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



Today I was a candidate for a teaching position at Lincoln Grade School in Washington, Illinois. As such, I did not accept any assignments for today, so that I could focus on preparing for the interview. Regarding the interview, I will only say at this point that it went very well, and that I was given many opportunities to share some of my fundamentals beliefs about education. Ironically, though, I was not asked the standard “tell us about yourself” question that I have been stressing out about for weeks. Maybe next time!

I had been preparing for this interview for several weeks now, and was very excited about the opportunity. For those who don’t know, I grew up in Washington, and it was at this very school, when I was in fourth grade, that I first knew that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. My fourth grade teacher is still at Lincoln Grade School, although she has been teaching third grade for several years now. The open positions at the school are first, second, and fourth grade (one of each). I officially applied for the second and fourth grade positions, but I may be considered for the first grade one, as well.

The interview was very brief; only about fifteen minutes. The purpose was to allow the superintendent and his two principals to screen roughly 10% of the over 530 applicants for the positions, so the fact that I was selected at all says much. I will find out on Friday if they would like me to come back for a second, longer, interview. Needless to say, I would be delighted to do so. It has been a childhood dream to teach in the very building that first started me on the path I am on now. I love the school, I love the district, and I love the community. There is much I have to offer, and much I can learn.

Thanks to everyone who has kept me and wife in your prayers and thoughts! I’ll be sure to let you know what happens next!


“Am I Doing Good Today?”

Today I was a 4th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign for the second day. Today was a pretty good day, although not quite as good as yesterday, despite our goals for improvement. Several of the students were on task and focused all day, but there were also quite a few who were easily distracted and just a bit too edgy. It may have had something to do with the combination of it being Friday and the skies being gloomy and overcast. Still, I enjoyed my day, and was glad that I had no need to employ my stress vein that I like to pretend I have. (I just spent far too much time unsuccessfully looking for a picture of the vein I mean. It is the one on the side of your forehead that feels like it is throbbing when you are stressed. Oh well.)

One of the things that really struck me over the past two days was how often my students kept asking me about their behaviour. The questions were usually things like, “Am I doing good today?” “Are we on your good list?” “How did I do?” “Was I bad today?” “Are you feeling stressed, Mr. V?” Several of these students have known me for a number of years, and I guess they’ve learned to recognise my tells when it comes to how far they’ve pushed me to the brink of insanity. It was kind of depressing, though, when one of the boys decided to write a cinquain about me. (They are doing a poetry unit and write a poem in a different style each day.) I don’t remember the exact wording of it, and I am blanking on the wording, but the thing that made me sad was in the second line, when he had to use two words to describing me, he wrote “Joyfull, screaming” [sic].


I asked him about this, particularly the “screaming” part, and he said, “Don’t you remember last year? You screamed at us all the time!” Then another boy piped up and said, “Yeah, especially when [former classmate’s name] did something!”

Double ouch.

I don’t recall actually screaming, but I do remember having to raise my voice, particularly when the aforementioned student started throwing punches and furniture. It was a stressful year with that class, to be sure.

Fortunately, I have worked hard at improving my classroom management and swallowing my pride by calling on the assistant principal to intervene when things start to get out of hand. As a result, I am a lot less stressed because the class is better managed, and our experiences are much more positive. Now if only I can figure out how to channel the desire to be good into all of the students! (Don’t worry, fellow educators; as soon as I figure it out, I’ll let you all know before I publish a book on it and make millions!)

A Substitute’s Worst Nightmare

Today I was a 2nd grade teacher at Leal Elementary School in Urbana. This was my first time teaching in Urbana, even though I’ve been on the sub list since November. I have been called by the sub line before, but it has always been in the mid-morning when I was filling an assignment elsewhere. (Unlike Champaign and Mahomet, which use an online placement system, the Urbana school district uses the Champaign Telephone Company to make calls for substitutes.) I was glad to have an assignment, especially since I had just had two days of no work due to the weather. I had also heard good things about the Urbana district in general, and Leal specifically, so I was expecting to have a great day in a new building and a new district.

What I was not expecting was to experience a substitute teacher’s worst nightmare. Not unruly children. Not profanities. Not arson and/or defenestration. No, this was worse.

I entered the building and was greeted by the office staff and helped to find my classroom by some other teachers. I entered the room, and saw a room nicely organised and tastefully decorated. I went to the teacher’s desk expecting to find a class list, directions on how to take care of attendance, lunch counts, and a classroom management plan and, of course, the oh-so-important lesson plans.

I found none of these items. I started to worry. I looked around the room, thinking maybe they were on another table or near the computers. No such luck. Then I started to panic. I scoured the room, and there was nothing. Nada. Zilch. I was not prepared for this, and I had no idea what to do. None of the other teachers in the hall were even at their rooms, and the students were going to be entering the building any minute. What to do, what to do???

Then the principal walked in. He introduced himself, started to show me around, gave a few pointers, and didn’t notice my look of panic. So I did something I try never to do: I interrupted him. I said, “Um… there aren’t any sub plans!” He paused and said, “Really? Oh, she usually emails them. Wait. She would have sent them to me, and my email is down. I’ll try to find out.” He then pointed out that there is a student teacher who would be arriving soon and an aide who would be there all morning. The panicking started to wane. The student teacher would know what was going on, right?

She came in and had no plans. She had a general outline of how the day would go, but that was all. The principal came back and said that the teacher said the student teacher had the plans. So we improvised some. Quickly, efficiently, and on a prayer. PE first thing. Then reading groups until lunch. After lunch, math, then Music, then more math. Science at the end of the day. We can do this. We are going to do this! Woo!

And that’s exactly what we did. The day was incredibly smooth. The students were great. They had no clue that there were no plans for the day. (We aren’t crazy or stupid enough to tell children that!) They participated, they laughed, they asked relevant questions, one boy cried a few times in the morning because (apparently) I was mean to him (I told him that he is not supposed to do a Cub Scout salute during the pledge unless he is in his Cub Scout uniform–oops). Everyone had a great day, and the students all asked if I was going to be back tomorrow. I told them I didn’t know, but I hoped to see them again soon.

After chatting with the student teacher (who did a phenomenal job) and offering pointers on job searching, resume and cover letter writing, and how to get strong references, we talked about what tomorrow would be like in case the regular teacher wasn’t back, she left and I wrote up my note for the day. On my way out, I learned that the teacher was still sick, and I offered to come in for her again tomorrow. The sub line called me, verified that I would be there, and I left knowing that tomorrow would be even better than today.

Because tomorrow, we will have a plan.

Oh. Em. Gee.

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. That’s right, folks. High school. Land of the crazed teenagers. Land of young men and women who are bigger than me and who frighten me. Land that I swore two and a half years ago that I would never visit again. I decided that the Mahomet-Seymour schools are probably different enough from the Champaign schools that I would take the risk of feeling utterly helpless and accept an assignment as a high school English teacher again.

I am not kidding when I say that today was quite possibly one of the best days I have ever had as a substitute teacher. The students were intelligent, clever, witty, respectful, and earnest in all things. Even the sophomores who were in my room playing chess today were fun. I have had many positive experiences as a teacher, and I continue to love teaching the students in the upper primary grades, but today was a new adventure for me, and one that I hope to repeat many times again.

The students in my classes were mostly juniors, which places them in the 16-17-year-old category. Many of them were also in the honors program, which means that they are (supposedly) in more advanced classes. However, I also had a regular-track English class and they were just as much of a joy to teach as the others. The topic for the day was Edgar Alan Poe’s classic poem, “The Raven”. After the students took a brief quiz, they had a classroom discussion, moderated by three of their classmates, seemingly picked at random by their teacher.

It was amazing to listen to their discussions and debates. Even though many of the students did not have a strong grasp on the symbolism and hidden references found in the poem, they were able to find their own interpretation of the poem and discuss it in an intelligent, well-thought out manner. They also joked with me just as much as I joked with them. I loved being able to point out some of the cultural references in the poem and relate them to experiences they have today, but I loved even more hearing them draw their own conclusions.

The last class of the day had a very spirited debate about the general interpretation of the poem, as well as Poe’s motivation for writing it. It was awesome hearing their varying viewpoints and then to listen to them debate among each other, take sides, change sides, and really try to understand how the poem could be relevant to them. At one point, someone pointed out that they would need to figure out what the “right” interpretation was, because their teacher often asks a question about it on the test, and the only way to get it right is to describe what he considers to be the “right” interpretation. I hope I haven’t set in motion a large-scale rebellion in his classroom, but I told them about Louise Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (which I often mistakenly refer to as the Transactional Theory of Literary Criticism, but the meaning is the same). This education theory states that the reader puts his or her own experiences into a story or poem and uses that as the foundation for the interpretation. This in turn means that every single individual will, because of his or her own unique experiences, have a unique interpretation of the work. The high school students were ecstatic to learn of something they could use to refute what they considered to be an unfair process in grading by their teacher. I was sure to let him know the context of why I shared this with them (mainly that they were heatedly arguing about different interpretations of the poem) so that he wouldn’t be completely blindsided when they ambush him with their new knowledge.  Some of them even wrote it down so they could learn more.

As I finished my day and got into my car, I had only one thought: “Oh. My. Goodness. Today. Was. Awesome!” (And yes, I really thought each word as its own sentence.) I am actually looking forward to teaching at Mahomet-Seymour High School again. I’d love to work with the students of the other grade levels, particularly since I know so may of them through my church anyway (I had three in my classes today). So, while I will continue to stay as far away from the high schools in Champaign and Urbana as possible, I can finally cheerfully look forward to teaching high schoolers.

Conquering Fears

Today I was an 8th grade reading/language arts teacher at Edison Middle School. Even before I accepted this assignment, I began to tremble in fear. You see, I have a not-so-secret fear of teaching anyone in 8th grade or beyond, at least in the public school system. (After high school, the fear disappears.) I am not sure what all has contributed to this fear, although I am positive that at least part of it is the fact that most 8th graders are taller than me–at least the boys are. It is also probably due to the fact that 13-14-year-olds have finally realised the great secret to being a student in a class: the teacher only has as much power and authority as the class wants to give him or her.

And so it was that I hesitantly accepted the assignment to teach 8th graders. These are students who were in 5th grade when I began student teaching. But I don’t know any of the students at Edison in 8th grade, except for a couple of them who I know through church. Yet I have braved far worse things that 8th graders. I have braved, and survived, the dreaded kindergarten classroom–the room where kids cry and suck their thumbs and try to hug the teacher. So I figured it was time to face my fear.

I am glad that I did! The 8th graders I taught were witty, intelligent, fun young men and young women. They were earnest in their questions, honest about their opinions, and open to listening to what I had to share. Many of the class periods were working on plot maps (a concept that I find just barely on this side of inane) and reading short stories by the great American author Edgar Alan Poe. As soon as I realised this, I knew I could win these teenagers in a heartbeat. All it took was a reference to Mr. Poe’s ignoble death from alcoholism or drug overdose. A quick description of the author lying in the gutter, wearing someone else’s clothing, and incoherently yelling out, “Reynolds! Reynolds!” and I had them. It was smooth sailing after that. I was able to teach them about the concept of the serial novella, and helped them draw connections to serial stories today, such as “Harry Potter” and the “39 Clues” series. And, hey, I was even able to make it through a description of the plot map, and why it does serve some use in understanding the outline of a story.

So, while I am still terrified of teaching high schoolers, I am no longer afraid of teaching 8th graders. None of them bite, none of them tried to tie me to a chair and throw desks out the ridiculously large windows that Edison classrooms have, and none of them set the room on fire. I look forward to going back and seeing these kids again!