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

Fifth Grade

Interview II

I have been busily applying for full-time teaching jobs all over the state. At last count, I have applied to over 300 districts/consortiums in the past year, probably approaching the 1,000 mark for the number of actual jobs I have applied for. It has been quite the journey. It has also been frequently disappointing, with most jobs getting filled within a couple of weeks. I have received a lovely collection of emails informing me that I was not selected for a given position but that my application will be kept on file for the next year. I also have a smaller collection of letters that were sent in the mail informing me of the same thing. At least one job had over 1,000 applicants. For a single job opening. So, clearly, I am up against a lot of competition.

I had started to get to the point where I was wondering if my applications were even going through and/or being seen. But I kept applying. If it was a self-contained general education class for second grade or higher, I applied. And I’ll admit, I was starting to lose track. Hundreds of job applications will do that to you, I imagine.

So imagine my surprise when I got a phone call about a week and a half ago from the principal of a small school in a tiny community! She wanted to know if I was still interested. All I actually caught was that it was a school, so I said, “Yes, absolutely!” and hurriedly searched my emails for an indication of what job I was going to be interviewing for.

I figured it out rather quickly, fortunately. A fifth grade position at Woodland Elementary in Woodland, Illinois. The school has about 180 students, give or take, with two grades, fourth and fifth. It is part of a large district that includes Watseka and the small communities nearby. Woodland Elementary happens to be the only school in the district not in Watseka. Woodland is a lovely hamlet of 350 people in the middle of the woods. An aptly named community, for sure! It is also about an hour from Champaign, which means that it is a perfect location.

My interview was this past Wednesday. I met the principal and we talked about my philosophy of education (so glad that I took the time to figure that out!), the role of technology in the classroom, my ideal literacy program, classroom management, and collaboration. We also talked about education policy and the role of research in the classroom. Then she took me on a tour of the building. It is small and old, but it has also been very well maintained over the past hundred years or so that it is has been around.

I know the interview went well. All of my interviews go well. I have no idea how many people I am up against for this job, but I do know this: I would absolutely love to work at Woodland Elementary in Unit 9! The grade level is exactly where I want to be, the school is doing exactly the kind of things I want to do, and the principal is amazing! She is innovative, she is well-read on research and best practices, and she really works with her teachers to provide a high quality of education for each student. I am hoping and praying fervently that I left a strong impression!

I find out on Monday! Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers!

Saying Goodbye

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. This was possibly the last of a long, long, long series of assignments for my mother-in-law over the past three years. It has been really awesome seeing the students in her class grow and mature over the years. I taught many of them when they were in third grade, then again last year, and then this year. As I told them at the end of the day, “Despite the headaches, the near-aneurysms, the frustrations, and the frequent desire to beat my head against a brick wall, I’ve really enjoyed working with you boys and girls. You’re awesome! I may not be substituting next year, but even if I am, I don’t seem to make it to Jefferson much, so I may not see you again. So thanks. Now go outside and enjoy your recess!”

Some of them gave me hugs. One girl made a fist-pump and shouted, “YES!!!” to which I responded, “I feel the same way about you!” (We were both joking, of course.) In reality, I would be delighted to have a classroom full of students like her: eager, bright, open-minded, quick to question, quick to answer, and willing to verbally spar in a battle of wits.

There is a slim chance that my mother-in-law will be sick (or maybe her son), but, honestly, with just six and a half days of school remaining in the year, the probability of working with these particular students again this year are not especially high. Combine this with my strong desire to gain full-time employment for this coming school year, and I feel like my time as a substitute may be drawing to an end.

Of course, if I don’t get offered a full-time job, my adventures in substituting will continue. And I will continue to blog about the remaining adventures I have this year. But today, being a Friday, was definitely a day to say goodbye.

Oh, and the whole “beginning of the end of the world” that is supposed to happen at 6 pm tomorrow. If I am still here and a small portion of the world population mysteriously disappears, though, I’ll probably spend my weekend looting. (I am kidding, of course. I am actually going to be garage saling tomorrow.)

By the way, still no word on the job I interviewed for on Wednesday. I’ll post an update as soon as I hear. In the meantime, have a great weekend!

Food Fight!

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. It was quite the day, to say the least. The temperature in the classroom was probably somewhere around 80ºF, it was humid, and the students were tired. A few of them seem to have already mentally checked out of school for the year, but most are determined to slog their way through to the end. The student teacher was not there today, but tomorrow is her last day. I have one more assignment with this class, a week from tomorrow.

It is an odd realisation that that assignment may be my last assignment with the class this year. There will only be a couple of weeks left after that, and I know that my mother-in-law has hated missing as much classroom-time as she has. (The reason she’s been gone so much is that she is a member of the committee that is re-writing the social studies curriculum for the district, and they have been meeting during school hours.) Couple the fast-approaching end of the year with my growing desire to receive a full-time teaching position this coming school year, and it means that things are wrapping up far more quickly than I would like.

At the same time, I’ve worked with this particular class so much. Third grade, fourth grade, and then on to fifth. I know them better than I know any other of my thousands of students. I would like to think that we have a great working relationship. I know that, for the majority of the class, this is true. I worry about the few that I just don’t seem to have been able to connect with; is it something about me, something about them, or something completely unrelated to either? The student teacher, her university supervisor, and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about this, and the supervisor made a comment that, as much as we want to, there are some students that we just aren’t going to be able to reach. The realist in my says that this is probably true; the optimist in me says, “Stuff that! I’m going to prove that I can do it!”

Today I had an experience that, to me, says that I’ve reached some of them, at least. A few of the students were eating lunch in the classroom. Near the end of the lunch period, I told them that I was going to use the restroom, and that I was trusting that they would not set the room on fire while I was away.

Apparently, I needed to be more exhaustive in my list of things I trusted them not to do.

I came back to see six of my students lined up in the hall, backs to the wall, with two of the 5th grade teachers speaking to them. As I approached, I learned that they had had a food fight while I was out of the room.

I was gone for two, maybe three minutes total.

A food fight? Seriously? I didn’t think that such things actually happened. I’ve heard tales of them happening back in the day, but I’ve also heard of students putting thumbtacks on the teacher’s chair. Things like that just don’t happen in this day and age.

Alas, I was wrong.

The other teachers went back to their rooms and I looked at the six students. Two of them had just returned to the room from doing something or other with someone or other (possibly related to the enrichment program; I really don’t know, though). So I asked the other four what happened, and I did so in my super-quiet, super-disappointed voice that I have very rarely had to use.

One of the girls looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Valencic. It was me. I threw a carrot at [she named a student].” I looked at the named-student and said, “And then what happened?” He said, “I don’t know. I was just throwing my garbage away when she threw a carrot at me. But I didn’t do anything to her.” It turns out that one of the teachers happened to be passing the door just at that moment, and so the food fight quickly stopped.

I waited for about 15 seconds, which probably felt like an hour to these students, and said, “Okay. Go clean it up.”

It is amazing what happens when you don’t use many words. The few words and the soft voice seem to combine to say, “You know? I’m done. If you want to be a hooligan, go ahead.”

I was peppered with apologies for the rest of the day, and queries as to how this would affect their participation in Fun Day tomorrow (a school-wide event), and the class field trip to Chicago on Tuesday. I told her that I wasn’t able to to make a decision on that, but I’d let her teacher know what happened and let her decide.

Two things happened in connection to this that made me think that maybe I have reached them. One, the offender was honest about it, apologised, cleaned up the mess, and prepared herself to face the consequences of her actions. The other was that another girl, who had been in the room during lunch, approached me later and said, “Mr. Valencic… I’m sorry. I threw a carrot into the trash can from across the room just as [the other girl] threw a carrot at [the other boy]. I am so ashamed of myself.” I told her that I expect her to tell her teacher what she had done tomorrow morning, and that I was going to follow up to see if she did.

And you know what? I think she will.

Expectations II

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. For those who have been playing along, this marks my 13th assignment for my mother-in-law this academic year. But as I have mentioned more than once, I have known most of these students since I first started subbing back in 2008, so they have had plenty of time to get to know me and, more importantly, get to know what I expect of them.

I have also blogged more than once about my ideals for classroom management, my philosophy of education, and how my philosophy is actually applied in the classroom. I will be the first to admit that, as a substitute teacher, it is incredibly difficult to fully implement my beliefs about education, especially my egalitarian views on management, for the simple fact that I am not around often enough to guide the class toward such a community setting. But I try. I encourage the students to be responsible for their actions and to realise that they are a classroom community that must work together if they wish to succeed.

Some days are better than others. (more…)

Living History

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. And, due to the student teacher having a rather nasty sinus infection, I was actually teaching today. It was rather nice, even though I had been planning on getting through a few more chapters of my balanced literacy book. The day went pretty well, with the one exception of a boy deciding it would be a good idea to take a spray bottle that once held cleaning chemicals and spray it at his classmates.


The highlight of the day was when we stopped our literacy block early so that we could discuss social studies. This was not part of the plans for the day, but it was something I felt was worthwhile and timely.

I have this philosophy about social studies. It is that social studies isn’t about learning historical data: people, places, events, dates, etc. That is history, which is an important element of social studies, but not all of it. Social studies is about learning why people did the things they did, not just what they did. I try to work this point into each lesson I teach. When we studied World War I and World War II, I asked the students to think about why we fight wars in the first place. And even those these young men and women are barely into the beginning of the second decade of their lives, they understand it. They understand the world around them. I know they do, and they know that I know that they do. I love telling them how awesome it is that they are smart, intelligent, capable people who can and do rule the world. I will set a fire beneath them by telling them that there are naysayers out there who think that 10-year-olds are too dumb, too young, too immature to understand what is going on. Hoo boy, if you ever want to see a class get fired up about what they can and cannot do, just tell them what people say they can’t do!

This whole discussion brought us to our main point: they are living in the midst of great historical moments. I asked them to tell me about some of the great moments in history that they learn about. They talked about things like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of the Treaty of Versailles, of Pearl Harbor, of 9/11. So then we talked about last night. Most of the class had heard about the death of Osama bin Laden, but some had not. Some had scene President Obama’s address to the nation, but most had not. They all realised that this was an important event. So I asked them: “Would you like to see and hear the President’s address?” The decision was unanimous. So I pulled up the video while two of the boys in the class set up the speakers, another boy turned on the digital projector, and one of the girls pulled down the screen. And this is what we watched:

We watched it on the CBS news site, since YouTube is blocked by the school’s filter. Then we talked about it. Having discussed the idea that they are mature enough to understand the impact of this event, I was interested to see what they really took note of. Surprisingly, at least to me, it was the recognition of the source of the final statement Pres. Obama made: that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” One boy asked why the President said that. So we talked about it. What does the Pledge of Allegiance mean? Do we think about the words when we say them, or are they just something we say each morning? Does it matter? Should it matter? Do we have to say the Pledge?

I don’t recall having any serious discussions like this when I was their age. Not in school, at least. I probably did at home, though. That comes from growing up with five older brothers, the oldest of which was in high school by the time I got to grade school. The majority of these boys and girls showed a remarkable level of understanding and depth of thought. There are some days that I worry about the future of our country. But then I see these young people and I really believe that we’re going to be all right.


Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. As the substitute for my mother-in-law, I spent the day trying to keep out of the way of the student teacher, who has one more week to go before her full take-over in the classroom is over and her supervising teacher can resume teaching (at least part of the time). I have to admit: it is hard to do that.

Especially when there are students in the classroom who don’t understand the weight of their poor choices.

Especially especially when those poor choices lead to bullying of others.

Much like my Internet friend Edna Lee, I hate bullying. In fact, I do not hesitate to say that there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can possibly happen in a classroom that makes me more furious than when I see or even hear about bullying. And it isn’t just because I was bullied throughout my public education career, although that is surely a part of it. It is because the very idea that there are young people who think it is acceptable to insult, harass, tear down, mock, and/or physically injure someone who is thought to be “weaker” than they are makes me sick. It is inexcusable on every level. It makes me boil inside to hear someone say, “Oh, they are just being boys” or “Oh, you know, boys will be boys” or “Oh, it is just a phase–she’ll grow out of it” or “I don’t see why you are so upset; after all, this has been happening for decades. It is a part of growing up.”

I am going to say right now that that is the biggest load of nonsensical crap that I have ever heard in my life. And if you happen to be someone who has said those words in your life, I hope you’ll stop to think about what you are saying, and I hope you’ll erase the phrases from your vocabulary. Bullying is never acceptable. It is never a part of growing up. It is never a rite of passage. It is mean, it is spiteful, and it is evil.

The worst part of it is that, as a substitute teacher, I rarely recognise bullying, because I am not around the students nearly long enough to catch what they are doing. Most bullying is not done in front of teachers, and it isn’t done in an ostentatious way. But every now and I then I am around long enough to realise what it going on. And then the brakes are hit, fast and hard. There is absolutely no tolerance in Mr. Valencic’s classroom for bullying.

So this morning the students were starting a chemistry lesson when some student said something to someone else. I honestly did not hear it, but the student teacher did. And she did exactly what was needed: she slammed the brakes and she put a stop to it. She had already been planning a minilesson on bullying for the afternoon, but it got bumped up to the beginning of the day right quick. She talked to the class about expectations and about the problem with bullying, even when it is just what the students think of as “harmless name-calling.” I remember growing up and hearing kids repeat this idiotic adage time and again: “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I am so glad to see signs that counter it. My personal adaptation is this: “Sticks and stones may break the bones, but words will crush the spirit.”

The university supervisor was there this morning to observe the student teacher and she even jumped in with some comments about bullying. (For those who may not know, university supervisors almost never say anything to anyone other than the teachers in the room.) She pointed out to the class that bullying is illegal; it is harassment, and they can go to jail for it. (Technically, Illinois only has laws requiring all schools to have anti-bullying policies as outlined by the State. Unless I am misreading the law, there is currently no criminal penalty for bullying, although there are penalties for harassment, which is the umbrella crime under which bullying would fall.) She also informed the students that there is a case in Urbana right now in which several students have been arrested in response to a severe case of bullying.

Will the bullying in the classroom stop? Maybe not. Will the teachers and administrators make a much more concerted effort to respond swiftly and appropriately to all claims of bullying? I think they will. In the meantime, I hope and pray that parents all over the nation will do everything they can to support to anti-bullying policies in schools and actively work toward teaching their children appropriate behaviour toward one another.

(And yes, I did have to be more involved as the day went on, just so that there was an extra pair of eyes keeping watch for inappropriate behaviour.)

Be Careful What You Wish For

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. My mother-in-law and her student teacher had a “planning day”, so I was actually teaching. I have no idea what a “planning day” actually is, and I am fairly certain that no such days existed when I was a student teacher. However, I don’t begrudge the changes; in fact, I am glad to know that the University of Illinois is updating their clinical experiences. Someday I hope that they will arrange to have a student teacher in the classroom on the very first day of school (a suggestion also made by Gloria Ladson-Billings, with which I heartily agree). There are all sorts of potential logistical nightmares entailed in such a shift in the program, but they would be worth the benefit of having prospective teachers see what to do on the first day.

Today was a pretty easy day, actually. The class had Library first thing in the morning, followed immediately by P.E. After a math lesson that was a review of concepts taught in 4th grade (concepts I actually just taught on Friday), they had lunch and then a social studies test in the afternoon. Other than the typical rambunctious behaviour of the four boys and two girls who like to dominate everything and everyone, there weren’t any real problems (unless I count the incident in which one of the boys accidentally shot another boy in the eye with a rubber band… but that’s a different matter altogether).

During Specials this morning, I was chatting with the three other 5th grade teachers. One of them also has a student teacher in full take-over, and so the regular teacher spends her days in the hall grading papers and just hanging out. (We are planning on having a hall party next week when I am there again.) She commented how nice it would be to have a secretary do the grading and other paperwork, and one of her colleagues said, “Oh, that would be so nice! I wish I could have someone else do all the paperwork so that I can just focus on teaching!” The third 5th grade teacher present is actually a long-term sub who is going to be there for the rest of the year because the regular teacher is on maternity leave. Upon hearing this wish from one of our colleagues, I said, “Oh, you can have a job like that! It is called ‘substitute teaching’. The catch, though, is that you only get paid about half what you are making now.” My fellow sub laughed and said, “Man, isn’t that the truth!” I don’t think she heard my response, though.

If there are any full-time elementary school teachers in Illinois who would like to have a job where all they have to do are teach lessons, I’d be happy to swap places with you! I’ll gladly deal with the “hassle”* of lesson planning, grading, faculty meetings, team meetings, professional development, RtI, PBIS, PLCs, IEPs, CRT, SQ3R, TESA, and the host of other alphabet-soup programs if they are too much for you. As much as I love working as substitute teacher, my goal is still to work full-time, and I wouldn’t mind at all the “other” things that teachers have to do!

* Note: I don’t believe any of the many wonderful teachers with whom I work actually believe that the non-teaching aspects of their jobs are hassles, although I do know that there are teachers like that in our world.

The Informants

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. And yes, I was subbing for my mother-in-law again. Her student teacher is in the early stages of her full takeover, though, which means that my job was to be in the building as the certified teacher responsible for what happened in the classroom. I could have spent the day chilling in the teachers’ lounge, but they don’t have any comfortable chairs and, based on some information I had received about some behaviour issues yesterday, I opted to spend the day in the classroom, but I kept out of the way and let the student teacher do her thing.

This class has a handful of challenging students who can make things very hard for a young prospective teacher, but she has done a very admirable job working with them. This was only her third day of a four-week takeover, so I expect to see a lot of progress between now and the end of the month. We talked about some strategies to reduce or eliminate disruptive behaviours. I’ll be back on Monday and am interested to see how the class has responded. One strategy she is going to try is something I came up with on a whim today.

I spent the first 45 minutes of the day observing the class and taking note of which students were being the most disruptive. It turned out that only four were actually making all of the noise. One of the students has loudly proclaimed that he doesn’t care about the rules, expectations, or consequences, but the other three have let me know at various times that they do care and they are trying to have good days. So I decided to take a page out of the life of Thomas S. Monson (president of the LDS church, of which I am a member) and his experiences with a Sunday School teacher when he was a boy.

The story goes that he was part of a rather rambunctious class taught by a sweet young adult. Lucy did her best with the class, but there were days when things were quite a struggle. One Sunday after class, he noticed that Lucy was sitting in the room crying. He went to her and inquired as to the source of her sorrow. She explained that several of the boys in the class were being very disruptive. She suggested that Tommy, as he was called then, could help by trying to set a good example for the other boys. He agreed to do so and the disruptions quickly disappeared. It was years later that he realised that the disruptions were being caused primarily by him.

Thinking of this, I went to one of the students who had been speaking out of turn and asked him if he would be willing to do me a favour. I explained that the student teacher and I were trying to figure out who was talking the most and interrupting class. He agreed to keep a list for me. I then asked the two other students if they would help, as well, and they both agreed, as well. Things didn’t magically get better, but the noise levels definitely decreased. All of a sudden I had three of the four noisiest students working quietly but also keeping tabs on their classmates and letting them know if they were going to be reported for not following expectations! This allowed the students who got easily distracted to have an important task that kept them focused. I suggested to the student teacher that she try to do this in the coming weeks. Find a task and allow the students who are getting up and talking to have a meaningful responsibility in the class that will keep them busy (but not just busy for the sake of being busy; busy doing something important).

I have no idea how successful it will be this late in the year, but I think that it can make a positive impact for many, and help eliminate the amount of lost time in the classroom. The one thing I want to be able to do most with this prospective teacher is help her overcome these challenges so that she doesn’t give up hope and abandon her career!

Playing It by Ear

Today I was a 5th grade teacher. Again. At Robeson Elementary in Champaign. Again. For my mother-in-law. Again. You see, I wasn’t supposed to be subbing for her for the third consecutive working day because her flight from Salt Lake City was supposed to be in last night. Unfortunately, it was delayed several hours and she didn’t get home until nearly 4 am. Fortunately, though, she knew about the delay with a considerable amount of notice, so I knew last night that I was going to be there. Equally fortunate, she has a student teacher who was planning on starting a science unit on chemistry today, on top of the math lessons that she’s been in charge of teaching for a few weeks now, and there was a reading group or two in the afternoon that she’d be meeting with. So all I really had to worry about was following up on the social studies unit on propaganda that we started yesterday.

So a pretty easy day, right?

Not quite.

The student teacher was sick, and she had the math manual with her. The science lesson plan wasn’t prepared or, if it was, she hadn’t left plans for it. And the reading groups were up to me. On top of all that, the teacher hadn’t had time to prepare lesson plans by the time I arrived at 7:30 this morning, so I had to play it by ear.

For many substitutes, this would be cause to run out of the room screaming. In fact, I nearly had a moment like this a few months ago when I subbed in Urbana for the first time ever. This was not true for me, though, because of one very important fact: I have been in this classroom more than any other classroom in three districts. And, of course, I am married to this teacher’s daughter, so I have the benefit of being able to eat dinner with her on a weekly basis and talk about her class. All of this, along with the various reasons I mentioned yesterday, combine to mean that, of all the substitute teachers in the district, I am probably the only one who could have salvaged today.

I had to play it by ear, and I think I managed to do an adequate job. Even with the near-constant talking in the class and having to frequently stop and wait for the class to settle down, was able to make it through the materials for the day. Now, I know that a teacher shouldn’t just be concerned about “getting through” but, honestly, that is pretty much my job as a substitute. It is a wonderful thing when I can do more than just the minimum requirements of my job, and I quite often do much more. I am quite certain that is why I am so successful at my job. But there are days when I am truly grateful that I am able to get through some days.

So, what did I do today? I shot from the hip, I winged it, I begged my coworkers for access to their teacher’s manuals (okay, I didn’t really beg; I just walked in and asked if I could borrow it and then made a copy of the lesson), and I made sure the students had plenty of independent reading time. Things actually went pretty well, particularly since I don’t think anyone had any idea that I was actually playing it by ear today. And, at the end of the day, that is one of the most important things. Did the students learn and did they feel confident in my ability to teach? I believe the answer to both is yes. Hopefully both teacher and student teacher will be back tomorrow, though, because I’m already scheduled to be elsewhere!


Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign again. This was the second day of a two-day assignment substituting for my mother-in-law. I have worked for her for such a long time now that she doesn’t even need to leave plans for me (although she does, thankfully). He students have also known me for an incredibly long time. In fact, I have been subbing for the teachers who have been teaching these students for as long as I have been subbing. (If that leaves you confused, I’ve been teaching these boys and girls since they were in 3rd grade, and I have taught them regularly because their teachers request me a lot.)

Anyway, the long and short of all that is that my students have been around me so often that they should be more than used to me by now. Which means that when I teach 5th graders at Robeson, I have a lot more freedom with the lesson plans than I do in a class I’ve never been to before. This is especially true when it comes to teaching social studies in this particular class. Because of the close relationship we have, my mother-in-law and I talk about what is going on in the class, and then she lets me improvise. I’ve gotta say, it is a lot of fun.

Today I taught a lesson on propaganda, especially in the form of WWI and WWII posters. We talked about what propaganda is, the elements in the vintage posters, and whether or not they were effective. The students were incredibly engaged in the entire lesson, and enjoyed being able to share their observations. After looking through the vintage posters, I asked them if they could think of any modern examples of propaganda that they have seen, especially within the school. They identified, among other things, a poster encouraging environmentally-friendly practices that my wife designed. I wrapped up the lesson by first showing them a picture of a painting/mural that is in the hallway at Robeson:

Robeson Elementary mural

I asked the class to decide if this was an example of propaganda and to explain why. They agreed that it was, and identified the elements that seemed to try to convince the audience (students, teachers, and parents), that Robeson is a safe, fun, interesting place that encourages learning and creativity. After they did all that, I unveiled their next project: create a propaganda poster of their own to support a subject of their choice. I am really looking forward to seeing what they will produce. As they were working on ideas and sketches, I saw posters about Sponge-Bob Squarepants, Japan, abused animals, buying monkeys, and the dangers of eating fast food. I am sure that some students will turn in mediocre work (there is always someone in the class who tries to skate by doing the bare minimum), but many others will do the very best they can.

And I told them that I would be back several times this month and part of their grade will depend on whether or not they can convince me. Dang, I love being able to improvise and develop my own lesson plans!

The Proof Is in the Pudding

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. It was a good day, but I’m not going to write about today for the simple fact that I am going to be there again on Monday. Also, I got an absolutely wonderful email this afternoon from the teacher for whom I was subbing yesterday and I wanted to share it.

As you may have noticed, I was wondering if my notes were worth taking the time to write and whether or not I was sharing too much information. I always leave my email and phone number, but there are very few teachers who have ever contacted me after an assignment. In fact, with the exception of the teachers who regularly request me, the only other teacher who has ever emailed me was a teacher a few months ago who emailed me to apologise for how awful her class had been to me. So I was incredibly happy to receive an email today regarding the note I left yesterday. This is what she wrote:

I must thank you for your very detailed sub notes and your willingness to follow my directions and work with the students to make sure those tasks were accomplished. I greatly appreciate everything you did to help me and the students (and I KNOW they can be difficult). Of the three days I was gone, yesterday went the best, and that was due to you. I would love to have you sub for me again in the future!

So I guess the old saying is true: the proof is in the pudding! (I did, of course, email her back to thank her for her kind comments and to assure her that I really would be happy to come back, even thought I hope she isn’t gone that often.) I’m quite honestly happy to know that I did indeed accomplish something worthwhile with a group of students who can, as their teacher said, be difficult.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Relevant Teaching

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign (but not for my mother-in-law). I was only there for half the day (really a lot more – about five hours instead of the typical seven), but it was a good day. The class is really used to me by now and were happy to have me as their sub (except for the few who are determined to be difficult for every teacher they encounter). We spent the morning doing science, math just before lunch, and Language Arts afterwards.

Whenever possible, I strive to make my teaching as relevant to the students’ lives as possible. So I was quite pleased when the science lesson was on the history of the development of the cellular phone. After all, these boys and girls are 11-12 years old, yet almost all of them own cell phones already. Those who don’t want them soon. I contrasted this with the fact that I didn’t get a cell phone until 2005 (which actually elicited laughter from the class). We talked about the different kinds of phones that exist and what model they would most like to get. Having piqued their interest in the matter, it was easy to get them to start working on the assignments.

The math lesson was on measuring the volume of rectangular prisms, which is was harder to make relevant, but I started off by having the students identify the various rectangular prisms in the classroom. An interesting discussion arose when someone suggested a piece of paper was a prism, but others disagreed. We established a rectangular prism has to have six rectangular faces with a measurable length, width, and base. Having determined that these were acceptable criteria, the class decided that a standard piece of paper does indeed constitute a rectangular prism. I then tried to help them understand the concept of volume. I used an example I had stumbled upon last year that seems to work really well: just about everyone knows what volumizing hair products are for. They understand the result of using such products, and from there they were able to understand the concept that volume is the measure of something taking up space. So that connection also worked.

Going for three-for-three, I spent the afternoon teaching about adjectives, and managed to get the students to provide several examples of adjectives before they even had a clear definition. I asked for someone to give me a noun, and he suggested the name of a girl in the class. I then asked the students to describe her. After we created a decent list, we discussed how adjectives are words that modify, or describe, nouns. Just as the students started to work on the assignment, their teacher arrived. It was a pretty good day all around.


Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary. I was subbing for my mother-in-law and was expecting to have a pretty good day. After all, my last experience in her class, about a month ago, was phenomenal.

Alas, it was not to be.

The class wasn’t horrible today. They were just bouncing off the walls. It was chaotic. Three boys were extremely disruptive, to the point that all three should have been sent to the office but only one was. There were eight who weren’t disruptive, just inattentive. No matter what we were doing, they were doing something else. Quietly, to be sure, but still not on task at all. I kept reminding them, and they kept drifting off into their own worlds. It was weird, because they were, for the most part, some of the students who are typically very well-behaved and frequently contributing to class discussions.

Of course, that left thirteen students who were actually very well-behaved. They were on task, participating, and seemed to be working hard. But it is difficult to work hard when the students around you are causing problems. Still, even in the midst of chaos, we had some good things happening. I started them on a social studies unit about war and learned that they have a very mature understanding of why people go to war against each other. They also have a fairly decent understanding, especially for 11-year-olds, of the various conflicts the United States has been involved in. (Although I was sad to learn that none of them had heard of the War on Drugs. I might ask my mother-in-law if I can come in as a guest speaker to talk to them about drug and alcohol abuse. After all, I have been in the drug prevention field for nearly half my life.) We discussed wars in general and then started talking about the Great War. I also had the opportunity to tell them about Simo Hayha, the Finnish sniper known as White Death, and Yang Youde, the Chinese farmer who used homemade cannons to defend his farm from being taken over by a development corporation. Both men were cited as examples of single individuals essentially declaring war on a large group. [NOTE: Both of the previous links contain inappropriate language. I chose to cite these articles over the Wikipedia ones because the Wikipedia articles are boring. Neither article was actually cited or quoted in class!]

So even with all of the chaos going on today, I hope we were able to accomplish something worthwhile. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow, since I am going to be at the same school subbing for a different teacher.

Serenity Now!

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I have subbed for quite a few teachers at Stratton this year, but this was the first time subbing for this particular teacher. I had hopes that things would go well when I saw that her class had “Guest Teacher Agreement”. This document outlined the expectations of the class when they have a guest teacher (which is what they refer to substitutes at Stratton). It included items like “meet expectations”, “stay on task”, and “treat everyone with respect”.

Alas, several members of the class seemed to think that this agreement did not apply to them, or that it didn’t apply to me. It was a bit frustrating. Half the class was awesome! They followed rules, did their work, stayed on task, and were generally great. They were engaged and helped one another and they helped me. The others, though, seemed to do everything they could to drive me crazy. Talking, running around the room, treating everyone disrespectfully, and shooting things across the room with rubber bands. One boy was removed from the class after lunch when he started chasing and kicking a classmate. Another got kicked out with just five minutes to go after saying some incredibly disrespectful things to me.

I find that the only way to get through a day like today is to ask for serenity NOW and to remind myself that the students are not lashing out against me–they are lashing out against the environment. It is hard to not take it personally, though. Especially when a student starts mocking my speech patterns. Yes, I am practically deaf in one ear, have moderate hearing loss in the other and, as a result, I have a speech impediment. I’ve generally come to accept that I have corrected as much of my speech as possible, but I know that I don’t sound the way others do. (Whatever that actually means… After all, nobody sounds exactly like another person.) Most students are mature enough to accept my speech patterns without a problem. But some feel it is necessary to point them out. I’ll admit it: it hurts. It hurts that a 10-year-old believes it is acceptable to treat others differently because they are different. It hurts to realise that this kid is going to grow up to be a bully. It hurts to realise that I have very few chances to teach him otherwise, and I fear that his teachers won’t be successful, either.

Then I remember that kids who are bullies are able to grow out of it. Kids who are bullied are able to escape the cycle of bully-or-be-bullied. Teachers are able to have a positive impact. By seeking for inner peace, taking lots of deep breaths, and shedding the frustrations at the end of the day, I am able to move on and even return. Which is what I will hopefully do one day. I love seeing how these kids change. I’ve seen it happen before. I hope to see it happen again and again and again.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep taking deep breaths and asking for serenity.

Observing Change and Growth

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign, but not for my mother-in-law.  I was subbing for the teacher across the hall from her, who I have known for as long as I have been working as a substitute. I was a bit worried about the assignment because some of her students were absolute hellions while in 4th grade and I had worked with them several times throughout that year. However, I took the assignment realising that a) people change and b) I needed the work. Possibly more of the latter, but at least partly because of the former.

I am so glad that I did! I had a wonderful day with her class! Her students were well-behaved, fun, and the worked hard all day–so much so, in fact, that I was able to give them the last 15-20 minutes of the day as free time. We did science, reading, math, spelling, and English, and all the lessons went well. I had some troubles with two students, but nothing so dramatic as to make me want to smash my head against a wall. Most of the students were just good. Very few stood out as being exceptionally well-behaved, but that is because all of them were.

But there was one girl in particular that really took me by surprise. Of all the kids who drove me crazy last year, she was the ring-leaders. While in 4th grade, she would yell and scream at me, refuse to work, disrupt other students, throw things at me, and generally made my day miserable. She was none of those things today. In fact, she was the exact opposite. She was the first to start working and to volunteer to provide answers or to read, she helped her classmates with their work, she helped encourage her classmates to stay on task, and she generally made my day absolutely wonderful. Her mum came in at the end of the day and asked how her day went. I was incredibly pleased to be able to tell this girl’s mother that her daughter had a great day, and that I was so impressed with how much she has grown and matured over the past year.

It was really great seeing how all of these students have changed and grown since last year. Many of them were in this troublesome class, and it was awesome seeing how different they were. At the end of the day, I did a brief Awareness of Process exercise with them. I asked what went well during the day, what didn’t work well, and what they could do next time to improve. They responded in a mature and responsible way. All in all, this was a wonderful way to wrap up my week!


Today I was a co-teacher in a 4th/5th grade class at Dr. Howard in Champaign. I’m not sure how the class was 4th/5th grade because, as far as I could tell, all of the students were in 5th grade. Maybe there were 4th graders there, too, and I didn’t notice. It is possible, I imagine. Anyway, as a co-teacher, I spent most of the day walking around and keeping an eye on the students while the other teacher did all of the work. I had a generally good day, and I told her that I would be happy to come back for them whenever needed, and that I would be glad to be put to use. Not sure if I will be there again, as there are always other factors that get involved, but I’d definitely be glad to work with these students again.

During the course of the day, I noticed that there are times when teachers make mistakes. I certainly do, and I know others do, as well. What I find interesting is how we respond to our errors. There are pretty much a handful of ways we can respond: we can make a big deal about it; we can pretend it didn’t happen; we can insist it didn’t happen; we can quietly change the error; and we can acknowledge the error and correct it. As a teacher, I try to acknowledge the error and then correct it. I don’t believe in creating a mythos of the omniscient teacher (even if I do jokingly say that I know everything). I noticed one of my errors when I was writing a sample persuasive essay and accidentally inserted a comma where no comma was needed. I just said, “Oh, oops, that shouldn’t be there!” and crossed it out. No problem.

I’m glad that the students I was working with today were able to easily recognise that a mistake was easily made and just as easily fixed. This is an important lesson for any person to learn. All of us have moments when we go “Oops”–it is worthwhile to decide early on how we will respond to these moments.

The Snowy Day

Yesterday I did not teach. School was cancelled in every school district in the area due to the extreme winter weather conditions, which is just another way to say that it was really cold outside. I am sure that school got cancelled for similar reasons when I was young, but I don’t remember it happening. For us, it seemed that school only got cancelled if the school buses and plows got frozen over and nobody could get into them to clear the roads or pick up the students who relied upon the buses to get to school. No matter the reason for school being cancelled, though, if it was cold, it was a snow day. So even though there was snow yesterday (and has been for several weeks), school wasn’t actually cancelled because of the snow. It was cancelled because it was crazy cold outside.

This is odd, to me, because today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson in Champaign, subbing for my mother-in-law. It felt just as cold today as it did yesterday. Maybe I am wrong on this account, but I don’t think the temperature today got above 15ºF, which seems to be ridiculously cold to have school. But school there was.

Things actually went pretty well today. Even though I had behavioural issues with three of the boys in her class (the same three boys who are always causing problems), most of the class was very well-behaved. They were working hard, staying on task, and were generally pleasant to be around. I taught a math lesson on using a clock to interpret different kinds of fractions and was glad to learn that the students already know how many minutes are in a quarter hour, a half hour, a third of an hour, and even a fifth of an hour.

The afternoon was spent with a special guess: Demetri McCamey, one of the starting guards for the University of Illinois Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball team. Demetri’s girlfriend happens to be a tutor for my mother-in-law’s class, and this was her last day coming in. So she arranged to have Demetri come in as a special guest to talk to the class. He talked to them about things that are cool (sports, movies, video games, school, etc) and things that are not cool (drugs, violence, fights, bullies, etc). He seemed a little uncomfortable to me, at first, but he warmed up to the students and he seemed to be enjoying himself by the end of his time with them. I was very impressed with how he talked about the importance of school work, staying healthy, and not using drugs. (I think the message that the NCAA will kick you out of college athletics for violations really hit home with some of them.) He also signed things for the students. Two of the girls had him sign my Illini scarf for me, which was random but kind of cool.

So even though there was no school yesterday (and, due to incredible busy-ness on my part, I didn’t get around to updating), today was a good day. And it was still snowy. Speaking of snowy days, I highly recommend the book of the same title as this post:


Organised Chaos

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. More specifically, I was once again substituting for my mother-in-law. Despite some crazy things that happened in the course of the day, this was probably one of the best days I have had with her class this year.

I am a firm believer in the value of group work. I think that students work much better when they work with each other than when they work on their own. Of course, sometimes group work doesn’t, well, work. There are times when one or two students will try to take advantage of a situation and, through inaction, cause their group members to do all of the work. I overcome this by not allowing them to share in the grade. That is, each member of the group is required to be working and turn in a completed task at the end. So if someone chooses to slack off during the group work time, that person is simply going to miss out on an opportunity to combine resources. In addition, I have come to learn that some students learn from each other and learn from helping each other in ways that they won’t get from listening to me.

So I spent the morning overseeing group work on posters for a science unit on volcanoes. To be fair, this group work was assigned by the students’ regular teacher, but there have been many times that I have had to change the plans from what the teacher left behind based on the classroom climate. So the students grabbed poster board, pencils, pens, and markers, and scattered throughout the room. Thus began the organised classroom that is my classroom.

After working on posters, we did a math review, and then it was off to lunch. At some point over the course of the morning, I had four boys who felt that they would rather run around the classroom and throw broken bits of crayons at each other and their classmates rather than sit at the seats and work. I used the various tricks that I have learned to encourage them to work, but nothing seemed to last. I spoke with my mother-in-law and her colleagues over lunch and was encouraged to send the boys to the office and write a Level One Incident Report for each boy. This is a carbon-copy form that creates a formal log for each incident that causes a student to be sent to the office. I have rarely filled out a Level One before, and never several at one time. I found the forms and had them ready just in case the boys continued with their behaviour.

It turns out I didn’t have to wait long. Just as I walked into the room after lunch (the class was already there because they had had an indoor recess), I saw them throwing crayons at each other. One girl got hit so hard in the side that it actually left a mark. I immediately buzzed the main office and away they went. They were gone the rest of the afternoon, and the entire climate of the classroom changed! The rest of the students worked hard and stayed on task throughout the afternoon. They were working so hard that I called an end to the day about 15 minutes earlier than planned and we played Brain Quest (an elementary-school appropriate trivia game) for a while before going outside for an afternoon recess. The students all sat on their desks and everyone was participating and having a great time. It was, again, organised chaos.

The thing that has struck me with the sequence of events in this day is that, by removing four disruptive boys, everyone else was able to focus and do their work. When those boys were present, it didn’t affect just them. It affected everyone in the class. It has made me realise that, as a substitute teacher, I can’t waste all of my resources on a handful of boys or girls who want to dominate the room. I need to focus on the majority so that I can offer differentiated instruction in a positive classroom environment. More than anything, I need to swallow my pride and acknowledge that I don’t have the same relationship with these students that their regular classroom teacher has. Even though I am there quite often, I am still not there every day. How I create a positive classroom environment that allows for meaningful instruction is, by the very nature of my position, going to be quite different from how the teachers who are there every day do. And I need to be willing to ask for help from the main office.

I’m just surprised that it has taken me over two years to learn this lesson.


Today I was a “floater sub” at Robeson Elementary. I spent the morning with a 3rd grade classroom, and the afternoon with 5th graders. It was not a particularly great day. It wasn’t my worst day ever, either, but there were definitely moments when I found myself wondering why it is that I actually like my job.

I love teaching. It is my passion and my life. I don’t like having to lecture students on things like sitting in their seats, raising their hands, and doing their work. I don’t enjoy lecturing my students on being quiet in the hallways. I really hate when I have to stop a lesson to point out that telling a fellow student to “close your big fat black lips” is disgusting and despicable, and absolutely unacceptable at all times and in all places. I had to do all of these things today.

The things is, I like having to lecture about anything, really. I believe that the best learning comes through discussion and exploration. But my students today refused all attempts at rational discussion. Some of you may be thinking, “But Alex, these are kids. Aren’t you expecting a bit much of them?” My response is a resounding NO. I have seen students younger than these do amazing things. I once spent a week teaching 2nd graders and we had a week of amazing discussions throughout each day. Discussions about math, science, social studies, literature, and behaviour. So if 2nd graders can do it, I know that 3rd graders and 5th graders can do it too.

My students in the morning were actually very well behaved most of the morning. With the exception of four of them, the class was on task, working hard, and participating as expected. But everything fell apart on the way to PE. The class this afternoon started off well, but quickly fell into anarchy. I don’t even know what happened, or why. It just did. I managed to pull them back together and ready for a social studies lesson on the experiences of Ruby Bridges, and we managed to have a discussion for about 7 1/2  minutes. Then it all fell apart. So I threw in the towel and had them do the reading by themselves. No discussion. No sharing ideas. No fun. Also no recess.

Expectations are a funny thing. I believe what Jaime Escalante is attributed with saying in the movie Stand and Deliver: “Students will rise to the level of expectation that we have for them.” I hope that I keep high expectations. I think that I err when I don’t respond immediately to any failure to meet those expectations. I keep hoping that if I give the students chances to correct their behaviour, they will. What I need to start doing is be more forceful in handing out immediate consequences. It will slow the pace of the instruction but, then, the chronic poor behaviour leads to a halt in instruction, anyway. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary. I love teaching fifth grade! I love the curriculum, I love the way I can interact with the students, I love the way they want to know, know, know, know, know. Fifth graders have a thirst for knowledge that doesn’t seem to be present in any of the other primary grades. Middle school students and high schoolers also have a thirst for knowledge, but I am not as keen on teaching those grades as I am the intermediate/upper primary ones.

Students in 5th grade are also learning how to interact with one another. They are just entering the wonderful world of pre-adolescence, and they want to be liked. This makes for very interesting times, particularly as a substitute teacher. Sometimes students try to be liked by their peers by acting up and trying to get a laugh out of their classmates. I recently saw a poster in a different classroom that said something along the lines of “Class Clowns: Laugh, and the class laughs with you. But you spend detention alone.” Now, I’m not saying that all class clowns are trouble-makers. In fact, I find humour to be indispensable as a tool for managing a class and breaking up the tedium of the day. But there is a time and place for everything. And that is part of what these young students are trying to learn.

I remind myself of this every time I enter a fifth grade classroom, and today was no different. Except that instead of one class clown, I had 9. Out of a class of 17. (Yes, the classes at this particular school really are that small.) So it was a bit of a challenge for me. I try to ignore the class clowns as much as possible, and encourage their classmates to ignore their antics as well, because they do what they do for attention, and if they don’t get attention, they will generally stop. But when more than half the class is acting up, it can sometimes feel like it would be easier to single-handedly keep two dozen rubber duckies underwater than to effectively manage this class.

My first solution was to allow as much group work as possible. I have often found that when students work together, they are able to socialise as they talk and therefore don’t feel the need to yell out in class. This worked really well throughout the morning, but by afternoon, things were starting to get out of hand. Even after having everyone return to their seats, and even with an aide in the room, the students seemed determine to not follow directions. This made it extremely difficult for me to help those who were struggling with their assignments. Fortunately, I was able to get things under control just before the regular classroom teacher returned to the room. She immediately laid down the law and the class quickly got back in line.

Ah, the anticipated joy of having my own classroom! When I have students who already respect me and want to follow directions, because they have me there every day, instead of just once every now and then! Yet I still love substituting, as well! I love the challenge of walking into a room and having to win the class over in  just a few minutes. I love being able to work with students and have a positive impact, even if I am just there for a few minutes. I love being able to share my lucky coin with students all over the district, and watch as they figure out where I got the coin. And I love being able to tell a teacher that I succeeded in teaching their students, even if they did seem to want to just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk all day long. That is why I continue to come back: because I love teaching.


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