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

Archive for January, 2011

Ones

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.


Chaos

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.


Birthdays

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!


Sanctuary!

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.


Exhaustion

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.


Gifted Education

Today I was a 4th grade gifted/talented teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I have known the teacher for whom I was subbing for many years now and was delighted to finally work in her classroom. I was not disappointed in the least!

Her class was really great: they did their work, they were engaged and engaging, they were fun, and they followed directions. This last is an important issue in schools. I don’t mind if students talk or move around the room. I do mind when they do it for no purpose and ignore directions. What I often tell students is that when I need it quiet, they need to be quiet. If they can’t handle that, then I can’t let them work together. This class proved that they know exactly what is expected of them while in school, and that they can exceed those expectations.

I am going to be working with these students again on Monday. I am excited to see them again and continue working with them. They are so different from the students across the hall that I was with earlier this week! Where they were belligerent and uncooperative, my students today were amicable and supportive. I was even able to let them work all afternoon on a single project without constantly reminding them to stay on task. It was truly like a breath of fresh air.

So now I find myself wondering: what’s the difference? Why is it that students in the gifted/talented program at Stratton are so mature, responsible, respectful, and pleasant while the rest of the school has more than its fair share of immature, irresponsible, disrespectful, and unpleasant students? Is it simply that students who are gifted/talented are better behaved by nature? Is it a matter of confidence levels? The students in this program come from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. The students in the other classes are equally diverse. I suppose I could do some research on that matter, but right now, anecdotal evidence from the past four years indicates that students who are high-achieving in academic terms are often the students who are more socially-adjusted.

I believe in the model of education that proclaims that that which is suitable for gifted/talented students is suitable for all students. I have had some exposure to the philosophy of gifted/talented education. It mainly focuses on differentiated instruction in the form of project-based learning. I want to do that with all of my students. Yet the students with behavioural issues seem to be unable to handle such open-ended instruction. So, again, I am back to my initial question: what is the difference? And, perhaps more importantly, how can I tap into this difference and find a way to bring it into the traditional classroom?


Bah.

Today I was unable to teach because I had to attend a mandatory meeting with creditors at the U.S. Federal Court Bankruptcy Division, or whatever the heck it is actually called. For those who may not be familiar with my not-to-distant past, my wife and I had taken over ownership of a small business in 2009. This was a few months before the recession hit with the banking/housing bust. After fighting mightily for six months, we finally had to close shop back in July of 2010. Too much loss and not nearly enough gain. Over the past several months, we’ve been working on closing up the business affairs, and a key element was the formal declaration of corporate bankruptcy.

It was actually a rather interesting experience, and blessedly painless. But it also took away a goodly chunk of my day. And so it was that I found myself not teaching. Instead I spent the morning driving a long distance through crappy winter weather conditions, sitting around for an hour, having a brief meeting with creditors (ironically named, as none of the creditors made an appearance), and then drove home through the still-crappy winter weather.

I will be teaching tomorrow, as well as Monday, barring an cancellations due to excessive cold (yes, they really do close the schools in East Central Illinois if it is “too cold” out). I was also asked by another teacher if I’d be available to sub for her tomorrow, but I was already scheduled. It is rather nice to be wanted by multiple teachers on the same day, though!

And speaking of being wanted by teachers…

Okay, so that doesn’t actually have anything to do with being wanted by teachers. I just saw this note on the bottom of the weekly announcements on a teacher’s desk and found it incredibly hilarious!

Also, I think I have just now set a record for the number of adverbs used in a single blog entry by yours truly.


Student Messages

Today I was a special education teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. My day was pretty easy, which was kind of a relief because special ed can be incredibly challenging and draining at times, especially for a substitute teacher. I’ve subbed for this particular teacher in the past, although I think this was my first time this year, and she knows me well enough to know what will work best.

Students in the elementary special ed classes always have a very interesting view of the world that they freely share with others. One boy decided that people who are sick are turning into werewolves. Nobody really knows for sure how he got this idea, but he insists it is true. We had quite the conversation about it. He also informed us that vampires are not real, but werewolves are. During this conversation, he outlined on the board who was sick and what was happening to them. He entitled the entire thing the “Monster Mystery Time” and asked that we keep it up for his teacher to see. Here’s what he did:

If you click on the picture, it should open to a full-size image. You’ll notice that it says that Gavin is turning into a vampire, despite the fact that vampires aren’t real. It was still pretty awesome.

Later on, I had two boys working on math and they had actually made quite a bit of progress. I gave them a short break, during which they wanted to leave a note for their teacher. One of the boys wanted to know how to write “hope you feel better” but, pursuant to my belief in not telling anyone how to spell anything, I refused. So he gave up, and the other boy took over. He couldn’t figure out how to spell “hope” either, though, so he wrote this, instead:

I was quite impressed that he was able to reword his message, even if the grammatical structure does leave much to be desired. It was fun watching them work out their message to their teacher. I’ve heard she’s going to be gone again tomorrow but, alas, I am not available to teach tomorrow due to a meeting I have in another town at 1 pm.

It was definitely a great experience working with these boys and girls today!


Serenity Now!

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I have subbed for quite a few teachers at Stratton this year, but this was the first time subbing for this particular teacher. I had hopes that things would go well when I saw that her class had “Guest Teacher Agreement”. This document outlined the expectations of the class when they have a guest teacher (which is what they refer to substitutes at Stratton). It included items like “meet expectations”, “stay on task”, and “treat everyone with respect”.

Alas, several members of the class seemed to think that this agreement did not apply to them, or that it didn’t apply to me. It was a bit frustrating. Half the class was awesome! They followed rules, did their work, stayed on task, and were generally great. They were engaged and helped one another and they helped me. The others, though, seemed to do everything they could to drive me crazy. Talking, running around the room, treating everyone disrespectfully, and shooting things across the room with rubber bands. One boy was removed from the class after lunch when he started chasing and kicking a classmate. Another got kicked out with just five minutes to go after saying some incredibly disrespectful things to me.

I find that the only way to get through a day like today is to ask for serenity NOW and to remind myself that the students are not lashing out against me–they are lashing out against the environment. It is hard to not take it personally, though. Especially when a student starts mocking my speech patterns. Yes, I am practically deaf in one ear, have moderate hearing loss in the other and, as a result, I have a speech impediment. I’ve generally come to accept that I have corrected as much of my speech as possible, but I know that I don’t sound the way others do. (Whatever that actually means… After all, nobody sounds exactly like another person.) Most students are mature enough to accept my speech patterns without a problem. But some feel it is necessary to point them out. I’ll admit it: it hurts. It hurts that a 10-year-old believes it is acceptable to treat others differently because they are different. It hurts to realise that this kid is going to grow up to be a bully. It hurts to realise that I have very few chances to teach him otherwise, and I fear that his teachers won’t be successful, either.

Then I remember that kids who are bullies are able to grow out of it. Kids who are bullied are able to escape the cycle of bully-or-be-bullied. Teachers are able to have a positive impact. By seeking for inner peace, taking lots of deep breaths, and shedding the frustrations at the end of the day, I am able to move on and even return. Which is what I will hopefully do one day. I love seeing how these kids change. I’ve seen it happen before. I hope to see it happen again and again and again.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep taking deep breaths and asking for serenity.


MLK Day

Today was the annual national day of remembrance for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a federal holiday, there was no school in the districts in which I teach, although I heard that one district in the community was open in an attempt to make up for lost days back in August.

Dr. King is the only non-president for whom a federal holiday is named. That’s pretty impressive. There are many men and women with state holidays. (For example, in Illinois, we recognise Casmir Pulaski, a Polish military man who was involved in the Revolutionary War.) All day long there have been tributes to Dr. King and his message of nonviolence, social and economic justice, and equality, among many other things.

For those who have never watched it, or for those who wish to watch it again, as well as for my own benefit, I present the memorable speech Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on the steps of the the Lincoln Memorial in my nation’s capital on 28 August 1963:

There is an awesome database online, American Rhetoric, that has the complete text, as well as audio and video, of this speech. American Rhetoric also shares videos, audio, and text of speeches from throughout America’s history, and from the silver screen (including the amazing speech by President Andrew Shepherd in The American President).

I hope you all had a great day, and I hope that we can all take part in not only sharing Dr. King’s dream but also in bringing it to pass.


Observing Change and Growth

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign, but not for my mother-in-law.  I was subbing for the teacher across the hall from her, who I have known for as long as I have been working as a substitute. I was a bit worried about the assignment because some of her students were absolute hellions while in 4th grade and I had worked with them several times throughout that year. However, I took the assignment realising that a) people change and b) I needed the work. Possibly more of the latter, but at least partly because of the former.

I am so glad that I did! I had a wonderful day with her class! Her students were well-behaved, fun, and the worked hard all day–so much so, in fact, that I was able to give them the last 15-20 minutes of the day as free time. We did science, reading, math, spelling, and English, and all the lessons went well. I had some troubles with two students, but nothing so dramatic as to make me want to smash my head against a wall. Most of the students were just good. Very few stood out as being exceptionally well-behaved, but that is because all of them were.

But there was one girl in particular that really took me by surprise. Of all the kids who drove me crazy last year, she was the ring-leaders. While in 4th grade, she would yell and scream at me, refuse to work, disrupt other students, throw things at me, and generally made my day miserable. She was none of those things today. In fact, she was the exact opposite. She was the first to start working and to volunteer to provide answers or to read, she helped her classmates with their work, she helped encourage her classmates to stay on task, and she generally made my day absolutely wonderful. Her mum came in at the end of the day and asked how her day went. I was incredibly pleased to be able to tell this girl’s mother that her daughter had a great day, and that I was so impressed with how much she has grown and matured over the past year.

It was really great seeing how all of these students have changed and grown since last year. Many of them were in this troublesome class, and it was awesome seeing how different they were. At the end of the day, I did a brief Awareness of Process exercise with them. I asked what went well during the day, what didn’t work well, and what they could do next time to improve. They responded in a mature and responsible way. All in all, this was a wonderful way to wrap up my week!


The Constant Dilemma

Today I was a 6th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. If I had been the reading teacher, we would have been in the library, which would have amused me to no end. Alas, no library for me today! In fact, I actually had to teach math. Or, at least, attempt to do so. I don’t know if I actually succeeded.

The students in the regular math classes were practicing dividing fractions by fractions, and learning the strategy of multiplying the first fraction by the inverse of the second. I don’t know how many really understand how or why this method works, nor did they really understand the strategy in the first place. Heck, I’m still not sure I fully understand how or why it works. Many times, though, I am content to know that it does work until I finally understand why. Even without fully understanding, though, I am confident in my ability to teach the strategy and to illustrate what is being done in the division process. Unfortunately, most of the students with whom I was working were not interested in learning this. Rather, they seemed interested in doing what many middle schoolers in Champaign do: ignore their substitute.

Sigh.

But at the end of the day, I had two classes who had the honors students. They were completely different. They were reviewing different math topics, and many were challenging. Rather than complain that it was too hard and just play around all period, though, they worked at it. They tried it. And they asked me to help them when they were thoroughly stumped. They were respectful but they were also fun. I was able to joke with them and they were able to joke with me, all while learning and understanding difficult math problems.

Here’s a question that I need answered from someone who knows math better than me: is it possible to determine the surface area of sphere? I don’t know. And yes, I realise that I can just Google this. I’d like to know if it can be explained to me, though. The reason I ask is because the teacher for whom I was subbing has a poster that shows the formulas for finding volume and surface area, but for spheres, the surface area was listed as “n/a” (also for a cone). Just curious if there is a reason why.

Anyway, at the end of the day, I found myself debating the dilemma I’ve been debating for years: do I want to invest the time and money required to get the endorsements to teach middle grades? The endorsements would allow me to teach middle school or junior high social studies, science, and possibly English/Language Arts. On the one hand, I love working with older students. They are interesting, interested, and full of a desire to understand. On the other hand, it seems like I encounter many who are belligerent and unresponsive. Is that because they are adolescents, or is it because I am a substitute teacher and that is just how adolescents treat substitute teachers? I can’t believe that the men and women I know who teach at the middle schools have days filled with trials like mine. Also, if I can add a third hand, I would point out that I have long said that I would love to teach fourth or fifth grade. This is still true. But I am wondering if it would be worthwhile to get the endorsements to teach older students. Would it make me more marketable? Would it increase my chances at finding full-time employment? The classes required for the endorsements can be taken online, and will cost between $2000-3000. It is possible that I would qualify for student aid, though. I really would be interested in knowing what others would suggest. Help me out, friends and strangers!


Can't Win 'Em All, I Guess

Today I was a 6th grade English/Language Arts teacher at Franklin Middle School in Champaign. I was originally assigned to teach 4th grade at Lincoln Trail Elementary School in Mahomet, but the assignment was cancelled at 5 am and I was lucky enough to catch something new this morning. So I was teaching the same subject that I was teaching yesterday. And, like yesterday, I was in the library all day. Strange how that happens.

I am getting used to the fact that the majority of students seem to think that I am the best thing since sliced bread. I don’t know what’s so cool about sliced bread, but the fact remains: they love me. I should poll the students one of these days so I can find out what, exactly, it is that I do that they love so much. It may help me improve as a teacher. But there are some students who seem to hate me on sight. They become argumentative and disrespectful, and they ignore all the directions they are given. I encountered many like this throughout the day. It was a bit disheartening. Even more disheartening was when I had two girls loudly proclaim that they hate me because I am so mean. I guess I was being mean. After all, I am the one who took their tests away when they were talking (which is exactly what I said would be the result of talking during a test). I also wouldn’t let them talk and play around in the library. How cruel I am!

The strange thing is that none of my students seem to be ambivalent toward me. They either love me or hate me. Everyone in the last class of the day seemed to be in the former category. These were also the most well-behaved students of the day. I think it is interesting that well-behaved students are the ones who always say how awesome I am, while the ones who hate me are the ones who are often misbehaving and getting in trouble–not just from me, but from all of their teachers. I am not saying the correlation is implying causation. Just that there is an interesting correlation to be observed.

Ah well. I guess I can’t win ’em all. I don’t really care if a student says he or she hates me, though. I know that they are actually responding to the situation, not me. And I know that they are still growing up and learning to understand themselves and the rules of society. So I’ll take the verbal abuse and the dirty looks, just as long as I also get the high fives, fist bumps, and notes saying how much they like me.


In Which Students Realise I Am Not All-Powerful

Today I was a 6th grade English/Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. I was quite pleased to accept this assignment, because I had been requested, not just by the teacher for whom I was subbing, but also by her various students. I admit, though, that it took me a bit to figure out exactly when I had subbed for her before. (It was November 30, for those who wish to look at my post from that day.)

Last night it had begun to snow. It continued to snow all through the night and into the morning. We had about 3 inches of accumulation, give or take, but schools had not been cancelled. It normally takes me about 20-25 minutes to get to school. My wife was bringing me in to work, as she has since she started working, and we planned for doubling the driving time in order to accommodate for the poor road conditions. It took almost a full hour to get from our house to the school. I made it just in time for the first bell. Fortunately, there is a co-teacher for the first class period, so things were not completely out of control. Equally fortunate, the administration and teachers were all very understanding of my travel delays.

I spent the bulk of the day reading from Children of Dune while the students took a computer-based reading/literacy assessment in the library. All of them were very good about following test-taking protocol (not talking, staying focused on the task at hand, working quietly when finished, etc). Although I didn’t do much all day, I still had a great day working with the students.

The last period of the day was a study hall, and this was where the title of this post comes to play. During study halls, a teacher may send up to six students to the library for the period, providing none of the students on the list are on the D/F list; that is, any student with a D or an F is not permitted to spend study hall in the library. What wasn’t specified was if a student on the D/F list could go to the library on a short pass (no more than ten minutes). This came to light when a boy who was on the list wanted a short pass to the library. I told him that the note from his teacher said that “No students on the D/F list are permitted to go to the library during study hall.” He maintained that I could send him on a short pass. I explained that, as a substitute, I am bound to follow the directions left by the regular classroom teacher. If she says no library, then that is that. I am not, despite what they think, all-powerful.

There is a considerably amount of leeway given to me in making decisions on the spot. I am able to interpret lesson plans and adjust them as I see necessary. If a student is about to be violently ill all over her classmates, I will make the decision to let her go to the bathroom, even when the classroom policy is to permit no restroom passes. However, this was an issue of a school-wide policy. It came down from on high, and was transmitted to me by a full-time teacher. And thus I had to deny the student permission to go to the library, but I also told him to take the issue up with his teacher and ask her to clarify the issue in her sub plans. I also left her a note explaining the situation, hoping for further instruction.

And so yesterday it was discovered that I am not all-knowing. Today it was discovered that I am not all-powerful. Not sure what I’ll do if I have to explain that no, as a matter of fact, I am not all-present.


Oops

Today I was a co-teacher in a 4th/5th grade class at Dr. Howard in Champaign. I’m not sure how the class was 4th/5th grade because, as far as I could tell, all of the students were in 5th grade. Maybe there were 4th graders there, too, and I didn’t notice. It is possible, I imagine. Anyway, as a co-teacher, I spent most of the day walking around and keeping an eye on the students while the other teacher did all of the work. I had a generally good day, and I told her that I would be happy to come back for them whenever needed, and that I would be glad to be put to use. Not sure if I will be there again, as there are always other factors that get involved, but I’d definitely be glad to work with these students again.

During the course of the day, I noticed that there are times when teachers make mistakes. I certainly do, and I know others do, as well. What I find interesting is how we respond to our errors. There are pretty much a handful of ways we can respond: we can make a big deal about it; we can pretend it didn’t happen; we can insist it didn’t happen; we can quietly change the error; and we can acknowledge the error and correct it. As a teacher, I try to acknowledge the error and then correct it. I don’t believe in creating a mythos of the omniscient teacher (even if I do jokingly say that I know everything). I noticed one of my errors when I was writing a sample persuasive essay and accidentally inserted a comma where no comma was needed. I just said, “Oh, oops, that shouldn’t be there!” and crossed it out. No problem.

I’m glad that the students I was working with today were able to easily recognise that a mistake was easily made and just as easily fixed. This is an important lesson for any person to learn. All of us have moments when we go “Oops”–it is worthwhile to decide early on how we will respond to these moments.


Philosophy of Education Part I

I did not teach today, and I have been putting this off for a long time. I need to figure out what my philosophy of education really is. While I was at the University of Illinois, I was required to write a philosophy of education that was based on the framework used to guide the teacher training program through the College of Education. This is the final draft that I had submitted. I don’t think it fully embraces my philosophy, but I do believe every word that I wrote.

The UIUC Conceptual Framework operates on the idea that there are two pillars of education, Community and Inquiry, and that they are dependent upon a foundation of Service and Technology. There are many ways to define a community. It can be a neighbourhood or a city or town. It can also be a state or even a nation. In many ways, our modern society has made it possible for us to live in a global community. A community may also be defined by ideological, rather than geological, boundaries. Thus, we have teaching communities, business communities, medical communities, art communities, and scientific communities.

As an educator, one of the most important communities with which I associate is the classroom community. The classroom community is, by its very nature, extremely diverse. Each student is a unique individual with a unique way of learning, and expressing what he or she has learned. I, as the teacher, am uniquely different from any other teacher the students have had. This community must first develop within the walls of the classroom. It then expands outward to the school, and then into the political and geological boundaries within which our society has been developed.

The classroom is the most important place to help students grow. The UIUC Conceptual Framework, Teaching and Learning In A Diverse Community, has been developed to guide teachers in fostering this growth. The framework shows that learning is not possible with only one pillar and half of the foundation. Community, Inquiry, Service, and Technology are all critical, inter-related facets of the most effective education practices. I believe that those teachers who help their students learn in a way that creates life-long learners will also create in their students the potential to go far above and beyond the level of the teacher himself.

The teacher’s role of establishing community begins with the students in the classroom. As they learn to rely upon one another as a community with a common goal, they will be able to take the education process to a higher level of self-discovery. When the teacher ceases to be the definitive source of information, and becomes another member of the community, searching to attain greater wisdom, everyone in the classroom benefits. It is true that the teacher must continue in the role of setting goals for the class and guiding the learning experience. But this role does not mean that the teacher is not learning alongside his students. Each teacher must decide what his or her role will be: the guide, the coach, the manager, the dictator, the conductor, the custodian, or the leader. Each role has a legitimate place within the teaching community, but each teacher must decide for him- or herself which role he or she is best suited to adopt.

As the classroom community develops throughout the 180 days given in the school year, it should be continually expanding outward. It should also expand onward, as students move on to higher education and take the ideas they learned in the P-12 classroom and share them with their peers. The ultimate effect will be that of a snowball rolling down a hill, growing larger and larger as more and more people are influenced by the ideas that these students first encountered in the early years of their formal education.

Since 1996, I have been actively involved with Operation Snowball, Inc., an international program started in Illinois as a Community Action Plan. The purpose of this program is to create a “community of caring” in which teens are empowered to take charge of their lives by utilising the information and leadership skills needed to promote positive life-choices among their peers. First as a participant in the program and then as a volunteer staff member, I have seen first-hand the effects of creating a community and then watching that community grow. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned through my work with Operation Snowball is the tremendous power that the youth of our nation have in creating change in their communities. In observing this, I have been able to learn ways of facilitating change and growth not by telling students what they should do, but by asking them what they think should be done, and then guiding them in the process of making it happen. This is an essential element of teaching that can and should be used in every classroom.

The best teaching methods I have ever observed are those in which the teachers ask many questions, but give few answers. Inquiry-based education is hard, for both the teacher and the student, but it has a much more lasting effect than any other method I have observed. A high school teacher once told me that the most important question she can ask of her students is simply, “Why?” When a student answered a question, she would always ask him to justify his response. If she did not feel that the student had given enough thought in his response, or if she felt that he was trying to give the answer that would “fit” her ideas, then she would continue to ask for further justification. In doing this, the students in our class rapidly understood that she did not want us to regurgitate what was found in the book or in the lecture notes. She wanted us to think about what we had learned, and be able to explain it in a way that made sense to us. If it did not make sense, then we were given the task of exploring and researching until we discovered the meaning. Inquiry-based education relies on the students’ desire to learn not just what, where, and when, but also how and why.

With today’s technological advances, this research process has become much more advanced. Students can turn to the Internet and do a search for just about any topic conceivable. Unfortunately, not all of the information available online is accurate, and it has become the responsibility of the teacher to help students filter out the junk and find the reliable information. Integrating technology in the classroom by encouraging students to use the Internet in their research will help them not only become familiar and comfortable with modern technology, but it will also help students understand how they can continue to learn about and understand the world around them long after they have left the formal classroom.

Illinois-born philosopher and educator Elbert Hubbard has been quoted as saying that “the object of teaching a child is to enable him to get by along without his teacher.” While the idea may appear contradictory at first, it is actually a very accurate description of what the goal of educators should be. As students learn, they should be developing the skills that allow them to continue on learning throughout their lives. Eventually, the well-taught student will become his or her own teacher. As British musician Phil Collins wrote in a song for the Disney movie Tarzan, “in teaching we do learn, and in learning we do teach.” These two quotes, penned by two very different men in very different times, seem to summarize a core element of my personal philosophy of education, which is that my role as a teacher is to guide my students in a journey of self-discovery; a journey that I, myself, am also undertaking. If I were to summarize my philosophy of the educational process, it would be that we should all be continually learning and improving. Teachers and students have much to learn from one another, and much to teach one another. This transactional relationship is key to true education.


Kids Are Kinda Jerks

Today I was an 8th grade social studies teacher at Jefferson Middle School in  Champaign. I was excited to be in the classroom again after what has felt like ages (really only three weeks). But while I was there, I realised something: kids are kinda jerks.

Not all kids are jerks, and I don’t think the ones who are intentionally mean to be so, but still… they’re not very nice, especially to each other. The best example I have to offer of this was from my second class. There is a girl in the class with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder. By 8th grade, one would expect that students are aware of the difficulties that are caused by this syndrome, and they would have some level of compassion for those who suffer from it. (If you aren’t aware, and you couldn’t be bothered to click the link, Asperger’s is most noted by severe difficulties in engaging in social interaction, among many other things. I know students who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s in 5th grade, and it is probably diagnosed earlier. So I would have thought 8th graders would understand.

Not so.

There was frequent mockery of this poor student, comments made to her and about her, and constant complaints that she gets “special treatment” because she’s “not normal like the rest of us” (an actual quote from one of her classmates). The girl ended up having a major melt-down and was escorted out of the room by an administrator, but I couldn’t help but think about how the situation could have been different if only the other students had not been so cruel. I spoke with several of the students and informed them that their comments were unacceptable and inappropriate, but I don’t know if it had any effect on them or not.

At another point in the day, I had students belittle one another, even their friends, and call each all sorts of names. I can’t help but wonder: was I like that when I was 13-15 years old? Was I a jerk like that? I am afraid that I was and I either didn’t know or didn’t care. Either one is totally unacceptable. But maybe jerkhood is a natural part of the developmental process. I would like to think that it isn’t but, at the same time, I see it happen so often that it definitely makes me wonder. What do you think? Are teenagers naturally obnoxious, or is it just this particular batch of 100 or so that I saw today?


A Day of Much-Needed Rest

I did not teach today, nor did I have jury service. I had been given the day off by the judge yesterday, but there were no assignments available for me yesterday. This is not particularly surprising, as it was only the third day back from the Winter Break. So I was able to get some much-needed rest today. It also gave me a chance to tackle a few projects that I had had lying around waiting for me to take care of.

I spent a considerable amount of time this morning trying to get an old IDE hard-drive to work on my computer as a back-up drive. Usually, this is as easy as hooking the second drive to the ribbon for the first drive as on the slave plug. Unfortunately, my computer’s current drive is an SATA, and while the two are theoretically compatible, I just couldn’t get the computer to read either drive when I booted up the computer. I am sure there is some easy solution to this problem, but I couldn’t figure it out.

After conceding defeat, I began work on one of many Top Secret Projects that Gretch and I have. When we are ready to announce the project, I will let everyone know. I will let you know this, though: it is going to be awesome! I also applied for a few more jobs, including one in Mahomet that would start in just two weeks! There have already been several applicants, but I am going to keep my fingers crossed. It would be a full-time job for the remainder of the semester at Lincoln Trail Elementary School, teaching 4th grade. It would be an amazing blessing in my life to get this job, but I know that there have already been several applicants for the position.

Throughout the day, I watched more episodes of The X-Files on Netflix, which was entertaining, as always. I just learned that I will not be needed as a juror tomorrow, so I am hoping to pick up an assignment for the day. We shall see what we shall see!


We the Jury

Today was my second day of jury duty, and my first day on a jury during a trial. It was an interesting experience, and one which was quite gratifying. I learned a lot about the realities of the judicial system, and how juries actually work. As I said yesterday, I have no intention of discussing any of the details of the case, including what it was about, who was involved.

I will say, however, that my fellow jurors and I apparently reached our verdict quite quickly, so much so that the officer of the court was shocked to learn that we had reached a verdict when he came in to check on our progress. I believe we spent approximately half an hour deliberating, most of which was discussing questions we had about the case, and the burden of proof that had been placed upon the State. We also spent some time discussing the lack of meaningful questions that we would have liked to have had answered, and our disappointment with both the State and the Defense to provide a strong argument one way or the other.

What ultimately informed our decision, however, was the realisation that the presumption of innocence trumps all in our judicial system. The defendant may very well have committed the crimes for which he was being tried. The Defense did not convince me or the other eleven jurors otherwise. But the State failed to convince us that he was definitely guilty. We were told to convict only if we believed he was guilty without reasonable doubt. There were many doubts, and therefore none of us felt that we could, in clear conscience, convict the defendant of the alleged crimes. And so it was that we voted not guilty on all accounts.

The interesting thing was to watch his reaction at the end. I don’t think he heard it at first–in fact, I think he was expecting to hear a guilty verdict. All of a sudden it hit him, and he slumped forward and just rested his head on the defense table. I would not be surprised at all to know that he was crying with relief. My thought was that he was a young man being tried of a crime for which he was innocent, and yet everyone felt he was guilty.

Afterwards, we all congregated in the jury room, gathered our belongings, and were escorted out of the courthouse by the officer of the court. And thus the trial ended.

One thing that really struck me at the very end was how well that we all worked together as a jury. I was reminded of the stages of group development that I teach teens at the Illinois Teen Institute: first, a group forms, then they begin to storm. Eventually they create group norms and they are able to perform. At the end, they adjourn, and move on. Our small group of twelve (fourteen, actually, if I include the alternates who were with us throughout the trial), did just that. We formed, we stormed, we normed, and then we performed. We did what we were brought together to do, we were satisfied that we had done what was expected of us, and then we adjourned. I may see some of them again, I may not. I don’t know. But I do know this: I have enjoyed my experience serving on a jury, and I would be glad to do it again.


I Have Been Summoned

Way back in July, I was sent a questionnaire in the mail regarding my availability for Jury Duty. I had indicated that I would prefer to serve jury duty in the summer but, alas, ’twas not be so. I received my Petit Jury Summons in the mail in December, and began jury duty this morning. After sitting through an orientation for about an hour or so, I was released until 1:15 pm, when I was called to sit through jury selection.

There were about 40 or so of us called to sit through jury selection. The first twelve were called, and, of them, the judge and attorneys began the screening process, four at a time. Of the first three, one was excused. It took three tries to find a juror agreed upon by all, and they moved on to the next four. One was struck from the panel by the defense attorney, one was struck by the prosecutor, then two were excused by the judge. So we were up to 19 called when my name was randomly selected. So I was the 20th juror called, and selected as part of the second batch of four. If we have numbers as juror on the panel, I think I am juror number five, though.

I won’t say anything about the case, of course, but this is just to record some of the non-confidential information relating to my current adventures in jury service that will be taking the place of my adventures in substituting this week. This is my first time being summoned as a juror, and it is kind of cool that I have already been selected to serve on a jury. I know that it won’t be anything like they show on TV, and I have a hunch it will be a bit different from what John Grisham portrays (although, to be fair, the jury selection process was fairly similar to what he describes in his numerous books). I do know that it will be an interesting learning experience.

I’ll keep you posted with the limited information I can share. New adventures in substituting to resume next week (I hope).