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

Language Arts

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!)

A Chorus of Huzzahs

Today I was a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. I have subbed for both of the 6th grade Language Arts teachers recently, although this time I was there for the teacher that has only used me once before. It was a good experience, and I fully expected today to be another great afternoon as MSJH.

I was slightly delayed leaving for work, though, so I made it to class with about a minute to spare before the bell rang. Having only been there once before, I don’t really know these classes all that well. They have seen me in the halls, and I’ve been there for a couple of their other teachers but, by and large, I just don’t know them very well. Certainly not as well as I know the other 6th graders who have Language Arts across the hall.

So I was quite unprepared for the reception I received when I walked into the room. Most of the class was already there, sitting quietly in their seats while waiting for their teacher to arrive. There was a sudden spontaneous chorus of huzzahs (possibly hurrahs or even hoorays), clapping, and yells like, “YES! Mr. V! Woo hoo!” and “Awesome! It’s my favourite sub!” As I walked the halls of MSJH, students said hello, asked how I was doing, and welcomed me. Once again, I am reminded of how well-regarded I am as a teacher, and particularly as a substitute teacher.

After I got home, I checked on the various education-related blogs that I have started following recently, and I saw this interesting post about whether or not substituting is, in some ways, a popularity contest. This was my response:

Subbing is absolutely a popularity contest! But it is a popularity based on willingness to follow a teacher’s plans, demonstrating excellent classroom management, and makes the best of the time. Quality subs are also able to connect with the students, so that the class will ask the teacher to have him or her return.

I have been fortunate enough to sub nearly every single working day this entire school year, primarily in two districts. The reason? I am popular with teachers, students, and the administration. Quality subs rise to the top.

I had been warned that some of the classes might be difficult. My two Language Arts classes were great, though. They were reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders while listening to an audiobook recording of it. The last period study hall has been quite crazy as of late. I told them that their teacher left a note that anyone whose name was written down would receive an automatic detention. Then one of the administrators came in and told them that if I had to send anyone up to her office, it would be an automatic Saturday detention. There was not a peep out of anyone the rest of the period. Yet, even before the warnings were made, the class was already working quietly. Popularity certainly has its benefits!

The year is quickly coming to a close, and I expect the number of assignments to dwindle as a result. I have no idea what I’ll be doing next year, or even this summer, but I am looking forward to these last weeks of working with my many thousands of students in two districts!

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!

Victorious Victory of Victories

Today I was once again an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I was there for the whole day, so I was able to work with both of my morning classes (Reading I) as well as my two afternoon classes (AP English). When I was last there for the whole day, the first two classes of the day were pretty intense. (And by intense I mean out of control, disrespectful, and downright unpleasant.)

The more I have applied the principles, the more I am coming to appreciate the classroom management system proposed by Doug Mackenzie. While I continue to maintain a philosophy that looks forward to an ideal classroom environment in which students manage themselves, I am enough of a realist to acknowledge that, as a substitute teacher, I simply don’t have enough time to establish such a community. But, gosh darn it, I sure can try!

My first experience with the Reading I classes was essentially a day of constantly telling the boys and girls to stop talking, do their work, stay in their seats, etc., etc., etc. Yesterday was better: it only took about 15 minutes for the students to get settled. I set limits, show the class that I am serious about them, and I praise and encourage to show them that I am not the enemy. In fact, I don’t think of the teacher-student relationship as an us-versus-them relationship; but I do know that there are students who do think this way. So I strive to be personable, open, honest, and respectful at all times. It seems to work.

Today was awesome! The students came in, took their seats, and started on the assigned work for the day. When they finished, they worked quietly on other things. There was no yelling, no running around, no pushing limits; just young men and women who knew what was expected and showed a willingness to do it. I definitely consider this a great victory! Not a personal victory, and certainly not a victory over the students, but a victory of the self.

In other news, I learned today that I am officially considered the “go-to substitute” for the high school. Which is why I was given three more assignments today over the coming weeks. I am really glad to know that my efforts are appreciated and worthwhile. It makes the hard days that much easier to bear.

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.

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.