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.