I love my job. Really, I do. And I love my class. I loved my class last year, and I loved my class the year before. I loved all of my classes that I had during the three years that I worked as a substitute teacher in Champaign, Mahomet, and Urbana. I can honestly say that I love all of the students I have had. They are amazing, wonderful, talented, insightful, funny, enthusiastic, independent youth who are going to take over the world before we know it.
There are days that they drive me crazy, of course. Just as there are days that I drive them crazy. There are days that I don’t like what they are doing, but I still love them. I look forward to coming to work each day, to seeing what they will unveil, to watching them learn, and to observe their interactions with one another. And when I am gone, whether for a meeting with an inquiry group I am part of or the district focus group that is trying to make sense of the learning standards we have adopted or I have a doctor’s appointment or am just sick, I worry about them. I worry about whether or not these children, who trust me to be here each day and to help them learn, will be able to put that same trust in a relative stranger.
I have a core group of substitute teachers that I usually request for my classroom. It isn’t because I don’t trust other substitutes. It isn’t that I don’t like them. I know well the struggle of finding assignments as a new substitute. The reason I usually request the same substitutes is simply that I know them, they know me, and, more importantly, my class knows them and they know my class. They have built relationships of trust with each other, and so I can feel just a little bit less worried about my class when they are in the capable hands of one of these substitute teachers.
But every now and then the substitutes I have requested are not available, or messages get crossed, and someone new comes into the room. It happens. And those are the days I worry the most. I know that I have established trusting relationships with each of my students. I know that we have a sense of community in this small classroom. But does that sense of community transfer to when I am gone and there is someone different, someone unfamiliar?
You may recall from a couple of weeks ago that I have given a lot of time and thought to my students’ ability to work independently. I shared one of my favourite quotes, that states that the entire object of my job is to essentially put myself out of a job (at least with any given class). Now, in reality, there will always be a need for me to do what I do. No matter how independent my students are, they are still children, most of them around 9 or 10 years old. They need guidance and direction from adults, not because the adults are bigger or smarter, but because we’ve gone the way before and can show them the paths to take. The question then, isn’t, “Can my students get by without a teacher?” so much as it is, “Can my students get by without me?”
Today I was gone in the morning for a doctor’s appointment. My regular substitutes were not available, so I took a chance and asked for someone who had only been in my room once before this year. I worried the whole morning and hoped that all was well. I came back just before lunch and came into the room to see my students working independently or in small groups, practicing multiplication, helping each other, and asking the substitute for help when they needed it. The substitute told me that they had had a wonderful morning, that everyone had been working, and that there were no problems!
I was greatly relieved. Not only can my class work independently when they are with me, and not only can they follow the directions of the teachers they know, but they can also do it when I am gone! They are well on their way to becoming independent learners, independent thinkers, and, perhaps most importantly, independent doers!
A few months ago, my wife and I were babysitting for some friends of ours and I happened to notice a book from the library sitting on the floor. It was a fairly simple children’s picture book but, being the teacher and bibliophile that I am, I picked it up and read it. It didn’t take long, but I was very impressed by the wonderful message taught within its pages and asked if I could borrow it to share with some colleagues. I especially wanted to share it with the first grade teacher that I have partnered with for three years now to do buddy reading. She read it and was similarly impressed. And thus a project began to grow.
The book was Perfect Square, written by Michael Hall. It is the story of a simple perfect square of paper that gets cut up, poked full of holes, torn, crumpled, shattered, and seemingly ruined but then transforms into different beautiful works of art, like a water fountain, a mountain, a garden, and a valley. The lesson, for me, is that while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it. (I am sure there are a myriad of other lessons, too!)
I had initially thought of doing a project that focused on the social and emotional learning aspects of this story, but then one of our art teachers asked if anyone was interested in an arts infusion project. Since I have already done a couple of these, I was excited to see what we could do. The three of us sat down and discussed what we could do. Fortunately, with the advent of the Common Core State Standards, it is really easy to find a learning target that applies to different grade levels. We decided to focus on writing narratives with a beginning, middle, and end, and using technology to tell a story.
Students will work with the reading buddies to manipulate squares of paper to tell a story. Then they will design an animation sequence that will be recorded with our iPads and turned into videos that we can share with others. It is going to be an exciting project that will tie together so many different learning targets. I hope that the students will enjoy our Perfect Square Project as much as their teachers will!