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


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!


Saying Goodbye

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. This was possibly the last of a long, long, long series of assignments for my mother-in-law over the past three years. It has been really awesome seeing the students in her class grow and mature over the years. I taught many of them when they were in third grade, then again last year, and then this year. As I told them at the end of the day, “Despite the headaches, the near-aneurysms, the frustrations, and the frequent desire to beat my head against a brick wall, I’ve really enjoyed working with you boys and girls. You’re awesome! I may not be substituting next year, but even if I am, I don’t seem to make it to Jefferson much, so I may not see you again. So thanks. Now go outside and enjoy your recess!”

Some of them gave me hugs. One girl made a fist-pump and shouted, “YES!!!” to which I responded, “I feel the same way about you!” (We were both joking, of course.) In reality, I would be delighted to have a classroom full of students like her: eager, bright, open-minded, quick to question, quick to answer, and willing to verbally spar in a battle of wits.

There is a slim chance that my mother-in-law will be sick (or maybe her son), but, honestly, with just six and a half days of school remaining in the year, the probability of working with these particular students again this year are not especially high. Combine this with my strong desire to gain full-time employment for this coming school year, and I feel like my time as a substitute may be drawing to an end.

Of course, if I don’t get offered a full-time job, my adventures in substituting will continue. And I will continue to blog about the remaining adventures I have this year. But today, being a Friday, was definitely a day to say goodbye.

Oh, and the whole “beginning of the end of the world” that is supposed to happen at 6 pm tomorrow. If I am still here and a small portion of the world population mysteriously disappears, though, I’ll probably spend my weekend looting. (I am kidding, of course. I am actually going to be garage saling tomorrow.)

By the way, still no word on the job I interviewed for on Wednesday. I’ll post an update as soon as I hear. In the meantime, have a great weekend!

Different Spaces

Today is Saturday. I was running errands this morning and happened to go by Wal-Mart. While there, I saw two children who I have taught in the past. One was a girl I have not seen since my first year of teaching. She had some pretty serious behavioural issues due to a difficult home life, but she was not a terrible student. Just had difficulty expressing herself in appropriate ways in class. At least, this is what I remember of her. The other was her younger brother, who was one of the three holy terrors in my class yesterday. In fact, his behaviour was the worst of the three. He was the boy who fought with two different students, cursed at me, his teacher, the assistant principal, the principal, and at least one parent who happened to be in the hallway at the time. I have learned a little bit about their home situation and I’ll be honest: it is one of the saddest stories I have encountered in my life.

Yet I saw something today that I have never heard about whenever I have worked with these students’ teachers. I saw their father. I saw that he looked like a man who has had a hard life, has been beaten down again and again, and wants to do what’s best for his children but doesn’t really know what all he can do. I saw a man who seems wary of all strangers, and weary of life. And yet I also saw a man who would do whatever necessary to protect his children. I saw this in his eyes, in the way he looked at me when his two relatively young children suddenly started talking to what he must have seen as a strange man in Wal-Mart. I was wearing a jacket over a hoodie, jeans and worn sneakers. My hair was not particularly well-kempt, and so there was none of the professional demeanor that I usually have. Remember, this is a Saturday morning. His kids both explained that I have been their teacher in the past, and the son smiled and said that I was his teacher yesterday. The girl also smiled. They were both smiling the whole time they were talking to me, and the smiles were simple, easy, and sincere. I couldn’t stay long, so I told the father that I’ve had the opportunity to work with both of them as a substitute teacher, and then let them know that I had to be going, and I left. The entire encounter was less than five minutes.

Then it struck me:

I have never seen either one of these children smile before. I’ve seen them with flat expressions, I’ve seen the boy filled with rage, I’ve seen him struggle to control his composure and then lose it, but I’ve never seen a smile.

Is it because I’ve only ever seen them in school? That is quite likely the cause. Especially for this boy, who I have taught in two different classes over the past two years (possibly even three–I can’t recall if he was in any of the classes I taught my first year as a sub), he has always given the impression that school is not where he wants to be. It is as if coming to school creates a physical change in him that affects everything. The boy I saw yesterday was negative, angry, and violent. There were moments in the day when I was certain he was going to take a swing at my face. The boy I saw today was positive, happy, and friendly.

What a difference different spaces can create! I am going to remember this the next time I am in his classroom, and I am going to remind him of this brief encounter. Will it make a difference? I don’t know. But I am going to try. I may not have many opportunities to reach him, and I may not have a strong relationship of trust and understanding, but I did see a window of opportunity to present itself, and I would be remiss if I did not take advantage of it.

Operation Snowball, Inc.

Today’s blog post is neither about substituting nor teaching. Not really, at least. It is about one of my greatest hobbies: drug prevention. This was originally written for the blog which my wife and I share, but I felt that it would be appropriate to share here. And, since it is my blog, I get to make the rules. Much as, when teaching in a classroom, there comes a point when, as the teacher, I get to make the rules (at least for that day).

I am a long-time supporter of drug prevention programs that focus on teen leadership training and empowerment. Most notably, I am a volunteer drug prevention specialist through Operation Snowball, Inc. and the Illinois Teen Institute.

I got involved with these programs in 1996, when I attended a Snowflake event at Washington Community High School. Snowflake is a prevention program aimed at middle school/junior high students. I attended my first Snowflake as a 7th grader, through the influence of two of my older brothers, Anton and Adam, who were both involved in the high school’s Operation Snowball chapter. I remember being bewildered at first, but quickly coming to enjoy the atmosphere. I could not tell you a single thing we were taught during that evening event, but I can tell you that I was there with my best friend, Carl, and we met a girl there named Colleen. When we got to high school, we became friends with Colleen (or Co, as we came to know her), and she and Carl eventually dated and, a couple of years ago, through a long, twisting road, got married. I don’t actually remember meeting Co at Snowflake, but she remembers meeting me and, more importantly, she remembers meeting Carl. Pretty awesome, huh? Not that that has anything to do with today’s story, per se, but still, I had to get that out there.

When I got to high school, I joined the Operation Snowball chapter and attended the weekend lock-in held in January 1998. I still have the orange t-shirt with a Superman-esque drawing on the back that bears the motto “Take A Stand”. I went back in 1999 as a teen staff member, and kept the green shirt that has a cup of tea with slogan “Got tea?” to go with the theme of “Time Of Your Life”. In 2000, I came for the “Lean On Me” year: baby blue t-shirt with a giant snowball with a boy and girl each leaning on one side. 2001 was my senior year of high school, and my last year on the teen staff: a navy blue shirt with silver letters that bore the simple theme: “All Star”.

After graduating, I was certain that I would be coming back to Snowball as an adult staff member, even though I wasn’t sure what that would entail. It was awesome. I still got to work with a small group, I worked with the teens, and I continued to not only gain knowledge about drug prevention, I was able to share what I had learned over the many years. The theme was “True Colors” and the shirts were red with a painter’s palette. I decided very early on that I wanted to be truly dedicated to Operation Snowball, and that I would continue to participate with this amazing program. I saw how it had changed my life, how it had changed the lives of my friends, and I wanted to stay a part of it. However, I took two years off to serve a full-time mission for my church, so I missed 2003 and 2004.

So in 2005 I returned, and continued to help out. Our shirts were black t-shirt with a yellow guitar logo on the front and a multi-coloured drum set on the back to match the theme: “Rock Your World”. (In addition to being my return to Snowball, it marked the first year I had been there since ’99 in which the theme was not a song title.) 2006 was a ridiculously bright pink shirt for the theme “Saved By The Ball”, which mimicked the logo for the TV series after which the theme was inspired. The back features neon green text that lists the teen staff as part of the “Bayside High Faculty” (something that didn’t make sense to me then, and doesn’t make sense to me now). The theme for 2007 was “Point of Impact” and was presented on grey t-shirts with the theme printed on the back over a series of four white circles that start small and grow larger as they form an arc.

2008 became a very important year for me and Gretchen. This was the 10th anniversary of my first Snowball, and it was Gretchen’s first Snowball ever. We had started dating the previous August and, having recently gotten engaged, I asked Gretch to come with me. She came, but did not get a t-shirt for reasons that were not quite explained. Because she had never been before, she attended as one of two adult participants that year. The other AP was a lovely young woman named Sarah, who is now married to Lucas Doremus, who I also met through Snowball. She came at Lucas’ behest when they were dating. The shirts for the staff were black, and had the theme “One Life To Live” printed in red and white (participants were given red shirts, with the theme printed in white and black).

In the year 2009, Gretch and I both attended at adult staff members, and we both got the white t-shirts with the motto “If Every ONE Cared” printed on the front. This was the first shirt to feature a quote on the back: “And as we lie beneath the stars, We realize who we are. If they could love like you and me, Imagine what the world could be.” Nickelback, “If Everyone Cared”. My baby sister, Ariana, was eligible to attend this year as a freshman, but since none of her friends wanted to go, she decided not to go, either. I think she also had something else happening that weekend.

2010 brings us up-to-date with the Washington Community High School Operation Snowball weekends. Gretch and I were proudly there for the weekend, cheerfully wearing our black staff t-shirts with the theme “Click: Take Control” on the front and a quote from John F. Kennedy on the back: “Change is the law of the life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Ariana came this year, and received an orange shirt with the same theme and logo. It was awesome having three members of the Valencic family present, along with Cornelius (my yellow teddy bear who has accompanied me to every single Snowball and Teen Institute, as well as my mission in California and my semester in Australia) and Hippo, the stuffed hippo that Ariana gave Gretch for Christmas the year we got married.

Up until this point, every Snowball weekend I have attended has been at Washington Community High School. I tried to get involved with the Champaign County Operation Snowball a few years ago, but it didn’t work out. And for years, I have been trying to convince my friend Rob Grupe, who I met at the Illinois Teen Institute, to let me come to the Effingham County Operation Snowball weekend, which is directs. After 11 Snowballs in 13 (school) years, I finally got my wish. Gretch and I were invited to attend the 30th Effingham County Operation Snowball weekend at Camp Walter Scott in Dieterich, Illinois, this weekend. The theme was “Believe In Yourself” and featured a man juggling several balls. The shirts were a bright blue with white and neon green letters that matched the colour scheme of the ITI 2010 shirts.

We had an awesome time! The teens in Effingham County are amazing young men and women, and I was inspired by their dedication to leading the peers in making positive decisions. They are also fun, funny, and intelligent, and they are deeply devoted to their cause. Their adult leaders were equally amazing, and they all welcomed us into their family with open arms. We have invited them to attend Washington’s Snowball weekend in January, and have already had three teens and two adults ask about coming. And so the movement continues to grow, just as a bit of snow, rolling down a hill, gathers speed and momentum as is, well, snowballs.