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

Social Studies

Living History

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. And, due to the student teacher having a rather nasty sinus infection, I was actually teaching today. It was rather nice, even though I had been planning on getting through a few more chapters of my balanced literacy book. The day went pretty well, with the one exception of a boy deciding it would be a good idea to take a spray bottle that once held cleaning chemicals and spray it at his classmates.


The highlight of the day was when we stopped our literacy block early so that we could discuss social studies. This was not part of the plans for the day, but it was something I felt was worthwhile and timely.

I have this philosophy about social studies. It is that social studies isn’t about learning historical data: people, places, events, dates, etc. That is history, which is an important element of social studies, but not all of it. Social studies is about learning why people did the things they did, not just what they did. I try to work this point into each lesson I teach. When we studied World War I and World War II, I asked the students to think about why we fight wars in the first place. And even those these young men and women are barely into the beginning of the second decade of their lives, they understand it. They understand the world around them. I know they do, and they know that I know that they do. I love telling them how awesome it is that they are smart, intelligent, capable people who can and do rule the world. I will set a fire beneath them by telling them that there are naysayers out there who think that 10-year-olds are too dumb, too young, too immature to understand what is going on. Hoo boy, if you ever want to see a class get fired up about what they can and cannot do, just tell them what people say they can’t do!

This whole discussion brought us to our main point: they are living in the midst of great historical moments. I asked them to tell me about some of the great moments in history that they learn about. They talked about things like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of the Treaty of Versailles, of Pearl Harbor, of 9/11. So then we talked about last night. Most of the class had heard about the death of Osama bin Laden, but some had not. Some had scene President Obama’s address to the nation, but most had not. They all realised that this was an important event. So I asked them: “Would you like to see and hear the President’s address?” The decision was unanimous. So I pulled up the video while two of the boys in the class set up the speakers, another boy turned on the digital projector, and one of the girls pulled down the screen. And this is what we watched:

We watched it on the CBS news site, since YouTube is blocked by the school’s filter. Then we talked about it. Having discussed the idea that they are mature enough to understand the impact of this event, I was interested to see what they really took note of. Surprisingly, at least to me, it was the recognition of the source of the final statement Pres. Obama made: that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” One boy asked why the President said that. So we talked about it. What does the Pledge of Allegiance mean? Do we think about the words when we say them, or are they just something we say each morning? Does it matter? Should it matter? Do we have to say the Pledge?

I don’t recall having any serious discussions like this when I was their age. Not in school, at least. I probably did at home, though. That comes from growing up with five older brothers, the oldest of which was in high school by the time I got to grade school. The majority of these boys and girls showed a remarkable level of understanding and depth of thought. There are some days that I worry about the future of our country. But then I see these young people and I really believe that we’re going to be all right.


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.

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!

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.

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!


Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign again. This was the second day of a two-day assignment substituting for my mother-in-law. I have worked for her for such a long time now that she doesn’t even need to leave plans for me (although she does, thankfully). He students have also known me for an incredibly long time. In fact, I have been subbing for the teachers who have been teaching these students for as long as I have been subbing. (If that leaves you confused, I’ve been teaching these boys and girls since they were in 3rd grade, and I have taught them regularly because their teachers request me a lot.)

Anyway, the long and short of all that is that my students have been around me so often that they should be more than used to me by now. Which means that when I teach 5th graders at Robeson, I have a lot more freedom with the lesson plans than I do in a class I’ve never been to before. This is especially true when it comes to teaching social studies in this particular class. Because of the close relationship we have, my mother-in-law and I talk about what is going on in the class, and then she lets me improvise. I’ve gotta say, it is a lot of fun.

Today I taught a lesson on propaganda, especially in the form of WWI and WWII posters. We talked about what propaganda is, the elements in the vintage posters, and whether or not they were effective. The students were incredibly engaged in the entire lesson, and enjoyed being able to share their observations. After looking through the vintage posters, I asked them if they could think of any modern examples of propaganda that they have seen, especially within the school. They identified, among other things, a poster encouraging environmentally-friendly practices that my wife designed. I wrapped up the lesson by first showing them a picture of a painting/mural that is in the hallway at Robeson:

Robeson Elementary mural

I asked the class to decide if this was an example of propaganda and to explain why. They agreed that it was, and identified the elements that seemed to try to convince the audience (students, teachers, and parents), that Robeson is a safe, fun, interesting place that encourages learning and creativity. After they did all that, I unveiled their next project: create a propaganda poster of their own to support a subject of their choice. I am really looking forward to seeing what they will produce. As they were working on ideas and sketches, I saw posters about Sponge-Bob Squarepants, Japan, abused animals, buying monkeys, and the dangers of eating fast food. I am sure that some students will turn in mediocre work (there is always someone in the class who tries to skate by doing the bare minimum), but many others will do the very best they can.

And I told them that I would be back several times this month and part of their grade will depend on whether or not they can convince me. Dang, I love being able to improvise and develop my own lesson plans!