After several weeks of school, my students finally made an observation that I had been waiting for all year: What we have been doing in math has been pretty easy. So far.
This has been an interesting observation for several reasons.
First, I had been hearing stories about the impact of last year’s large class sizes, particularly in terms of math instruction. (The third grade last year had over 30 students in each classroom.) Among many stories, I was told that the students hadn’t learned as much math as they might have if the classes had been smaller. Ironically, the third grade teachers shared that they actually taught more material last year than before. These worries have proven to be entirely unnecessary. In fact, my class seems to have a very strong grasp of the mathematical concepts we have been working on, as well as some concepts that I introduce as they come up, even though we don’t spend a lot of time on them.
For another, the way the math curriculum I am using this year is meant to be fast-paced but thorough. Instead of having one or two lessons that cover all of the basic multiplication facts, we have been focusing on different facts each day. Despite the fact that I have made it clear what we are doing, many of the students didn’t fully appreciate it until today. I’m not sure why it was today, but it was. They finally realised that what we have been doing in math has been easy, and they enjoyed telling me!
Of course, I had to make sure they understood that we have been reviewing third grade math, and we will be moving forward next week. Math has been easy so far, but it is about to get a lot harder. Despite this, I have no worries. I know that some of my students are going to have a hard time. It may take others a while before they fully catch on. But that isn’t a problem. I frequently tell my class about the time I was in 8th grade learning how to factor polynomials. It took me several weeks to figure out how to do it, even though all of my classmates got it right away. But I got it eventually because I kept trying and I stuck to it. I hope that my students will take the same advice.
I am glad that the students have found the math work thus far to be easy. I am glad to know that they have demonstrated a confidence in their knowledge of basic math facts related to multiplication. We will be wrapping up the review over the next couple of days, which means we should be moving into more complex multiplication, especially multi-digit multiplication, by next week!
Today I was an 8th grade science teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. I had been requested by the teacher, which is kind of odd, since I have only been in her room once, and then it was just to collect a couple of students who were being pulled out for supportive services. Somehow I managed to leave a positive enough impression to be listed as one of her preferred subs.
I was only there for the afternoon today, and all of the classes were doing the same thing: watching the Pixar Animation Studios Shorts. I’m not sure how this video really fit in with an 8th grade science class, but it is the end of the year, and I think the teachers just wanted to do something fun. Of my four classes, three of them watched the oldest shorts first, making it about as far as For The Birds (2000). It was fun to watch the progression of quality by the Pixar crew. We also noticed that most of John Lasseter’s story ideas are surprisingly depressing. I have no idea why this is the case, though. The last period, which does not have class tomorrow afternoon for some reason, opted to watch the more recent shorts, starting with For the Birds and going through to Lifted (2006).
There was only one down-side to the day: the room I was in was incredibly hot. I think the temperature was somewhere around 80ºF, with doors and windows open and fans on. It was one of the few days of this entire academic year that I found myself wishing that I was not wearing slacks, dress shirt, and tie. However, I was wearing them, and I survived. But the slacks, dress shirt, and tie were replaced with shorts and lighter shirt as soon as I got home!
Tomorrow is the last day of school in Champaign, with students reporting to school for roughly an hour or two. Mahomet-Seymour will continue on until Thursday, but it is highly unlikely that I will receive any assignments for the last two days of school. And so it is that today was (most likely) my last day subbing for the academic year. I will be giving a lot of thought to what I want to do with this blog over the summer, and will be posting a poll tomorrow to see if any of you faithful readers have a preference.
Today was my second day as a band teacher at Edison Middle School. Yesterday we watched short podcasts because it was a half day and the students didn’t have much time in the room. We were back to the regular schedule today, though, so the plans allowed for starting a much longer video.
We were to watch the Walt Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins, because the bands had just featured several of the songs in their recent concert. The teacher had the DVD ready to go, the computer set up, and everything should have been hunky dory.
Despite my apparent anti-technology aura whenever I get near an LCD projector, everything was working fine. The first class of the day (7th grade woodwinds) got started on Mary Poppins and everything seemed to be okay. Until we got about 10 minutes into the movie and it froze up. Completely.
Okay, no problem. Take the disc out, make sure that it doesn’t have any smudges, put it back in, and away we go, right?
Not quite. We made it a few more minutes and it froze up again. So I took the disc out again and examined it more closely. It was scored and scratched and marred so thoroughly that I was surprised it was working at all. Then I noticed what I had failed to take into account: it was from the public library. I love the Champaign Public Library. It has an awesome collection of everything you could want from a public library. But the patrons don’t take very good care of the DVDs. So we had to stop.
This was quite problematic, as I still had four other classes for the day. I had no clue what to do. There were no back-up plans and, since this was a band class, it wasn’t like I could just have the students take out some other work–most of them didn’t bring anything with them, anyway. So they had free time for the rest of the period, as did the second class of the day (6th grade woodwinds).
During this class, though, I did a check and found out the library had at least one other copy of the movie on DVD. The CPL just happens to be across the street from Edison. Except there was no way I could leave the building. So I texted my wife, but she was far too busy at work. So I texted her dad, who is done with his classes for the year (he is a college professor). He was able to get to the library, check out the DVD, and navigate his way through Edison Middle School to find the band room and deliver the movie just in time for my third class of the day!
The last three classes (7th grade brass, 6th grade brass, and 8th grade band–or maybe it is 7th, 6th, 6th, 7th… whatever), were able to watch the movie.
Well, kind of.
This disc was also scratched. But, fortunately, I only had to skip two chapters and everything was back on track. Thank goodness! We will watch more of the movie tomorrow. Hopefully nothing else will go awry! But I may bring a musical DVD of my own. You know, just in case.
Today I was the band teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am also going to be there tomorrow and Wednesday, which is incredibly awesome for me, as the days remaining in the school year and ticking by faster and faster (or so it would seem).
Now, I’ve been in bands for a long time. I first started band when I was in 5th grade (about 19 years ago), and I’ve been in them in one way or another ever since: In middle school, I was in concert band and marching band. In high school I was in concert band, jazz band, marching band, symphonic winds, and a smattering of small ensembles for state music competitions. Upon enrolling at the University of Illinois, I was a member of the university’s Concert Band II-A, which was pretty much the lowest-level band available, but I was neither a music major nor an incredibly skilled musician, so I was just happy to be in band. I stayed with II-A until the end of my junior year, when I had to leave due to student teaching and then graduating. After finishing my university studies I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Parkland College Wind Ensemble, which is a smaller group composed primarily of community members and a few college students with a high school student or two rounding things out. In addition, I have occasionally helped with smaller ensembles at church when needed, although the need for trumpet players is not as great as, say, pianists, organists, and various string-ists. Added to all of this is my shorter history with vocal ensembles, such as my high school prep chorus, concert choir, and various church choirs, not to mention all of the musicals I’ve helped with as a spotlight technician. All of which is a very long way of saying that I’ve been around music ensembles of one sort or another for a long time.
As substitute teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to sub for grade school music teachers a handful of times. They have generally been fun, albeit pretty simple, experiences. (Such as this, this, and this.) Added to this is my ongoing pursuit of subbing for as many teachers at Edison as possible this year. (I’m now up to 18 out of 51–not going to reach the 50% goal I’d set, but oh well; I got close!) So I grabbed at the chance to sub for three consecutive days for one teacher, leaving me with just Friday left to fill. (I’ve been scheduled for this Thursday for several weeks now.)
What I didn’t seem to take into account was the realisation that bands are big. I mean, really big. Grade music classes always consist of just one class at a time, so I am used to those numbers. The strings program at Edison is a small division of the music program, so it was small. But band… Oh, did I mention that Edison Middle School happens to have one of the highest rated middle school band programs in the nation? Many of the students at Edison are there for the band program.
I’ve had big classes before. But today was quite a shock. I had five classes total: two 6th grade groups, two 7th grade groups, and the entire 8th grade band. In each of the first four classes, there were between 32 and 35 students. Okay, that’s a lot, but it is manageable. I’ve had big classes before at Edison. The 8th grade band, though, consists of 52 students. Fifty-two! They have more students in the program then there are regular teachers in the building! The class roster was two and half pages long! Yegads!
Fortunately for me, the students at Edison love me. I mean, they really love me. Remember the picture they made for me? So even though I suddenly found myself in the midst of two score and a dozen eighth grade boys and girls at the end of the day, things went pretty well. Or, rather, things went pretty well after they all got settled. It took about ten minutes to do so. Oh, and today was a half-day, so that means class periods were only 30 minutes long. Of course, following the long-standing tradition of band teachers the world over, the students were not doing anything band-ish. In fact, they were barred from touching the instruments. Instead, we spent the period watching a Yamaha podcast about the making of either the saxophone or the trumpet, depending on the class.
Tomorrow and Wednesday we will be watching Mary Poppins, because they just had their last concert and much of the music from the Disney film had been featured. Hey, it is the end of the year, anyway. Fun times ahead!
Today I was an 8th grade science teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am now just 9 teachers away from subbing for 50% of the teaching staff at this school! I am not sure if I’ll be able to pull it off, with less than 30 school days remaining in the year, but it is still pretty awesome.
The students I worked with were pretty good, and they were all working quite hard, even the ones who typically slack off in every class. There was only one class in which I had any problems, and that was an afternoon “FLEX Period” which is kind of like a focused study hall. I don’t know what the focus was supposed to be when I was there today, though, but we went to the computer lab where the students were given the following very clear instructions from their teacher:
No music sites (videos or audio), no random web surfing, and no inappropriate sites (i.e. sites that should be blocked by the school’s CIPA filter). The only sites they should be on were Study Island, Google Earth, or FreeRice. It is also generally acceptable for them to go to school-appropriate game sites like Fun Brain or Cool Math Games.
What is not acceptable is to circumvent the filters to get onto Facebook.
So of course the students at Edison Middle School have learned that just because http://www.facebook.com is blocked by the filters, there is no reason to assume that https://www.facebook.com is, as well. Which, for some silly reason, it isn’t. Which, in turn, led to me repeating telling two students to get off of Facebook.
So they closed the window and, as soon as I was out of view, opened it up again, but kept it hidden on their screen.
Silly children. They really think I don’t know their tricks? I told them to close it again, and then positioned myself in a spot in the room where I could see their screens at all times, and still see what everyone else was doing. Unless, of course, I happened to turn away for a moment.
When I did, these children once again tried to sneak it open. So after three warnings, I told them that if they went onto Facebook again, they were going to the Discipline Office. One of them took me seriously and actually stopped playing around. The other, though, waited about fifteen minutes, then went right back to doing what she wasn’t supposed to be doing. I immediately buzzed the office and told them what was going on and why she was being sent up.
Funny thing: apparently the students didn’t think about the fact that telling me how they are outsmarting the system would result in me passing on this juicy bit of information. Which I did. So now, hopefully, the secure-server version of Facebook will also be blocked by the filters. Sure, these bright young men and women who can’t figure out how to turn assignments in on time will probably figure out another way to circumvent the filters, but their teachers will still find out and will still put more blocks in place. Even though the teachers would love to have access to these sites. But when the students can’t show self-control, the harsher restrictions have to be put in place.
Today I was an 8th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. Much like yesterday, I was in a room with an excellent student teacher who was totally prepared for the day. She also had a very strong handle on classroom management, so my day consisted of sitting at a desk reading while she taught and then helping the few students who had questions about the work they were doing. Incidentally, tomorrow is going to be much like yesterday and today. Thursday and Friday will be the days when I am actually teaching again this week. However, my days have not been that boring. In fact, I had a great time watching a gifted young prospective teacher working her craft.
One of the strangest things to happen today was when another substitute was in the room. One of the cross categorical special ed teachers, for whom and with whom I have subbed a couple of times now, co-teaches in math room I was in today. She was gone this morning, hence the reason she had a sub. Because the student teacher was doing a take-over, the special ed sub needed to be working with the student teacher. Alas, this is not what happened.
The other sub came in, sat in the back of the room, and then left about half-way through class. I knew for a fact that she was supposed to be there for the whole period, so I was rather confused when she didn’t. At the end of the day, the cross cat teacher came in and was talking with the student teacher about plans for the next few days. I brought up the fact that the other sub left and found out that this had happened in another period, too. I wasn’t really trying to rat out a colleague so much as I was wondering if what seemed odd really was what I thought. It was, and then even worse. The cross cat teacher decided to leave a negative review for this other teacher, which doesn’t happen that often. So I was a tattletale of sorts today. Although not really, since a tattletale is more accurately a person who shares idle gossip, rather than sharing important information. I hope this review will be used to help the substitute teacher improve in her work, though.
Today I was the art teacher at Edison Middle School. The students had some handouts they were doing (essentially glorified colouring book pages) and so it was a pretty easy day, albeit a somewhat boring one, too. I suppose I should count myself lucky, though, since I don’t actually know enough about art education to really be able to teach. I don’t know, though… maybe I could fake my way through it. I’d hate to teach something incorrect, though.
Anyway, despite being a bit bored, I had a great day. The best part was at the end of the day when I realised I have achieved a new milestone. Or maybe I should use the more modern term and say that I have unlocked an achievement.
You see, for years I have struggled to convince students that my last name (Valencic) is not that hard to say. It is three syllables, pronounced, in our anglicised way, as vuh-len-sik. I am honestly not sure where the stressed syllable is located–count that as one of my failings as a native English speaker who never learned grammar and rules for the language. Regardless, I usually give some spiel about my name being Mr. Valencic, and that student may call me Mr. Valencic, Mr. V, or “sir”–not Mr. Valencia, Valencio, Valensis, Vlassic, Valansky, Mr. Dude, Bro, Fro Guy, Shaggy, Mr. Substitute Guy, Curly-Hair Man, or, my favourite, Ryznard Szyndlar (something that showed up in the mail for me once). Most students (and teachers) are satisfied to call me Mr. V, which I am totally down with. (As a side note, I recently learned that my dad has regularly been called Mr. V for quite some time. I did not know this. Odd.) And a few brave souls are willing to give my actual name a shot.
These are the few, the proud, the Marines of the spoken language. They work on it, they learn it, and they are super excited when they say my name correctly. And now they correct their classmates. Achievement unlocked: students inform others of the proper way to say my name. I don’t even have to introduce myself at Edison now. Heck, some of the students, I’m pretty sure, think I am a teacher there; they just don’t know what class. I have suggested that the school hire me as a full-time substitute but, alas, it isn’t my decision, nor is it the decision of the teachers with whom I have suggested this.
Still, it is a good day to know that the students respect me enough to make sure their classmates call me by my name and not by some horribly twisted variation. Now to reach the next milestone, which is for everyone to know my name and say it correctly!
Today I was an 8th grade cross-categorical special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. It was an interesting day, to say the least. Some of the students were quite restless, others seemed thoroughly unmotivated, and some were clearly not ready for Spring Break to be over yet. Still others were focused and willing to work. Some students moved from being uncooperative to participatory and then back again.
At the end of the day, I was invited to attend the team meeting, which in when all of the 8th grade teachers who work together meet and discuss very things such as students’ progress, upcoming field trips, and plans for large integrated projects. But one thing they did today was something that they do not do often. In fact, I don’t know that they have done it before. If they have, it is very rare.
They held an intervention for a student.
Before the break, one of the teachers had met with the girl’s mother in conference and expressed concerns about her grades. She was failing one class and on the borderline of failing two others. This is the last quarter of the 8th grade year, which means that if she fails, she fails school and will have to repeat the 8th grade. The mother asked that the entire team meet with the girl to express their concerns and talk with her about a plan to help her succeed.
I think the teachers went into this meeting thinking that this was another bright girl who just didn’t want to apply herself, and there wasn’t much they could do. But in the process of the meeting, some important things came up. The girl doesn’t do her homework because she is watching her younger brother. Her home life is a mess, with a mother on probation and a father who is verbally abusive and seemingly constantly puts her down and calls her stupid. (Whether or not this is true doesn’t really matter–what does matter is that the girl believes this is what her father says t0 her.)
So the teachers made suggestions on how the girl can make use of her “free” period (kind of like a study hall) to work with the teachers for the classes in which she is struggling. They arranged for her to be able to speak in private with a trusted adult about her problems at home. And they offered encouragement. This last may be the most important element of all. They told her how bright she is. They told her that they care about her, they love her, and they want to see her do well. They told her that what her father has said is not true. They told her that she can get her grades up and that she does have a strong likelihood of moving on to high school next year. She just needs to ask for help and take advantage of the resources made available to her.
I have no idea what will happen with this girl. Truth be told, I don’t have much experience with the 8th graders at Edison. I don’t know if this is because the teachers aren’t gone as much or if it is because they already have their preferred subs, but I spend far more time with the 6th and 7th graders in this building. It is possible that she will not take advantage of this interventions and supports being offered. But I hope she will. What I saw today was a dozen teachers dedicated to helping their students. Maybe it is an over-used phrase among educators, but they really do focus on whole the class without forgetting the one. It was awesome seeing the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system in action. Bravo to these men and women who have dedicated themselves to their profession!
Today I was the art teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. This was the first time I’ve subbed for an art teacher in over two years. It was a good day. The 8th graders were making “handscapes” (landscapes that featured hands in atypical locations, such as in the place of tree branches or clouds or ears of corn). The 7th graders were making balancing toys–paper images weighted with pennies and made to balance on the end of a pencil. The 6th graders were making pictures of their dream locker interiors, which included video game systems, secret rooms, soda machines, etc. With just one exception, everyone was working on the assigned project the entire class period.
I love how middle school students are so interested in knowing who I am beyond just the substitute teacher. They ask me questions about music, literature, movies, television, whether or not I’m married, where I went to school, how old I am, what my first name is, what my wife’s name is, how I get my hair to look so awesome, etc, etc. I also have the occasional student ask if he or she can add me as a friend on Facebook. This happened today. The conversation went something like this:
Student: Hey, Mr. Valencic, what’s your first name? I want to add you as a friend on Facebook!
Me: Sorry, I don’t accept friend requests from students.
Student: Oh, okay.
I have had surprisingly few students attempt to add me a friend. Two are high school students in Mahomet. I did not accept either friend request, though. Some may think I have some sort of double-standard, because I have many, many, many friends on Facebook who are in high school. These are young men and women who I have come to know through Operation Snowball, Inc. and the Illinois Teen Institute. In each case, I have a strict policy (which I shamelessly stole from my friend and drug prevention field colleague, Rob Grupe) regarding friend requests: I do not add teens, but teens may add me. However, the relationship I have with these teens is not the same as the professional relationship I have with students. While it is a professional relationship, the nature of these prevention programs leads to a greater degree of friendship and I am also a resource for these students to find support in building up their prevention programs at home.
Due to the incredibly public nature of Facebook, despite the numerous attempts to create security restrictions, I always make sure that I would never be ashamed to let my mother, my employer, or my ecclesiastical leaders see what I have posted online. (This is also true for my blogging.) I am always shocked when I hear or read about teachers who do not maintain these professional boundaries. I have heard of a high school discipline counselor who friends teens, has joined a group dedicated to her, and has had pictures of herself drinking alcohol posted in the same mobile uploads album with pictures of her students. To me, it just makes so much more sense to treat Facebook as a semi-professional outlet and to remember that just because you can make something available online, doesn’t mean that you should.
Have a great weekend!
Today I was a science technology teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I worked with students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. I had a wonderful day working with these students and was very impressed by how well-behaved and respectful they were. The most interesting thing about it was that the notes from the teacher, and comments from the other teachers in the building, indicated that there were many difficult students in the classes. However, I did not have any difficulties with any of them.
I am not trying to say that the teachers at the school are deficient in any way. In fact, I have been incredibly impressed by how well the teachers work with their students, manage their classrooms, and how amazingly they help each student do his very best. I have been delighted to work with these teachers and would be thrilled to be a part of their team. Of course, I don’t have middle grade endorsements, so I am not fully qualified to teach full-time at the middle school level, but if I was, and there was a job available, I would definitely take the opportunity.
So, why did I have such a great time working with these students when others have not? Well, for one, I do not believe that the so-called “difficult students” are always difficult. For another, I have been working very hard at developing a strong, positive relationship with the students at this school. While some substitutes have a reputation for being boring, others are known for being ineffective, and others are considered to be tyrannical, I am known for being none 0f those. Students, teachers, administrators, and other staff know me to be engaging, effective, and fair.
Having finished reading The Dreamkeepers, I decided that I actually enjoy reading the books I acquired during my college courses, so I started reading Setting Limits in the Classroom by Dr. Robert J. Mackenzie, Ed.D. I read a few chapters of this book during my class, but I never read the entire thing. I am not done yet, but I am close to the end, and I wanted to write up my first (of probably several) book review.
Setting Limits in the Classroom has a lot of good, should-be-common sense suggestions; for example: don’t be wishy-washy. He focuses on the need to set firm limits with students while being respectful and provide students opportunities to learn what is and is not acceptable. The most important lesson I have taken from the book is the idea of providing simple, clear directions for students. To draw from an application I used today, I had a young man who was horsing around in the computer lab. I approached him and said, “Jacob, you need to be respectful and responsible in the computer lab. If you can’t behave responsibly, I am going to have to send you back to your teacher.” He tried to test me by arguing, but I cut him off by simply restating the expectation: responsibility in the computer lab or no computer. He did not test me further, and was well-behaved the remainder of the period. Dr. Mackenzie uses many examples from his experiences as an educator, a therapist, and while presenting workshops.
Another excellent point he makes is that expectations need to be established on the first day of school, reviewed and rehearsed during the first week, reviewed regularly during the first month, and revisited throughout the year. Of course, this is not particularly useful advice for a substitute teacher, who typically has between 45 minutes and 7 hours to work with students before he or she leaves. He also discusses that expectations and limits allow freedom in the classroom. One of my favourite quotes is this: “Freedom without limits is not democracy. It’s anarchy…” That is so very true!
I do have a few quibbles with his methods. For one, Dr. Mackenzie seems to identify the classroom teacher as the absolute monarch of the classroom. The teacher sets the rules, expectations, and consequences. The teacher dispenses punishment or rewards. The teacher is in charge. The students are merely there to hear and obey. This rubs against my more democratic egalitarian approach to education that includes the students in the process of establishing expectations and consequences. Of course, there will be expectations that I will ensure are included because, as a member of the classroom community, I am also a part of the process. I also believe that I am as accountable for my actions as the students are for theirs. I am not above the law. My other quibble is that Dr. Mackenzie presents his methods as not just the best method, but the only effective method of classroom management. I have observed many different methods and have seen that different methods work for different teachers. Setting Limits in the Classroom would settle better if he pointed out that his is but one of many effective strategies.
I have already started applying the principles of this book with my students and have seen that it has improved my classroom management. Admittedly, I have also worked with a large number of incredibly compliant students, but I am excited to continue to apply these methods with the students in other schools. I’ll be sure to share whether or not it continues to be successful. At this point, I’ll gladly recommend Setting Limits in the Classroom to any teacher looking to find another strategy to improve classroom management.
Today I was an 8th grade literacy teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I have had awesome experiences again and again at Edison, but they have apparently all been with the sixth and seventh graders. I base this comment on the fact that, apparently, very few of the eighth graders knew who I was. This changed quickly as I had opportunities to share about myself as the students got to know me. I have learned that, even in a middle school, it pays to share myself with the students before I start teaching. It lets them know who I am and what they can expect from me during the day. Usually I only have to tell the first class period about this and everyone in the grade level knows.
I am super happy to report that the 8th graders at Edison (and yes, I realise that I keep switching between writing 8th and eighth) are just as awesome as the other students in the building. I don’t know everyone yet, but I certainly know the majority of them. I had six class periods in all, putting me into contact with roughly 150 students. There were only two students who displayed inappropriate behaviour during the day. I kid you not when I say that I would be thrilled if my classes always had 98% of the students demonstrate responsibility, respect, engagement, focus, and maturity. Today was definitely the best day I have ever had with middle school students in Champaign and it ranks incredibly high among the best days I have ever had as a professional educator.
Oh, and about sharing about myself? It turns out that, just like everybody else, these students were all quite enamoured by my hair. I know I need a hair cut soon, but it isn’t the volume of my hair that surprises them and captivates their young minds. It is the curliness. Two items I was given today should illustrate this quite well. They were both made by the 8th grade students in the first period of the day. I promised I would keep both in my folder with other artwork I have been given by my students.
(Click on each image to zoom in.)
So yes, today was definitely an excellent day to be teaching!
Today I was a special education floater sub at Edison Middle School in Champaign. This means that I was filling in for whichever special ed teacher at the time needed to be away from her class in order to conference with students and/or parents. It was a rather interesting day as a result. Nothing horrible happened, nor did anything outstanding happen.
I wish I had some fun stories to tell about today, but I don’t really have much of anything. I was just kind of floating along all day, helping out in whatever class I happened to be asked to step into. I was an assistant 8th grade math teacher, 8th grade reading teacher, and 6th grade science teacher. I monitored the special ed room for a couple of class periods.
I did start reading a new book today, while taking an unplanned break from the Dune series (I accidentally left the book at my brother’s house in St. Louis and won’t be getting it back until Saturday.) The book is The Dreamkeepers by Gloria Ladson-Billings. I will almost certainly post a review of the book when I finish, as it is one of the many pedagogical books I own. It is a case study of successful teaching of African American students. The first few pages made me very angry, but I have high hopes for the rest of the book. And no, I won’t discuss why I was angry until I get to the end.
Today I was an 8th grade supportive services teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. Supportive services is a part of special education, so I worked with a small group of 8th grade students over the course of the day. I also helped out in a couple of classrooms and discovered an interesting fact:
All the students at MSJHS know who I am, and they love my hair. They also all seem to agree that I am the coolest substitute teacher ever. This worries me, in a way, because I have only been at the junior high school twice now. At least half of these students drew this conclusion after spending all of 48 minutes with me. But as I walked through the halls, I heard students all around me comment about how awesome I was. So I have to believe that it is true. I felt bad for the other substitutes who were there today, and I tried to point out to the students that many of their subs are awesome, but they insist that I am still the best.
Reasons for me being so awesomely cool include, but are not limited to, the following: I am funny, I am super smart, I am nice, I have awesome hair, and I give high-fives. I love that my Naturally Curly Hair (TM) is listed as an attribute toward my coolness. I appreciate that the students recognise that I am nice and that I have a wickedly awesome sense of humour, and I am glad to know that they know that I know what I am talking about. (Usually.) So, I guess there are good reasons for thinking I am so cool.
I think about my days in grade school, middle school, and high school, and I can only think of a half-dozen subs I had over the 13 years I was in the public education system. One sub was a mean woman named Mrs. Haight, who told us that students hate her and she hates them. One was a middle aged woman who was over-weight and had atrocious body odour. I recall an elderly woman who was still a “Miss” who seemed to hate her life. We had a guy in high school who frequently subbed, even though he didn’t know how to teach. He just told stories about his days as the chief surgeon in the trauma room of a Texas ER, and also told dirty jokes. So that is four. Not even a half-dozen. But all of my students seem to know who I am, recognise me (even outside of school), and tell their teachers that they should have me sub for them. I’ve also had students suggest that I become their regular classroom teacher, and let their current teacher sub for me.
So, what can I say? It must be true: I am the coolest substitute teacher ever.
Today I was an 8th grade reading teacher at Edison Middle School. These were the same students I taught about three weeks ago, and the teaching experience was about the same: some of the students were awesome, some were total jerks, and the majority were just trying to get through the day.
However, one brief encounter with a teacher who I have never before met, and whose name I did not learn, inspired this post. You see, there is a common saying that reminds us that the “only stupid questions are the ones that aren’t asked.” I, myself, have shared this many times. I use it as the justification for why I ask questions in my own classes to which I know the answer, but I figure someone else might be too afraid to ask.
Unfortunately, I am starting to think that there are some folks out there who are determined to prove this adage wrong. Which, of course, brings to mind another popular saying: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people.”
“Is that a wig?”
I have heard this question from young students many times, and I don’t particularly mind. But when an adult asks? Seriously? Does this actually look like a wig???
My default response to this question is to chuckle and say, “No, I really do have amazing naturally curly hair!” Internally, I am thinking, “Seriously? What on earth makes you think this is a wig? And, more importantly, why on earth do you think I would be wearing a wig?” To be fair to the woman who asked today, she did say something about thinking I was dressed up as some US president or something. I am not sure which US president, nor can I figure out why she thinks any of them would be dressed as I was today, but there you have it.
“Are you a substitute?”
I hear this quite often from students. I am not sure why they ask. They ask it when they enter the room, ascertain that their regular teacher is gone, and see my name written on the board. If the regular teacher is gone, and there is a different adult present who looks like he is going to be the teacher for the day, isn’t it kind of obvious?
The only legitimate response I have heard from a student yet when I brought up how silly this question is was the young man who argued that I could have been an observer or a student teacher. Fair enough. But, again, the regular teacher is gone when this question is asked. Speaking of teachers, though…
“Why aren’t you a real teacher?”
I blame society for this. Completely and in all honesty. Many, many years ago, the only requirement to work as a substitute teacher was to have a high school diploma (or GED) and have a warm body. Today, especially in Illinois, substitute teachers must have (at least) a bachelor’s degree and be certified to teach. My response to every student who asks me this is the same:
I am a certified teacher employed by [insert school district name] to substitute when a regular classroom instructor is unable to be in room. I am not just some random stranger who came in off the street. Nor am I a 16-year-old pretending to be the teacher a la Leonardo DiCaprio. I am a real teacher.
I am tempted to make business cards with this printed on the back.
Finally, I give you Exhibit D:
“Can I just call you Mr. [insert any word or name that is neither my last name nor the first letter of my last name] ?”
My name is Alex T. Valencic , but I always introduce myself to students as Mr. Valencic. When I first began teaching, my students asked if it would be okay to call me Mr. V, instead, which I was totally okay with. I am used to people having trouble with my last name. When I spent two years in California as a missionary for my church, I was known as Elder Valencic or, to those who knew me well, Elder V. So having students (and later teachers) call me Mr. V has never been a problem. But there are students who think it should be acceptable to call me names like “Mr. Curly Hair”, “Mr. Teacher Guy”, “Mr. [insert their regular teacher's name]“, “Mr. Fro”, and even “Mr. Shaggy”–and these are the better-mannered students. There are many who drop the title altogether and think they can call me “Shaggy”, “Teacher Dude”, “Guy”, “Bro”, “Einstein”, or Alex (yes, there are a few students who figure out my first name and think it is funny to use it rather than use a title of respect).
Clearly, it is not acceptable for students to call their teachers by any names that are not actually the teachers’ names. At least, not to their faces. If they want to have some silly nickname that they use for me behind my back, I don’t care–students have been doing that since the dawn of education, I am sure. I am also not even particularly annoyed by older students who have known me for some time and use my first name, because they are not doing it out of disrespect. But I am annoyed by those who think it is acceptable to be disrespectful.
So, I am interested in knowing what kind of stupid questions you hear at work! Feel free to share your stupid questions, along with your profession and your responses, in the comments!
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!