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

Sixth Grade

Another Farewell

Today was the third day of my three-day assignment as the band teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. It was pretty close to being exactly what I expected, with a few exceptions.

With the DVD actually working this time (huzzah!), the day went quickly. I watched the same four scenes of Mary Poppins over and over and over again. Some of the classes went very well, with the students being polite and respectful not just to me, but to each other. One class was absolutely terrible, to the point that I told them that they were the worst class of my week. They were much better behaved after that, probably because it dawned on them that I report to their teacher how they were for me, and their teachers do not take kindly to students abusing the subs, even if there are just a couple of days left to the school year.

The worst, though, was when I had a group of four students talking throughout the movie in one period. I repeatedly asked them to stop talking, and eventually three of them did. But one boy kept it up. So when I told him again, he responded by accusing me of being racist.


I stopped the movie, turned on the lights, and explained to the class the difference between racism and having a white teacher tell an African-American student to stop being disrespectful. I don’t know that the message got through at all, but I wasn’t going to let a student get by with making such a ridiculous claim without any response from me.

Fortunately, the rest of my day went very well. The 8th graders, especially, were great. I told them that they could talk and sign yearbooks as long as they cleaned up the room and put all of the furniture back where it belonged at the end of class. They did. One boy asked me to sign his yearbook, and another promised to find me on Facebook. (I have a policy of not accepting friend requests from current students, but insofar as I do not sub at the high schools in Champaign, and he is done with school on Friday, I said he could friend me if he could find me.)

And then it was a quick farewell to the students I have come to know so well over the past several months. Some of them are probably glad to not have to see me again. Others expressed sadness but, at the same time, they are done with middle school, so the farewell was overshadowed with the jubilation that they survived. I’m glad they did, and I wish them all the very best in high school. I’m sure I’ll see some of them around, most likely at Wal-Mart, where I seem to run into a bunch of students.


Technical Difficulties

Today was my second day as a band teacher at Edison Middle School. Yesterday we watched short podcasts because it was a half day and the students didn’t have much time in the room. We were back to the regular schedule today, though, so the plans allowed for starting a much longer video.

We were to watch the Walt Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins, because the bands had just featured several of the songs in their recent concert. The teacher had the DVD ready to go, the computer set up, and everything should have been hunky dory.

Despite my apparent anti-technology aura whenever I get near an LCD projector, everything was working fine. The first class of the day (7th grade woodwinds) got started on Mary Poppins and everything seemed to be okay. Until we got about 10 minutes into the movie and it froze up. Completely.

Okay, no problem. Take the disc out, make sure that it doesn’t have any smudges, put it back in, and away we go, right?

Not quite. We made it a few more minutes and it froze up again. So I took the disc out again and examined it more closely. It was scored and scratched and marred so thoroughly that I was surprised it was working at all. Then I noticed what I had failed to take into account: it was from the public library. I love the Champaign Public Library. It has an awesome collection of everything you could want from a public library. But the patrons don’t take very good care of the DVDs. So we had to stop.

This was quite problematic, as I still had four other classes for the day. I had no clue what to do. There were no back-up plans and, since this was a band class, it wasn’t like I could just have the students take out some other work–most of them didn’t bring anything with them, anyway. So they had free time for the rest of the period, as did the second class of the day (6th grade woodwinds).

During this class, though, I did a check and found out the library had at least one other copy of the movie on DVD. The CPL just happens to be across the street from Edison. Except there was no way I could leave the building. So I texted my wife, but she was far too busy at work. So I texted her dad, who is done with his classes for the year (he is a college professor). He was able to get to the library, check out the DVD, and navigate his way through Edison Middle School to find the band room and deliver the movie just in time for my third class of the day!


The last three classes (7th grade brass, 6th grade brass, and 8th grade band–or maybe it is 7th, 6th, 6th, 7th… whatever), were able to watch the movie.

Well, kind of.

This disc was also scratched. But, fortunately, I only had to skip two  chapters and everything was back on track. Thank goodness! We will watch more of the movie tomorrow. Hopefully nothing else will go awry! But I may bring a musical DVD of my own. You know, just in case.

The Music Man

Today I was the band teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am also going to be there tomorrow and Wednesday, which is incredibly awesome for me, as the days remaining in the school year and ticking by faster and faster (or so it would seem).

Now, I’ve been in bands for a long time. I first started band when I was in 5th grade (about 19 years ago), and I’ve been in them in one way or another ever since: In middle school, I was in concert band and marching band. In high school I was in concert band, jazz band, marching band, symphonic winds, and a smattering of small ensembles for state music competitions. Upon enrolling at the University of Illinois, I was a member of the university’s Concert Band II-A, which was pretty much the lowest-level band available, but I was neither a music major nor an incredibly skilled musician, so I was just happy to be in band. I stayed with II-A until the end of my junior year, when I had to leave due to student teaching and then graduating. After finishing my university studies I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Parkland College Wind Ensemble, which is a smaller group composed primarily of community members and a few college students with a high school student or two rounding things out. In addition, I have occasionally helped with smaller ensembles at church when needed, although the need for trumpet players is not as great as, say, pianists, organists, and various string-ists. Added to all of this is my shorter history with vocal ensembles, such as my high school prep chorus, concert choir, and various church choirs, not to mention all of the musicals I’ve helped with as a spotlight technician. All of which is a very long way of saying that I’ve been around music ensembles of one sort or another for a long time.

As substitute teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to sub for grade school music teachers a handful of times. They have generally been fun, albeit pretty simple, experiences. (Such as this, this, and this.) Added to this is my ongoing pursuit of subbing for as many teachers at Edison as possible this year. (I’m now up to 18 out of 51–not going to reach the 50% goal I’d set, but oh well; I got close!) So I grabbed at the chance to sub for three consecutive days for one teacher, leaving me with just Friday left to fill. (I’ve been scheduled for this Thursday for several weeks now.)

What I didn’t seem to take into account was the realisation that bands are big. I mean, really big. Grade music classes always consist of just one class at a time, so I am used to those numbers. The strings program at Edison is a small division of the music program, so it was small. But band… Oh, did I mention that Edison Middle School happens to have one of the highest rated middle school band programs in the nation? Many of the students at Edison are there for the band program.

I’ve had big classes before. But today was quite a shock. I had five classes total: two 6th grade groups, two 7th grade groups, and the entire 8th grade band. In each of the first four classes, there were between 32 and 35 students. Okay, that’s a lot, but it is manageable. I’ve had big classes before at Edison. The 8th grade band, though, consists of 52 students. Fifty-two! They have more students in the program then there are regular teachers in the building! The class roster was two and half pages long! Yegads!

Fortunately for me, the students at Edison love me. I mean, they really love me. Remember the picture they made for me? So even though I suddenly found myself in the midst of two score and a dozen eighth grade boys and girls at the end of the day, things went pretty well. Or, rather, things went pretty well after they all got settled. It took about ten minutes to do so. Oh, and today was a half-day, so that means class periods were only 30 minutes long. Of course, following the long-standing tradition of band teachers the world over, the students were not doing anything band-ish. In fact, they were barred from touching the instruments. Instead, we spent the period watching a Yamaha podcast about the making of either the saxophone or the trumpet, depending on the class.

Tomorrow and Wednesday we will be watching Mary Poppins, because they just had their last concert and much of the music from the Disney film had been featured. Hey, it is the end of the year, anyway. Fun times ahead!

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!

Like a Gummi Bear

Today I was a floating substitute teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School. In Champaign, the floating substitute usually goes to three or four classes over the the course of the day. In Mahomet, though, the floating sub is usually assigned one classroom for the duration of the day, depending upon the need. What will happen is the school knows that several teachers will be out on a particular day, but they may not know which teachers will be gone, so they schedule me as a floater and give me the assignment when I arrive.

Today was definitely different, though! (more…)

Improvement and Growth

Today I was a 6th grade social studies teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. It was a pretty cool experience showing a different side of my knowledge-base to students who are incredibly used to having me teach language arts. It was also interesting to be subbing for the teacher who was teaching 6th grade social studies back when a good friend of mine was in school in Mahomet. Best of all, though, was realising that this teacher has been there for a very long time, yet he is clearly interested in keeping his teaching strategies and methods current. After hearing about so many teachers in his position who refuse to change, it is good to know that there are great teachers with whom I work who understand how to be true professionals in this field. (Incidentally, I just finished reading another one of my vocational books, and will be posting the review on Friday, when there is no school in any of the three districts.)

I really enjoy working at MSJH. Not only are the faculty and staff incredibly supportive, and not only are they devoted and passionate about their work, but they are also very open about meaningful critiques of the profession, the district, and the school. If you’ve ever spent much time around teachers outside the classroom, you’ve probably heard at least one of them complain about the school. These are the teachers who seem to be only in the profession because they needed a job and a teaching position happened to be available. They are not professional educators–they are wage-earners in the education field. The men and women with whom I have had the opportunity to work in Mahomet and in Champaign are, by and large, of the former rather than the later. And thus I am able to learn about the nuts and bolts that hold the education field together in a way that helps me know how I can improve as an educator and how I can help improve the profession.

The teachers in the building were discussing their frustrations with the district’s improvement plan (something that is required of all districts in the nation as a part of the No Child Left Behind law). Rather than just comment on what they didn’t like about, they focused on the changes that need to be made. I was really impressed at the vision which they have for the future of their district. I have had similar conversations with the teachers in Champaign. I look forward to the day that substitute teaching is included in the strategic plan for every district. I have held this position for almost three years now, and I have learned a lot about how my own work impacts the entire school community. I’ve seen substitute teachers who have no business being anywhere near a classroom, and I have seen substitute teachers who are incredibly skilled at what they do. I don’t hesitate to put myself in the latter category. I’m not bragging–I am simply recognising the successes I have in the classroom. I value my work and I value my contributions. As a result, others see value in what I do, as well. There is a reason that students say hi to me in the hallways and tell me what a great job they think I do as a teacher. Few are the students who refer to me as “just a sub” these days.

As I continue to seek out full-time employment as a generalist educator, I hope that I will be able to have a hand in improving the quality of substitute teaching, as well. It has become something that I did not know much about when I started but I have quickly come to value. I am still on a quest to find a worthwhile book that discusses the contributions of substitute teachers and how I can improve in what I do now. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to pass them on!


Today I was the 6th grade cross-categorical special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. As those who follow my twitter may have caught, this was the 16th out of 52 teachers for whom I can substitute at Edison, which is roughly 30% of the teaching staff. I’ve made a spontaneous goal to reach 50% by the end of the year. It was a pretty decent day, even with the dirty looks and rude responses from some of the students in my classes when I reminded them to work.

During my plan periods, which were the first two periods of the day, I realised that I left my book at home. This was the first time ever that this has happened to me as a professional educator. I was fairly worried because, honestly, there just isn’t too much for me to do during a plan period when the plans are already made. I do take some time to attend to some aspects of my religious devotions (namely, reading scriptures for about 15 minutes or so), but the plan periods were for about an hour and a half. And I had no book to read. The teacher didn’t even have anything worth reading in the classroom, and I had no computer access. So I wasn’t sure what to do.

Until I remembered that I have an ebook reader on my phone and several ebooks stored. So I started reading a classic in American literature that I’ve never read before: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I only read the first two chapters before my classes started but I was certainly glad of to have the ebooks to keep my mind occupied! After work I headed over to the library (it is just across the street) to wait for my wife to pick me up after work. I decided to grab a copy of the actual book to read during the two hours, so now I am no longer bookless. In fact, I am now reading four books concurrently. Serves me right for leaving my book at home. (By the way, the book I am officially reading at work is Harry and Rosemary Wong’s How To Be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School. It will eventually make its way onto the blog as a review one of these days.)