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

When the Going Gets Tough…

Today I was a 6th grade history teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign. I have subbed for this teacher once before, back in October. This was before I started this blog. I’ve only been to Jefferson one other time since then. (In case you missed it, the experience was not a highlight of my substituting adventures.) Still, I rarely pass up an assignment if I am available, so I decided to give Jefferson another shot.

I had four classes during the day: three history classes and one FLEX period (guided study hall). My experience has been that study halls tend to be the least organised and most unruly periods of the day. Yesterday was a bizarro-land exception to this. Shockingly, today was another. But in order to really appreciate what my FLEX period was like, you need to understand what the history classes were like.

I was warned that the first period of the day was the roughest. This was kind of an understatement. While I have not yet broken my record of 28 Discipline Referrals in one day (a sad, sad day in my teaching career, incidentally at Jefferson two years ago), I did have to send three boys to the office with DRs today. The class was very noisy and rather unwilling to do their work. I told them to work quietly. They talked. I said, “Stay in your seats,” and they got up out of their seats. Just about the time I was about to lose it, I told three boys to sit down and start working. One of them stood up and started dancing around. BOOM. Discipline Referral #1. Later on, two boys were talking, running around the room, and stealing other students’ pens, pencils, markers, and whatever else they could get their hands on. BOOM. BOOM. On the way out, one of the boys muttered something along the lines of, “Send me to the office? I’ll shove my pencil up his curly-haired…” Yeah, the office heard about that one, too. Threatening a teacher? Not cool.

Period two was better: no Discipline Referrals were made, but of the 19 students, 12 of them were talking throughout the period. They did their work, too, but they were not following expectations. The third period was actually pretty awesome. Jefferson follows a block schedule format, so the core content area classes are all 80 minutes long. For the first hour, everyone was working on their assignments, not talking, and staying in their seats. At the beginning of class, I told them that if they worked throughout the period, I would give them the last ten minutes to talk freely amongst themselves. Alas, an hour was about all they could give me. As an aside, I am shocked that they have 80-minute classes without any breaks –  conventional wisdom places the attention span of the typical middle school student somewhere between 8 and 14 minutes. For an interesting look into the criticisms of block schedule, I recommend this page by Jeff Lindsay–just ignore the awfulness of the site design!) Still, I was disappointed that the entire class erupted into chaos during the last 15-20 minutes.

The schedule for the FLEX period was quite different. For one, they were only in the room for 40 minutes, seeing as FLEX (by the way, I have no idea what that stands for) is not a core content area. For another, the schedule was pretty simple: 20 minutes of silent reading, followed by quiet study time. Today was the fourth time in my professional teaching career that this actually happened: the students sat in their seats, read quietly, and then quietly worked until the bell rang. I thanked all of them for their work, and left the day realising that, as frustrating as it can be to work with students who make poor choices, there are always those young men and women who are willing and capable of showing that they understand what is expected of them.

As I always do, I found myself changing my approach as the day progressed. I started laying down the most basic expectations with the first class. When that was not effective, I was more specific with the second. That still wasn’t what I hoped for, so I laid things out and made a deal. That almost worked, but it still wasn’t great. So I decided a new tactic: I asked the class what they were supposed to do, and then I modeled what was expected. While they read, so did I. It worked. Their teacher has done the same thing, and, as he put it, he has “trained them pretty well.” Whatever it was, it worked.

So, what is my response to the first half of the adage I used for my blog title?

Well, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, but the smart change paths.

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