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The Mess

November 5, 2011

One interesting thing about subbing is seeing how all the different classrooms are kept. It’s sort of like staying in a stranger’s house, checking out all their stuff. Usually I have some time to myself in the classroom, like in the morning or at lunch, to really look around and see how the teachers have things set up. Just because I like to snoop through people’s stuff make sure I’m able to serve the students to the best of my ability.

For me, in my old classroom, I always liked to keep things neat and put away. I recently found this old picture I took of my classroom right when I started teaching, and I was surprised by how bare and Spartan it looked.

At least it's not messy

I built up my materials and resources over the years so that the shelves and closets and cabinets got filled up over time. I eventually had a plastic bin of markers, marked cardboard boxes of scissors, of glue, #2 pencils, paperclips. I also got better posters over time, and laminated the best ones at Kinko’s (which is expensive by the way). I gradually got more books, videos, classroom guides and stuff like that which related to my classes. And the plant did get bigger, until I stopped watering it and it died. But I still liked to keep things organized – partly out of respect for my students, so they wouldn’t have to try to learn in a messy, cluttered environment, but also to help me make sure I had what I needed and didn’t lose student work or anything like that.

Out here, the schools are clearly better funded, so the teachers have more stuff than I did. A lot of times, especially for the younger grades, the classrooms practically look like teacher supply stores – shelves upon shelves of books; lots of clear, labeled bins containing all kinds of art supplies, manipulatives, calculators, and paper; big thick teachers’ editions of textbooks.

The preschool I subbed at once was the best, because they had all kinds of toys all sorted: a box of train tracks, a box of dollhouse toys, a box of food and cooking toys kept by the play kitchen,  a box of little plastic dinosaurs. They also had one of those under-bed storage bins labeled for each kid with stuff especially for what they were working on, like flashcards and math aids and stuff. The kids also all knew where all the toys went, and they were being taught to put everything away after they played with it, before they got out the next thing. The whole place was just so clean and organized and inviting. It was amazing. (If it sounds like I am kind of describing the pre-K as some sort of mystical fantasy land where teachers and students are all happy all the time, that’s only because it IS.)

Not every classroom is like that, however. Read more…



October 26, 2011

Yesterday I subbed for a high school special ed teacher. I am thinking more and more that I should have gone into special ed – they are in high demand, meaning it’s easier for a special ed teacher to find a job, and you pretty much either assist one kid in a big classroom or teach small groups of 5 or fewer students at a time (well ok, more like 15 in my old, urban school). The downside is that a lot of the students are “more challenging” in various ways, but I think I’d rather take 2 highly challenging students over 30 mildly challenging students. Anyway, it was a nice day overall, and the teacher had actually asked me to teach an algebra lesson to the students which is pretty rare for a sub. Usually for high school I just push play on movies or assign review work or proctor tests. I always bring a book and usually fly through them. But yesterday I taught algebra and it was really pretty fun. It was the first time as a sub that I had that nice, satisfying “I taught them something and they got it!” teacher-feeling.

But, the really notable part of yesterday was one boy that I taught, Greg. Greg spends second period with the special ed teacher in a one-on-one format, reading or doing homework. As a sub, I don’t really know what any student’s deal is, and that goes for Greg too. Since he had a one-on-one class period with a special ed teacher, I can deduce that he has some sort of disability, but I didn’t (still don’t) know what. The sub notes warned me not to make him angry, not to make him feel insulted or threatened, because he would close down, not work, and report the incident to his parents. Something about the way all this was worded made me think his tantrums would be epic and the parents were of the litigious persuasion. I can handle a tantrum brought on by a child coming up against a school or classroom rule, after all, that’s pretty much part of the deal for a teacher. But I’d rather not be threatened with a lawsuit, or be responsible for getting the school threatened with one. So basically, I knew to walk on eggshells around Greg, but I did not know anything else about him. That’s fine, there are a lot of students who perform a little better for you if you stroke their egos a bit. You catch more flies with honey and all that.

Greg, it turns out, was a tall, spoiled, bossy kid with a little pot belly and no intention of taking orders from any teacher, especially not a sub. Read more…

Power struggle

October 21, 2011
Pencil sharpener and pencil.

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One funny thing about subbing is the strange power structures between me and all the other people I see during the day. The teacher, of course, even a sub, is in charge of the classroom and all the students. We have to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to do, and we dish out praise and discipline to help keep order. We make dozens of split-second decisions each day about what students can or can’t do (Can I go to the bathroom? Can I go to the library? Can I sit over there? Can I return this to such-and-such teacher? Can I go to the nurse? Can I write #3 on the board?). Because kids are constantly watching you and each other to make sure rules are fairly and consistently followed, and because of their complicated and invisible relationships with each other, these seemingly simple decisions can have unexpected consequences, so it’s best to be quite careful about what you let them do and when. This is problematic when, as a sub, you confidently either forbid or allow a student to do something, only to have all the nearby students tell you that the classroom rule is actually the opposite of whatever you just said. Ok, well, then, I guess you can do it….or you can’t…. or, jeez, I honestly couldn’t care less if you use the mechanical pencil sharpener to sharpen your colored pencil. Go ahead. Who cares??

And then, at the same time, the sub is pretty much inferior to all the permanent staff in the building – I’m the office temp. The office staff tells you what to do, where to go, and when. A disembodied voice over the intercom may command you to do certain things, like take the class to the computer lab at 10:15 or report to a different room at the time you thought you were having your lunch break. In a pinch, you ask any adult you can get your hands on for clarification of a rule: a neighboring teacher, the custodian, any random person walking by with a laminated badge. Often, I’ll meet the teacher who I’m subbing for – she’ll be on her way out, or he’ll have just stopped in to pick up some things before the students come in the morning. It can really be awkward – they’re in the teacher seat (their seat) so I don’t have anywhere to sit or put my stuff. I just stand around holding my bag while they start explaining what I’m going to do; I ask questions and try to get everything right, like a diligent personal assistant, and trying to sound confident, knowledgeable, and teacher-y. Then the kids come in and I’m in charge again, and speaking in little-kid-talk to a room full of 5 year olds. So much code switching and role reversal at eight o’clock in the morning can make your head spin. Read more…

Amerlia Earhart

October 18, 2011
Famous aviator Amelia Earhart is thought to ha...

Image via Wikipedia

The other day, I was subbing for a 4th grade room which was going over the difference between fact or opinion. I was reading a list of statements and the students were holding up signs that said either “fact” or “opinion”. I read one which said: “Amelia Earhart was the most dedicated female pilot.”

Sarah: “I know how Amelia Earhart died!”
Paul: “How?”
Sarah: “Her plane got lost and she couldn’t find where the airport was. So she ran out of gas and the plane crashed into the ocean.”
Paul (looking aghast): “Was she ok???”


October 13, 2011

OK, I have a goal to post at least 4-5 times a week, but unfortunately I am already falling short. This week has been a little hectic, with the internet out at home for 2 days, and subbing during the day, and regular household stuff which is boring but time consuming. And now I am going out of town for four days. But I have been subbing this week and have more stories to tell of my adventures in the local public schools…. look for an update Sunday (if I’m totally on the ball) or Monday (more likely). Have a great weekend!

Making friends

October 10, 2011

For me, adjusting to life in Kansas isn’t just about trying to find a job and substitute teaching to make a little money in the meantime. It’s also about trying to make new friends. I’m a pretty friendly person (when I want to be), but starting over from scratch in a new state to meet new people is a challenge.

Normally, coworkers would be a good place to start, but my only job is substitute teaching. I don’t really have coworkers, as such. I’ve looked on meetup, but there aren’t very many in my area and the one I didn’t really click with the one meetup group I tried. I thought another good idea would be to find a book group to join. So I started by skulking around the library and the bookstore looking for flyers, but I haven’t seen any. Then it dawned on me to e-mail a librarian: of course, they would know! So I did, and here is their response:

“As for other book groups, we have tried to gather that information, but the groups haven’t wanted to share that with us.”

Ouch. They’re all, “Who would want to read books with you? Nobody.” Read more…

The case of the missing students

October 9, 2011
Heiwa elementary school %u5E73%u548C%u5C0F%u5B...

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This week I subbed for a high school math teacher. Generally, I prefer subbing high school to subbing elementary school because it’s a lot easier. For one thing, I taught high school for five years, and I pretty much know what to expect. I’m not sure I’ve seen it all in just five years, but I’ve seen a lot of it. For another thing, typically the older students don’t cry, or ask me to tie their shoelaces, or need to be told to blow their noses. I also like the schedule better: you get a whole new batch of students every hour, so if you get a bad one it’s easier to push through and survive until they are no longer your responsibility. I always bring a book when I substitute teach; I have only gotten the book out on two occasions in elementary schools but when I’m subbing high school I can basically read all day. So it’s nice.

This week, though, I was wondering if maybe I’m just too lenient of a substitute teacher. Maybe I should be doing more. I mean, I would never have sat around my real classroom reading a book during class. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing it as a sub, either? Maybe I should be hovering over them, making sure they do their work and that they never talk about anything else or do anything else but work? But I kind of figure, with high schoolers, that you don’t want to overdo it too much with that stuff. They need to be allowed to make mistakes, right, to learn their own lessons? If they don’t get their work done because they either don’t want to or they think they don’t have to, they will accept the consequences of that. If I leave a note for their teacher saying these 5 kids did work but the rest of the class did nothing, then s/he will know to give the rest of those students 0’s on the assignment and not to believe whatever excuses they try to feed her the next day. Isn’t that a better lesson for them in the long run than having me hold their hands and force them to do work in class? That’s my thinking. And sure, it’s a lot easier for me too, but that’s just a happy accident.

But like I said, maybe I need to re-think my approach. There was one point with this math class where I looked around the room and realized that more than half the students were gone. It was like a ghost town in there. And yes, it was nice and quiet, and easier for the students there to work, and roughly twice as easy for me. But I’m not, like, totally sure that a principal or teacher would be impressed by seeing me there with only half my charges. It’s the stuff teacher nightmares are made of: sitting, hands folded, in front of a room full of empty desks while the students you are responsible for are out doing God knows what and probably putting it all up on youtube tagged with your name. (I don’t know the students in that video, I found it online.)

The teacher had left me instructions indicating that if the students asked to leave the room (to go to the bathroom, their locker, the vending machine, whatever) they should be allowed to do so, one at a time. In this particular class, 3 or 4 students asked me before the bell rang if they could go to the bathroom. I’m of the opinion that passing time is their time, so who am I to say no? The bell hasn’t even rung yet. You don’t have to be here yet. So I let them go. 20 minutes later, all four of them were still gone. Then, I had to send a student down to the office with the attendance list. That person was also gone for a long time. Then, somebody had to go to the bathroom – was it fair to her to make her not go just because other people were gone? This is the one person following the rules. I had her wait for a while, but after like 15 minutes with nobody back, I was re-thinking. So I let her go. Another boy, who had supposedly been waiting in line to leave the room once the others returned, apparently saw that none of his classmates were coming back any time soon, so he and his friend left when my back was turned. So that makes, what, 8 students all out of the room, out of a class of about 20.

I do think I was pretty much following the directions that were left to me, but at the same time, I’m not sure this situation would win me any substitute teaching awards. (As if there were such a thing! Haha, who would care about excellence in subbing??) So, it was looking around the room then that I started to think, hm, maybe I’m not actually doing that great of a job at this.