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

Reading

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.

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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 k12jobspot.com, 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.

Yikes!

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!)


Summer Reading IV: Red Rabbit

Hopefully I won’t be boring anyone with my summer reading but, then, my main purpose in blogging is for personal reflection and recording, not for gaining an audience. (That being said, I certainly appreciate those who come and read my musings and those who comment, as well.)

As previously noted, I am working my way through Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan/John Clark universe” collection. I just finished reading Red Rabbit, which is a later book (in terms of when it was written), but takes place early on. Over all, I enjoyed the book. It gives some interesting insights into life in Soviet Socialist Russia in the early 1980s, albeit from a very Western perspective.

It is fun to see how Tom Clancy places his characters in key places in history, or, rather, in the alternate universe that parallels our own. The American president in clearly Ronald Reagan, but his name is never given. Likewise with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher or the Polish Pope, John Paul II. This is an idiosyncratic thing that Clancy does in nearly all of his books. The players in the various government bureaus all have names, like Emil Jacobs, head of the FBI, Arthur Moore, Director of Central Intelligence, and his two deputies, James Greer and Bob Ritter. But the Heads of State are always referred to by title, not name. Even the Royal Family in England is never named.

The story focuses on Clancy’s fictionalised account of one of the many theories surrounding the assassination attempt on Pope John Pual II in the early 1980s. Not knowing much about the actual historical account beforehand, other than the fact that it had happened and that it was the primary reason for the Popemobile being more secure with bullet-proof glass. (Interesting side-note: apparently “Popemobile” is an acceptable informal term for the vehicle that has no formal moniker. Go figure.) The “Red Rabbit” is a Soviet defector (“rabbit” being used as an espionage terms to describe a defector) who has learned of the assassination plot on the Pope and wishes to alert the Americans so as to protect the life of an innocent man.

While enjoyable, it was not the most suspenseful of Clancy’s novels, and it certainly didn’t have the usual plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots that are typical of his works. I get the feeling that this story was more of an attempt to flesh out the Ryan biography (and earn some more money) than to really present a gripping tale of suspense and intrigue. Next up is The Hunt for Red October, which was actually the first Clancy novel I ever read.


The Late-Blooming Reader

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. This was my last assignment subbing for this particular teacher. I’ve been there quite a few times over the past several weeks, and I am glad that each experience was better than the one before.

Today was no different, although it was unusual because the Seniors at MSHS are done. So the teacher who has been teaching Reading I for Freshmen in the mornings at AP English for Seniors in the afternoons now just has morning classes. It would have been awesome to get paid for the full day, but I was happy to get paid for a half-day, even though I was only there for two periods.

The students today were working on an in-class assignment that was an assessment of biographies/memoirs they had just finished reading. My job was to monitor them in the library and make sure that they were actually working on the assignment, and now playing around.

I am glad to say that everyone was on task and everyone finished the assignment. I glanced through a handful of the assignments to see what had been written. The assignment had three parts: first, summarize the ending of the book; second, share two or three traits of the featured individual that made the successful in what they did; third, share what you thought about the book itself. One student’s comment at the very end of his paper made me shout for joy on the inside. He wrote, “This is the first book I have read in many year that I actually enjoyed reading… so far. I would really like to finish it.”

I asked him why he couldn’t finish, and he said that he couldn’t check out any books from the library because of his fines. I hope that he now has the motivation to pay the fines so that he can get his hands on the book. The boys and girls in the Reading I classes are there because they are not quite at the reading level they should be. But that doesn’t mean they have to stay there; I would not be at all surprised if this particular student made some progress in his reading and moved up to more difficult classes in the future. He has many years ahead of him. Maybe this assignment will be the catalyst that helps him become a life-long reader.

I certainly hope it does.


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.


Brutal Honesty

Today I was a 2nd grade (gifted) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I had known about this assignment for about a week, and I had been looking forward to it quite a bit. After all, my last experience there, back in February, was one of the best days I have ever had teaching at Stratton, and probably ranks pretty high on my list of over-all awesome days. Due to the nature of how the assignments are placed online, I only know about the teachers’ absences if I am available that day. And since I have been teaching nearly every day, it is possible that there has been another sub in the room since I was last there; I don’t know. Regardless, the students were all quite happy to see me again, which always serves to boost my ego a notch or two.

The day went really well, as expected. I told the class about how impressed I had been with their dedication to reading last time, and that I was looking forward to seeing if they could do it again. This time, though, they had no interest in reading for 45 minutes. No, sir, 45 minutes was simply not enough time! They begged me to give them a full hour to read! I told them that if they were all reading for 45 minutes then I would give them the extra 15 as a reward. I love being able to reward students with time to read! They all did it. Needless to say, it was awesome. (more…)


When the Going Gets Tough…

Today I was a 6th grade history teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign. I have subbed for this teacher once before, back in October. This was before I started this blog. I’ve only been to Jefferson one other time since then. (In case you missed it, the experience was not a highlight of my substituting adventures.) Still, I rarely pass up an assignment if I am available, so I decided to give Jefferson another shot.

I had four classes during the day: three history classes and one FLEX period (guided study hall). My experience has been that study halls tend to be the least organised and most unruly periods of the day. Yesterday was a bizarro-land exception to this. Shockingly, today was another. But in order to really appreciate what my FLEX period was like, you need to understand what the history classes were like.

I was warned that the first period of the day was the roughest. This was kind of an understatement. While I have not yet broken my record of 28 Discipline Referrals in one day (a sad, sad day in my teaching career, incidentally at Jefferson two years ago), I did have to send three boys to the office with DRs today. The class was very noisy and rather unwilling to do their work. I told them to work quietly. They talked. I said, “Stay in your seats,” and they got up out of their seats. Just about the time I was about to lose it, I told three boys to sit down and start working. One of them stood up and started dancing around. BOOM. Discipline Referral #1. Later on, two boys were talking, running around the room, and stealing other students’ pens, pencils, markers, and whatever else they could get their hands on. BOOM. BOOM. On the way out, one of the boys muttered something along the lines of, “Send me to the office? I’ll shove my pencil up his curly-haired…” Yeah, the office heard about that one, too. Threatening a teacher? Not cool.

Period two was better: no Discipline Referrals were made, but of the 19 students, 12 of them were talking throughout the period. They did their work, too, but they were not following expectations. The third period was actually pretty awesome. Jefferson follows a block schedule format, so the core content area classes are all 80 minutes long. For the first hour, everyone was working on their assignments, not talking, and staying in their seats. At the beginning of class, I told them that if they worked throughout the period, I would give them the last ten minutes to talk freely amongst themselves. Alas, an hour was about all they could give me. As an aside, I am shocked that they have 80-minute classes without any breaks –  conventional wisdom places the attention span of the typical middle school student somewhere between 8 and 14 minutes. For an interesting look into the criticisms of block schedule, I recommend this page by Jeff Lindsay–just ignore the awfulness of the site design!) Still, I was disappointed that the entire class erupted into chaos during the last 15-20 minutes.

The schedule for the FLEX period was quite different. For one, they were only in the room for 40 minutes, seeing as FLEX (by the way, I have no idea what that stands for) is not a core content area. For another, the schedule was pretty simple: 20 minutes of silent reading, followed by quiet study time. Today was the fourth time in my professional teaching career that this actually happened: the students sat in their seats, read quietly, and then quietly worked until the bell rang. I thanked all of them for their work, and left the day realising that, as frustrating as it can be to work with students who make poor choices, there are always those young men and women who are willing and capable of showing that they understand what is expected of them.

As I always do, I found myself changing my approach as the day progressed. I started laying down the most basic expectations with the first class. When that was not effective, I was more specific with the second. That still wasn’t what I hoped for, so I laid things out and made a deal. That almost worked, but it still wasn’t great. So I decided a new tactic: I asked the class what they were supposed to do, and then I modeled what was expected. While they read, so did I. It worked. Their teacher has done the same thing, and, as he put it, he has “trained them pretty well.” Whatever it was, it worked.

So, what is my response to the first half of the adage I used for my blog title?

Well, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, but the smart change paths.