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


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.



What Is Leadership?

In the process of completing hundreds of job applications, I have gotten used to seeing the same questions pop up time again. In fact, I have saved my responses to these questions so that I can copy-and-paste into my applications. (For those who may be concerned, this is actually encouraged!)

Today I saw a new question. It asked me to describe my views on leadership. My recent week at the Illinois Teen Institute, coupled with a discussion with my father-in-law about what leadership is (and what it is not) has prompted me to share my response with all of you. (In the meantime, I am delaying the writing of two book reviews and an interview report. I’ll get to it all eventually, I’m sure!) Anyway, here it is:

Leadership is taking a principled stand on an issue and inspiring others to join you in that stand. Leadership is walking beside those you would lead, and sometimes walking behind them. Leadership is setting a positive example by doing what you say and saying what you do. Leadership, more than anything, is a matter of being an example to others.

Leadership is not to be the person up front, the person in charge, or the person directing the actions of others, although these may occasionally be included in the roles of a leader. Nor is leadership a lonely position; one can be a leader among a group of leaders.

As an educator, my primary role as a leader is to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to be leaders among their peers, within the school, and within the community. I do this by modeling positive leadership traits both within the classroom and without and encouraging my students to do the same.

ITI 2011: There and Back Again

[Note: This was originally posted on the blog that my wife and I share.]

As much as I would enjoy writing a post about The Hobbit, this is actually my annual post on my experiences at the Illinois Teen Institute just a couple of weeks ago. While some who read this blog are surely familiar with it, I am going to assume that there are at least a few visitors who may not know. So before I get into ITI 2011, let me give a brief recap:

The Illinois Teen Institute is a week-long leadership camp during the summer, sponsored by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (it has taken me many years, but I think I’ve finally gotten the name down pat). ITI was started in 1974 and has been going strong ever since, making it the longest-running Teen Institute in the nation.

As a Teen Institute, it is aimed at, well, teens. Students are able to attend as participants from the summer before their freshmen year of high school until the summer after they graduate. As a participant, teens are placed into two groups: First is a small discussion group of 8-12 teens and two staff members (depending on attendance numbers). The members of the discussion groups generally do not know one another before hand, and the purpose of the groups is to discuss the general sessions and workshops offered each day. The second group is a Community Action Team, and it is the heart and soul of the Illinois Teen Institute. Teens from the same area/school/community/etc work together to come up with a plan to improve their community, utilising the skills and information they have gained at the Institute. The CAT plan is conceived, planned, and carried out by teens, with adult sponsors or volunteer staff members present as resources. (As an aside, Operation Snowball, Inc. was the result of a community action plan from 1978, or thereabouts, that has become an international drug prevention program.)

As a leadership camp, ITI focuses on helping teens become better leaders in the schools, their communities, and in the state. It is also a “prevention first” program, meaning that students learn about ways to prevent risky behaviours, most notably alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) abuse, unhealthy relationships, bullying, etc. It is not a treatment, rehabilitation, or recovery program. The entire week is focused on the teens. The speakers and workshops are selected to provide meaningful information and useful skills.

I first attended ITI in 1999 as a participant. In 2000 and 2001 I was back again as a member of the Administrative Team (A-Team), which allowed me to attend free of charge as a teen staff member. As a member of the A-Team I did not have a discussion group, although I did participate with my Community Action Team. From 2002-2004 I was absent due to serving a mission in California, but I returned in 2005 as a member of the volunteer staff, working as a co-facilitator. This placed me with a discussion group and a CAT. I did this for two years before being selected as a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2007.

The PALS 1 program is designed for Peers with Advanced Leadership Skills who are coming back a second or third year to really focus on specific leadership skills. The program has changed somewhat over the years, but the main focus has always been to help those teens who are in positions of leadership be more effective leaders and to train to be leaders at ITI. (The PALS 2 program has been renamed Youth Staff and is just that: teens who have been through the program and are ready to practice what they’ve learned. They work with a volunteer staff member in leading discussion groups, working with action teams, and making sure the participants feel welcome and have a great week.)

I applied to be a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2008 but, due to a mix-up in contact information, I didn’t learn that I had been selected until the Friday evening after staff training had started. Gretch and I had just gotten married about 3-4 weeks earlier and I was scheduled to work that entire week. Whoops. I was disappointed, but it was probably for the best, since we were still trying to get settled and all.

After bringing Gretch to my high school’s Operation Snowball weekend in 2008 and 2009, I encouraged her to come to ITI, despite her complete lack of experience with the program. She applied as a volunteer staff member and was accepted as a co-facilitator. I returned as a PALS 1 Advisor (new name, same job) and we had a wonderful week together. We came back in 2010, volunteering for the same roles. During the 2010 camp, Gretch and I helped the girls in Headquarters (formerly known as the A-Team) with scheduling of workshops and other things, and I was encouraged to volunteer for HQ staff for the following year, which I did.

Which finally brings us up to ITI 2011. Due to Gretch’s work schedule, she was not able to attend ITI this year. So I went alone. This marked the longest period of time we have been separated since we started dating on 16 August 2007. However, frequent telephone calls during free time and occasional chats on Google helped us make it through the week. Besides, many of our ITI friends are married and also spend the week apart. So we knew we’d be okay. Everyone asked how Gretch was doing and where she was. It was great to know that so many people care.

In fact, this is the very reason that I find myself going there and back again year after year. I love the community of caring that exists at the Illinois Teen Institute. My first CAT advisor was Brian Weidner. He had been going to school at Bradley University in Peoria back in 1999. Today he and his wife live and work in Minnesota, but he comes back each year as a workshop presenter, and we also catch up. I consider my friends at ITI to be like a family, and I hope that they think the same of me (and Gretch). Two experiences from this year really capture this sense of family.

The first was a girl who was attending as a first-year participant. She arrived with her mom, but nobody else. She was alone, and she was scared. She wanted to leave. A few of us helped her through the first few hours and encouraged her to stay, sharing our own experiences. After listening to our first speaker, the Amazing Tei Street, she decided to stick around. I later learned that she called her mom that night and said how glad she was to be there. I saw her off and on during the week, and each time she had a big smile and was laughing with her peers. She came alone; she left with a network of friends and supporters.

The other is also about a girl, here for the first time. She came from another state. She is kind of quiet and seems the kind who keeps to herself. I don’t think anyone would look at her and think of her as someone who would be popular, or even someone who would hang out with the popular kids. On Tuesday evening, the teens participated in a talent show. This girl walked onto the stage and, without saying a word, put on her guitar and began to play the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven. When she finished, 300 people rose to their feet, cheering, clapping, and calling for an encore. Later on, she and one of the teen staff members, a young man who is a semi-professional musician, were jamming in a lounge area.

That, my friends, is why I keep coming back. It is because the world is not as bad as we are led to believe. There are good people doing good things. They say that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The young men and women and the Illinois Teen Institute prove that wrong. The youth of today are the leaders of today. I am blessed to work with them and I know that I am a better person because of it.

Brief Statement

An anonymous commenter on the blog that I linked to a few days ago left the following response on that blog:

And, yes, I have heard teachers and administrators say, “Given the population we teach, we can’t possibly be expected to meet the NCLB benchmarks.” That is code for, “the students in this school are too dumb to learn.”

That, my friends, is one completely ridiculous and asinine statement. So I responded, and wanted to share my response here, too:

Actually, it is code for, “our politicians who know nothing about education have set artificial boundaries to determine whether or not a student has learned when in reality we, as the professionals, know that learning happens in different ways for each child, and you can’t possibly determine if it has occurred simply by setting a numerical value and telling teachers that if students don’t achieve the value then they, the teachers, have failed.”

My life is about to get busier, what with me training for my summer job (finally! huzzah!) this coming week, in between an interview on Monday and a summer school sub assignment on Tuesday, then leaving for the Illinois Teen Institute for a week, and then starting said job when I return, but I am more and more wanting to get involved with the political aspects of my profession. My state representative has indicated that he is sincere about wanting input, and I want to see what I can do to help. Comments like this anonymous person’s are strengthening this resolve. I want to be a part of the process that puts us all back on the same team, rather than allow the status quo to continue with slanderous comments like this.



It has been a busy summer yet, at the same time, it has also been a not-busy summer. I think I understand how Charles Dickens could write a story about times that were both the best and the worst.

I spend my days applying for jobs, scanning old photographs and posting them on Facebook, watching The X-Files, applying for jobs, reading, listening to music, doing housework, applying for jobs, being lazy, doing work around the yard, applying for jobs, and reading blogs. Nearly all of these activities take place in the office my wife and I have set up in the second bedroom of our house, which means I spend most of my days sitting at the computer, probably developing some terrible spinal disorder as a result. I try to get up and move around, too, but it only helps so much.

I wish that more educators updated their blogs in the summer, but most of them are like me. There’s not much education-y type stuff going on, and the stuff that is going on is often so frustrating that I hate to write about it lest I go off on a rant about the lack of justice in the world.

Things really aren’t all that bad. But it is awfully frustrating to read news articles about how lazy, greedy, unmotivated, unprofessional, and unwilling to change my colleagues and I are. One of the education blogs I follow is written by a semi-anonymous special education teacher in Washington, D.C. I have her blog linked on the side, and I highly recommend it. She has recently written a fabulous piece about the problems of the education reform debate. I hope that you will read it and comment on it there, here, or in both places. We need more people talking about education but, more importantly, we need people talking about education in productive tones.

My favourite part of her message is this:

I think my biggest problem with the debate is the assumption that teachers are against reform. We absolutely want the best for our kids. Do we want more testing? No, but not because we are lazy, we are scared for our jobs, or because we have low expectations for our kids. We don’t believe testing, as it has been implemented, improves the students’ education. In fact, in many ways, when working in the trenches, we watch how it is a determinate to actual student learning. We watch how children lose out on essential instructional time because of the amount of classroom time dedicated to test prep. We struggle knowing what best practices are and knowing they are out of our reach as we drill and kill for the test.

We want reform, but we’d like to have a straightforward conversation about how that is best done. Yet anytime one of us opens our mouth we’re immediately told that we have low expectations for our students- after that our arguments are cut off at the knees. We mention what we know are best practices- research-based practices that will give success but no one wants to hear it. We’re told that where we learned those best practices and theories- in graduate school- was a waste of time. The general public tells us that we only went back to school to get a raise in pay, that our masters degrees are worthless, and that we are simply working the system…

Too many reformers do not have a background in education, do not understand how children learn, and do not have a grasp on recent break throughs in best practices.  When someone comes to us with a true, improved teaching idea we celebrate. We sit through afternoon workshops we don’t get paid for in order to learn how to improve our teaching. We are always seeking how to improve our teaching. Yet what is brought to us by “reformers” is not helping our teaching.  We’d love it if it was different.

A friend has suggested that I apply to join my local state representative’s education advisory committee. I am interested, but first I want to know what Rep. Barickman will do with my advice. Will he listen to educators? Will our input make a difference? Or are we going to be treated like the problem, like so many others do?

I find myself repeatedly turning to what is probably my all-time favourite political movie: The American President. I don’t think I’ve linked it here before, but even if I have, I am going to again:

The relevant portion is this:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character…

Insert “education reformers” for “Bob Rumson” and you pretty much have the same thing going on. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is time we stop blaming and starting working.

Interview II

I have been busily applying for full-time teaching jobs all over the state. At last count, I have applied to over 300 districts/consortiums in the past year, probably approaching the 1,000 mark for the number of actual jobs I have applied for. It has been quite the journey. It has also been frequently disappointing, with most jobs getting filled within a couple of weeks. I have received a lovely collection of emails informing me that I was not selected for a given position but that my application will be kept on file for the next year. I also have a smaller collection of letters that were sent in the mail informing me of the same thing. At least one job had over 1,000 applicants. For a single job opening. So, clearly, I am up against a lot of competition.

I had started to get to the point where I was wondering if my applications were even going through and/or being seen. But I kept applying. If it was a self-contained general education class for second grade or higher, I applied. And I’ll admit, I was starting to lose track. Hundreds of job applications will do that to you, I imagine.

So imagine my surprise when I got a phone call about a week and a half ago from the principal of a small school in a tiny community! She wanted to know if I was still interested. All I actually caught was that it was a school, so I said, “Yes, absolutely!” and hurriedly searched my emails for an indication of what job I was going to be interviewing for.

I figured it out rather quickly, fortunately. A fifth grade position at Woodland Elementary in Woodland, Illinois. The school has about 180 students, give or take, with two grades, fourth and fifth. It is part of a large district that includes Watseka and the small communities nearby. Woodland Elementary happens to be the only school in the district not in Watseka. Woodland is a lovely hamlet of 350 people in the middle of the woods. An aptly named community, for sure! It is also about an hour from Champaign, which means that it is a perfect location.

My interview was this past Wednesday. I met the principal and we talked about my philosophy of education (so glad that I took the time to figure that out!), the role of technology in the classroom, my ideal literacy program, classroom management, and collaboration. We also talked about education policy and the role of research in the classroom. Then she took me on a tour of the building. It is small and old, but it has also been very well maintained over the past hundred years or so that it is has been around.

I know the interview went well. All of my interviews go well. I have no idea how many people I am up against for this job, but I do know this: I would absolutely love to work at Woodland Elementary in Unit 9! The grade level is exactly where I want to be, the school is doing exactly the kind of things I want to do, and the principal is amazing! She is innovative, she is well-read on research and best practices, and she really works with her teachers to provide a high quality of education for each student. I am hoping and praying fervently that I left a strong impression!

I find out on Monday! Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers!

Merit Pay, Competition, and Improving Public Education

So. I’ve been on vacation for about a week now. For some teachers, vacation is a time to kick back, relax, and enjoy the warm summer weather. For me, it has been a time to amp up the job application process, not just for the coming school year, but also for the summer. I have promising leads on both fronts, but promising leads are not certain indicators of employment like they used to be.

As promised, I am going to be updating sporadically over the summer. With the adventures on hold, the subject for these posts will be quite the hodge-podge. I am going to be doing a couple of book reviews pretty soon, but for today, I am going to tackle a topic that is making its way to the forefront of public discourse: improving education in our nation.

I hope that this post will be coherent. I am not going to cite any specific research, data, news articles, or anything else in writing this. So these ideas are coming straight from my head. However, I am certain that you could easily Google any of my points and find scores of articles in agreement and scores of articles to the contrary. The inspiration for this post came from my brother Anton, who recently posted a link on Facebook regarding GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. One of Mr. Cain’s statements on his site brings up the issue of education and, as many on the right, Mr. Cain believes the key to improving education in our nation is merit pay, vouchers, and charter schools.

I respectfully disagreed with his ideas. My brother posed this question, which is what I want to focus on: “If you don’t pay based on merit, how do you recommend paying? Shouldn’t the best teachers be paid more? How do you out the bad teachers?”

First and foremost, these three questions are quite separate from one another. The most important question, though, is the last: How do we out the bad teachers? How do we identify them, and how do we remove them from the system? (more…)