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

Special Education

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:



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.)


Today I was an 8th grade cross-categorical special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign.  It was an interesting day, to say the least. Some of the students were quite restless, others seemed thoroughly unmotivated, and some were clearly not ready for Spring Break to be over yet. Still others were focused and willing to work. Some students moved from being uncooperative to participatory and then back again.

At the end of the day, I was invited to attend the team meeting, which in when all of the 8th grade teachers who work together meet and discuss very things such as students’ progress, upcoming field trips, and plans for large integrated projects. But one thing they did today was something that they do not do often. In fact, I don’t know that they have done it before. If they have, it is very rare.

They held an intervention for a student.

Before the break, one of the teachers had met with the girl’s mother in conference and expressed concerns about her grades. She was failing one class and on the borderline of failing two others. This is the last quarter of the 8th grade year, which means that if she fails, she fails school and will have to repeat the 8th grade. The mother asked that the entire team meet with the girl to express their concerns and talk with her about a plan to help her succeed.

I think the teachers went into this meeting thinking that this was another bright girl who just didn’t want to apply herself, and there wasn’t much they could do. But in the process of the meeting, some important things came up. The girl doesn’t do her homework because she is watching her younger brother. Her home life is a mess, with a mother on probation and a father who is verbally abusive and seemingly constantly puts her down and calls her stupid. (Whether or not this is true doesn’t really matter–what does matter is that the girl believes this is what her father says t0 her.)

So the teachers made suggestions on how the girl can make use of her “free” period (kind of like a study hall) to work with the teachers for the classes in which she is struggling. They arranged for her to be able to speak in private with a trusted adult about her problems at home. And they offered encouragement. This last may be the most important element of all. They told her how bright she is. They told her that they care about her, they love her, and they want to see her do well. They told her that what her father has said is not true. They told her that she can get her grades up and that she does have a strong likelihood of moving on to high school next year. She just needs to ask for help and take advantage of the resources made available to her.

I have no idea what will happen with this girl. Truth be told, I don’t have much experience with the 8th graders at Edison. I don’t know if this is because the teachers aren’t gone as much or if it is because they already have their preferred subs, but I spend far more time with the 6th and 7th graders in this building. It is possible that she will not take advantage of this interventions and supports being offered. But I hope she will. What I saw today was a dozen teachers dedicated to helping their students. Maybe it is an over-used phrase among educators, but they really do focus on whole the class without forgetting the one. It was awesome seeing the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system in action. Bravo to these men and women who have dedicated themselves to their profession!

Well, That Was Poorly Timed

Today I was a supportive services (special education) teacher at Lincoln Trail Elementary in Mahomet. I was happy to return to Lincoln Trail because a) I have had a two wonderful experiences there in the past, b) I have applied for one of their many job openings and am eager to have my name and face known around the school, and c) this guaranteed that I will have worked every day for the first three weeks of this months (since I am already scheduled for the rest of this week and all of next).

While working, I had the opportunity to teach with a very skilled student teacher and a teacher’s aide who does her job very well. The students were eager and participatory today, which was an added bonus. When it comes to special education, it can be kind of a crap shoot: some days are great and some days are not. I was glad to have a good day, and I know that the other teachers were glad, as well. It was also a fairly laid-back day, since the students at Lincoln Trail are finishing up ISAT testing this week and the teachers are, consequently, not loading them up with too much extra work. So, all in all, I had an easy and pleasant day.

Of course, this would be the day that the principal comes by the room to check up on things. And of all the times for her to come by, she just had to visit when the aide was texting the teacher for whom I was subbing (assuring her that all was going well), the student teacher was reading magazines with some boys who had just finished their mornings work, and I was on my phone looking up the etymology of a word that had come up in conversation with the boy who was working with me. (As an aside, the word butcher is not a word with a root and the -er ending. That is to say, a butcher is not one who “butches”–rather, the word butcher comes from French for bouchier, which came from some other word meaning the slaughter of goats. Go figure.)

Anyway, so the principal walks in and sees the substitute teacher doing something on his phone, the aide texting, and the student teacher reading a magazine. Not exactly the best timing in the world. Oh, and none of us realised she was there at first, so she walked in and stood there for a bit observing all of this. Whoops. Fortunately, the aide explained what she was doing, at least. Unfortunately, especially for me, I didn’t even know that it was the principal, so I missed my one opportunity to introduce myself and leave a good impression.

Hopefully this will not reflect poorly on my attempts to secure full-time employment at this school!

Up, Down, Up, Down, Up, Down…

Today I was a 7th grade cross-categorical special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. As such, my job today consisted mostly of assisting other teachers work with students in need of special supports and/or services. It also consisted of walking up and down several flights of stairs repeatedly throughout the day. I have a pedometer that I occasionally remember to bring with me to work and learned that today I took about 1,600 steps in all. By comparison, yesterday I only took about 850 steps.

Despite the repetition of walking from the first floor to the third floor and back down again several times, I had another excellent day at Edison. The students I worked with were generally on task, focused, and fun. There was one student who refused to do any work with me, but I learned quickly that he is like that with everyone, so I didn’t think to take it personally. Also, the student body has been gradually getting used to seeing me in the hallways and in their classrooms. Instead of calling out, “Hey, you again?!” they greet me with, “Hey, Mr. V!” or “Hey, Mr. V, what’s up?” Others are brave enough to try my last name and I am glad to be able to give them the verbal reward of acknowledging that they said my last name correctly.

This last bit has brought to mind a wonderful secret of teaching: students can and should be rewarded for successes, but these rewards do not have to be tangible (although it is certainly not unappreciated). A boy today picked up a trash can that had been accidentally tipped over by another student. When he picked it up, I thanked him for assisting. He smiled and walked out of the room a bit taller, or so it seemed to me. It is a great tool to use as a teacher: compliment students and acknowledge their positive behaviour. In fact, this is a key element of the PBIS management system used by many schools. It works! It is a great joy to see how happy students are when I acknowledge that I remember them and that I recognise that they have been successful in remembering me and my name.

I’m going to be at Edison again tomorrow. I can’t wait to see what the day will bring!

Floating Along

Today I was a special education floater sub at Edison Middle School in Champaign. This means that I was filling in for whichever special ed teacher at the time needed to be away from her class in order to conference with students and/or parents. It was a rather interesting day as a result. Nothing horrible happened, nor did anything outstanding happen.

I wish I had some fun stories to tell about today, but I don’t really have much of anything. I was just kind of floating along all day, helping out in whatever class I happened to be asked to step into. I was an assistant 8th grade math teacher, 8th grade reading teacher, and 6th grade science teacher. I monitored the special ed room for a couple of class periods.

I did start reading a new book today, while taking an unplanned break from the Dune series (I accidentally left the book at my brother’s house in St. Louis and won’t be getting it back until Saturday.) The book is The Dreamkeepers by Gloria Ladson-Billings. I will almost certainly post a review of the book when I finish, as it is one of the many pedagogical books I own. It is a case study of successful teaching of African American students. The first few pages made me very angry, but I have high hopes for the rest of the book. And no, I won’t discuss why I was angry until I get to the end.

Student Messages

Today I was a special education teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. My day was pretty easy, which was kind of a relief because special ed can be incredibly challenging and draining at times, especially for a substitute teacher. I’ve subbed for this particular teacher in the past, although I think this was my first time this year, and she knows me well enough to know what will work best.

Students in the elementary special ed classes always have a very interesting view of the world that they freely share with others. One boy decided that people who are sick are turning into werewolves. Nobody really knows for sure how he got this idea, but he insists it is true. We had quite the conversation about it. He also informed us that vampires are not real, but werewolves are. During this conversation, he outlined on the board who was sick and what was happening to them. He entitled the entire thing the “Monster Mystery Time” and asked that we keep it up for his teacher to see. Here’s what he did:

If you click on the picture, it should open to a full-size image. You’ll notice that it says that Gavin is turning into a vampire, despite the fact that vampires aren’t real. It was still pretty awesome.

Later on, I had two boys working on math and they had actually made quite a bit of progress. I gave them a short break, during which they wanted to leave a note for their teacher. One of the boys wanted to know how to write “hope you feel better” but, pursuant to my belief in not telling anyone how to spell anything, I refused. So he gave up, and the other boy took over. He couldn’t figure out how to spell “hope” either, though, so he wrote this, instead:

I was quite impressed that he was able to reword his message, even if the grammatical structure does leave much to be desired. It was fun watching them work out their message to their teacher. I’ve heard she’s going to be gone again tomorrow but, alas, I am not available to teach tomorrow due to a meeting I have in another town at 1 pm.

It was definitely a great experience working with these boys and girls today!