared to a lot of my peers. Instead of coming straight to law school out of undergraduate studies, I had been an elementary school teacher for about three years before I decided to return to school to study law. I did not have an undergraduate degree in anything related to the law, politics, or even social sciences. I had never set foot in a law firm office before. The only exposure that I had had to the law was mostly through the depictions seen on television and in the movies.

While some of my peers had taken courses to prepare them for the study of law, I was making macaroni pictures with third graders and teaching them about division and grouping. While most pre-law students spent time with counselors to prepare them for the law school journey, I was attending teacher conferences and working with guided reading groups in the classroom. Coming to law school was a decision that I had made during my last year of teaching. It had been a dream of mine in high school to attend law school, but as time passed, I drifted into the atmosphere of elementary education, and my studies shifted towards that goal. I forgot all about law school, until that last year of teaching, when I decided that it was never too late to give up on dreams and go in another direction, regardless of how far that direction seemed to diverge from what I had already accomplished.

As I am now in my second year of law school, I am beginning to realize that I am not encumbered by the disadvantage that I thought I was, and that, instead, my days of teaching had actually helped me to prepare for law school in ways that I had never imagined. It didn’t matter that I had not come to law school directly from undergraduate studies. On the other hand, postponing post-graduate studies until after my teaching career (however short-lived it was) had helped me to become the person I am today, and also helped to provide me with skills and tools that I think are vital to the study of law. I feel that my days as an elementary education teacher are no longer something that I wished I would have bypassed, and I now embrace those times as a point in my academic career that have provided me with the support and skills that have become so valuable to me in law school.

I would really like to share what I learned throughout my days of elementary education, and how those days have contributed to law school studies. My hope is that, by reading through this, others can share in the experience and learn how the young minds in the third grade can actually teach us more about life than we could teach them.

1. Be overly prepared: I would plan for hours what I would do each day with my third graders, and would often plan activities that I thought would last for a whole class period, with some work left over for home. However, no matter how I planned, activities that I thought would last for an hour would last ten minutes, and activities that I thought would be a short exercise would end up needing reinforcement with several more lessons. Law school translation: Stay on top of readings, and maybe even try to read one class period ahead. Things come up in life, and the best way to not get frustrated and stressed is to ensure that you are overly prepared. If you all of a sudden need to do something in the evening, the work you put in ahead of time means that you won’t be in class the next day without having the assigned readings done.

2. Be organized:  As a teacher, I had to be very organized, so that I could keep track of all of my students with their individual reading test scores, grades, curriculum tests, and other important papers and emergency contact information. At a moment’s notice, I would need to know where things were kept in case a parent popped in unannounced, or in case the administration decided that they needed a spreadsheet of test scores by the end of the school day. Law school translation: Make sure you keep your notes and class assignments organized. When doing outlining and preparing for exams later on in the semester, you will thank yourself for the time you spent organizing everything throughout the semester, and you won’t need to try and track down friends for their notes from that one contracts class in October.

3. Expect the unexpected: Days in the third grade were NEVER as I had planned them to be. I would plan a math lesson, only to have it be interrupted by a fire alarm test, or by a child who became sick in the middle of the class period. I would plan a reading lesson, only to be faced with a teachable moment, after a child had asked a good question. I needed to think on my feet. Law school translation: You need to be prepared to think on your feet and apply what you know. You may go into class thinking that you won’t be called on because you were on the spot last week only to have the professor speak your name to your surprise. Be prepared for class, do the assignments, stay on track with reading, and be prepared to think on your feet. Lawyers have to do it all the time in practice…why not start now.

4. Take mind breaks: Every once in a while, we had standardized testing in the third grade. During this time, I would often give my students “brain breaks.” This was time given to them where we would take a short walk outdoors, or where I would read a book to them while they sat on the carpet. This allowed them to rest their minds so that they could think more clearly and not be too stressed out on their next tests. Law school translation: Give yourself brain breaks! We all think we can sit down for hours on end and study for our exams. However, we quickly become fatigued or unable to think and process information as clearly after a while. Cramming studying into one night simply does not work. We need to remind ourselves to take short breaks during studying every once in a while. We should go on a walk, go work out, or even talk to family in between studying. The time we give our brains to rest will enable us to study more effectively and do better on exams.

5. Finally, don’t take grades personally: My students always tried to do their best. They studied for spelling tests, they practices flash cards, and they vied to increase their reading levels on guided reading tests. However, sometimes things did not go as planned, and I had to remind them that grades are letters or numbers, and that their lives are not defined by grades. One can always improve, and there are always chances to improve. Law school translation: This is one that is tough for me. I am a perfectionist, and I remember crying in high school when I received an A- in art class. However, I have to remind myself of the words that I would use to console my third graders. We are not defined by the grades we get. Yes, grades are important, and yes, we should always try our best. However, life happens. We get sick during exam times, we might not do well with multiple choice tests, or we might have trouble putting our answers down in essay format. We need to always remind ourselves that a grade is a grade. We can always do better next time, we learn from our mistakes, and we move on, so that we focus on the future, instead of dwelling on the past.

Sometimes, our lives take us in directions we might not have contemplated. I went from a teaching career to being a law student. However, we need to know that we should never think about the “what ifs” and “I should haves” and instead, focus on what our different journeys have given us to help us prepare for the next steps in our lives.

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2 Responses to “The Skills I Use in Law School, I Learned From Third Graders”

  1. Lindsey Anderson Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Jessica!

  2. Melissa Greipp Says:

    Jessica,

    This is a great blog–thanks for posting! As a former high school English teacher (who also practice taught in middle school and worked with elementary school students), your blog really resonated with me. Teaching is excellent preparation for work as a lawyer–the two dovetail well. After all, a lawyer many times must also be a teacher–explaining the law, fielding questions, communicating in writing and orally, managing people, etc. Good luck with your studies.

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