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

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.

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