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

Fourth Grade

New Adventures, New Blog!

Many have asked–okay, only one, actually, but it sounds better to say many–and I have responded!

I will continue to blog my experiences as an educator, but I am moving everything to a new site. Actually, I’ve already moved the content; I just need to sit down with the missus and have her do the awesome designy stuff she does. (It is possible that this will simply entail changing the title in my current header… we shall see.)

Anyway, after much internal debate and mutterings against those who are squatting on the domain name I wanted to use, I have decided that I with henceforth be blogging at Adventures in Teaching Fourth, found at Please update your bookmarks and come on by! I should be having a new post up shortly describing my adventures in organising my classroom with just two weeks of prep!

And with that, I really am done updating Adventures in Substituting – cheerio!


The End of a Journey

For the first time in a very long time, I find myself struggling with words. How do I start this? What do I say? How do I say it? I usually write in a kind of extemporaneous way, with a general idea fixed in my but nothing specifically planned. But all of my words seem to come out too cliche and unoriginal.

Many of you who come to read my blog are also friends on Facebook and/or followers on Twitter, or you may be one of my family members who actually reads this. So most of you know already. But I have a hunch that I have a few lurkers who are none of the above.

I guess I can take my advice from The Sound of Music and just start at the very beginning. Well, okay, not the very beginning, but close enough to the beginning for my purposes.

The past couple of weeks have been quite busy ones for me. I had several job interviews, I started a new job, then started another new job, quit the first, and kept preparing for interviews. I heard back from the first interview quite quickly and learned the position had been filled. I came out of the second interview feeling lackluster about it. I didn’t think I had presented myself very well. I was upset with myself because the latter job was very much the job I have been looking for. However, I have a policy of not writing off an interview until I hear back from the interviewer.

So imagine my surprise when I got a call on Monday morning asking if I would be willing to come in for a second interview the following day.

I thought about what I needed to do to prepare for a second interview and realised that I had no idea. You see, I’ve never had a second interview before. I’ve either been hired on the basis of a first interview or I’ve never been called back. I was told that the interview would be fairly informal, just the principal and myself and maybe another teacher. The principal made a point that I did not need to get “all dressed up” or wear a suit. So I donned my brown leather shoes, light brown slacks, blue dress shirt, and my awesome Utahraptor tie my baby sister got me for Christmas. It is one of my favourite ties, and I wanted to show the principal the kind of attire she could expect me to wear every day at work.

I arrived for the interview and was shown around the school, including the room would possibly be mine. We talked about classroom management, education philosophies, best practices, and other esoteric topics that fascinate me but probably bore those not deeply invested in the education profession. Then we returned to her office and continued our discussions. She told me about the goals of the school, including their efforts to become a fine arts and international studies building without becoming a fine arts or international studies program. I shared my experiences living in Australia and my networking with other teachers across the nation and in other countries. I also talked a little bit about my missionary work in California and how it related to my teaching.

After about an hour (during which the other teacher never arrived), the other candidate arrived, so we had to end our interview. And it was our interview. The principal wanted to know what I wanted from her and her school, since I was shopping for a school as much as she was shopping for a teacher. On my way out, I greeted the other candidate, who happened to be the student teacher I’d worked with at Stratton while subbing for the 4th grade (gifted) teacher. That was when I realised that I was one of only two candidates being considered for the job. I left feeling considerably better about how I presented myself and about the job in general.

It was at 11:13 am CDT that I got the phone call that has, in no uncertain terms, changed my life. After saying hello and exchanging the requisite “how are you” queries, I heard this words: “Alex, I would like to invite you to join our team here at Wiley, if you are interested.”

Holy freaking cow!

After well over 1,000 applications to posting in over 350 districts in the state of Illinois, not to mention the many applications sent across the nation last summer, I finally found my new home.

My new home isn’t even that far from my current home. Wiley Elementary School (home of the coyotes, as my oldest brother was so kind to find out and tell me) is located in Urbana, Illinois, which is home to one of the three districts to have utilised me as a substitute teacher last year. Admittedly, I was only in Urbana twice, and it wasn’t at Wiley, but it is still one of those districts to have had me on their lists. So in addition to the wonderful joy of having a full-time teaching position after three years of searching, I have a full-time teaching position in my own community of Champaign-Urbana!


To be fair, she was at work, and may not have been fully aware of the sequence of events of the day. So when I got off the phone I called her and told her. Then I got the response I had expected: she squealed, told her coworkers, and said, “Oh my God… Oh my God… Oh my God! Honey, that’s great!” Ah, understatements, how I love thee!

I made Gretch promise not to say anything online until I had finished calling parents, which didn’t take me long. I called my mum, who didn’t answer, then my dad, who didn’t answer, then repeated until I got through to one then the other. I called Gretch’s mum, who was instrumental in me getting an interview, and then I let Gretch know that she could announce it to the world. I had already posted it on Facebook and Twitter, and, I’ll be honest: I have been shocked by the response! I knew a lot of people were waiting for such good news, but I didn’t realise how many there were! I’m not even sure if a positive pregnancy announcement (whenever that happens) will generate as much response!

Several more phone calls and emails were exchanged with my new principal. I will be attending new teacher orientation on Monday and Tuesday, and then new employee orientation on Tuesday afternoon. I am heading over to my building to see my room (MY ROOM!) and start unpacking. Tomorrow morning I will be going in to get keys and work more on the room.

Oh, and school starts in two weeks. No pressure there, right?

So now I think I’ll start a new blog (Adventures in Fourth Grade, perhaps) in a couple of weeks, unless I feel compelled to write sooner, which will almost certainly happen, and just import all of these posts to make sure they have a home. Of course, all new blog entries will be posted on the various social networking sites, and I hope you’ll continue to come by and see what kind of crazy adventures I’m having! Thank you, one and all, for your love and support. Best of luck to my fellow substitute teachers, wherever you may be and whatever paths you choose to take! I’ll continue to keep up with your blogs!

In the meantime, I am off to explore my building and figure out what the heck I’m supposed to do next! My next blog post will be from whatever my new blog will be called.


Interviews VI, VII and VIII

I don’t know why I didn’t blog about my interview on Wednesday, nor do I know why I have put off blogging about today’s interview, but I guess I should do it to keep my running record of my professional life going. Because this is a bit over 1,400 words, I’m going to put a break in here, just to keep my home screen from being overwhelmed by this post.


Interview V

As you are probably aware, I have applied for well over 1,000 jobs at more than 300 schools/districts/consortiums across Illinois. Nearly every one of the applications has been submitted using the AppliTrack system, which is an excellent bit of software that allows districts to collect and sort job applications online. Last year, I discovered, which is an aggregate site that culls all of the AppliTrack sites in the nation and puts them in one place. This has made it incredibly easy for me to apply for jobs, particularly since I can import applications and thus skip the tedious task of filling out all of the information each time.

The vast majority of job postings in Illinois are grouped near Cook and Lake counties, which are essentially what is known as Chicagoland–all of the districts in the greater Chicago area that are not part of Chicago Public Schools (they are a separate entity from the rest of the state). Alas, this also means that everyone wants to work there. For example, I applied for one opening in the North Ridge area. I received an email that informed me that, regrettably, I was not selected among the more than 1,000 applicants.


But I’ve continued to apply for every self-contained, general education (SCGE) teaching position I could find from 2nd to 6th grade (I don’t really want to teach kindergarten or 1st grade and few schools have SCGE classes after 6th grade). Which is why I applied for a couple jobs in Matteson School District 162 on June 16 and again on July 1. According to my records, I applied for a 5th grade opening and a 6th grade opening.

Two days ago, on Sunday (July 10) I received an email informing me I had been selected to interview for a 4th grade teaching position at Sauk Elementary School in the Matteson district. I was informed that the principal would be conducting interviews today (the 12th) from 8 am to 1 pm and to contact him to schedule a time. I wasn’t at all concerned that I hadn’t actually applied for a 4th grade position, mostly because I had indicated an interest in any intermediate position available. So something about my application caught his attention.

At the same time, I was already scheduled to substitute for one of Champaign’s high school summer school classes on Tuesday. (More on this later.) I determined that it would take me approximately two hours to drive to Ricthon Park from Champaign, and I didn’t want to pass up one more subbing opportunity. So I did what any sane, rational, job-seeking person would do:

I asked that he schedule my interview for the first time slot.

So I woke up this morning around 5 am, ate, dressed, attended to hygiene, kissed my wife goodbye, and headed off around 6 am to fill up the gas tank before making my trek to Richton Park. The drive actually only two about an hour and a half, so I got there much earlier than necessary. I killed time by driving around the immediate neighbourhood and checking on Twitter updates. At 8:15, I went in and was seen by the principal immediately.

The interview went very well, I think. The principal (a former teacher at Champaign Centennial, coincidentally), asked me about my approach to standardised tests, classroom management, repeat offenders, parental contact, and differentiation. He was brief and to the point, and my responses were in kind. Then he told me about his school district: 98% African-American, pure chaos when he arrived six years ago, with test scores in the bottom 70%. A year later, he suggested that students wear navy or black pants and white shirts (but no formal dress code or school uniform was made). Everyone complied. Discipline problems have gone way down, academic success has gone  way up. The parents are extremely supportive, too, but they also work a lot, so they can’t be there every day. However, the school hosts an annual Dads’ Day, in which over 250 fathers in the community attend, some of whom don’t even have kids in the school! The test scores are now in the low-to-mid-80s, but they need to go higher. The focus will be on literacy and mathematics (woo hoo!) but without excluding science, social studies, health, etc. Literacy will be taught across the curriculum (double woo hoo!) and the teachers are encouraged to do whatever it takes to reach their students.

This is where I want to work. A district with challenges, but the resources to tackle the challenges head-on. No excuses, take no prisoners, give it all you go, go big or go home. It isn’t about machismo or teaching to the test, or anything like that. It is about helping the boys and girls in this school become young men and young women, literate and ready for the challenges ahead of them. It is awesome, it is enthusiastic, it is positive. It is what I want to be a part of.

Is Matteson 162 the only district in the state like this? No, of course not. But their principal gave me the chance to interview and to discuss how I might be an advantage to his community. As with some other districts, I would be thrilled to work there. He said I should hear back from him on Friday. I am praying I get a phone call from the 708 area code on Friday that will have good news!

(Oh, and we would be much closer to many of our friends in the prevention field–always an added bonus!)


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!

Scrabble and Being Awesome

Today I was a 4th grade teacher at Lincoln Trail Elementary in Mahomet. I had originally been assigned as a floating substitute for the day, with the plan that I would be teaching 4th grade in the morning and 5th grade in the afternoon. The teachers for both classes were going to be in the building, busily administering DIBELS tests to their students. I arrived in the morning, was shown where I needed to be, and got started.

The students at Lincoln Trail continue to astound me with their training and self-motivation. They entered the room and immediately went through the morning routine of selecting lunch choices, reciting the pledge, taking attendance and the lunch count, and running messages to the office. All I did was stand by and wait for them to notice that they had a substitute. (Okay, so they noticed right away, but it didn’t faze them.)

Lincoln Trail has a program called LEAP, which allows students to receive specialised instruction in different areas. I don’t know what the needs are of the students I had today, but they played Scrabble during the 30-minute period. It was really interesting walking around the room as the students played games of Scrabble in groups of three or four. Many students favoured short words (3-4 letters), but a few attempted longer words. They also played with 9 tiles at a time instead of the traditional 7. I was impressed by how well they played against each other and how intent they were on monitoring one another’s spelling. Of course, there were a few times that a misspelled word made it onto the board, such as tumb instead of tomb, sagga instead of saga, and neel instead of kneel. All of these are words that do not fit the typical phoneme-grapheme conventions that are taught in the early grades, though, so I wasn’t too surprised.

In the midst of this, I was informed that there had been a change of plans for the day. The teacher for whom I was subbing had to leave unexpectedly to travel to Peoria to visit her father in the hospital. I was asked to stay with the class for the day. No problem. After all, this is me. I wouldn’t say that I am the best substitute ever (although several students would), but I do not hesitate to say that I am the Grade A Top Choice of substitute teachers. Heck, I’m the guy who is known as being one of the few subs willing to return to certain buildings in Champaign that rarely have the same sub twice. I’m the guy who once subbed three times in the classroom of a teacher who had, quite honestly, the worst class I have ever seen in my life. The response of her colleagues when I came back: “Wait, haven’t you subbed for her before? And you came back?!” So yeah, over the past three years, I have come to acknowledge that I have a particular knack for this job.

So even though I had no lesson plans for the afternoon, and the teacher’s plans for the day were somewhat vague, as most teachers’ personal plans are, I managed to have an excellent day with my 26 young charges. I even had several of them give me a high five on the way out the door and ask if I was going to be back tomorrow. Alas, I am teaching at the high school tomorrow and, besides, the class is going on a field trip to Chicago and, rather than throw a sub to the wolves, the principal is going to go. Still, I’d be glad to return to this class again. I’d totally take the entire class on in an epic game of Scrabble. It would be awesome.

“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!)