The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for January, 2011


Today I was a special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. This was my third or fourth time substituting for this particular teacher, so I already knew what to expect, and I was glad to be available to sub for her again.

Her schedule is set up so that she and another special ed teacher work with four or five students throughout the day. During some of the periods they are in the special ed room and during other periods they are in the regular classroom. I spent the bulk of the day working with one boy, going with him to classes to offer supports as needed, or working with him in the special ed room. It was really neat seeing how well this works for him. He is a very bright kid and very earnest in his efforts, but he is also easily distracted and forgets to bring his supplies to class. Working with a teacher one-on-one has had great benefits for him. He learned today that he got an A on a recent social studies test and, from the reaction shared by just about everyone, I think this may have been the first time he had had a success like that.

There is definitely a great benefit to working one-on-one. Unfortunately, the realities of the profession make such opportunities hard to come by. There simple isn’t enough money in the budgets of the various school and government organisations to provide tutors for everyone. We are blessed in our community to have volunteer tutors from the university, paid tutors from America Reads, and parents who give of their time to work with students after school. While there are still not enough resources to provide the support that everyone needs, I have seen that what is available is being used to the highest degree. It reminds me of the proverbial story of the boy tossing starfish along the beach back into the ocean. Critique the story as you will, the moral is still true: it may not make a difference for everyone, but it does make a difference for the one.

Different Spaces

Today is Saturday. I was running errands this morning and happened to go by Wal-Mart. While there, I saw two children who I have taught in the past. One was a girl I have not seen since my first year of teaching. She had some pretty serious behavioural issues due to a difficult home life, but she was not a terrible student. Just had difficulty expressing herself in appropriate ways in class. At least, this is what I remember of her. The other was her younger brother, who was one of the three holy terrors in my class yesterday. In fact, his behaviour was the worst of the three. He was the boy who fought with two different students, cursed at me, his teacher, the assistant principal, the principal, and at least one parent who happened to be in the hallway at the time. I have learned a little bit about their home situation and I’ll be honest: it is one of the saddest stories I have encountered in my life.

Yet I saw something today that I have never heard about whenever I have worked with these students’ teachers. I saw their father. I saw that he looked like a man who has had a hard life, has been beaten down again and again, and wants to do what’s best for his children but doesn’t really know what all he can do. I saw a man who seems wary of all strangers, and weary of life. And yet I also saw a man who would do whatever necessary to protect his children. I saw this in his eyes, in the way he looked at me when his two relatively young children suddenly started talking to what he must have seen as a strange man in Wal-Mart. I was wearing a jacket over a hoodie, jeans and worn sneakers. My hair was not particularly well-kempt, and so there was none of the professional demeanor that I usually have. Remember, this is a Saturday morning. His kids both explained that I have been their teacher in the past, and the son smiled and said that I was his teacher yesterday. The girl also smiled. They were both smiling the whole time they were talking to me, and the smiles were simple, easy, and sincere. I couldn’t stay long, so I told the father that I’ve had the opportunity to work with both of them as a substitute teacher, and then let them know that I had to be going, and I left. The entire encounter was less than five minutes.

Then it struck me:

I have never seen either one of these children smile before. I’ve seen them with flat expressions, I’ve seen the boy filled with rage, I’ve seen him struggle to control his composure and then lose it, but I’ve never seen a smile.

Is it because I’ve only ever seen them in school? That is quite likely the cause. Especially for this boy, who I have taught in two different classes over the past two years (possibly even three–I can’t recall if he was in any of the classes I taught my first year as a sub), he has always given the impression that school is not where he wants to be. It is as if coming to school creates a physical change in him that affects everything. The boy I saw yesterday was negative, angry, and violent. There were moments in the day when I was certain he was going to take a swing at my face. The boy I saw today was positive, happy, and friendly.

What a difference different spaces can create! I am going to remember this the next time I am in his classroom, and I am going to remind him of this brief encounter. Will it make a difference? I don’t know. But I am going to try. I may not have many opportunities to reach him, and I may not have a strong relationship of trust and understanding, but I did see a window of opportunity to present itself, and I would be remiss if I did not take advantage of it.

The Bell Curve

Today I was a 4th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. The last time I was in this class was on October 27. I was looking forward to coming back to this class because I had had such a great time with them. However, my day was not as I had expected.

There were 23 students in the class. seven of them were amazingly awesome all day. They were on task, they were participating, they were just great. They were ideal students. Not because they were quiet, but because they really seemed interesting in learning what was being taught. There were also seven students who were the opposite, three especially so. They were inattentive, disruptive, and rude. The three who were absolute terrors were fighting all day and all got sent to the office (one of them went twice). The rest of the class was spread out, with the bulk being fairly well-behaved but just talkative or occasionally off-task.

It is really easy to get side-tracked by the misbehaving students and have them overshadow the rest of the class. I hate when this happens to me, so I used a copy of the class list to jot down tally marks whenever I had to redirect a student for either talking, not following directions, or talking. I stole this idea from the teacher for whom I subbed on Tuesday, and fully plan on utilising it in every class from now on. Not only does it help me track what is going on in the class, it helps me remember that most of the class is trying to do what is expected. As I was writing up my note to the teacher, it occurred to me that the students’ behaviour could easily be transformed into a simple chart. If I listed the number of students along the x-axis and the quality of behaviour from bad to good along the y-axis, then I have a a definite bell curve developed. It would look something like this:

And, yes, I realise that this is not the most professional-looking chart in the world. I just wanted to put something together to quickly illustrate what I am discussing. The thing is, I am willing to bet that this is a fairly accurate model of classroom behaviour anywhere. You can probably take any group of 20-25 students and put sort them out in this way. I am hesitant to actually do so, though, because I greatly dislike the idea of labeling students as “good” and “bad”–rather, I think of students as having good days and bad days. Today I had several who had a bad day. But they are young children. I have hopes that they will mature and grow out of the poor decisions. At least I’ll have tried, as I know their teacher has tried, as well. At the end of the day, it is comforting to be able to look at my notes and remember that most of the class fell on the side of making good choices. Even when it seems like everyone is going crazy, they aren’t. Such notes help me to focus on what is going well, rather than wasting my energy on what is going poorly. I will continue to use notes like this to see if it helps me improve in my work.


Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary. I was subbing for my mother-in-law and was expecting to have a pretty good day. After all, my last experience in her class, about a month ago, was phenomenal.

Alas, it was not to be.

The class wasn’t horrible today. They were just bouncing off the walls. It was chaotic. Three boys were extremely disruptive, to the point that all three should have been sent to the office but only one was. There were eight who weren’t disruptive, just inattentive. No matter what we were doing, they were doing something else. Quietly, to be sure, but still not on task at all. I kept reminding them, and they kept drifting off into their own worlds. It was weird, because they were, for the most part, some of the students who are typically very well-behaved and frequently contributing to class discussions.

Of course, that left thirteen students who were actually very well-behaved. They were on task, participating, and seemed to be working hard. But it is difficult to work hard when the students around you are causing problems. Still, even in the midst of chaos, we had some good things happening. I started them on a social studies unit about war and learned that they have a very mature understanding of why people go to war against each other. They also have a fairly decent understanding, especially for 11-year-olds, of the various conflicts the United States has been involved in. (Although I was sad to learn that none of them had heard of the War on Drugs. I might ask my mother-in-law if I can come in as a guest speaker to talk to them about drug and alcohol abuse. After all, I have been in the drug prevention field for nearly half my life.) We discussed wars in general and then started talking about the Great War. I also had the opportunity to tell them about Simo Hayha, the Finnish sniper known as White Death, and Yang Youde, the Chinese farmer who used homemade cannons to defend his farm from being taken over by a development corporation. Both men were cited as examples of single individuals essentially declaring war on a large group. [NOTE: Both of the previous links contain inappropriate language. I chose to cite these articles over the Wikipedia ones because the Wikipedia articles are boring. Neither article was actually cited or quoted in class!]

So even with all of the chaos going on today, I hope we were able to accomplish something worthwhile. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow, since I am going to be at the same school subbing for a different teacher.


Today is my 28th birthday. I didn’t teach today, even though there were a couple of assignments I could have accepted. I decided that I would like to have a relatively stress-free birthday, so I chose not to accept the kindergarten and special education assignments that were available. Even though this meant a loss of $90, it was my birthday present to myself. Besides, I had some errands I needed to run. More specifically, I needed to pick up my travel mug that I use to bring herbal tea infusions to school and my book that I was reading. The mug was at Stratton and the book was at Carrie Busey.

It was a nice relaxing day. I had tentatively planned to take advantage of the day off to write up the next part of my philosophy of education, which is currently sitting in a moleskine notebook in note-form (makes sense, right?), but I ended up doing other things instead, like watching The X-Files season one on Netflix and doing some research on my status as a Highly Qualified teacher.

This last is actually an important issue for me. Most of the jobs for which I have applied use an online system called AppliTrack. One of the questions asks if I have obtained a Highly Qualified status from any school districts. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, I am Highly Qualified in the following:

  • Algebra (K-8)
  • Art (K-8)
  • General Math (K-8)
  • Biology
  • Drama/Theatre (K-8)
  • Elementary Self-Contained (K-5)
  • Elementary Self-Contained (K-3)
  • English as a Second Language
  • General Science (K-8)
  • Geography (Middle Grades)
  • History (Middle Grades)
  • Instrumental Music (K-8)
  • Language Arts (1-8)
  • Physical Science (Middle Grades)
  • Reading (K-8)
  • Title I Remedial Math (K-8)
  • Title I Remedial Reading (K-8)
  • Vocal Music (K-8)

That is quite an impressive list, and much, much more than I expected. I thought I was only Highly Qualified in K-9 SCGE, which is what my Elementary Teacher Certificate suggests, but it turns out that, as I have always said is the pragmatic application, I am only qualified for SCGE in K-3 and K-5. Since I am looking for work at an intermediate grades teacher (4-6), this works just fine for me, and was quite a pleasant birthday present. I was able to share this information with an Assistant Superintendent in Mahomet, as well as with a member of the School Board where I grew up, which was all the more pleasant.

Tomorrow I will be subbing for my mother-in-law. Last year her students made a poster for me and brought it to the neighbouring class where I was teaching and sang “Happy Birthday”; I’m curious to see if there will be a reprise of this. Happy birthday to me, Eddie Van Halen, and Australia!


Today I was a 2nd grade teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary in Champaign. I had a really good day with the students. Two or three were a handful, but most of the students were awesome! We discussed some awesome things, they learned new ideas and concepts, and they came to understand why they are doing some of the things they do. For the second time in a row, I was able to use my picture of my living room as an introduction to a reading lesson, which is fun not just because I can show off the awesomeness that is my library, but also because I love seeing the look on students’ faces when they realise how many books I own and how often I read.

Every teacher has a planning/preparation period built into the day. At the elementary level, this period is often during the time when the students are in Specials (Art, Music, or P.E.). I look forward to this period as a time to recharge my batteries and prepare the for the rest of my day. This works really well when the students have Specials in the middle of the day. When Specials are the first thing of the day, or the last, though, it doesn’t work quite the same way. This is especially true when it is the last thing of the day. Then I use the period to write my note to the teacher, review what I accomplished, and make sure the room is tidied up, applying the principles of the Boy Scouts of the America’s Leave No Trace program to the classroom.

Most of the time, though, the plan period is in the middle of the day, and thus it becomes my moment of sanctuary. In many ways, I feel a little bit like Quasimodo in Disney’s version of The Hunch-Back of Notre Dame:

I need this moment when I can walk into the room and think to myself. “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” It is a relief to take a break and get myself ready for the rest of the day. However, this can only happen when I am by myself. When I am sharing the room with another teacher, whether a co-teacher, an aide, or a student teacher, there is the unspoken policy that we must talk. If I am in the teachers’ lounge, I have no problem talking with other teachers. We usually talk about anything except students, unless it is to vent the frustrations about a particular student driving everyone in the school batty. But most of the time, teachers in the lounge just talk about other stuff. It, too, is a time for a break.

Not so in the classroom. If we are in the classroom, we talk about the students, we talk about each other’s teaching background, we talk about who knows who, and we talk about teaching methods. I don’t really begrudge these moments. I like to bounce ideas off of other educators and learn from them as they learn from me. But, at the same time, I also wish I could find a quiet room to hide, if only for a few minutes. It isn’t that I don’t like talking to others. It is just that I need my sanctuary. I don’t know what the solution is, though. If there is another teacher in the room, he or she needs to be there, as well. Maybe I just wish that they would understand that there should be a few minutes for each of us to quietly reflect and ignore the rest of the world while we regroup and prepare for the rest of the day. I don’t think this will happen, though, but it would be nice.

It would also be nice if I could watch YouTube videos in the classroom. Alas, some things are just not to be.


Today I was once again a fourth grade (gifted/talented) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. Today went just as well as Friday, which was no surprise to me or the student teacher with whom I was working. The students were on task and respectful and we also had a lot of fun. I love the days when we have fun while learning and learn while having fun. That is one of my goals as an educator. When students and teachers are miserable, there is not much else going on.

Of course, there are some days when everyone is tired. The student teacher and I were discussing how often we get home at the end of the day and are just exhausted. I admitted that I am not nearly as exhausted after a day like today, when everything went according to plan, as I am on days when I feel like I am waging war with 25 children. But I am still exhausted. I get home around 4 pm or so, even when school is out around 2:15 pm, simply because my wife and I have errands to run. We are both well-aware of the fact that if we are to come home, we probably are not going to leave again. So my work days often start around 7 am and end around 4 pm. I gotta admit: a 9-hour work day can be draining, especially when I am putting my everything into at least seven of those nine hours.

However, I am glad to be exhausted at the end of days like today. I am exhausted because I did everything I could with the few brief hours I had with my students to teach them and to give them the tools they need to become life-long learners. That there is the core of my educational philosophy: I want my students to each want to learn on their own, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. If they do not have the desire to gain knowledge, then I have failed them. I don’t care what the knowledge is, specifically, just so long as they are always learning, and always coming to a greater understanding of the world around them.

Maybe it is a lofty goal to have as a substitute teacher. After all, the majority of my students will rarely see me again or, if they do, it will be between long breaks and with very little consistency. But I firmly believe that my job as a substitute teacher is to be a teacher first and foremost. As I tell my students, I am a certified teacher hired by their school district to take over the education process for a day or two when their regular classroom teachers cannot be there. That means that I need to be always teaching and, yes, always learning.