Half Human, Half Beast

It was four minutes into sixth period when a crumpled ball of paper hit my shin and a sentence from Nancy Kricorian’s novel Zabelle came to mind.

It seemed like one minute I was in the basement, hanging out row upon row of diapers, and the next minute I was presiding at a dinner table of creatures half human, half beast–Americans.

Though Kricorian’s eponymous main character is referring mostly to her dismay at the fact that her Armenian children have assimilated to American culture, this sentence always reminds me of how uncivilized American teenagers can seem–and how they seem to morph into these strange creatures overnight.

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I subbed at a new high school last week. It wasn’t nearly as dark and dreary as the first school where I subbed, but the campus was huge. Lucky for me, I was assigned to a classroom that’s close to the office. Most of the students there are the children of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. I could tell that parent involvement and expectations vary greatly. Like at many high schools, it seems that the honors and AP students are quite driven and advanced, while the rest of the students…are not.

I struggled the entire day not to see myself as a glorified babysitter. The task that the teacher had assigned to the advanced students was too easy for them. Some finished it quickly, then goofed off for the rest of the period. Some, at my suggestion, made good progress on their homework. Others stretched the activity out, barely finishing by the end of the period. I couldn’t help but feel the whole hour of first period had been a giant waste of time. Second period went much the same way, except that I made more of an effort to channel Fred Jones–“work the crowd.” By the end of the hour, I was sure I’d burned off my breakfast with all those laps around the classroom. Even though the students weren’t that much more on-task, I felt more purposeful roaming around the room. I busied myself by trying to address them by their names, using the teacher’s seating chart. If there’s one request I could make of teachers that I sub for, it’s that they keep their seating charts up to date. Knowing a student’s name gives a teacher an enormous amount of power, power that I sometimes feel I desperately need as a sub.

Third period was better. This time, working the crowd kept most of the students on task. Not only did I carry with me the seating chart, but my “sub binder,” to which I attached post-its labeled “cooperative” and “disruptive.” Gradually, I added names to both lists, and the students took notice.

The last two periods of the day were a challenge: the same group of struggling readers for two hours. I’d been informed that these students read at a 4th to 5th grade level, and we were reading Lord of the Flies, a novel that I’d read as a tenth grader and found challenging. We were tasked with listening to a few pages of the end of a chapter read on CD. Then the students were to answer comprehension questions on a worksheet and fill in a cloze paragraph that was a summary of the chapter. I marveled at the stark contrast between their attentiveness when the CD was playing and the chaos that ensued as soon as the track concluded. “So, when the guy on the CD talks, you listen,” I remarked, “But when I talk, you don’t?” No one could offer me an explanation; they just laughed and said, “Yeah, Miss.”

I did my best to help the students with their worksheet. It was a battle to keep them on task, one that I was gradually losing. I found a direct correlation between a student’s lack of reading strategies and the likelihood that he or she would become disruptive. In retrospect, I guess I should have tried modeling how to do the cloze paragraph for the whole class, but I think it would have been hard to get them to pay attention while I did this. Instead, I worked the crowd, constantly redirecting them. “Try to look back in the chapter. You found the first one. The second one should be nearby. They should be in order. It’s a summary. Scan the page for this key word. See? Here it is. You put ‘he.’ Which character is ‘he’? They’re all boys.”

We held it together until there were about five minutes left to fifth period–and by held it together, I mean that about half the class was on-task, and there was some semblance of order. When they came back from the break between periods, however, I could feel things slowly descending into madness, like the island of William Golding’s imagination. Who would I be in this scenario? Piggy, the intellectual, the representative of civilization and adult rules, certain that the children will choose rules and order over fighting and chaos, simply because they are the better choice? Ralph, the embodiment of good intentions, who refuses to resort to violence, even though it means that Jack undermines his leadership? Aren’t all substitutes sort of a blend of these two characters? We are the brainy outsider in a group of wild children who have been abandoned by the usual adult presence. We expect that they will continue to follow that adult’s rules, even though he or she isn’t present. Like Ralph, we mean well, but we don’t always know what is best. After all, we don’t know these children, not really. Like Ralph, we must treat the members of this wild group with respect. We must not rule by fear; we must not bully. But in taking the high road, there will be those who try to undermine our authority, who will fight dirty. How will we fight back?

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Like Piggy, I tried to appeal to the students with reason. “Don’t throw paper. It’s disrespectful and disruptive. It’s against school rules. Paper comes from trees; when you waste it, you are killing trees for nothing.” The students didn’t care about my reasons. It wasn’t until I wasted some paper of my own to write down names that they started to respond. Even then, they responded by trying to negotiate with me, not by displaying better behavior. My patience was wearing thin, only tempered by the fact that I genuinely liked these students, despite their antics. Maybe that’s my fatal flaw. If they told a joke, even if I knew it was wrong, I struggled not to laugh. Perhaps I am still too immature. Perhaps I am too much on their side for my own good. Perhaps I am not tough enough. Surely they knew this. When I threatened to write referrals, they didn’t believe me–and for good reason, because I didn’t write any that day. A voice in my head told me that if I wrote a referral, I had failed. I had failed to keep order. I had failed to help them learn. I had failed to handle it myself. Now I know that the voice was wrong. Next time, I won’t be so easy.

Here are some things I learned this week:

Being the first sub to arrive has its benefits. So far, my track record is spotless–not only have I been early, but I’ve been the first sub to set foot on campus every day that I’ve reported for duty. Yes, it’s exhausting to get up extra early, but most of the schools I work in are not too far from home. Showing up early helps me relax, gives me extra time to get situated–use the restroom, fix my make-up, find materials that the teacher has accidentally hidden from me–and gives me the chance to get a little better acquainted with the office staff than I would if I showed up at the same time as three other subs. An unexpected perk this week was that by showing up early, I got to meet the teacher for whom I was subbing. She was going to be in a meeting on campus all day. When I walked into the classroom, she was sitting at her desk. “Oh, are you my sub? You’re early!” She was still writing lesson plans for me. It was nice to not have to be frustrated, wondering what the teacher meant, because I was able to look over everything and ask about any ambiguities. She also warned me about her fifth and sixth period–how they “broke” the last female sub (eek!). That was a lifesaver. I’m sure I won’t be so spoiled in the future.

Asking students not to do certain things at the beginning of class (use cell phones, apply make-up, eat hot cheetos) does help deter this behavior. The catch: if you tell them 5 things not to do, they will find 5 new strange, annoying, and/or disruptive things to do. Example: I asked students not to apply make-up or brush their hair during class. Students respected this request, but two girls decided to apply polish to their nails instead. Next time, I will be sure to say, “No personal grooming of any kind, to include…” and give a long list. In any case, it pays to ask students not to do certain things because when they get caught, they are more likely to feel guilty and stop the behavior.

Struggling readers use paper projectiles as a coping mechanism. They tear sheets of paper out of their notebooks, crumple them up, and hide them in the pockets of their oversized sweatshirts. When they get bored or frustrated, they channel these emotions through their arms, and a paper war is initiated. In the future, I will take preventive measures. “Remove everything from your desk except your worksheet, your book, and a pencil.” I will be ready to call student services with the first ball that flies. I will write down names, and I will ask for ID–because students lie. I will do my best to be respectful and fair, but they will have to earn my trust.

Existence, Purpose, and Progress

Existence

My name is Madeline, and I’m underemployed. That’s how my introduction would start at a meeting of “Underemployed Anonymous,” if there were such a thing.┬áLike many Americans in their twenties, I’ve been underemployed since before the idea was romanticised in a scripted MTV series. And like many young people, my career path has been altered by a number of factors: the recession, state budget cuts, debilitating illness, only-child syndrome, and falling in love. Now, I’m through my first quarter of life, and I feel like a kid with a D on her first report card. I haven’t failed completely, but I’m definitely not where I want to be–not yet.

Credit: Green Lane

Credit: Green Lane

I work three part-time jobs. The first is the teaching job I landed right out of grad school. My first semester’s assignment was two advanced ESL classes–seven hours per week. I thought I had it made. I thought I would be a shoo-in for a full-time position. I thought that if I worked hard, it was only a matter of time. My grandfather used to say, “All sentences that begin with ‘I thought’ are wrong.” I should have kept that in mind.

The second job is working for the family business, contributing anything and everything that I can in order to support my dad. I’ve been helping my dad at work since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he put me on the payroll and gave me an official title. This development coincided with a three-year illness that began a year after I obtained job #1–smack dab in the middle of me trying to figure out what to do with my life. I think my parents saw it as a way of avoiding having to lend me large sums of money to cover medical bills and living expenses; I could earn their charity. (In this area, I’m not sure who benefits more, him or me.) Now that I’m well, it’s unclear to me who benefits more from the arrangement, dad or me. I get a paycheck out of it. He gets tech support, a research assistant, and someone to counsel his employees when things get dramatic around the office. The lucky thing about this job is that even though it has nothing to do with my two degrees, it’s a job I like and one that I’m good at. The tricky thing about it is that my parents live 300 miles away, so most of my work is done by telecommuting. This is what prevents it from being a full-time job–that and my dad’s impending retirement. Given that I’m not trained to do what he does, there’s no possibility of me taking over the business; it retires when he does.

The third job is the newest addition and the primary subject of this blog: on-call substitute teacher in two school districts. I had my first day of subbing last week. I never planned to be a substitute teacher, but after completing my teaching credential and facing numerous rejections for full-time positions, I was forced to confront the possibility. It’s a strange feeling, starting a new job, when that job is a representation of the compromise you’ve had to make with yourself. Plenty of kids say they want to be teachers when they grow up, but I don’t know anyone who aspires to be a substitute. I realize that I’m supposed to view this as a journey, not a destination. This job could very well lead to a long-term sub gig and then a full-time position. I am trying my hardest to remain optimistic.

Purpose

I’m very fortunate to possess not only a teaching credential but a master’s degree in teaching. I did something that most people don’t do, which is to get the master’s degree first. One of the things I learned when getting the master’s was the importance of being a reflective teacher. I deeply regret not keeping a journal during my first year of teaching community college. I also neglected to keep one when I was student teaching to get my credential. There’s a common saying among teachers that “The first year doesn’t count.” They say this because you learn so much in that first year that you’re like a different person by the following autumn, like you’ve been body-snatched by an alien race of professional educators. Last week, as I drove home from my first day of substitute teaching, I could feel the effects of that body-snatching phenomenon. I was a slightly different person at 3:00 than I’d been at 7:45. It occurred to me that it would be a waste not to document the changes that had taken place in the space of those seven hours–the ways in which my patience, classroom management skills, and knowledge of algebra had been tested. The ways in which my world had grown.

I could have decided to write this all down and keep it to myself, but one thing I know I’ll be missing as a substitute teacher is the opportunity to engage and exchange with colleagues. A full-time teacher has the chance to develop a rapport with her fellow teachers, to work as part of a team, planning curriculum, supervising school activities, and collaborating for the common success of their students. Except in the case of a long-term sub, it seems to me that the majority of the connections a sub makes expire at the end of the school day. I know that as I get more familiar with each school, some bonds will last longer. Still, I’ll probably never meet most of the teachers that I substitute for; I’ll only know them through their students, their lesson plans, and the feedback forms we exchange. So my role each day will be characterized by impermanence. I will drift in and out of the life of a teacher, some days waking at 5:00 a.m. and rushing to a last-minute assignment, others sleeping in until 9:00 and wondering when my next job will be. The life of a substitute is unpredictable and exciting, but also lonely and unstable. I want a place to call home. I know I’ll get it eventually, but until I do, I’m going to think of this blog as my center, my teachers’ lounge, my classroom. It will always be here, whether I’ve got a job tomorrow or not. I’m also hoping that other subs, full-time teachers, and ordinary Earthlings will be able to connect with what I write here. Teaching and learning are such universal concepts. We’ve all taught and been taught at one time or another. I hope this blog will continually remind me of the nature of my humanity and help me keep things in perspective. The last thing I want is to hate my job.

Progress

What you can expect to read on justasub is an account of my life as a substitute teacher: stories about my days in different classrooms, my thoughts about teaching theories and methodology, and more general musings about the philosophy of teaching. I can’t promise to always be entertaining, but I can promise to be honest and real, and to try to keep my sense of humor. I’ll also try to post things that I’ve read or watched online that have inspired me in the classroom.

In graduate school, I was introduced to the writings of Parker J. Palmer. If you haven’t read The Courage to Teach, I highly recommend it. The things he writes just seem so relevant for me, whatever I’m doing. Here’s one of my favorite quotations:

The life of the world is messy, a source of suffering as well as creativity, and if we want to work for change, we must learn to live with the mess.

This is how I feel about my life. It’s messy and chaotic. It’s both painful and inspiring. If I want to improve it, I need to learn to embrace the chaos. I’m hoping that writing about this journey will help me do that.

Thanks for reading.

–Madeline