Saturday, February 27, 2010

Whatever You Do, Don't Tell the Boss!

I don't always get to meet the teachers I sub for, so when I do, I generally get some good information and advice. At the very least, I hear some good stories!

This week, one of my jobs was in a 1st/2nd grade combination class. The teacher warned me ahead of time that they would be difficult and that I'd have to come on strong from the very first moment. As it turned out, they weren't too bad. They were chatty and had a hard time sitting in their seats, but I've had harder groups. And I was only there until lunchtime, so that made it a nice day.

Anyway, in my discussion with this teacher, she told me they'd had some really bad substitutes at the school. I always hear horror stories about bad subs, and I really don't understand what can be so hard for some of them. In my experience, I've always had lesson plans and the day planned out moment to moment. I seldom have to use up time on my own. (And now that I've said that, I'll probably have a bunch of jobs with no lesson plan!) My hardest day was a one where the teacher had been out the previous two days and written the schedule on the board, with instructions to just pick up where the previous sub had left off. That got a bit ridiculous, since the kids argued about where they were on each subject, but I made it through the day.

These "bad subs" this teacher told me about were all in situations where the classroom teacher doesn't leave lesson plans. Teachers can be so entrenched in their own systems that they don't write them down. If there's an unexpected absence, there may be no sub plans. The error on the part of these substitutes that got them blackballed was in asking the principal what to do in the absence of these plans.

Now, while I can see the panic that would arise from having a classroom full of kids and nothing to do with them all day, the one thing you never want to do is make someone look bad in front of their boss! I have no idea what these people were thinking. Really, both sides are guilty. If a classroom teacher doesn't write day to day plans, she should have a generic substitute folder with activities and a schedule in case of an emergency. And a sub should be ready with at least a few ideas to fill time if necessary, without panicking.

I can only imagine that the sub's intentions may have been to get further instruction from somebody in charge. However, pointing out that the person you're supposed to be helping isn't doing her job is never a wise strategy. It comes off as passive/aggressive. I once worked for a company where people would send emails to "remind" each other of things, and cc managers "just so they're in the loop." What a manager sees in this case is a red flag that she has to oversee something that in reality she probably don't need to be involved with. It makes for a terribly nasty work environment where everyone is trying to make everyone else look bad, under the guise of looking polite. It undercuts autonomy and is really a form of "tattling," a habit we all try to break kids of.

In fact, because substitute teachers go in so blind to the work environments, I've grown to be on the side of not even asking other grade-level teachers for help unless instructed by the teacher for whom I'm subbing. I once had the teacher next door pop her head in first thing in the morning, only to find she was a little bit irked about the teacher being gone yet again. I inadvertently compounded the problem by asking if she knew the location of the worksheets that were mentioned on the sub plan, but that I couldn't locate. She went right to them in a corner under a shelf, and went into a tirade about how every time that teacher had a sub, the sub couldn't find the worksheets.

Nobody said that substitute teaching was easy. And because we're on our own so much in a sea of politics, attitudes and rules that differ from place to place, you have to have the strength to improvise and adapt to whatever comes along. And sometimes, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. So, my personal strategy is to stay under the radar unless I'm absolutely sure I'm shining.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Environment and Behavior

On Tuesday morning I walked into my assigned classroom and was astounded. The room was the neatest and cleanest room I'd ever seen. No clutter anywhere, and that included on top of the students' desks. Bulletin boards were colorful and clear, desks were perfectly lined up, and the only visible materials were the things I'd need for the day. It looked like a classroom set for a movie. I really would have been happy to just sit there and absorb my surroundings all day.

The teacher for whom I was subbing was in an onsite meeting and came into the room during a break to work on a bulletin board. As I tried to teach a reading lesson with one kid screaming the whole time that I was doing it wrong, I watched her work on the board. She pulled out a ruler and measured the distance between the things she was posting.

Suddenly it made sense. This was a woman who spent a lot of time on details. Simply eyeballing distance didn't work for her aesthetic sensibilities and the extra effort was noticeable. Moreover, her class of first graders may have been one of the best groups I've ever worked with. (My little critic aside.) They were certainly the best first grade class!

Then, today, I walked into a classroom that looked like a tornado had run through it. The room was very large. Easily the size of a classroom and a half, if not two very small rooms. There were scraps of paper on the floor and stuff everywhere. Books, piles of worksheets so high they were falling over, broken pencils, clipboards...just stuff.

And the students were not awful, but they had a hard time focusing. This was fourth grade, so it's not really fair to compare the two days I'm writing about, especially since there were thirteen more students in my group today than yesterday. The fact that the older the students get, the harder time they give a substitute also was a factor, but I couldn't help thinking: does the organization of the environment affect the behavior of the students?

I'm sure people have done studies on this. I'm sure if I wanted to, I could track this and do my own unofficial study based on my substitute travels. I'm not sure to what end, or what I might learn. There are so many things affecting each child in each hour of each day that you can't narrow down everything to the way the classroom looks, but it would be interesting to see if I can make connections.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Kindergarten: It's a Jungle

Today I subbed for a half-day in Kindergarten.

When I got there, I was told that there was a student teacher and today was his first day in charge of the class, so I only had to be there for support.

Kindergartners + Student Teacher + Substitute = Something close to anarchy!

The poor ST had clearly prepared for his lessons and had a great vision of what he wanted to do, but the kids just weren't having it. They weren't responding to any of the usual classroom management techniques their regular teacher utilized --ringing a bell, moving kids out of the circle, taking away recess time. The ST never raised his voice. In my mind, that particular technique is debatable. When I student taught, both of my master teachers told me to just do it if I had to in order to regain control. In this case, I think it would have helped in the moment, but the effect would not have lasted.

When the regular teacher came back and he told her that all of the kids were out of control, she was very surprised. I guess even the kids who were generally cooperative had acted up. I felt so awful for him! I really stayed out of it and left the class to him, but I'm not sure if it would have been better if I'd tried to step in and control them. It's tricky to sub with a Student Teacher because you don't want to step on toes, but you also want to offer another point of view if you are able.

Anyway, I hope he had a better afternoon. I'm sure the classroom teacher talked to them and told them that the ST will be their teacher for the week. Best of luck to him!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


I'm so tired of people who don't have children, or who have children but haven't set foot into a classroom since they were a kid ripping into the public education system.

I recently read a Facebook post where someone said she doesn't want kids because society has never accepted her and the school system is bad. Since she doesn't have money to send her kids to private school, she just won't have kids. (Let me state for the record that this is not a particularly close friend of mine, so I'm not familiar with her reasoning for the statement. She is the girlfriend of someone I am close to.)

I certainly won't state that the school system is the answer to everything. Naturally, there are problems. There are problems with any system set up to support a large number of people who have varying needs. And, there are bad teachers. There's an irony that we're so conditioned to never say we have a "bad kid" because of the label, yet we will say there are bad teachers. But, there are also bad taxi drivers, bad grocery baggers, bad accountants, bad doctors and bad police officers. The nature of doing a job doesn't necessarily make you good at it or ensure that you enjoy doing it. And, let us not forget, "good" and "bad" are judgement values assigned by individual people. The words don't represent a quantitative measure.

The larger problem in all of this is the fact that politicians running for office need an issue that nobody can argue. "Fixing the schools" is always one that is sure to appeal to a large base of voters. Parent or not, who in their right mind would publicly disagree with something that helped children? So, the politicians get up on their stage and shout out that they're going to fix what is broken and make broad and scary claims and the people believe it. Because, most of us do not do our own investigations. We'll take his word for it, and boy, does that sound like something needing fixing! If we were to believe all of the screaming claims about awful teachers who refuse to do their jobs and bad systems, we would certainly fear for the future!

Strangely, we live in a world full of competent doctors, scientists, architects, police officers, teachers, and even politicians who are all products of the public school systems in America. And all of them can point to their own very dedicated and caring teachers who helped them along the way.

Where I will freely admit that we have failed is in the area of teaching people to think instead of just believing what is put in front of them. Ask yourself why the politicians are making such claims. Why is the press harping on these claims? Where are they getting their evidence? What factors may be at play? Once you understand underlying reasons for what you hear, you may see it in a different light.

Read between the lines, criticize the words they're selling. Think for yourself and feel the walls become sand beneath your feet. ~ Geoff Tate