As I posted on Twitter last night, and mentioned yesterday, parent-teacher conferences are continuing today in the Champaign schools. I am hoping that my colleagues are having several (if not all) of the parents of their students coming in, so that these oh-so-important conferences can take place. My fear is that tradition will hold, though, and the parents who come in will be the ones who already meet with the teachers regularly, and the parents who really need to be there are going to be the ones who never show. But such are the challenges of public education.
In the meantime, I need something else to blog about, so as to not waste the time of my devoted readers. So I put out an open call yesterday for topics, and I was given two responses: tacos and what led me to become a teacher. I tried to touch on this latter topic with my very first blog entry here, but it is possible that it was missed. Furthermore, I think that I can expand on the question of what led me to teach. And, in a very odd way, I am going to connect it to why I like tacos.
I first began to entertain the notion of being a teacher near the end of my 4th grade year. This was the year that I was in a combined 4/5th grade class, taught by Ms. Kathy McNamara. Ours was an experimental classroom funded by the Christa McAuliffe foundation. (At least, that is what I always thought it was called. I am now not so certain that such an organisation exists, and it is possible that it was actually a grant through the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framington University, but honestly, I am not sure. I do know for certain that Christa’s educational goals and vision were a major contributing factor to the development of our classroom, known as the Classroom of Tomorrow.) Regardless of the source of the establishment of the COT classroom, as we called it, Ms. Mac was an amazing teacher. She focused on project-based learning, experential learning, peer-teaching, group work, and differentiated instruction in a way that I had never experienced before. Of all these activities, the peer-teaching was the most important. I learned that I enjoyed teaching, and I was good at it. From that day onward, I took every opportunity to teach that I could, whether it was formal or informal. I became a teacher. Now I am a professional educator, as well.
So, I am sure that at least one of you is asking, “Okay, cool, but what does that have to do with tacos?” I’m glad you asked. And if you didn’t, well, I’m going to tell you, anyway. I like tacos. They are delicious, they are nutritious (or, at least, they can be, if made well), and they satisfy several different needs at once. If I could, I would probably eat tacos every day. My wife and I have recently started making tacos at home, and we are always glad that we do. If we had more money, I am positive that we would have tacos more often. Tacos are the everymeal. If you want meat, you can have meat. If you want hot and spicy, you can have it. If you want veggies, you’ve got it! Cheese? Plenty! Crunchy one day, soft the next? No problem! Tacos are so variable that they can always give you something new, something exciting. Want to know what corned beef and ketchup tastes like on a soft flour tortilla? Go ahead a try it! (Note: It is the most disgusting thing you will ever put in your mouth. I know. But that is another story for another day.)
When it comes to vocations, education is the taco of the professional fields. It is satisfying, it is healthy, and it meets several different needs at once. In addition to just being good at teaching, I want to know everything. I know that I won’t know everything at once, and I probably won’t ever know everything there is to know, but I want to know as much as I possibly can. I can’t be satisfied with just knowing some things, or a little bit about everything, or even a lot about one thing. I know that there are people who are satisfied with this, and I am glad that there are. If everyone in the world were like me, this would be a very dull place indeed. But I want to know everything about everything. And so I chose to become a professional educator. It is the only field in which I can be paid to learn and to live vicariously through my clients (in this case, my students). One of my heroes of education is a woman named Esmé Raji Codell. I love the concluding paragraph of her autobiographical work, “Educating Esmé: Diary Of A Teacher’s First Year”. In it she makes this keen observation about teachers:
People snicker, “Those who can’t do, teach.” But, oh, how right they are. I could never, ever do all I dream of doing. I could never, ever be an opera star, a baseball umpire, an earth scientist, an astronaut, a great lover, a great liar, a trapeze artist, a dancer, a baker, a buddha, or a thousand other aspirations I have had, while having only been given one thin ticket in this lottery of life! In the recessional [of her students who have graduated], as I watch them, mine, the ones I loved, I overflow with the joyous greed of a rich man counting coins… I experience a teacher’s great euphoria, the knowledge like a drug that will keep me: Thirty-one children. Thirty-one chances. Thirty-one futures, our futures…. Everything they become, I also become.
As a teacher, I want tacos every day. And as a professional educator, I can have them, through the lives of my students. As a substitute teacher, I am richly blessed to not have 15, 20, or 30 students, but hundreds of students. Knowing that my brief encounters with them may have a lasting impact on their lives, in the same way that that one brief year with Ms. Mac changed the course of my life forever, is what motivates me to teach. It is what helps me wake up in the cold, early hours of the morning and head off to school each day. If and when I get a job as a full-time self-contained general education classroom instructor, I will continue to be motivated by this desire to do everything in the world, to know everything in the world, not just through my own efforts, but also through the efforts of my students. Maybe I’ll celebrate the end of each year with a taco party, too.
Today was a half-day in the Champaign school district–at least for students. Teachers had parent-teacher conferences all afternoon, evening, and they have them all day tomorrow. And even though I am officially on the sub lists for two other districts and almost on the list for a third, I didn’t have any work for today. So I decided to do something else.
For those who are visiting the site (hopefully everyone reading this), I’m sure you’ll have noticed the changes. I asked my wonderfully talented wife to design a banner for the blog, and she did more than that–she designed a banner, a background, and she found a new design for the layout. We are still working out some of the kinks in the new design, though, and I am hoping for some input from you, my oh-so-amazingly awesome readers who mainly lurk around as you read of my adventures.
So here are the questions:
What’s working well with the new design?
What’s not working? That is, what still needs to be changed?
What web browser and operating system are you using?
Please be specific in your comments! We really want this to be a blog with not just good content, but good design! While I can’t promise that Gretch will implement all of your suggestions, I know that she will greatly appreciate the feedback!
Today I was a fourth grade teacher at Robeson Elementary. I was subbing for a teacher who has used me several times in the past, and also has written one of my professional letters of reference. I was curious to see how her class would be this year, because last year’s class was awful, and I don’t say that lightly. She herself would often comment on how they were her worst class ever, and most days in her room were simply a struggle to prevent arson, defenestration, and worse.
Fortunately, this year’s class is totally different. While there were a couple of boys who were quite a challenge, I found most of the class to be quite delightful, which meant that I could really teach, rather than simply referee fights and hope that nobody would draw blood during the day. (Incidentally, two students today needed band-aids for different bumps they got, but neither was because somebody caused them injury.) The main focus of my teaching today was math, which is one of the few subjects I have found I love teaching, despite the fact that, throughout my own public education, I detested math. Oddly so, I imagine, since I was actually quite good at math–despite what my wife will say. (In her defense, I am terrible at doing mental math. In my defense, I am terrible at doing mental math, but I don’t think anybody needs to be particularly adept at mentally adding up long lists of numbers!)
The math lesson today focused on understanding the relationship between base-1o place values. One may initially think that this is an easy concept to teach. It is easy to tell students what the place values are. It is much more difficult to get them to understand why they are that way. A current trend in education, and particularly in mathematics, is problem-based learning. The quick summary of this pedagogical style is that it is better for students to discover concepts on their own, rather than be told them. While I believe this is true in many fields, I do not believe it is true in mathematics. A recent discussion with a friend of mine who is earning a PhD in applied mathematics and secondary education actually affirms this notion. It turns out that research has indicated that problem-based learning in math is not more effective that lecture-based learning and, in fact, it may be less effective. Which means that what we are doing may not be for the best.
Luckily for me and my students, I do not believe in problem-based only learning. I believe in briefly presenting an idea, then allowing students to further develop their understanding through problem-based learning. Sometimes this is done by giving them relevant problems and seeing if they can correctly solve them. And sometimes it is done by presenting a scenario and asking the students to explain what is wrong. I used the latter method this morning, and it worked quite well. This is a (not very good) illustration of what I presented to the students:
By way of explanation, the symbols are representations of base-10 blocks. From left to right, we have the large cube (that was 1 whole unit), the flat (1/10th), the long (1/100th), and the cube (1/1000th). For those who are not aware, base-10 blocks don’t have any block larger than the large cube. So the question posed was two parts: one, what’s wrong? and two, how do we fix this? The students quickly identified that there cannot be two digits in one place value column. Their solutions for how to fix it were quite creative. Eventually, they decided that they needed to come up with a symbol to represent a long bar consisting of ten large cubes. They decided to do this by taking the large cube symbol and using a long rectangle instead of a square. It would still have the inverted L-shape in the top right corner to indicate the large cube concept.
This was a perfect example of merging lecture-based instruction (I explained that they were working with base-10 place values, and led a brief discussion about what the place values are), and problem-based learning, in which the students “discovered” a way of representing the concept of the ten (a numeric value that is all sorts of messed up when trying to understand base-systems and numerals and zero). So, all in all, my day as fourth grade teacher went quite well!
Today I voluntarily took the day off to accomplish some urgent tasks. You see, earlier this year, I realised that only substituting in the Champaign schools was not going to quite cover all the bills. In addition, I’ve felt like I’ve been stagnating in my approach to subbing, because I am in the same schools teaching the same curriculum and working with the same group of kids. Of course, as a full-time teacher, I will be working in one school with just one group of kids, but, if and when that happens, I will have a whole new world of adventurations before me. In the meantime, I needed a way to a) earn more money, b) break out of my comfort zone, and c) gain more experience. So I approached three other school districts about working as a substitute teacher.
It turns out the process is more complicated than one would initially think. There are dozens of pieces of paperwork to complete, health exams, TB tests, immunisations, BBP trainings, fingerprinting, mandated reporter acknowledgements, and direct deposit authorisations to issue. Today was the culmination of this project.
In the morning, I drove out to Rantoul, where the relevant Regional Office of Education is headquartered, and spoke with a very nice woman about fingerprinting. It turned out that the Regional Office already had my fingerprints on file, so all I had to do was let her know which districts I was applying to, and she would fax the information over. So that wasn’t too bad. It could have been done on the phone, but I didn’t know the prints were on file, and she didn’t think to ask. Fortunately, while I was in Rantoul, I decided to skip on over to the Rantoul City School’s Superintendent’s Office and turn in all the paperwork for their district. Having accomplished that, I had successfully added myself to another substitute teacher registry.
Later this afternoon, I drove across town to Urbana, where I attended a fascinating seminar on Blood-Borne Pathogens, which informed me that I shouldn’t touch other people’s blood and, in the off-chance I do, I should clean it off, wash my hands, and tell my supervisor. Oh, and I should assume that everyone in the world is carrying Hepatitis B and HIV. Really, not a bad idea when it comes to coming in contact with other folks blood. I also learned that every school has an Automated Electronic Defibrilator but, since I am not trained in its use, I should never ever touch it. Just know where it is. I am thinking of getting trained, since, according to the nurse, all you have to know is how to turn it on.
Having done all that, I turned in my substitute teacher application with Urbana School District 116, and I am mailing the application for Mahomet-Seymour Community School District 137 this afternoon. When all is said and done, I will be registered as a substitute teacher in four districts: the three mentioned today, and Champaign Unit 4, which has been the source of all my substituting adventures thus far. I’m not sure how long it will take to start getting calls from these other districts, but I am definitely excited to be working more frequently!
Today was, like most of the Mondays in October, a day in which I did not have a teaching assignment. I have no idea why this has been the case, but I did make good use of my day off. You see, this weekend was the 25th anniversary of the release of “Back to the Future” and so, of course, I spent the day watching the entire series. In addition to remembering how amazingly awesome the trilogy is, I managed to succeed in getting my wife to upgrade her opinion of the series from “terrible” to “okay” and if that isn’t a success, I don’t know what is!
Now, due to the fact that this blog is dedicated to substituting, it would be a shame for me to leave my post at that. Fortunately, my friend Hannah gave me the idea for what I can write about. She wanted to know how I go about actually receiving assignments to substitute teach, and I realised that I should take time to explain the process.
The first thing you need to know is that in the Champaign school district, all substitute teachers are hired on an as-needed basis. There are some districts that actually have full-time substitute teachers, and I wish Champaign was one of them, but, alas, ’tis not so. Instead, I have work when I am needed. When I first started working as a sub, I learned about assignments through phone calls, either between 5 and 10 pm or after 5 am in the morning. This made the entire process quite difficult, and is probably a reason why I didn’t have many assignments last year.
Champaign instituted a new system this year, though, which has been quite awesome. All substitute assignments are placed through a third-party online service called Aesop, that uses Frontline Placement Services. Any time, any day, I can log on to the site and see what jobs are available in my district. Most of the time, I get this message: “All qualifying Jobs are currently filled. However, please review this web site periodically for new Jobs listings.” Eventually, though, something will show up. It will tell me the school, teacher, date, and time of the assignment, and I am given the option to accept it or reject it. As soon as I accept the assignment, I receive an email that confirms the information. It is also kept on my personal home page on the Aesop site.
This is also why I sometimes receive an assignment at midnight. Teachers are notorious about not wanting to miss work. So if they get sick, they will wait until the last possible moment to decide that they simply can’t go in to work, and they post the absence online. Fortunately, I wake up periodically throughout the night, so I always check for new assignments if I don’t have for the following day.
There are other things, too, such as non-work days, substitute ratings (visible only to other teachers, not subs), and preferred sub lists, but those are just bonus features. The basic process is log on, search for jobs, accept a job, log off, repeat. And that’s how it all works.
Today is Saturday, which means, obviously, I hope, that I haven’t done any teaching today. But I wanted to make a quick post because I have had a note sitting on my desk for a few weeks that I wanted to share.
Several weeks ago, I was teaching in a 5th grade classroom during the students’ independent reading period. Years and years ago, this time was referred to as Silent Sustained Reading, or SSR. My brother Adam always joked that it was really the Sit down, Shut up, and Read period. There may have been quite a bit of truth to this. Know it is often just independent reading, and, as a teacher, I usually find myself reminding students that independent reading is also silent reading. And, as they are required to read for an extended period of time (usually 30 minutes), it is also sustained reading. So, really, it is still the same thing.
While the 5th graders were reading, I walked around the room to see what everyone was reading. I was somewhat surprised to discover that roughly 70% of the class members were reading any one of the many volumes of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. I read the first volume and, I admit, they are fun to read. I was just surprised to see so many of the students reading, essentially, the same thing.
What really struck me was the following week, as I was teaching 6th grade reading, and the class was doing independent reading in the library. Just a year older, these students were reading a vast array of literature. Some of the titles that I jotted down in my note were “Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury, “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Diamond Willow” by Helen Frost. Other students were reading sports anthologies, magazines, and nature books. I am still working on figuring out why there was such a difference in diversity between the two classes. I have looked in on other 5th grade classes and found that, by and large, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is hugely popular across the district. Yet students a year older have such wide variety in reading interests. Is this a common phenomenon, or am I just reading too much into it? I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a definitive answer.
Today I was a grade school music teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary School. I have subbed for this teacher in the past, and her classes are always a lot of fun, and always very well-behaved. There is something fun about helping young people learn how to make a joyful noise through the power of music. It is also quite inspiring to see them figure out rhythms on their own.
Of course, as a substitute, I don’t really teach music the way their music teacher. She never knows in advance who will be teaching for her, and what his or her qualifications are, so the plans for the day usually involve reading stories about music or watching music-themed videos. However, there is still quite a bit of teaching that can be done while watching movies, provided, of course, the movies are well-planned.
With my 5th and 4th grade classes, we watched “Stomp Out Loud”, which features some of the greatest hits of Stomp, an amazing percussion ensemble. My 1st grade and kindergarten classes watching a puppet show featuring the “Carnival of Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens. Both were excellent videos showing the use of music, and fit in quite well with what the classes have been studying in their music class.
My favourite part of the day, though, was the move I showed to the 3rd and 2nd graders. We watched “Animusic”–an amazing audiovisual experience. For those who are not familiar, I recommend this sample:
I love the combination of sound and video animation that this group has created. And, in terms of teaching, it was so awesome watching the students identifying all of the intricate parts of the music and seeing how it all fit together. They have been learning about rhythms, so they were all trying their best to beat the rhythm as the video played. It was pretty great. It was also great that, being familiar with all of these videos, I was able to know what to watch for and what to point out.
Today was definitely a great day as a substitute. I worked with many different students, had to enter a realm that I am not totally comfortable (I typically teach in the traditional classroom, so subbing for a “specials” teacher is always a new experience), and I was able to have a great time. Definitely a great end to the week!
Today I was an 8th grade reading/language arts teacher at Edison Middle School. Even before I accepted this assignment, I began to tremble in fear. You see, I have a not-so-secret fear of teaching anyone in 8th grade or beyond, at least in the public school system. (After high school, the fear disappears.) I am not sure what all has contributed to this fear, although I am positive that at least part of it is the fact that most 8th graders are taller than me–at least the boys are. It is also probably due to the fact that 13-14-year-olds have finally realised the great secret to being a student in a class: the teacher only has as much power and authority as the class wants to give him or her.
And so it was that I hesitantly accepted the assignment to teach 8th graders. These are students who were in 5th grade when I began student teaching. But I don’t know any of the students at Edison in 8th grade, except for a couple of them who I know through church. Yet I have braved far worse things that 8th graders. I have braved, and survived, the dreaded kindergarten classroom–the room where kids cry and suck their thumbs and try to hug the teacher. So I figured it was time to face my fear.
I am glad that I did! The 8th graders I taught were witty, intelligent, fun young men and young women. They were earnest in their questions, honest about their opinions, and open to listening to what I had to share. Many of the class periods were working on plot maps (a concept that I find just barely on this side of inane) and reading short stories by the great American author Edgar Alan Poe. As soon as I realised this, I knew I could win these teenagers in a heartbeat. All it took was a reference to Mr. Poe’s ignoble death from alcoholism or drug overdose. A quick description of the author lying in the gutter, wearing someone else’s clothing, and incoherently yelling out, “Reynolds! Reynolds!” and I had them. It was smooth sailing after that. I was able to teach them about the concept of the serial novella, and helped them draw connections to serial stories today, such as “Harry Potter” and the “39 Clues” series. And, hey, I was even able to make it through a description of the plot map, and why it does serve some use in understanding the outline of a story.
So, while I am still terrified of teaching high schoolers, I am no longer afraid of teaching 8th graders. None of them bite, none of them tried to tie me to a chair and throw desks out the ridiculously large windows that Edison classrooms have, and none of them set the room on fire. I look forward to going back and seeing these kids again!
Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary. I love teaching fifth grade! I love the curriculum, I love the way I can interact with the students, I love the way they want to know, know, know, know, know. Fifth graders have a thirst for knowledge that doesn’t seem to be present in any of the other primary grades. Middle school students and high schoolers also have a thirst for knowledge, but I am not as keen on teaching those grades as I am the intermediate/upper primary ones.
Students in 5th grade are also learning how to interact with one another. They are just entering the wonderful world of pre-adolescence, and they want to be liked. This makes for very interesting times, particularly as a substitute teacher. Sometimes students try to be liked by their peers by acting up and trying to get a laugh out of their classmates. I recently saw a poster in a different classroom that said something along the lines of “Class Clowns: Laugh, and the class laughs with you. But you spend detention alone.” Now, I’m not saying that all class clowns are trouble-makers. In fact, I find humour to be indispensable as a tool for managing a class and breaking up the tedium of the day. But there is a time and place for everything. And that is part of what these young students are trying to learn.
I remind myself of this every time I enter a fifth grade classroom, and today was no different. Except that instead of one class clown, I had 9. Out of a class of 17. (Yes, the classes at this particular school really are that small.) So it was a bit of a challenge for me. I try to ignore the class clowns as much as possible, and encourage their classmates to ignore their antics as well, because they do what they do for attention, and if they don’t get attention, they will generally stop. But when more than half the class is acting up, it can sometimes feel like it would be easier to single-handedly keep two dozen rubber duckies underwater than to effectively manage this class.
My first solution was to allow as much group work as possible. I have often found that when students work together, they are able to socialise as they talk and therefore don’t feel the need to yell out in class. This worked really well throughout the morning, but by afternoon, things were starting to get out of hand. Even after having everyone return to their seats, and even with an aide in the room, the students seemed determine to not follow directions. This made it extremely difficult for me to help those who were struggling with their assignments. Fortunately, I was able to get things under control just before the regular classroom teacher returned to the room. She immediately laid down the law and the class quickly got back in line.
Ah, the anticipated joy of having my own classroom! When I have students who already respect me and want to follow directions, because they have me there every day, instead of just once every now and then! Yet I still love substituting, as well! I love the challenge of walking into a room and having to win the class over in just a few minutes. I love being able to work with students and have a positive impact, even if I am just there for a few minutes. I love being able to share my lucky coin with students all over the district, and watch as they figure out where I got the coin. And I love being able to tell a teacher that I succeeded in teaching their students, even if they did seem to want to just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk all day long. That is why I continue to come back: because I love teaching.
As you may have noticed, I’ve been battling a rather nasty cold for the past several days. After feeling like I was going to pass out during a very light teaching assignment yesterday, I realised I needed to take a day off to recover. I think it has helped. I am still a bit congested, but I am not coughing up all sorts of nastiness all the time, and I can walk around without feeling like I am going to fall over.
So, what does a substitute teacher do on a week-day when he’s not working? I can’t speak for all substitutes, but I can speak for myself. Today was a pajama day. I woke up, had breakfast and read a few chapters out of “A Reader for the Teacher: An anthology of ideas and teaching helps taken from ‘The Instructor’–The teachers’ magazine of the Church [of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]” compiled by A. Hamer Reiser. (I was going to provide a link for this book, but it is apparently out of publication. Not surprising, I suppose, since it was originally published in 1960, and the LDS Church has made many considerable changes to its teaching program in the past 50 years.)
After getting in my morning’s reading, I decided to tackle one of the many projects I’ve had accumulating around home. Today’s project was sorting and organising all of the VHS tapes and DVDs that my wife and I own. In the process, I discovered a tape from my 8th grade graduation that I didn’t even know existed, found an old home video my oldest brother and his wife sent my parents about five years ago, and rediscovered some wonderful movies that I forgot I owned, while also watching some I’d never seen.
All this while wearing my pajamas and spending time with my wife, who was taking a break from her own current design project. So, all in all, a productive day at home for your favourite substitute teacher trying to recover from a cold!
Today I was a middle school special education teacher who works with the students who are emotionally disturbed at Edison Middle School. I’ve worked with these kids before, and they are all really awesome. Their teachers and aides are awesome, too. Most of what I do on these days is simply be there to answer questions, help maintain discipline, and encourage students to stay on task and keep focused.
There are moments when it feels unnecessary for me to be there, but then I think about what all of these students are going through. Emotional disturbance isn’t just some quack theory. It is real and it can be debilitating. Yet these boys and girls wake up every morning and come to school every day. They go to all of their classes, despite their disadvantages. They see their teachers there to support and encourage them, and they keep coming back.
What I find even more amazing is that the teachers keep coming back, not just every day, every week, and every month, but every year. These men and women are dedicated and passionate about what they do, and I am simply in awe of what they accomplish. I am amazed at the levels of patience, compassion, tolerance, and understanding these educators obviously have in order to work in the special education field. I hope that I would. I am inspired by their dedication and I hope that I can be like them.
But I do not plan on being a special education instructor. I am what is known in the profession as a generalist. I work with everyone. So I also hope to be as supportive as possible for the special education teachers and aides. I once met a teacher who complained about having students with special needs in his classroom, and complained about having aides present to work with these kids. I will never do that. I am filled with respect for these students, and I love what they contribute to the class, just as I love what all of my students contribute. And I will never, ever, ever resent having another adult present, even if he or she is just there to work with one student. After all, at the end of the day, each teacher is there to work with the one, even while working with the group.
Today I was a 7th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School. Today was also what the school district refers to as a “School Improvement Day”–edu-speak for “the teachers need to get grades turned in by Monday, so we’re going to pay them to get it done this afternoon.” [EDIT: This is not the only reason for SIPs. In fact, the teachers attend district-wide seminars to become more effective educators. Please recognise that my description is meant to be tongue-in-cheek commentary.] To the students, it just means that they have an extra few hours tacked on to their weekend. To the substitute, it just means that there is half a school day that I won’t get paid.
In the elementary schools, half-days are still days in which students can be productive. Three and a half hours allow for plenty of time for work, whether it is literacy, math, social studies, science, or social skills development through class celebrations. In the middle schools, though, half-days are days of 20-minute class periods. So, really, what’s the point?
The point is that the students are learning how much they can accomplish in a short period of time. The point is that, in the real world, bosses don’t always give you an entire day to get a project or task completed. The point is that, even in twenty minutes, the students can get into the room, be given an assignment, and, by working together, complete the entire thing. The point is that, in just twenty minutes, the teacher can demonstrate to the students that every minute of every hour of every day can be spent in something worthwhile.
So even though I lost out on $45 dollars this afternoon, today wasn’t as pointless as one may think. And hey, a lot of the students recognised me from the last half-day I spent in their class, and they took time to tell me that they greatly prefer me over the other subs, who are mean and petty (according to them). Also, seeing as I am still losing my voice, it gave me a break from speaking non-stop for seven hours. Finally, half-days give me a chance to share one of my favourite words with students: floccinaucinihilipilification. It is what many, teachers, students, and parents, think of half-days.
Yesterday morning I had an assignment to teach for a third grade teacher at Robeson Elementary School. I have known this teacher since I began working as a substitute, and have been looking forward to being in her class. As an aside, I have spent more time teaching at Robeson than at every other school in this district combined. The teachers, administrators, support staff, and students all know me–most of them by name. So it is always a joy to go into a new classroom.
Unfortunately, I have been suffering from the side-effects of my first-ever flu vaccine last week, which means that, among other things, I am losing my voice. I am drinking lots of herbal infusions (also known as herbal teas, despite the lack of actual tea), pounding down the acetaminophen at healthy doses, and trying to speak with a soft, even voice. As a teacher, this can be difficult. As a substitute, it is nigh-impossible. Nevertheless, substitutes don’t get sick days, so away to school I went, scratchy voice and all.
The class was very noisy, and several students seemed to have a distinct lack of respect for substitute teachers in general, and me specifically. One of them even stated that because I am a substitute, she doesn’t need to listen to me. * sigh * Fortunately for me, this class has an incredibly competent student teacher who has been with the class from the beginning of the year. So she was really the one leading the class, and I was there as support. It was rough-going, but not a terrible day.
Yesterday evening, an assignment for this same teacher came up for this afternoon. So I accepted it, hoping that my second visit to the class would be better. I was wrong.
The majority of the students ignored every direction I gave, wandered around the classroom, yelled at their classmates, and generally disrespected each other and me. Even after I revoked their afternoon recess and their movie that they were going to watch, they continued to show a great deal of disrespect. I realised that I had lost this class. I let their teacher know that, at least this year, it would probably be best if I didn’t come back. She sighed, expressed her disappointment, but agreed, pointing out that her class has a hard time with substitute.
I left feeling dejected. I’ve only ever had two other classes that I have had to resign from teaching. One was a fourth grade class that drove the teacher to retirement. During the second day I taught there, students threw wet paper towels at me and tried to ruin school property. The other class as a first grade class that refused to do any of the work that their teacher had left for them. I got home, expressed how bad the day had gone to my wonderfully supportive wife, and then I found my silver lining. My lesson learned from this class. It came from a recent address given by one of the leaders of my church. I don’t want to get too caught up with the spiritual aspects of the talk, but, by applying his address to my role as a teacher, I have learned this valuable nugget of truth:
When it comes to classroom management, students have the control, not the teachers. The teachers invite, entice, and encourage, but the students must actively seek to manage themselves. It is only when all of the students have each decided to behave correctly that the class can be truly managed and led toward the great truths that are to be discovered through learning and teaching. If the students don’t want to control themselves, then no amount of commanding, coercing, or compelling will do any good. Students must invite self-control into their lives. My job as a teacher is to show my students why self-mastery is to be desired over instant gratification. As a substitute teacher, I am given approximately 5 minutes to accomplish this. If, after five minutes, there is still doubt, then the students will probably choose instant gratification over self-mastery. It is definitely something to think about as I continue to learn and grow as an educator.
It is Thursday morning, and I have a teaching assignment this afternoon. I promised myself I would get this blog up and running this morning, though, so here I am. Where do I start? I don’t want to jump in with musings on teaching quite yet. No, I’ll save that for this afternoon. I’ll start with the very beginning. According to Fraulein Maria, it is a very good place to start.
Why am I teacher? I was asked to write about this a few years ago while I was still in college, and I happened to stumble upon my paper (short essay, really). I have found that it is still applicable to me today, although I have made some edits here and there. So here goes:
Rainer Maria Rilke, an author of the early 1900s, published a series of letters he wrote to Franz Kappus, an aspiring poet who wanted Rilke’s advice and approval of his work. The work is aptly and simply entitled, “Letters To A Young Poet.” In the very beginning, Rilke suggests to his young friend that the only way to know if he [Kappus] would know if he was to be a poet or not would be to examine himself in the middle of the night and see if there is anything else he can think of doing other than writing poetry.
Although Rilke’s advice was offered in the context of writing, I have found that it has many applications in my own vocational goals. I have often asked myself, “What do I want to do with my life?” When I wake up in the morning, I know that answer. I want to teach. I cannot think of doing anything else with my life. A student once asked me why I wasn’t a lawyer, or a doctor. I responded, “Because I am a teacher.” It seemed self-evident to me that that was what I would be, because it is what I was (and still am today). For many people, the decision of a permanent vocation is made in high school, college, or sometimes even later. Not so for me. I made the decision to enter the professional teaching field nearly 13 years ago, shortly after I completed the fourth grade. The decision to teach was influenced in part by my fourth grade teacher, but also by my life-long desire to learn and share what I have learned with others.
I often had individuals, both those I had known and near-strangers, tell me that I would make a great teacher. I tried to take advantage of every opportunity to teach. Perhaps the earliest true teaching experience I had was when I was 12 years old. I was enrolled in a church Sunday school class that had no teacher. My classmates and I were unable to find the individual in charge of the program, so we took it upon ourselves to take charge of our classroom. (In retrospect, I don’t think we looked too hard for him.) I was made the unofficial teacher for the classroom. Each week for six months, I would go to our church library and get the lesson manual and supplies needed for our class. Often I would prepare the lesson ahead of time. At the end of this six-month period, the Sunday school president finally noticed that we had no adult teacher. When he asked where our teacher was, the entire class explained that, in lieu of our teacher (whom we had never met), I had been teaching the class. This experience was particularly noteworthy to me because the Sunday school president’s son was in my class. Shortly after that, we had a “real” teacher assigned to our class, but even today, those who were in our class that year talk about what a great experience it was for us to teach each other, while I lead our class in learning.
I continued to seek out opportunities to teach all people whenever the chance arrived. Throughout my experiences in the public education system, I would lead study groups, help my peers, and give guidance to my classmates. About a year after graduating high school, starting in November 2002, I had the opportunity to serve as a traveling lay minister for my church for two years. During that time, I was assigned to the San Bernardino County area of California. This area was very different, culturally, economically, and socially from my small hometown in Illinois. I was able to learn much about others’ cultures and beliefs, which have been a very positive influence on my ideas of diversity. One family, in particular, I was able to get to know quite well was the Oliver/Woods family. This was a low-income, African-American family consisting of a recently divorced mother and her five daughters, ages ranging from 14 to 8 years old. By getting to know this family, I was able to learn how to tailor teaching to those whose experiences and background were very different from my own, but I was also able to learn that there are many things about all people that are universal, such as the desire to learn and know more about the world around us. While there were many moments when things I said were not understood, due to our cultural differences, these moments of confusion allowed us to discuss them and develop mutual understanding. From this experience, I learned how easy it can be to overcome potential barriers by building bridges of tolerance and understanding.
Another aspect of my work during these two years was to provide community service in the neighbourhoods in which I lived. At one point, we had the opportunity to volunteer at the library of a local grade school. Here, again, we had the chance to get to know children of various backgrounds and learn more about the diverse culture that exists within our nation. Another time, we helped a family with several home improvement projects. As with the Oliver/Woods family, Ana was the mother in a single-parent home with several children. As we helped with the projects around the house, we were able to help the children become involved in many tasks that they may not have been able to participate in otherwise. This experience taught me the importance of not under-estimating children because of their racial, ethnic, cultural, or economic backgrounds. They were often eager and willing to learn and to help, and we were more than willing to help them do so.
Teaching is so much more than presenting information from a textbook. It is also more than creating a classroom that is open to diversity, although these are both important aspects of it. The best descriptions of teaching I know comes from a movie I saw some time ago: “A teacher has two jobs. To fill young minds with knowledge, yes. But also to act as a compass to give those minds direction.” The true teacher is one who guides students to a personal, life-long quest for knowledge, so that some day the student can, as Elbert Hubbard once observed, “get along without his teacher.” To “get along” is to be able to learn, to appreciate, and to understand the changing world in which we live, and it is my hope to be a part of that process.
That is why I teach.