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

Archive for March, 2011

Leaving a Report

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I am not certain what the grade level of my students was, but I think they were juniors. Most likely. It was an interesting day. The teacher for whom I was subbing had been gone on  Tuesday and Wednesday also because her five-year-old son has had the stomach flu. So things were kind of in a bad state. Even worse, the previous subs did not leave any real reports for what they did.

On the sub plans for Tuesday, there was one brief note jotted at the very end: “Everything went well.” No details, no name, nothing. Just that. For Wednesday there were a few more notes, but they didn’t say much. “3rd period was chatty. Finished p. 152. 4th period was more on task. 5th and 6th periods were great.” A name of sorts was signed at the end, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it said. And the notes gave no indication of what actually happened during the day.

This got me thinking. What do most subs do at the end of the day? I have a very specific routine I go through at the end of every day/assignment. First, I make sure the floor is free of large debris and put all the desks back where they belong, as needed. I make sure all of my personal belongings are packed away in my bag so that I don’t leave anything behind, as I have done on more than one occasion. Then I take out my portfolio (black vinyl folder that holds a legal pad) and leave a report for the teacher. The report includes the following items:

  • The date
  • A general overview of the day (things went well, things were good, things were not so good, etc.) I also try to address the teacher’s absence and, if I had been requested, thank her/him for asking me to sub for that day.
  • A detailed description of the lessons for the day: what was planned, what was accomplished, evaluation/assessment, suggestions for follow-up. (During the day I will jot notes in the margins of the plans to help me keep track of this information.)
  • An overview of the students’ behaviour, with any specific descriptions as needed. (These include not just the discipline/behaviour problems but also the students who were phenomenal).
  • Any comments from other teachers (only applicable at the elementary level, when the students have Specials like PE, Art, Music, Library).
  • Final comment, wish for the teacher to feel better (if appropriate), and an offer to return any time needed (although there are some classes where I leave this out because I may not have a strong desire to return).
  • I close the report with my name (Alex T. Valencic), email address, and phone number.

Most of the time, these reports are only a page long. It really doesn’t take that much time to give this information. Today’s report was two pages long, but that was because the teacher had specifically requested that I leave a detailed report and there was very specific information she needed, mostly because the previous subs had no left it. The longest report I have ever left was four pages long, and it was for a teacher who had a very large number of disruptive students. (When she told the class that the report was that long, one of the students had suggested it was a good thing. The teacher responded, “No report from a sub that is four pages long is ever a good thing.”)

The reason for my reports is simple: I put myself in the place of the regular teacher. I have left my class for a day and entrusted the care of my students to a stranger. I would want to know what happened. Were my plans followed? What did the class learn? How much of the day will I have to repeat when I return to make sure they are actually on track? How will I make up the lost time, if there is any? What students need to have phone calls made to parents for misbehaving? Who should be rewarded for exceptionally good behaviour? How can I contact the sub if I have any other questions, or I want to request him/her in the future?

It has occurred to me that, of the few times I have seen notes from other subs left for the teachers, I’ve never seen one the way I do them. So it still makes me wonder: what do the other subs do? And, along those lines, is it reasonable for me, as a future regular teacher, to hope for such a reports from my substitutes? I don’t know. My answer to both would be a hope for an affirmative reply, but different teachers have different expectations. If you are a full-time teacher and you have subs, what do you expect? If you are a sub, what do you tell the teachers? If you are neither, what do you think of my approach? I am always interested in improving my craft and would appreciate any feedback!

A New Milestone

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!

Driving on Fumes and a Prayer

Today I was a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. However, I was not subbing for the teacher for whom I have regularly subbed at the Junior High. Instead, I was subbing for her colleague across the hall. The Junior High is currently doing some research to determine if they should move from being a junior high school to a middle school. This would be a drastic shift in the philosophy of education in the building, and more so in the division of labour. Many of the teachers seem to favour the idea, but I don’t know what will happen. Anyway, this teacher happens to be a member of the committee that is looking into this.

During my week-long assignment before the break, she had requested me for today. It was kind of funny, because I didn’t actually know who she was, and had asked one of my classes if they knew her. They looked at me like I was a dummy and said that she was the teacher across the hall. Whoops. I guess I deserved the look. In my defense, though, she had only introduced herself by first name, and had only come into the room to say hello and offered to help out if I needed it. The really great thing, though, was that I had never subbed for her before and she was requesting me anyway. Glad to know that my reputation precedes me in a positive way!

The assignment was for a little more than half the day, starting just before lunch and going until the end of classes. So I was able to take my wife to work and have the car. This was particularly advantageous since it also meant I would be able to get to my evening wind ensemble rehearsal on time. So I took Gretch to work, came home, did some reading, got ready for work, and left, giving myself just enough time to get to Mahomet on time.

Of course, I forgot that the car still needed gas today. It “empty” light had turned on just as I dropped Gretch off, but I didn’t have my wallet with me at the time, and I managed to forget about it in the two hours I had before leaving. I didn’t want to be late for work, so I said a quick prayer and hoped I’d make it there. Fortunately, I did. When I filled up at the first gas station I passed after work, I realised that I must have been driving on fumes because the tank was practically bone-dry. Wow.

But I had made it, had a good afternoon teaching sixth graders the nuts and bolts of writing a research paper, and I made it to a gas station, all on fumes and a prayer. There is probably a deeper message in here somewhere but, honestly, I’m just glad I made it without any problems!


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!

Finally Taking a Break

Today is Thursday. I have one more day remaining of my days off for Spring Break, then the weekend and I am back to work on Monday. So I am taking a break today and tomorrow from blogging about anything teaching-related. I have books to read, episodes of The X-Files to watch, hair to get cut (I’m about two months overdue for a haircut now), a wife to spend time with, and an intense desire to actually take a break, be lazy, and maybe even get some more sleep than I have lately.

So I’ll be back on Monday. Feel free to come back and read through the archives and find any typos that may have snuck by editor.


Teaching Strategies: Hump Day

Today is Wednesday. For reasons not quite clear to me, this day is generally known as Hump Day. I find it a somewhat annoying term, and yet I see it all around me. Perhaps that is why I find it annoying. Who knows for sure. When I was serving a two-year mission for my church, there was a common way of describing periods of the mission: first entering the mission field (as we called it) was the Bump. Six months later was something or other that was never defined often enough for me to remember. One year in was the Hump. 18 months in was the Slump, when the missionaries began to think about going home. And at the end was the Trunk, when the bags were packed and the missionary went home. Fortunately, we don’t break down the work week that much. Our society is content to focus on the middle of the week, which we seem to dread while also looking forward to it.

I guess I am fortunate enough to find myself in a profession that allows me to enjoy what I do every day. Yeah, I get tired at times, but I still love my job. I look forward to each day. I hope someone will smack me when I start counting down the days until the end of the week. I don’t have a problem with counting the days until a break or until the end of the school year. But spending all of your time looking forward to the weekend? That seems a bit counter-productive.

Which is why I write about this as a teaching strategy. The strategy isn’t actually Hump Day, of course. Nor is it the recognition of the concept or the use of the term. Rather, it is the opposite. One of the most important things a teacher can do is to simply love coming to work, each and every single day. I’ve met the teachers who are their to do their jobs, as they think of it. And I’ve met the teachers who understand that their jobs are a lot more than what the contract says. I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus yesterday, and I think that this scene captures beautifully what I am talking about:


Fortunately for the music students at John F. Kennedy High School, Mr. Holland learned:


So the next time you find yourself thinking of Hump Day and then looking forward to the weekend, just remember: the teachers who rush to the parking lot with gusto as soon as their work day is over are rarely the teachers for whom after-school assemblies are planned and former students come back 30 years later to celebrate.

Teaching Strategies: Games

Following the topic I used yesterday, I have decided to devote this week to discussing different teaching strategies, which, for my purposes, are being differentiated from pedagogical methods. Yesterday was the use of videos, particularly those found on YouTube, to complement and/or supplement classroom lessons.

Today I’ll be talking about using games. Believe it or not, this was actually a major focus of a unit of student in one of my curriculum and instruction courses during my last year at the University of Illinois. Each class was begun with a student sharing a game that can be used in the classroom. Games have many different uses. Through my work with the Illinois Teen Institute and Operation Snowball, we regularly use games as a teaching tool. As the saying goes, we strive to have fun with a purpose. Every game, every activity, every silly song we sing shares the purpose of helping those involved progress toward the goals of the program. And so it is with the use of games in the classroom.

Some games are used as ice breakers. They help the class get comfortable with one another or to get to know each other. Some games are used as energizers. No matter how exciting the lesson may be, there are times when the students are going to start dragging. They need something to get them up and moving around. Other times the students are too wiggly and they just need to expend some energy. There are also the games used as closers, although they are not used as often in the formal classroom setting. These allow the group to prepare to move on to whatever comes next.

But there are two categories of games that are most important, in my opinion. They are the team builders and the self-awareness builders. Team building activities have been around for a long time. I love them because they allow those involved to learn to trust each other. As an educator, I strive for a classroom that is truly a cohesive unit. I want my students to rely upon each other, to help each other, to teach each other. This is very much an aspect of my egalitarian views of education. Team building activities provide opportunities for small successes, which in turn set the stage for improvement through scaffolding and supports.

Those activities or games that develop self-awareness are not used as often, but I find that I use them most often when it seems like the class is not paying attention. My favourite is the hand on the chin activity.  This is how it goes:

I tell everyone in the class that we are going to do an activity, and I need everyone to stand up by their chairs. Everyone stands.
I tell the class that I want them to follow my directions as I give them. They give consent, wondering what I’m going to have them do.
I tell them to extend their right arms, and I show them what I mean. Everyone extends his or her right arm. (If someone uses the left, I will point this out, and they switch.)
I tell them to take their thumbs and index fingers of their right hands and make a circle. Again, I model this, and they follow.
I then tell them to slowly bring their arm in and place the “O” on their cheek. As I do this, I slowly bring my arm in and place my “O” on my chin. 9 times out of 10, every person in the class will do exactly as I did. Occasionally I will have a student who catches what I said and chuckles. The rest of the students are standing with their hands on the chins wondering what is so funny.
I repeat the last instruction. Slowly, realisation dawns: the chin is not the cheek. My response to this is that it is important to follow directions and to listen closely. We need to be aware that those in our lives may say one thing and do another. We should be confident enough in our classroom setting, and in our lives, to stand tall doing what is right, even if everyone else is doing the wrong thing.

I love the change that comes over the classroom when we do this. For a brief while, I have a room of students who are paying attention, working hard, and helping each other. And I’ll admit it: it is really funny to have a room of 25 boys and girls all place their hands on the chins after being told to put them on their cheeks.