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


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!)

Not Knowing What to Do

Today I was a supportive services teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. More specifically, I was the teacher working with students who had varying degrees of autism, which meant that they needed a lot of support for everything. As a result, I honestly had no clue what to do.

It isn’t very often that I find myself in such a situation. I can even hold my own when working with students who are hard-of-hearing or deaf (something I did a handful of times back in September, before I started blogging about my adventures). But today was definitely one of those days. The students I was assigned to work with spend the majority of their day in this room, participating in educational activities that I simply do not understand. Their teacher, along with her aides, have an understanding of the students’ needs that is the product of years of training and months of working with them, day in and day out. It isn’t something that I can just pick up in a day, nor is it something that I can fake my way through, like I can when teaching the core content areas. I always know beforehand that assignments in special education/supportive services may be difficult. I accept them, though, because I am confident that I can make some sort of positive impact or, at the very least, not be a burden to the other teachers with whom I will be working.

Fortunately, there were three aides in the classroom (two regular aides and one substitute aide who has been there several times in the past) who knew what to do. There were also a number of students who serve as mentors and help out. The wonderful women, young women, and, yes, even one young man, did an amazing job today. They knew what to do. They knew what the students needed, and were able to communicate with them in a way that I was unable to do. I am in awe of the patience, compassion, and understanding that is required of the men and women who pursue a career in special education. It is something that, being completely honest, I simply do not think I would be able to do.

One of the greatest benefits of working as a substitute teacher, other than getting to teach on a near-daily basis, is learning what I can and cannot do. I can’t do it on my own, because I’m no Superman. But you know what? That’s totally okay! I may not have known what to do, but I was able to do something today, anyway. I was able to keep an eye on a young man who has no motor control. I was able to monitor a young woman, who is more developed than the others in the class, as she did a simple math activity on a computer. I was able to read to a young man who doesn’t deal well with new people, yet was willing to sit next to me on a couch and listen to me read. He also sat by me as I read the latest in my series of vocational texts (even if he wasn’t interested in hearing me read aloud the ins and outs of balanced literacy).

So I may not have known what to do today, but I still had a great day, and, at the end of the day, I was thanked for what I did. That, to me, means that I accomplished something, after all.

And now, completely unrelated to anything at all, I thought I’d share this video:

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.


Today I was an 8th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. Much like yesterday, I was in a room with an excellent student teacher who was totally prepared for the day. She also had a very strong handle on classroom management, so my day consisted of sitting at a desk reading while she taught and then helping the few students who had questions about the work they were doing. Incidentally, tomorrow is going to be much like yesterday and today. Thursday and Friday will be the days when I am actually teaching again this week. However, my days have not been that boring. In fact, I had a great time watching a gifted young prospective teacher working her craft.

One of the strangest things to happen today was when another substitute was in the room. One of the cross categorical special ed teachers, for whom and with whom I have subbed a couple of times now, co-teaches in math room I was in today. She was gone this morning, hence the reason she had a sub. Because the student teacher was doing a take-over, the special ed sub needed to be working with the student teacher. Alas, this is not what happened.

The other sub came in, sat in the back of the room, and then left about half-way through class. I knew for a fact that she was supposed to be there for the whole period, so I was rather confused when she didn’t. At the end of the day, the cross cat teacher came in and was talking with the student teacher about plans for the next few days. I brought up the fact that the other sub left and found out that this had happened in another period, too. I wasn’t really trying to rat out a colleague so much as I was wondering if what seemed odd really was what I thought. It was, and then even worse. The cross cat teacher decided to leave a negative review for this other teacher, which doesn’t happen that often. So I was a tattletale of sorts today. Although not really, since a tattletale is more accurately a person who shares idle gossip, rather than sharing important information. I hope this review will be used to help the substitute teacher improve in her work, though.

Playing It by Ear

Today I was a 5th grade teacher. Again. At Robeson Elementary in Champaign. Again. For my mother-in-law. Again. You see, I wasn’t supposed to be subbing for her for the third consecutive working day because her flight from Salt Lake City was supposed to be in last night. Unfortunately, it was delayed several hours and she didn’t get home until nearly 4 am. Fortunately, though, she knew about the delay with a considerable amount of notice, so I knew last night that I was going to be there. Equally fortunate, she has a student teacher who was planning on starting a science unit on chemistry today, on top of the math lessons that she’s been in charge of teaching for a few weeks now, and there was a reading group or two in the afternoon that she’d be meeting with. So all I really had to worry about was following up on the social studies unit on propaganda that we started yesterday.

So a pretty easy day, right?

Not quite.

The student teacher was sick, and she had the math manual with her. The science lesson plan wasn’t prepared or, if it was, she hadn’t left plans for it. And the reading groups were up to me. On top of all that, the teacher hadn’t had time to prepare lesson plans by the time I arrived at 7:30 this morning, so I had to play it by ear.

For many substitutes, this would be cause to run out of the room screaming. In fact, I nearly had a moment like this a few months ago when I subbed in Urbana for the first time ever. This was not true for me, though, because of one very important fact: I have been in this classroom more than any other classroom in three districts. And, of course, I am married to this teacher’s daughter, so I have the benefit of being able to eat dinner with her on a weekly basis and talk about her class. All of this, along with the various reasons I mentioned yesterday, combine to mean that, of all the substitute teachers in the district, I am probably the only one who could have salvaged today.

I had to play it by ear, and I think I managed to do an adequate job. Even with the near-constant talking in the class and having to frequently stop and wait for the class to settle down, was able to make it through the materials for the day. Now, I know that a teacher shouldn’t just be concerned about “getting through” but, honestly, that is pretty much my job as a substitute. It is a wonderful thing when I can do more than just the minimum requirements of my job, and I quite often do much more. I am quite certain that is why I am so successful at my job. But there are days when I am truly grateful that I am able to get through some days.

So, what did I do today? I shot from the hip, I winged it, I begged my coworkers for access to their teacher’s manuals (okay, I didn’t really beg; I just walked in and asked if I could borrow it and then made a copy of the lesson), and I made sure the students had plenty of independent reading time. Things actually went pretty well, particularly since I don’t think anyone had any idea that I was actually playing it by ear today. And, at the end of the day, that is one of the most important things. Did the students learn and did they feel confident in my ability to teach? I believe the answer to both is yes. Hopefully both teacher and student teacher will be back tomorrow, though, because I’m already scheduled to be elsewhere!

Relevant Teaching

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign (but not for my mother-in-law). I was only there for half the day (really a lot more – about five hours instead of the typical seven), but it was a good day. The class is really used to me by now and were happy to have me as their sub (except for the few who are determined to be difficult for every teacher they encounter). We spent the morning doing science, math just before lunch, and Language Arts afterwards.

Whenever possible, I strive to make my teaching as relevant to the students’ lives as possible. So I was quite pleased when the science lesson was on the history of the development of the cellular phone. After all, these boys and girls are 11-12 years old, yet almost all of them own cell phones already. Those who don’t want them soon. I contrasted this with the fact that I didn’t get a cell phone until 2005 (which actually elicited laughter from the class). We talked about the different kinds of phones that exist and what model they would most like to get. Having piqued their interest in the matter, it was easy to get them to start working on the assignments.

The math lesson was on measuring the volume of rectangular prisms, which is was harder to make relevant, but I started off by having the students identify the various rectangular prisms in the classroom. An interesting discussion arose when someone suggested a piece of paper was a prism, but others disagreed. We established a rectangular prism has to have six rectangular faces with a measurable length, width, and base. Having determined that these were acceptable criteria, the class decided that a standard piece of paper does indeed constitute a rectangular prism. I then tried to help them understand the concept of volume. I used an example I had stumbled upon last year that seems to work really well: just about everyone knows what volumizing hair products are for. They understand the result of using such products, and from there they were able to understand the concept that volume is the measure of something taking up space. So that connection also worked.

Going for three-for-three, I spent the afternoon teaching about adjectives, and managed to get the students to provide several examples of adjectives before they even had a clear definition. I asked for someone to give me a noun, and he suggested the name of a girl in the class. I then asked the students to describe her. After we created a decent list, we discussed how adjectives are words that modify, or describe, nouns. Just as the students started to work on the assignment, their teacher arrived. It was a pretty good day all around.