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

First Grade

Hulk Rage

Today I was a first grade teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary in Champaign. I actually worked with this class several months ago, and I’d had a fairly decent experience. I have a general belief that classes improve over time, but this was not true for today.

In fact, the class was considerably worse than they had been at the beginning of the year. Instead of having one or two students challenging limits and pushing buttons, I had nine out of seventeen. It was chaotic and nearly unmanageable.

Their teacher uses the lights in the classroom as a signal for the students to reset (stop, think about what they are doing, and start making better choices). Every teacher has a different management plan, and I try to follow each plan as best as I can. At first, the class responded well to the lights being turned off: they all got back in their seats, stopped what they were doing, and put their heads down. But then they would go right back to misbehaving after the lights were turned back on.

I tried to demonstrate that I was serious about the need for them to reset, and so I stopped everything again by turning off the lights. Of course, as soon as the lights went back on, so did the misbehaviour. And I can’t exactly have a class work all day in the dark. So the day was stop, go, stop, go, stop, go.

All. Day. Long.

After lunch, things were even worse. All of a sudden I had pencils, pens, markers, erasers, toys, and tissue boxes flying across the room. I tried some of my other methods of management: I simply sat down and refused to respond to any students until everyone stopped what they were doing. This works really well with most classes.

Not so much with this one. Things got worse. And worse. And worse.

And then the name calling started. Followed by the profanities.

Did I mention that these kids are in first grade? They are all about seven years old. And yet they were swearing at each other. It completely blew my mind.

And so I blew up at them. Actually, I just made it sound like I blew up. I was in complete control and knew exactly what I was saying and how I was saying it. They stopped then. Hoo boy, did they stop. But I hate when I have to raise my voice, and I hate it even more when I have to actually yell. But when everything else fails and I start to fear for the safety of the students in my classroom, I don’t have time to clap my hands, turn off the lights, or talk sweetly. And so I have to turn on the Hulk Rage:


Well, it worked for a couple of minutes. Then, just before the class went all crazy again, the assistant principal came in.

Because she could hear me.

From her office.

Across the building.

She talked to the class, threatened to haul some of them off to her office, and then left. About a minute later, I had to call for her to come back and take one of the boys. I was tempted to ask her to take four more, but I wanted to see what would happen with the biggest instigator gone.

It seemed to work. I finally had the class working for the last 45 minutes of the day.

I don’t say it often, but today is definitely a TGIF day. Also, we have a nice three-day weekend ahead of us. I’m ready for a long break!


Movies and Cupcakes

Today I was a 1st grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. The assignment was only two and a half hours long. I would normally turn down such an assignment, as I prefer to work for a full day, but I had no assignment this morning, so it worked out quite well for me. And I was able to come in at last minute for a teacher who needed to take her daughter to the doctor to treat a nasty bout of warts on her foot.

The students had PE first thing when I arrived, then they were watching a movie with the rest of the first graders as part of a Earth Day celebrations. The movie was the Disney Nature film, Oceans. After the movie, we came back to the classroom where we celebrated a birthday for one of the girls in the class. With such an easy afternoon, you’d think that everything would have gone really well.

Unfortunately, it was the Thursday before a 4-day weekend, and the students all over the building were a bit antsy. The class did not do too well in PE (they got 2 points out of the 5 possible). There was a lot of talking during the movie, despite numerous warnings from the other first grade teachers. And then I had a lot of kids running around the room during birthday treats. All of this was after their teachers had talked to them a lot about good behaviour and rewards for meeting expectations. Of course, they are in first grade, which means most of them are 6 or 7 years old, and they are still learning self-control. But I have seen these first graders demonstrate the ability to do what is expected before, so I know they can do it again.

Brilliance on the Fly

Today I was a first grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign during the afternoon. I was certain I’d blogged about this class before but when I couldn’t find anything, I had to go back and look at my calendar. It turns out the last time I taught in this class was six months ago (October 8). I didn’t start writing this blog until the 14th, which is why they haven’t made it into here yet. This was my second time subbing for this particular teacher, but my third time in the class, because the two Reading Recovery teachers split their duties–one teaches the class in the morning and does RR in the afternoon, the other does RR in the morning and teaches the afternoon.

The class has a lot of wonderful, intelligent, sweet kids in it, and I would have loved to go back sooner, but my schedule was such that when the teachers needed a sub, I was already assigned elsewhere. I was excited to be back with them and was shocked to realise I still knew most of their names. It only took me a few minutes to recall all of them. Go me, right?!

So one of the things I have noticed as a substitute is that some teachers have a habit of giving extremely detailed lesson plans that outline the entire day down to the minute. These plans often expect far more content to be taught than is possible, but it makes sure that the subs don’t run into awkward periods of not knowing what to do. Other teachers provide extremely bare-bones plans that assume that a five-minute activity will take the entire class period. (A high school student I know in Elgin, Illinois, regularly experiences this and complains to me all the time that her teachers don’t leave better plans.) The plans today were fairly well balanced in the middle, but some of the activities leaned toward the over-estimated the time required side.

Of course, I didn’t let this bother me. If nothing else, this entire week has been one of me acting quickly on my feet and keeping things moving. This is why I get paid the big bucks, right? (I wish!) The first assignment for the day was for the students to do a handwriting worksheet (remember, these are first graders). Some of them got done right away and wanted to know what to do next. I wasn’t about to have them start on the next assignment and quickly find myself with 20 boys and girls each doing something different, so I thought quickly and said, “All right, here’s what I want you to do: turn the paper to the backside and write a note to [your teacher] telling her what you did today. You can also draw her a picture.” Soon I had everyone doing this (the plans had expected the handwriting to take 15 minutes, and just everyone was done in under 10). I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Instead of writing a few words about lunch or recess, the students wrote about reading independently, reading to a partner, writing stories, and learning about outer space. Several also asked their teacher if she was feeling well and told her how much they love having her teach first grade. I should have snapped a picture of some of them but that didn’t occur to me until I got home.

Still, it was a great way to not just fill the time, but to fill it with a worthwhile activity. The students were able to practice handwriting, spelling, letter-writing, and communication rather than just colouring or, worse, having nothing to do and wandering around the room bugging other students. Instead, the students were busily engaged in meaningful work as they applied things they have been learning all year long. It was both awesome and a great way to wrap up the week!

A Lone Man

Today I was a reading specialist at Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet. I’ve only taught at Sangamon one other time, which was back in November, and I had a great experience, as I have had every time I’ve taught in Mahomet. So I was looking forward to returning to the school.

My day consisted of listening to 1st and 2nd grade students read quietly to themselves, then practice writing sight words on marker boards. They also played some matching games the teacher had created, which simply reinforced their awareness of sight words. Not a tough day at all. It was actually a fairly good experience working with these kids, and I look forward to when I can return.

I had an odd experience when I was standing by my door, though. The students in the halls would pause when they saw me and then crane their necks to keep looking at me as long as they could. It took me a while to figure out why. You see, of all the faculty and staff at Sangamon, there are only two men: the principal and one of the custodians. So when the students see a male teacher, they see an oddity. It is very similar to when I was doing my student teaching in Paxton. The smaller school districts in more rural areas tend to have fewer male teachers. I’m not sure why that is, though. I have always known that I would be a minority in my profession. It is kind of strange when I am the only man.

Such is my job, though. Some days I am surrounded by men, other days I am surrounded by women. However, one thing remains the same: I am always surrounded by professionals who take their jobs seriously and want the very best for their young charges.