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


Maintaining Dignity

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I was just there a week ago with these classes and had a most wonderful experience. I was looking forward to returning, and not just because the high school was observing Teacher Appreciation Week this week instead of last, so I was able to participate in a delicious luncheon provided by the PTA.

I was asked to come in early to sub for another teacher for a class period before starting my scheduled assignment, which I gladly agreed to do. It was for one of the resource teachers (equivalent to cross-categorical special education). Her class consisted of five boys and, for unfathomable reasons, it was determined that they would watch Confessions of a Shopaholic during class. The boys ignored the movie while I read my book on balanced literacy.

During my freshmen reading classes, I was once again successful in getting the entire class to actually do what was assigned: read for 30 minutes then fill out a simple reading summary log. The first class entertained themselves by asking questions about me, including what my wife does, my first name (I told them when they accurately guessed it), and the types of music I enjoy listening to. One of them tracked me down on Facebook and requested me as a friend. I told him that I do not accept friend requests from current students, but I’d be glad to leave the request there until either he graduates or I am no longer teaching there.

It was during the second class that I was challenged to maintain my dignity, which I am glad to say that I did. I had one boy who decided to hide behind a cabinet and make weird noises. I ignored him and he eventually gave up. Three students (a boy and two girls) kept making noises with their bodies (I won’t elaborate further) and giggling. I looked up a few times, made eye contact, and they apologised and stopped. One boy, though, wanted to go to the office to get ibuprofen for a headache. There were only 10 minutes remaining in the class period, so I told him to wait. He decided to go anyway. He walked out the door, went around the corner, and then poked his head back. Apparently he thought I was going to chase after him.

I decided that it was beneath my dignity to chase a 15-year-old boy through the halls of the high school while I had a class working, so I let him go and reported it to his teacher, who happened to be in the building today. I am quite certain that there will be disciplinary action taken against him. He probably doesn’t care, but there are times when I have to pick my battles, and this was definitely one I chose to leave alone.

Despite the silliness of a few, though, I had a great day, and enjoyed getting to know the students better. I may not teach them again, but I am learning from them what I should and should not share with my students, which is always a valuable bit of knowledge.

Have a great weekend!


Kickin’ It, Old-School

Today I was a Earth Science & Biology teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time at MSHS lately, each time because I was requested either by a teacher or the administration. That’s pretty awesome–especially when taking into account the fact that I just started subbing in the district just a hair over six months ago!

Several of the students noticed that I got my hair cut and commented on how nice it looks. I am still continuing my campaign to convince students that I did not, have never, and do not now have an Afro. It is a losing battle, I am sure, but, seriously folks: curly hair does not an Afro make!

So my day went something like this:

  • 1st period: Watch a 40-minute movie about the deadliest planets in the Solar System. [Spoiler: They’re all deadly, except for Earth.]
  • 2nd period: Attempt to watch the same movie, but spend 20 minutes getting the VHS tape cued back to the right spot. (It hadn’t been zeroed when I started, apparently.) Spend the remainder of the period watching what we could.
  • 3rd period: Watch the movie again.
  • 4th period: Plan/Prep/Lunch
  • 5th period: Watch the movie yet again. Fourth time for me, first time for the students.
  • 6th period: Biology! Students are reviewing for a quiz tomorrow. I think they are freshmen, although they are all approximately 10 feet taller than me (even the girls). Okay, maybe not that tall, but, seriously, what’s up with 14-15-year-olds being so tall???
  • 7th period: Plan/Prep, I guess. There actually wasn’t anything in the plans about it.

Now, I am all for using multimedia presentations to complement lesson plans. On the other hand, I dread when they are used as supplements. There was a time in our nation’s history, not too long ago either, when the role of a substitute teacher was simply to push play on the VCR after the first bell rang, push stop before lunch, then push play and push stop again during the afternoon. Thankfully, this is generally no longer the case. I love my job as substitute teacher because it allows me to be a teacher! But days like today are hard for me; they drag on and on and on as I get ever so much more bored watching the same thing over and over and over again!

But I have to be honest: the movie was new for the students in each class. And it worked as a great introduction to the final project of the year, which is a planet study to learn more about what makes the Earth so darned special when compared to the other planets in our star system. But for me, it was dreadfully dull, and I couldn’t even get on the computer or read my book–the former because I had no access and the latter because I left it in a different classroom.

Oh well. I still got paid for today, and I still got to make some use of my teaching skills: The biology students were complaining about having to pay $1.25 for a bottle of soda from the school vending machines when the same beverage is only $0.99 at the nearby gas station. I told them it was all about supply-and-demand, and since they are providing the demand, the suppliers will charge whatever they want. I then suggested that if they convinced everyone in the school to boycott the soda machines until the prices went down, maybe they could see a change. I doubt that would happen but hey, why not start them on the path of social change now?

I’ll just file this under “Things to Avoid” in my “Things to Remember as a Full-Time Teacher” files.

Recovering from Tests

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. This was a return assignment, specifically requested by not only the teacher, but also the secretary to the principal. For those who don’t know, I recently subbed for this teacher and reportedly managed to teach in one day what two other subs had been unable to do–as the teacher herself told me a week ago, “[I] did three days’ worth of teaching in one day!” I am going to be with these classes again tomorrow, as the teacher is away on an overnight student council retreat (I didn’t really catch what was going on).

If you know any students or teachers within the public education system, you are surely aware that standardised testing has been underway throughout the nation. Many teachers with blogs have been writing about this. For example, there is this teacher in New Jersey or this teacher in Texas. As a general rule, I have avoided the stress of high-stakes testing, mostly because few teachers are out of school when the tests are being administered. However, today was the day that the Advanced Placement English exam was administered, so the students in two of my four periods were busy all morning sweating bullets while hoping and praying they will score high enough to get credit for a university-level course. They have been working hard all year in preparation for this test, so their teacher promised them that there would be no work for them this afternoon.

As a result of this, my afternoon went something like this: After taking attendance (and noting that half the class had left school after the test), I told them that they could watch a movie, vent about the test, or just talk. I further suggested that they could really do anything they wanted, provided they didn’t: a) set the room on fire, b) throw anything or anyone out the window, or c) go all Lord of the Flies on me. Both classes readily agreed to this plan.

The first class looked at the movie selections left by their teacher, and decided none were satisfactory. (Their choices were Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, a different Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God.) So they took the pass, went to the library, and found a copy of Pride and Prejudice (the new version, starring Keira Knightley).

The second class spent the first half of the period watching videos of Man Cooking on YouTube–I didn’t quite figure out how they were accessing the Internet through the laptop, but I think one of them was using his phone as a wireless hotspot. Bright kids, the lot of them. (I should point out that it isn’t really a very appropriate video…) Eventually they got bored with that, and decided to watch Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff.

I should insert at this point that they had just recently finished reading the book, and so there was quite a bit of confusion during the movie, since it doesn’t really follow Mary Shelley’s book at all.

Still, they had a fun time and they definitely enjoyed having time to recover from the high-stakes testing they did. Tomorrow we will get started on their final project of the year but for today, it was a relaxing time for all.

Word Origins

Today is Sunday, but I felt like making a brief blog post about something I recently learned in one of my vocational texts. I am reading about balanced literacy, in terms of philosophy and practice, and one of the sections discusses the mechanics of teaching writing. In so doing, the author makes this point about spelling conventions:

Some words are phonetic. Several are not. And there are some words that used to be phonetic but, due to being truncated, they have acquired silent letters that are purely semantic, rather than having any syntactic relevance. For example:

  • The g in sign is silent for no other reason than sign is a truncated form of the word signature.
  • Likewise, the silent b in bomb exists simply because the word is derived from bombardment.

I don’t know why I didn’t know this before, or, rather, why I wasn’t aware of it. Ah, English, what a strange mistress you are.

Outsmarting the System

Today I was an 8th grade science teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am now just 9 teachers away from subbing for 50% of the teaching staff at this school! I am not sure if I’ll be able to pull it off, with less than 30 school days remaining in the year, but it is still pretty awesome.

The students I worked with were pretty good, and they were all working quite hard, even the ones who typically slack off in every class. There was only one class in which I had any problems, and that was an afternoon “FLEX Period” which is kind of like a focused study hall. I don’t know what the focus was supposed to be when I was there today, though, but we went to the computer lab where the students were given the following very clear instructions from their teacher:

No music sites (videos or audio), no random web surfing, and no inappropriate sites (i.e. sites that should be blocked by the school’s CIPA filter). The only sites they should be on were Study Island, Google Earth, or FreeRice. It is also generally acceptable for them to go to school-appropriate game sites like Fun Brain or Cool Math Games.

What is not acceptable is to circumvent the filters to get onto Facebook.

So of course the students at Edison Middle School have learned that just because is blocked by the filters, there is no reason to assume that is, as well. Which, for some silly reason, it isn’t. Which, in turn, led to me repeating telling two students to get off of Facebook.

So they closed the window and, as soon as I was out of view, opened it up again, but kept it hidden on their screen.

Silly children. They really think I don’t know their tricks? I told them to close it again, and then positioned myself in a spot in the room where I could see their screens at all times, and still see what everyone else was doing. Unless, of course, I happened to turn away for a moment.

When I did, these children once again tried to sneak it open. So after three warnings, I told them that if they went onto Facebook again, they were going to the Discipline Office. One of them took me seriously and actually stopped playing around. The other, though, waited about fifteen minutes, then went right back to doing what she wasn’t supposed to be doing. I immediately buzzed the office and told them what was going on and why she was being sent up.

Funny thing: apparently the students didn’t think about the fact that telling me how they are outsmarting the system would result in me passing on this juicy bit of information. Which I did. So now, hopefully, the secure-server version of Facebook will also be blocked by the filters. Sure, these bright young men and women who can’t figure out how to turn assignments in on time will probably figure out another way to circumvent the filters, but their teachers will still find out and will still put more blocks in place. Even though the teachers would love to have access to these sites. But when the students can’t show self-control, the harsher restrictions have to be put in place.


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!

Presidents’ Day

Today is Presidents’ Day in the United States (and, possibly coincidentally, Family Day in many parts of Canada), so there was no work. While I have typically used my days off to work on my philosophy of education, I’ve decided to make this a real holiday. (I did spend a goodly portion of the day working on job applications for five positions in four counties.) Anyway, here’s a video to amuse you on this day when we theoretically honour the many men who have served as presumed leader of the free world:

Skip ahead to 3:45 to hear the actual tribute.

Happy Presidents’ Day!