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


The End of a Journey

For the first time in a very long time, I find myself struggling with words. How do I start this? What do I say? How do I say it? I usually write in a kind of extemporaneous way, with a general idea fixed in my but nothing specifically planned. But all of my words seem to come out too cliche and unoriginal.

Many of you who come to read my blog are also friends on Facebook and/or followers on Twitter, or you may be one of my family members who actually reads this. So most of you know already. But I have a hunch that I have a few lurkers who are none of the above.

I guess I can take my advice from The Sound of Music and just start at the very beginning. Well, okay, not the very beginning, but close enough to the beginning for my purposes.

The past couple of weeks have been quite busy ones for me. I had several job interviews, I started a new job, then started another new job, quit the first, and kept preparing for interviews. I heard back from the first interview quite quickly and learned the position had been filled. I came out of the second interview feeling lackluster about it. I didn’t think I had presented myself very well. I was upset with myself because the latter job was very much the job I have been looking for. However, I have a policy of not writing off an interview until I hear back from the interviewer.

So imagine my surprise when I got a call on Monday morning asking if I would be willing to come in for a second interview the following day.

I thought about what I needed to do to prepare for a second interview and realised that I had no idea. You see, I’ve never had a second interview before. I’ve either been hired on the basis of a first interview or I’ve never been called back. I was told that the interview would be fairly informal, just the principal and myself and maybe another teacher. The principal made a point that I did not need to get “all dressed up” or wear a suit. So I donned my brown leather shoes, light brown slacks, blue dress shirt, and my awesome Utahraptor tie my baby sister got me for Christmas. It is one of my favourite ties, and I wanted to show the principal the kind of attire she could expect me to wear every day at work.

I arrived for the interview and was shown around the school, including the room would possibly be mine. We talked about classroom management, education philosophies, best practices, and other esoteric topics that fascinate me but probably bore those not deeply invested in the education profession. Then we returned to her office and continued our discussions. She told me about the goals of the school, including their efforts to become a fine arts and international studies building without becoming a fine arts or international studies program. I shared my experiences living in Australia and my networking with other teachers across the nation and in other countries. I also talked a little bit about my missionary work in California and how it related to my teaching.

After about an hour (during which the other teacher never arrived), the other candidate arrived, so we had to end our interview. And it was our interview. The principal wanted to know what I wanted from her and her school, since I was shopping for a school as much as she was shopping for a teacher. On my way out, I greeted the other candidate, who happened to be the student teacher I’d worked with at Stratton while subbing for the 4th grade (gifted) teacher. That was when I realised that I was one of only two candidates being considered for the job. I left feeling considerably better about how I presented myself and about the job in general.

It was at 11:13 am CDT that I got the phone call that has, in no uncertain terms, changed my life. After saying hello and exchanging the requisite “how are you” queries, I heard this words: “Alex, I would like to invite you to join our team here at Wiley, if you are interested.”

Holy freaking cow!

After well over 1,000 applications to posting in over 350 districts in the state of Illinois, not to mention the many applications sent across the nation last summer, I finally found my new home.

My new home isn’t even that far from my current home. Wiley Elementary School (home of the coyotes, as my oldest brother was so kind to find out and tell me) is located in Urbana, Illinois, which is home to one of the three districts to have utilised me as a substitute teacher last year. Admittedly, I was only in Urbana twice, and it wasn’t at Wiley, but it is still one of those districts to have had me on their lists. So in addition to the wonderful joy of having a full-time teaching position after three years of searching, I have a full-time teaching position in my own community of Champaign-Urbana!


To be fair, she was at work, and may not have been fully aware of the sequence of events of the day. So when I got off the phone I called her and told her. Then I got the response I had expected: she squealed, told her coworkers, and said, “Oh my God… Oh my God… Oh my God! Honey, that’s great!” Ah, understatements, how I love thee!

I made Gretch promise not to say anything online until I had finished calling parents, which didn’t take me long. I called my mum, who didn’t answer, then my dad, who didn’t answer, then repeated until I got through to one then the other. I called Gretch’s mum, who was instrumental in me getting an interview, and then I let Gretch know that she could announce it to the world. I had already posted it on Facebook and Twitter, and, I’ll be honest: I have been shocked by the response! I knew a lot of people were waiting for such good news, but I didn’t realise how many there were! I’m not even sure if a positive pregnancy announcement (whenever that happens) will generate as much response!

Several more phone calls and emails were exchanged with my new principal. I will be attending new teacher orientation on Monday and Tuesday, and then new employee orientation on Tuesday afternoon. I am heading over to my building to see my room (MY ROOM!) and start unpacking. Tomorrow morning I will be going in to get keys and work more on the room.

Oh, and school starts in two weeks. No pressure there, right?

So now I think I’ll start a new blog (Adventures in Fourth Grade, perhaps) in a couple of weeks, unless I feel compelled to write sooner, which will almost certainly happen, and just import all of these posts to make sure they have a home. Of course, all new blog entries will be posted on the various social networking sites, and I hope you’ll continue to come by and see what kind of crazy adventures I’m having! Thank you, one and all, for your love and support. Best of luck to my fellow substitute teachers, wherever you may be and whatever paths you choose to take! I’ll continue to keep up with your blogs!

In the meantime, I am off to explore my building and figure out what the heck I’m supposed to do next! My next blog post will be from whatever my new blog will be called.




Today I was a special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. This was my third or fourth time substituting for this particular teacher, so I already knew what to expect, and I was glad to be available to sub for her again.

Her schedule is set up so that she and another special ed teacher work with four or five students throughout the day. During some of the periods they are in the special ed room and during other periods they are in the regular classroom. I spent the bulk of the day working with one boy, going with him to classes to offer supports as needed, or working with him in the special ed room. It was really neat seeing how well this works for him. He is a very bright kid and very earnest in his efforts, but he is also easily distracted and forgets to bring his supplies to class. Working with a teacher one-on-one has had great benefits for him. He learned today that he got an A on a recent social studies test and, from the reaction shared by just about everyone, I think this may have been the first time he had had a success like that.

There is definitely a great benefit to working one-on-one. Unfortunately, the realities of the profession make such opportunities hard to come by. There simple isn’t enough money in the budgets of the various school and government organisations to provide tutors for everyone. We are blessed in our community to have volunteer tutors from the university, paid tutors from America Reads, and parents who give of their time to work with students after school. While there are still not enough resources to provide the support that everyone needs, I have seen that what is available is being used to the highest degree. It reminds me of the proverbial story of the boy tossing starfish along the beach back into the ocean. Critique the story as you will, the moral is still true: it may not make a difference for everyone, but it does make a difference for the one.

My Love Affair with Books

In the beginning, I didn’t know how to read. (more…)

Light Days

Today I was a 2nd grade teacher at Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet. The Mahomet-Seymour district does not have classes on the day before, the day of, or the day after Thanksgiving. So the students have a wonderful five-day vacation. As a result, there wasn’t much classwork going on today, either.

I’m not sure why this is the case, but it is definitely a common one. Teachers tend to treat the day before a vacation as a vacation day as well. There is school work going on, for sure, and the students wrap up any units they may have been working on, but it is a very light day. My students spent the morning preparing and then presenting a series of three short plays that focused on the crossing of the Atlantic by the Mayflower, the befriending of Samoset and Squanto, and the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. The afternoon was spent in Art, watching a movie, having recess, and going to P.E. Then the students finished the day eating cookies and pumpkin bars as I read a children’s book about Thanksgivings past and present.

There are some substitutes who enjoy having light days like these. I am not one of those subs. I like to have a day that has too much planned, rather than too little. I hate to have down time when the students could just as easily be at home watching “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” as being at school. I understand why the teachers planned the day like this. But it isn’t how I would have chosen to plan it. If it had been up to me to make the plans for the day, I would have had the students research different Thanksgiving festival traditions around the world, and even around the nation. What are the traditional foods? Do their families have any special Thanksgiving traditions? Are traditions important? Why or why not? This would have kept the day light without feeling like it was just a time filler.

But, alas, my job is not to make the plans. It is simply to follow the plans made by the regular classroom teacher. I am not being critical of this teacher, or any of the other teachers in the building. I am merely contemplating what I would have done differently. However, there is one thing I did today that I would not have done differently: Had the students watch “This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers”


Today I was an earth science & biology teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I think my students were juniors, but I’m not actually sure and it somehow never came up. I spent most of the day watching a video about America’s Ice Age with earth science students, then wrapped up the day helping the biology students go through a study guide on a chapter about cells.

The morning started with fun adventures in malfunctioning equipment, which had the potential of ruining the entire day. Fortunately, the teacher across the hall happened to have a DVD player connected to a projector, and so we were able to move forward with our adventures in learning about the ice age. The video last about 40 minutes, and included a wonderful segment on coprolite, which is a fossilised mineral formed from excrement. In this particular case, it was human coprolite.


Fossilised human poop

This was, obviously, a hit with the students. None of them seemed to be nearly as impressed with the fact that the largest sheet of ice that covered North America weighed 132,000,000,000,000 pounds. Nor were they impressed with the idea that the south tip of Florida is mostly likely going to be completely underwater in about 20 years. They weren’t even impressed when they learned that camels originated in North America and came to Asia via the land bridge near Siberia.

Nope, they were most impressed with the idea that poop can be fossilised. I can’t say I blame them, though. I’d love to have a piece of human coprolite to keep on my desk at school, just because it is a funny concept, and I’m sure it’d be a great conversation starter.


Today I was a “floater sub” at Robeson Elementary. I spent the morning with a 3rd grade classroom, and the afternoon with 5th graders. It was not a particularly great day. It wasn’t my worst day ever, either, but there were definitely moments when I found myself wondering why it is that I actually like my job.

I love teaching. It is my passion and my life. I don’t like having to lecture students on things like sitting in their seats, raising their hands, and doing their work. I don’t enjoy lecturing my students on being quiet in the hallways. I really hate when I have to stop a lesson to point out that telling a fellow student to “close your big fat black lips” is disgusting and despicable, and absolutely unacceptable at all times and in all places. I had to do all of these things today.

The things is, I like having to lecture about anything, really. I believe that the best learning comes through discussion and exploration. But my students today refused all attempts at rational discussion. Some of you may be thinking, “But Alex, these are kids. Aren’t you expecting a bit much of them?” My response is a resounding NO. I have seen students younger than these do amazing things. I once spent a week teaching 2nd graders and we had a week of amazing discussions throughout each day. Discussions about math, science, social studies, literature, and behaviour. So if 2nd graders can do it, I know that 3rd graders and 5th graders can do it too.

My students in the morning were actually very well behaved most of the morning. With the exception of four of them, the class was on task, working hard, and participating as expected. But everything fell apart on the way to PE. The class this afternoon started off well, but quickly fell into anarchy. I don’t even know what happened, or why. It just did. I managed to pull them back together and ready for a social studies lesson on the experiences of Ruby Bridges, and we managed to have a discussion for about 7 1/2  minutes. Then it all fell apart. So I threw in the towel and had them do the reading by themselves. No discussion. No sharing ideas. No fun. Also no recess.

Expectations are a funny thing. I believe what Jaime Escalante is attributed with saying in the movie Stand and Deliver: “Students will rise to the level of expectation that we have for them.” I hope that I keep high expectations. I think that I err when I don’t respond immediately to any failure to meet those expectations. I keep hoping that if I give the students chances to correct their behaviour, they will. What I need to start doing is be more forceful in handing out immediate consequences. It will slow the pace of the instruction but, then, the chronic poor behaviour leads to a halt in instruction, anyway. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Blog Design v 3.961

After being annoyed by the colour scheme on the blog for a couple of weeks, I found a new theme that seems to be working much better. My one concern is if it will be showing up properly on RSS feeds and such.

Any comments on the (hopefully last) update to the design will be greatly appreciated (especially by my wife).