The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

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New Adventures, New Blog!

Many have asked–okay, only one, actually, but it sounds better to say many–and I have responded!

I will continue to blog my experiences as an educator, but I am moving everything to a new site. Actually, I’ve already moved the content; I just need to sit down with the missus and have her do the awesome designy stuff she does. (It is possible that this will simply entail changing the title in my current header… we shall see.)

Anyway, after much internal debate and mutterings against those who are squatting on the domain name I wanted to use, I have decided that I with henceforth be blogging at Adventures in Teaching Fourth, found at http://teachingfourth.wordpress.com. Please update your bookmarks and come on by! I should be having a new post up shortly describing my adventures in organising my classroom with just two weeks of prep!

And with that, I really am done updating Adventures in Substituting - cheerio!

The End of a Journey

For the first time in a very long time, I find myself struggling with words. How do I start this? What do I say? How do I say it? I usually write in a kind of extemporaneous way, with a general idea fixed in my but nothing specifically planned. But all of my words seem to come out too cliche and unoriginal.

Many of you who come to read my blog are also friends on Facebook and/or followers on Twitter, or you may be one of my family members who actually reads this. So most of you know already. But I have a hunch that I have a few lurkers who are none of the above.

I guess I can take my advice from The Sound of Music and just start at the very beginning. Well, okay, not the very beginning, but close enough to the beginning for my purposes.

The past couple of weeks have been quite busy ones for me. I had several job interviews, I started a new job, then started another new job, quit the first, and kept preparing for interviews. I heard back from the first interview quite quickly and learned the position had been filled. I came out of the second interview feeling lackluster about it. I didn’t think I had presented myself very well. I was upset with myself because the latter job was very much the job I have been looking for. However, I have a policy of not writing off an interview until I hear back from the interviewer.

So imagine my surprise when I got a call on Monday morning asking if I would be willing to come in for a second interview the following day.

I thought about what I needed to do to prepare for a second interview and realised that I had no idea. You see, I’ve never had a second interview before. I’ve either been hired on the basis of a first interview or I’ve never been called back. I was told that the interview would be fairly informal, just the principal and myself and maybe another teacher. The principal made a point that I did not need to get “all dressed up” or wear a suit. So I donned my brown leather shoes, light brown slacks, blue dress shirt, and my awesome Utahraptor tie my baby sister got me for Christmas. It is one of my favourite ties, and I wanted to show the principal the kind of attire she could expect me to wear every day at work.

I arrived for the interview and was shown around the school, including the room would possibly be mine. We talked about classroom management, education philosophies, best practices, and other esoteric topics that fascinate me but probably bore those not deeply invested in the education profession. Then we returned to her office and continued our discussions. She told me about the goals of the school, including their efforts to become a fine arts and international studies building without becoming a fine arts or international studies program. I shared my experiences living in Australia and my networking with other teachers across the nation and in other countries. I also talked a little bit about my missionary work in California and how it related to my teaching.

After about an hour (during which the other teacher never arrived), the other candidate arrived, so we had to end our interview. And it was our interview. The principal wanted to know what I wanted from her and her school, since I was shopping for a school as much as she was shopping for a teacher. On my way out, I greeted the other candidate, who happened to be the student teacher I’d worked with at Stratton while subbing for the 4th grade (gifted) teacher. That was when I realised that I was one of only two candidates being considered for the job. I left feeling considerably better about how I presented myself and about the job in general.

It was at 11:13 am CDT that I got the phone call that has, in no uncertain terms, changed my life. After saying hello and exchanging the requisite “how are you” queries, I heard this words: “Alex, I would like to invite you to join our team here at Wiley, if you are interested.”

Holy freaking cow!

After well over 1,000 applications to posting in over 350 districts in the state of Illinois, not to mention the many applications sent across the nation last summer, I finally found my new home.

My new home isn’t even that far from my current home. Wiley Elementary School (home of the coyotes, as my oldest brother was so kind to find out and tell me) is located in Urbana, Illinois, which is home to one of the three districts to have utilised me as a substitute teacher last year. Admittedly, I was only in Urbana twice, and it wasn’t at Wiley, but it is still one of those districts to have had me on their lists. So in addition to the wonderful joy of having a full-time teaching position after three years of searching, I have a full-time teaching position in my own community of Champaign-Urbana!

While on the phone, I sent Gretch a message on Google Chat that said, and I quote: “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” to which she responded, ” you ok dear?”

To be fair, she was at work, and may not have been fully aware of the sequence of events of the day. So when I got off the phone I called her and told her. Then I got the response I had expected: she squealed, told her coworkers, and said, “Oh my God… Oh my God… Oh my God! Honey, that’s great!” Ah, understatements, how I love thee!

I made Gretch promise not to say anything online until I had finished calling parents, which didn’t take me long. I called my mum, who didn’t answer, then my dad, who didn’t answer, then repeated until I got through to one then the other. I called Gretch’s mum, who was instrumental in me getting an interview, and then I let Gretch know that she could announce it to the world. I had already posted it on Facebook and Twitter, and, I’ll be honest: I have been shocked by the response! I knew a lot of people were waiting for such good news, but I didn’t realise how many there were! I’m not even sure if a positive pregnancy announcement (whenever that happens) will generate as much response!

Several more phone calls and emails were exchanged with my new principal. I will be attending new teacher orientation on Monday and Tuesday, and then new employee orientation on Tuesday afternoon. I am heading over to my building to see my room (MY ROOM!) and start unpacking. Tomorrow morning I will be going in to get keys and work more on the room.

Oh, and school starts in two weeks. No pressure there, right?

So now I think I’ll start a new blog (Adventures in Fourth Grade, perhaps) in a couple of weeks, unless I feel compelled to write sooner, which will almost certainly happen, and just import all of these posts to make sure they have a home. Of course, all new blog entries will be posted on the various social networking sites, and I hope you’ll continue to come by and see what kind of crazy adventures I’m having! Thank you, one and all, for your love and support. Best of luck to my fellow substitute teachers, wherever you may be and whatever paths you choose to take! I’ll continue to keep up with your blogs!

In the meantime, I am off to explore my building and figure out what the heck I’m supposed to do next! My next blog post will be from whatever my new blog will be called.

Cheers!

Summer Reading V: The Hunt for Red October

I am continuing on my quest to read the entirety of the Jack Ryan/John Clark canon as written by Tom Clancy, following the chronological order of the story. The most recently completed book is The Hunt for Red October, which is actually the first book Clancy wrote. I love the description of Clancy that appears at the end of the book:

He has had a private chat with the President of the United States who proclaimed himself to be an avid fan of The Hunt for Red October. He has lunched with the White House staff. His novel has been a top seller at the Pentagon. Yet the author in question is neither a former intelligence nor naval officer. Rather, Tom Clancy is an insurance broker from a small town in Maryland whose only previously published writing was a letter to the editor and a three-page article about the MX missile. Clancy always wanted to write a suspense  novel, and a newspaper article about a mutiny on a Soviet frigate gave him the initial idea for Red October. He did extensive research about Soviet-American naval strategies and submarine technology. Then, in the time he could spare from his insurance business, Clancy sat down at his typewriter and wrote. The rest is history…

Red October was the first Clancy novel I read, after I attempted to read Clear and Present Danger and found it a bit too complicated. (This was when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I believe). After reading this one, though, I was hooked, and quickly sought out the other books. Today I own 9 of the 13 novels in the series and after reading Without Remorse (given to me by a friend who didn’t want to keep it), I decided to read the rest of the series. I love this book. It is everything a first-time suspense novel should be. Clancy doesn’t give away the end early in the story, even though he has ample opportunities to do so. The plot moves quickly but jumps around to keep the reader engaged and trying to keep track of everything that is happening. It isn’t Clancy’s best novel, to be sure, but it is still a great story.

It takes place in the midst of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. A Soviet submarine commander, Marko Ramius, has decided to go rogue and is attempting to steal a brand-new submarine and deliver it and himself to the United States. The Soviets learn about it and send its entire fleet after him in a search-and-destroy mission. At the same time, the US has learned about the attempted defection, and are sending their fleet out to bring him (and the sub) safely in.

The thing I find most interesting in the story is the description of the American response to the Soviet Union in general. As I mentioned in the comments of my previous summer reading post, Tom Clancy is clearly an American Exceptionalist who grew up in the turmoil of American-Soviet tensions. Everything he writes is pro-America, pro-American intelligence services, and pro-American military. I’m okay with this; I think it is impossible for an author to not write with a bias, and those who attempt to do so tend to write boring stories. At least, that has been my experience with the many thousands of books I have read. The author has to have a purpose in writing, and that purpose is his or her bias. Clancy’s purpose is to write a suspense story that shows why America is superior. Of course, he also throws in shout-outs to our allies, but it is still the Americans who win the day.

It would be interesting to read pro-Soviet fiction as a counterbalance to Clancy’s stories, but I don’t know if any such books exist. My only exposure to Russian literature has been a few attempts at Tolstoy, but I’ve never actually completed any of his books. I’ve also read most of Ayn Rand’s works, but hers are certainly not Russian lit. Maybe I’ll explore this train of thought later; for now, I am going to continue through my Clancy reading and then find something else.

Interviews VI, VII and VIII

I don’t know why I didn’t blog about my interview on Wednesday, nor do I know why I have put off blogging about today’s interview, but I guess I should do it to keep my running record of my professional life going. Because this is a bit over 1,400 words, I’m going to put a break in here, just to keep my home screen from being overwhelmed by this post.

Read the rest of this page »

What Is Leadership?

In the process of completing hundreds of job applications, I have gotten used to seeing the same questions pop up time again. In fact, I have saved my responses to these questions so that I can copy-and-paste into my applications. (For those who may be concerned, this is actually encouraged!)

Today I saw a new question. It asked me to describe my views on leadership. My recent week at the Illinois Teen Institute, coupled with a discussion with my father-in-law about what leadership is (and what it is not) has prompted me to share my response with all of you. (In the meantime, I am delaying the writing of two book reviews and an interview report. I’ll get to it all eventually, I’m sure!) Anyway, here it is:

Leadership is taking a principled stand on an issue and inspiring others to join you in that stand. Leadership is walking beside those you would lead, and sometimes walking behind them. Leadership is setting a positive example by doing what you say and saying what you do. Leadership, more than anything, is a matter of being an example to others.

Leadership is not to be the person up front, the person in charge, or the person directing the actions of others, although these may occasionally be included in the roles of a leader. Nor is leadership a lonely position; one can be a leader among a group of leaders.

As an educator, my primary role as a leader is to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to be leaders among their peers, within the school, and within the community. I do this by modeling positive leadership traits both within the classroom and without and encouraging my students to do the same.

ITI 2011: There and Back Again

[Note: This was originally posted on the blog that my wife and I share.]

As much as I would enjoy writing a post about The Hobbit, this is actually my annual post on my experiences at the Illinois Teen Institute just a couple of weeks ago. While some who read this blog are surely familiar with it, I am going to assume that there are at least a few visitors who may not know. So before I get into ITI 2011, let me give a brief recap:

The Illinois Teen Institute is a week-long leadership camp during the summer, sponsored by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (it has taken me many years, but I think I’ve finally gotten the name down pat). ITI was started in 1974 and has been going strong ever since, making it the longest-running Teen Institute in the nation.

As a Teen Institute, it is aimed at, well, teens. Students are able to attend as participants from the summer before their freshmen year of high school until the summer after they graduate. As a participant, teens are placed into two groups: First is a small discussion group of 8-12 teens and two staff members (depending on attendance numbers). The members of the discussion groups generally do not know one another before hand, and the purpose of the groups is to discuss the general sessions and workshops offered each day. The second group is a Community Action Team, and it is the heart and soul of the Illinois Teen Institute. Teens from the same area/school/community/etc work together to come up with a plan to improve their community, utilising the skills and information they have gained at the Institute. The CAT plan is conceived, planned, and carried out by teens, with adult sponsors or volunteer staff members present as resources. (As an aside, Operation Snowball, Inc. was the result of a community action plan from 1978, or thereabouts, that has become an international drug prevention program.)

As a leadership camp, ITI focuses on helping teens become better leaders in the schools, their communities, and in the state. It is also a “prevention first” program, meaning that students learn about ways to prevent risky behaviours, most notably alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) abuse, unhealthy relationships, bullying, etc. It is not a treatment, rehabilitation, or recovery program. The entire week is focused on the teens. The speakers and workshops are selected to provide meaningful information and useful skills.

I first attended ITI in 1999 as a participant. In 2000 and 2001 I was back again as a member of the Administrative Team (A-Team), which allowed me to attend free of charge as a teen staff member. As a member of the A-Team I did not have a discussion group, although I did participate with my Community Action Team. From 2002-2004 I was absent due to serving a mission in California, but I returned in 2005 as a member of the volunteer staff, working as a co-facilitator. This placed me with a discussion group and a CAT. I did this for two years before being selected as a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2007.

The PALS 1 program is designed for Peers with Advanced Leadership Skills who are coming back a second or third year to really focus on specific leadership skills. The program has changed somewhat over the years, but the main focus has always been to help those teens who are in positions of leadership be more effective leaders and to train to be leaders at ITI. (The PALS 2 program has been renamed Youth Staff and is just that: teens who have been through the program and are ready to practice what they’ve learned. They work with a volunteer staff member in leading discussion groups, working with action teams, and making sure the participants feel welcome and have a great week.)

I applied to be a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2008 but, due to a mix-up in contact information, I didn’t learn that I had been selected until the Friday evening after staff training had started. Gretch and I had just gotten married about 3-4 weeks earlier and I was scheduled to work that entire week. Whoops. I was disappointed, but it was probably for the best, since we were still trying to get settled and all.

After bringing Gretch to my high school’s Operation Snowball weekend in 2008 and 2009, I encouraged her to come to ITI, despite her complete lack of experience with the program. She applied as a volunteer staff member and was accepted as a co-facilitator. I returned as a PALS 1 Advisor (new name, same job) and we had a wonderful week together. We came back in 2010, volunteering for the same roles. During the 2010 camp, Gretch and I helped the girls in Headquarters (formerly known as the A-Team) with scheduling of workshops and other things, and I was encouraged to volunteer for HQ staff for the following year, which I did.

Which finally brings us up to ITI 2011. Due to Gretch’s work schedule, she was not able to attend ITI this year. So I went alone. This marked the longest period of time we have been separated since we started dating on 16 August 2007. However, frequent telephone calls during free time and occasional chats on Google helped us make it through the week. Besides, many of our ITI friends are married and also spend the week apart. So we knew we’d be okay. Everyone asked how Gretch was doing and where she was. It was great to know that so many people care.

In fact, this is the very reason that I find myself going there and back again year after year. I love the community of caring that exists at the Illinois Teen Institute. My first CAT advisor was Brian Weidner. He had been going to school at Bradley University in Peoria back in 1999. Today he and his wife live and work in Minnesota, but he comes back each year as a workshop presenter, and we also catch up. I consider my friends at ITI to be like a family, and I hope that they think the same of me (and Gretch). Two experiences from this year really capture this sense of family.

The first was a girl who was attending as a first-year participant. She arrived with her mom, but nobody else. She was alone, and she was scared. She wanted to leave. A few of us helped her through the first few hours and encouraged her to stay, sharing our own experiences. After listening to our first speaker, the Amazing Tei Street, she decided to stick around. I later learned that she called her mom that night and said how glad she was to be there. I saw her off and on during the week, and each time she had a big smile and was laughing with her peers. She came alone; she left with a network of friends and supporters.

The other is also about a girl, here for the first time. She came from another state. She is kind of quiet and seems the kind who keeps to herself. I don’t think anyone would look at her and think of her as someone who would be popular, or even someone who would hang out with the popular kids. On Tuesday evening, the teens participated in a talent show. This girl walked onto the stage and, without saying a word, put on her guitar and began to play the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven. When she finished, 300 people rose to their feet, cheering, clapping, and calling for an encore. Later on, she and one of the teen staff members, a young man who is a semi-professional musician, were jamming in a lounge area.

That, my friends, is why I keep coming back. It is because the world is not as bad as we are led to believe. There are good people doing good things. They say that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The young men and women and the Illinois Teen Institute prove that wrong. The youth of today are the leaders of today. I am blessed to work with them and I know that I am a better person because of it.

Interview V

As you are probably aware, I have applied for well over 1,000 jobs at more than 300 schools/districts/consortiums across Illinois. Nearly every one of the applications has been submitted using the AppliTrack system, which is an excellent bit of software that allows districts to collect and sort job applications online. Last year, I discovered k12jobspot.com, which is an aggregate site that culls all of the AppliTrack sites in the nation and puts them in one place. This has made it incredibly easy for me to apply for jobs, particularly since I can import applications and thus skip the tedious task of filling out all of the information each time.

The vast majority of job postings in Illinois are grouped near Cook and Lake counties, which are essentially what is known as Chicagoland–all of the districts in the greater Chicago area that are not part of Chicago Public Schools (they are a separate entity from the rest of the state). Alas, this also means that everyone wants to work there. For example, I applied for one opening in the North Ridge area. I received an email that informed me that, regrettably, I was not selected among the more than 1,000 applicants.

Yikes!

But I’ve continued to apply for every self-contained, general education (SCGE) teaching position I could find from 2nd to 6th grade (I don’t really want to teach kindergarten or 1st grade and few schools have SCGE classes after 6th grade). Which is why I applied for a couple jobs in Matteson School District 162 on June 16 and again on July 1. According to my records, I applied for a 5th grade opening and a 6th grade opening.

Two days ago, on Sunday (July 10) I received an email informing me I had been selected to interview for a 4th grade teaching position at Sauk Elementary School in the Matteson district. I was informed that the principal would be conducting interviews today (the 12th) from 8 am to 1 pm and to contact him to schedule a time. I wasn’t at all concerned that I hadn’t actually applied for a 4th grade position, mostly because I had indicated an interest in any intermediate position available. So something about my application caught his attention.

At the same time, I was already scheduled to substitute for one of Champaign’s high school summer school classes on Tuesday. (More on this later.) I determined that it would take me approximately two hours to drive to Ricthon Park from Champaign, and I didn’t want to pass up one more subbing opportunity. So I did what any sane, rational, job-seeking person would do:

I asked that he schedule my interview for the first time slot.

So I woke up this morning around 5 am, ate, dressed, attended to hygiene, kissed my wife goodbye, and headed off around 6 am to fill up the gas tank before making my trek to Richton Park. The drive actually only two about an hour and a half, so I got there much earlier than necessary. I killed time by driving around the immediate neighbourhood and checking on Twitter updates. At 8:15, I went in and was seen by the principal immediately.

The interview went very well, I think. The principal (a former teacher at Champaign Centennial, coincidentally), asked me about my approach to standardised tests, classroom management, repeat offenders, parental contact, and differentiation. He was brief and to the point, and my responses were in kind. Then he told me about his school district: 98% African-American, pure chaos when he arrived six years ago, with test scores in the bottom 70%. A year later, he suggested that students wear navy or black pants and white shirts (but no formal dress code or school uniform was made). Everyone complied. Discipline problems have gone way down, academic success has gone  way up. The parents are extremely supportive, too, but they also work a lot, so they can’t be there every day. However, the school hosts an annual Dads’ Day, in which over 250 fathers in the community attend, some of whom don’t even have kids in the school! The test scores are now in the low-to-mid-80s, but they need to go higher. The focus will be on literacy and mathematics (woo hoo!) but without excluding science, social studies, health, etc. Literacy will be taught across the curriculum (double woo hoo!) and the teachers are encouraged to do whatever it takes to reach their students.

This is where I want to work. A district with challenges, but the resources to tackle the challenges head-on. No excuses, take no prisoners, give it all you go, go big or go home. It isn’t about machismo or teaching to the test, or anything like that. It is about helping the boys and girls in this school become young men and young women, literate and ready for the challenges ahead of them. It is awesome, it is enthusiastic, it is positive. It is what I want to be a part of.

Is Matteson 162 the only district in the state like this? No, of course not. But their principal gave me the chance to interview and to discuss how I might be an advantage to his community. As with some other districts, I would be thrilled to work there. He said I should hear back from him on Friday. I am praying I get a phone call from the 708 area code on Friday that will have good news!

(Oh, and we would be much closer to many of our friends in the prevention field–always an added bonus!)

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