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

Teachers’ Secrets

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.



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.

Summer Reading I: Tuck Everlasting

A few months ago, I was subbing for a teacher who was reading Tuck Everlasting to her class. This is one of those books that every intermediate-level student reads or has read to them, even though it has not, to my knowledge, received any awards for being outstanding in anything. Then, just a few weeks ago, my baby sister (who just turned 17, but is still my baby sister) made a comment online that she has never hated a book as much as Catcher in the Rye since she read Tuck Everlasting, to which the youngest of my older brothers responded that he, too, hates it.

So I decided to give it another read. I’ve read it a few times, but I’ve never had strong feelings about it one way or the other. My wife and I own the 2002 Disney adaptation of the movie which, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really follow the book all that closely.

[NOTE: If you haven’t read the book before and you don’t like spoilers, just stop reading now. Seriously. Because I am going to spoil the ending.] (more…)

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…)

Hulk Rage

Today I was a first grade teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary in Champaign. I actually worked with this class several months ago, and I’d had a fairly decent experience. I have a general belief that classes improve over time, but this was not true for today.

In fact, the class was considerably worse than they had been at the beginning of the year. Instead of having one or two students challenging limits and pushing buttons, I had nine out of seventeen. It was chaotic and nearly unmanageable.

Their teacher uses the lights in the classroom as a signal for the students to reset (stop, think about what they are doing, and start making better choices). Every teacher has a different management plan, and I try to follow each plan as best as I can. At first, the class responded well to the lights being turned off: they all got back in their seats, stopped what they were doing, and put their heads down. But then they would go right back to misbehaving after the lights were turned back on.

I tried to demonstrate that I was serious about the need for them to reset, and so I stopped everything again by turning off the lights. Of course, as soon as the lights went back on, so did the misbehaviour. And I can’t exactly have a class work all day in the dark. So the day was stop, go, stop, go, stop, go.

All. Day. Long.

After lunch, things were even worse. All of a sudden I had pencils, pens, markers, erasers, toys, and tissue boxes flying across the room. I tried some of my other methods of management: I simply sat down and refused to respond to any students until everyone stopped what they were doing. This works really well with most classes.

Not so much with this one. Things got worse. And worse. And worse.

And then the name calling started. Followed by the profanities.

Did I mention that these kids are in first grade? They are all about seven years old. And yet they were swearing at each other. It completely blew my mind.

And so I blew up at them. Actually, I just made it sound like I blew up. I was in complete control and knew exactly what I was saying and how I was saying it. They stopped then. Hoo boy, did they stop. But I hate when I have to raise my voice, and I hate it even more when I have to actually yell. But when everything else fails and I start to fear for the safety of the students in my classroom, I don’t have time to clap my hands, turn off the lights, or talk sweetly. And so I have to turn on the Hulk Rage:


Well, it worked for a couple of minutes. Then, just before the class went all crazy again, the assistant principal came in.

Because she could hear me.

From her office.

Across the building.

She talked to the class, threatened to haul some of them off to her office, and then left. About a minute later, I had to call for her to come back and take one of the boys. I was tempted to ask her to take four more, but I wanted to see what would happen with the biggest instigator gone.

It seemed to work. I finally had the class working for the last 45 minutes of the day.

I don’t say it often, but today is definitely a TGIF day. Also, we have a nice three-day weekend ahead of us. I’m ready for a long break!

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.

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.