BERWICK, PA—April Niles, a second-grade teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, is constantly overhyping the third grade, warning her students that "expectations will be very different next year."

The third-grade-fixated Niles works with a pair of her second-graders.

"If you think [third-grade teacher] Mrs. [Bobbie] Shuler is going to stand for this kind of nonsense, you're wrong as can be," Niles said. "If she catches you kicking a desk or running in the hall, you get one warning, and then it's off to the principal. So you'd better clean up your act, because you're in for a rude awakening when you get to third grade."

Niles, 43, frequently invokes the mysterious, unknown realm of the third grade as a means of maintaining order in her classroom. She has used the tactic to get her students to stand in a straight line, remain silent during fire drills, and pay close attention to math lessons.

"You'd all better get your subtraction down, because next year you're going to need it for long division," said Niles, seeking to quell student chatter during a math lesson. "You're going to be dividing single-digit numbers into three-digit numbers, which requires subtraction, and I know for a fact that Mrs. Shuler is not going to wait for you to catch up on things you should've learned this year."

Niles is also quick to point out the many exciting perks that await the class.

"Next year, you're going to get to hold your own lunch tickets, just like in the upper grades," Niles told her students during a recent lunch period. "Won't that be exciting?"

While Niles occasionally uses the third grade as an intimidation tactic, she also uses it as a reward.

"I really envy you," said Niles after her entire class passed a test on Pennsylvania history. "When you get to third grade, you'll get to go to see these places we're learning about. You'll get to go to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell, and you'll get to learn more about our state's history. Maybe you'll even go to Harrisburg. I know last year's third-graders did."

Even the class pet, a hermit crab named Crabby, has given Niles occasion to describe what lies ahead for her students.

"I know how much you love Crabby," Niles said. "Well, you're all going to love next year, because Mrs. Shuler's class has a gerbil. And how well you care for Crabby this year can make all the difference. If you do really well, you can be the one to take care of the gerbil."

Though most faculty members are indifferent toward Niles' constant talk of the third grade, one teacher is concerned.

"I certainly hope those kids don't come into my class with unreasonable expectations," Shuler said. "I don't want the third grade to become a bogeyman or promised land to these kids. I just want them to come in with good attitudes and open minds, because I have a lot to teach them before they get to the really hard stuff in the fourth grade."