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

In Which I Fail to Learn My Lesson… Again.

Today I was a special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. This was yet another job assignment that showed up in the wee hours of the morning–this time at 4:45. I decided I’d rather brave the unknown world of special education (unknown only because every special ed teacher does something different) against the somewhat-known world of 1st grade, which was another assignment available.

During the course of the day, I had students who were very well-behaved and did their work, as well as students who were belligerent and uncooperative. Several weeks ago, I had reflected upon the fact that I am not, in fact, Superman. I cannot, in fact, do everything. And, along with that, I do not have some magical, mystical power that commands the love and respect of every single, greatest-sub-ever-hood notwithstanding. All of which combines to mean that there are times when I need to call upon others to help me out: neighbouring teachers, assistant principals, and the good folks in the discipline office. I don’t know what my problem is, but, despite my knowledge, I never do this.

I seem to be determined to suffer through a day with noisy, belligerent, uncooperative students. It is as if I have some hidden masochistic tendencies that lead me to enjoy suffering. I have talked to other substitutes about this, and it seems to be a common malady of the substitute teacher profession. Part of the cause is found in the fact that most of us are seeking full-time employment and are hoping that our time as substitute teachers will help convince those with authority to hire us that we are worth interviewing and, hopefully, actually hiring. Nobody looking for a job wants to appear weak. As an educator, a huge aspect of my job is classroom management. If I have to keep calling on the office or other teachers to come in and manage my class for me, doesn’t this give the impression that I cannot, in fact, manage a class?

The answer is a resounding NO! As a substitute teacher, it is understood that I have not devoted the time and energy to win the hearts and trust of the natives. Not all the time. I am an outsider. No matter how often I am in the building, no matter how many times I have worked with these students, I am still seen as an outsider by many of them. Especially the noisy, uncooperative, belligerent ones. Sure, I can leave notes for their teachers to explain the poor behaviour, and sure, the teachers will dole out the appropriate punishment, but the punishment doesn’t come from me. It comes from someone else. The teacher that the students know, trust, respect (if sometimes only grudgingly), and even love (at least some of the time). I am reminded of this lesson nearly every time I teach, or at least on a weekly basis. Yet I continue to forget and find the need to relearn the lesson again and again and again and again and again.

As I left Edison today, I saw the man who strikes fear into the hearts of the students. His official title is “Hallway Supervisor” but it may as well be “Dungeon Master”. No matter how uncooperative or belligerent a student is, he or she trembles at the very mention of his name. I thanked him for speaking with two of the boys with whom I had worked today, and he said, “Hey man, no problem! It is what I do! I’m here to help!” I mentioned briefly this lesson that I learned, and he pointed out that while he appreciates my desire to manage the class on my own, it is his job to take the students who are hindering the education process and make it so the rest of the class can learn.

I will stop short of vowing to call on the assistance of others to help me as soon as a problem escalates, and I am sure that I am going to have to learn this lesson again, but I hope that I will learn it in the morning, rather than at the end of the day. Because, let’s be honest: teaching is a much more pleasant experience when one is able to actually teach, rather than spend the whole time trying to keep one student from ruining it for the rest of the class.


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