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The Humbling of a Substitute Teacher

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The little girl is cute as can be. She has a button of a nose that she wrinkles up when you say it’s time for math, and her coarse black hair is braided into unwieldy pigtails that spring out from the sides of her head. Right now, her mouth is open in a little o and she is looking at you as if you are very dangerous indeed. Perhaps a psychopath.

And you are acting like one. You are bending over and yelling into her little face at the top of your lungs, “I don’t care whose job it is, you are doing it and you are doing it now! I am sick of this!”

Suddenly all the children in the class are busily stacking their chairs as if they do this every afternoon, which they do not. It’s why your back has gone out of whack and you’ve been gobbling Advil for two days and are unable to chase wayward children down the hall when you tell them they can’t go to the water fountain but they go anyway. Because you end every day by stacking twenty chairs and then stooping and stooping and stooping, gathering scissors and crayons and water bottles and abandoned spelling worksheets and all the detritus of the day which other teachers somehow manage to have their children pick up, but you can not.

This is why I am yelling at the cute little girl. I am in pain. The teacher for whom I was supposed to sub two days has shingles and this is day five with her unruly class. (It has been confirmed by several teachers that this is one of the toughest classes in the school, and I am highly relieved to hear this.) It is fifteen minutes before dismissal, the end of the day so close I can smell it, and this little girl has blurted out the last of one too many “nos,” one too many “it’s not my jobs,” and one too many “but our teacher lets us do a, b, or c.”

True, the girl has been acting up and getting worse all week, aligning herself with the constantly trying second grade boys. But she has not been responsible for most of the week’s trouble in this, my first eye-opening week of substitute teaching.

Tomorrow I will apologize to her in front of the class. To show them how grownups who are not psychopaths behave.

I FORGOT

The Continuing Adventures of a New Substitute Teacher

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THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF A NEW SUBSTITUTE TEACHER

“Your Amazon order of Setting Limits in the Classroom, 3rd Edition has shipped!”

I barely remember rush-ordering the book last night, but apparently I’m not ready to quit yet — I’m investing.

If you’ve been following my latest adventures as a substitute teacher, you will know that yesterday, my first day, I barely made it out alive. At least that’s how it felt after seven hours with a pack of first and second graders. My stomach was drowning in stress hormones, reminding me of when I suffered from anxiety as a teenager and had to be put on meds.

After writing a Facebook note and a blog post last night basically screeching, “Help, I’m going down!” I got tons of excellent advice from Moms and Dads and teachers. Even my eighteen-year-old grand niece told me that things would be OK; she remembers loving her second grade sub but doing her best to torture her all the same.

Everyone tried to encourage me. A few people told me that things would be better the second day. But they hadn’t met these kids. A friend in New Hampshire nailed it (and she should know, raising three small boys): “In my experience,” she wrote, “they’re one good meal or one good night’s rest away from feral animals. That said, every interaction you have is an opportunity to make a difference.”

Another friend told me to “pull up your big girl panties and get back in the ring!”

So as I marched determinedly down the hall this morning, I repeated those words to myself like a mantra. “I’ve got my big girl panties on and I’m getting back in the ring!”  The theme from Rocky played in my head.

Day Two in the Classroom

Amazingly enough, my friends were right. Today was way better.

Things that worked: I raised my voice unexpectedly. With me, any time I raise my voice it’s unexpected, and I was surprised how immediately this worked (at first).

I stopped smiling. This was really hard; I am such a natural smiler. But I was a little angry after yesterday, and I think that helped.

Instead of letting the children get “just a little” out-of-hand because “they’re only being kids,” I immediately stopped the production of paper airplanes, crumpled them up, and put them in the recycling bin. As soon as I heard the words, “Guess what I made? It’s a scissors launcher!!” I was on it.

I had more fun today. I made the class a little bit mine. It’s a Quaker school, so we start with a few minutes of “morning worship,” which means sitting in a silent circle with a candle in the center. At the end of the time, I had them recite the “Saint Patrick’s Prayer” with me, complete with body movements. (I changed the word “Christ” to “Light.”) They liked it!

After that, we all took a break and went to the windows to watch three deer in the woods outside the classroom. (Thanks, God!)

Later I read the story about Saint Patrick that I wrote for them, and we talked about respecting immigrants and people of different religions.

I’m in the right place. Next week is “diversity week” at school. There are quotes on the bulletin boards like Shirley Chisolm’s “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt,” and Angela Davis’s “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” In the older girl’s bathroom, there isn’t much graffiti, but what I saw said things like “Hope” and “I love you!”

I’m going to stick this out. We’ll see how the other ages in K-8 pan out.

I’ve got my big girl panties on now, and this evening I am experiencing one of my favorite feelings. I am dang proud of myself.

Was This Teaching Thing All a Mistake?

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WAS THIS TEACHING THING ALL A MISTAKE?

The closest thing I can liken it to is that feeling you get when you’ve been in a car accident and you step out all wobbly, gingerly testing every part of your body. You think you might be OK, but then again you might be missing a limb and not feeling it because you are in deep shock. Everything seems vivid and clear and surreal. You are glad to be alive.

You take deep gulping breaths and blink back tears, tears that have been lurking since you ate your PB&J sandwich at noon and waited for the kids to come back from recess.

Today you have been sad, mad, and despairing, but mostly just powerless.

Over first and second graders.

My first day as a substitute teacher might have been better without the second grade boys in the mix. In fact, it most definitely would have been. The paper airplanes wouldn’t be stuck on top of the ceiling light fixture and the four-foot-tall stack of plastic tubs would not have careened to the ground and scattered all the regular teacher’s folders and papers all over the floor.

I just thank God that the head of the school did not walk in at that moment. With two boys denying responsibility at higher and higher decibel levels and a third boy sobbing his heart out and the rest of the class staring at me with saucer-sized eyes, wondering if I was going to hit someone.

The girls mostly got into fights with each other over sharing toys and where things such as rocket ships and flags were supposed to be stored. There were raised voices, there were tears, there was one who sat in a corner and sulked for ten minutes. I asked her if she wanted to talk and she shook her head so I left her there. She seemed to bounce back.

I don’t know. Was this whole idea of substitute teaching a massive mistake?

My Facebook friends were so encouraging! “You’ll be amazing . . . you’ll be great . . . you have so much wisdom . . . you’ll change lives!”

Not so much.

There were moments. Helping a little girl learn to read the words “ice cream and cake” was cool, and reading Horton Hears a Who to an exhausted class at the end of the day with one small child cuddled next to me was five minutes of well-earned bliss.

A little red-headed girl who was only with my class for an hour of spelling and writing came running in to give me a hug after school.

And A, despite being in tears several times during the day, presented me with this:

A’s Gift

I don’t know whether that is a TV or a couple of aliens coming in through a window, but it matters not. I will keep this picture as a reminder of my first day as a teacher. Someday I hope to laugh about it all. Right now, my stomach hurts. I have to go back tomorrow.

Instinctive Terror: Day One in the Classroom

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INSTINCTIVE TERROR: DAY ONE IN THE CLASSROOM

“That one is going to be my problem, isn’t he?” I was watching a little boy with a blue striped shirt and vibrant green eyes flit about the classroom, an aura of mischief encircling him.

“Oh, good,” said the teacher who was mentoring me. “You’ve got the instinct.”

The instinct to recognize trouble? But then what?

“You’ll be great,” she says. “It’s just classroom management.”

JUST CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT?

I don’t know anything about classroom management! Wait, you’re not leaving me alone with these kids, are you??

New Beginnings

Tomorrow is my first day as a substitute teacher. I spent a day of my own time getting to know the teacher and the class last week. The teacher directed me to some websites which I’ve been studying as if my life depends on it.

I’ve memorized some of the material. I’m to watch out for:

  • Shifting in seat
  • Opening and closing fists
  • Drumming on desk with fists
  • Slumping shoulders
  • Crossing arms against chest
  • Trouble making eye contact

“This child may become defiant. Intervene early.”

What?? A defiant second grader? Then what do I do?

“Don’t expect that you can reason with the child or make an emotional appeal to get them to behave.”

Oh, OK.

Wait, if you can’t use reason or emotion, what do you do?

“Stay calm. Take deep breaths.”

OK, now I feel like I’m entering a hostage situation. Which is about right. Six and half hours trapped in the classroom. Only I’m not being held hostage. I’m in charge. God help us.

Something else I have memorized:

When confronted with defiance:

  • Be brief. Avoid lectures and sarcasm.
  • Speak in a calm, matter-of-fact tone.
  • Use short, direct statements.
  • Don’t ask questions (unless you will accept any answer).
  • Keep your body language neutral.

Stop that. Stop that now.

Do not do that.

I am calm.

Stop doing that!

STOP NOW!!

This is going to take more than instinct.

More to come, if I survive . . .

Abstract Children

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ABSTRACT CHILDREN

I don’t have children, which is usually fine with me. Every once in a while, I think it might have been nice. Once a long time ago I had a dream of my daughter. She was freckle-faced with wispy blonde hair and we were standing on a cliff in the wind. My heart nearly burst with love for her. Sometimes I wonder if she exists in an alternate universe.

But most of the time I’m quite happy to be in this universe, psychically and emotionally independent. I greatly value my freedom, and I am just as glad not to have large pieces of my heart galavanting around the world getting hurt or getting into trouble. I have way less to worry about than parents do, and I’m grateful for that.

I joke about not liking children in general — they can be noisy and they are often covered in jelly or chocolate — but every time I get to know one as an individual, I fall in love. The love affairs started with the birth of my nephew and niece, continued as the children of my friends grew into beautiful, fascinating beings, and is now in full blossom as the oldest of my six grand nieces and nephews start their college days.

Children in the abstract I can take or leave, but children in the flesh make my heart sing. Not much makes me happier than watching little ones dance around our church sanctuary each Sunday, “making a joyful noise to the Lord” on tambourines and cymbals and drums. Even if they are covered with raspberry jelly and bits of doughnut.

A New Direction

So although it has come as a great surprise to me, I suppose an observer might not be at all surprised that I have chosen substitute teaching as the next step in my circuitous journey toward becoming my best self. It makes sense that I would eventually be drawn to spending more time with real, actual children, even though I am intimidated when packs of the older ones stampede down the hall, jostling each other and causing lockers to vibrate with their riotous laughter.

Yesterday, I began my new career at a nearby Quaker school by joining a class of 1st and 2nd graders that I’ll be subbing for next Thursday and Friday. Never having done the classroom thing before, I wanted to watch a real teacher in action. Ms. S was impressed that I volunteered my time to get to know the kids, and she was generous with her time in preparing me. I ended up spending the whole day with her fourteen students, rather than the three hours I had planned.

Stay tuned for further adventures in the life of a CIA clerk turned Sierra Club lobbyist turned freelance writer turned pastor turned teacher.

As Dr. Seuss says, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose!”

On the Journey

The Focus of Desire

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THE FOCUS OF DESIRE

One of the good things about being a cocaine addict is that it gives you focus. You’re never unclear about what you want or how to get it. You get your paycheck, you go to your dealer’s house, and you get what you desire. If you need more cocaine than you can pay for, you sell some to your friends at an inflated price and then they become better friends because you have what they want. And need. **

Later, you give up cocaine when the fact that it kills young and otherwise healthy people is made painfully clear to you. Then you have to rely on alcohol to give you what you want. It’s cheaper, but the clarity is missing. What you desire isn’t as obvious. You settle for laughing uproariously with other friends who drink too much, and you occasionally get drunk enough to have a heartfelt conversation that feels like intimacy only it’s not. You make mistakes.

Sex is always good for a quick shot of dopamine, but in my case it usually made the emptiness worse because although it satisfied for a time, it could not give me what I was really seeking. I didn’t know precisely what that was, but I was becoming dimly aware that I was a bottomless pit of desire, craving love and acceptance and belonging and meaning.

It wasn’t until I started sniffing around spirituality that I identified the deep desire that lay beneath all of my clambering needs: peace. I distinctly remember writing that in my journal, lo these thirty years ago. “What I really want is peace.”

Finding Peace

Peace is not a familiar feeling when you’ve grown up in an alcoholic household, or any other kind of dysfunctional home — which probably describes most of us! Many “adult children” of imperfect parents don’t really know who they are or what they want because they’re too busy worrying about what other people think of them. We are people-pleasers, afraid of rejection. We often don’t like ourselves; we have this chronic feeling of not being good enough. Out of fear, we work tirelessly to manage everything and everyone so that nothing feels “out of control.”

Peace is hard to come by under these circumstances, which is why so many of us numb out with sex, drugs, carbs, alcohol, social media, TV, etc., etc., etc. Oh, there’s the occasional pearly pink sunset or lazy Sunday afternoon with your lover. But I’m not talking about a peaceful feeling, I’m talking about a deep-down peaceful spirit. Being OK with the world, OK with yourself, and OK with everybody else.

beauty and darkness

I have found this deep and lasting peace through my growing belief and trust in a loving Higher Power, which I call God but I don’t call “He.” My God is Love. My God is not bound by time and assures me that my spirit is not bound by time either. My God is crazy-powerful, but often subtle, so I have to pay attention and be on the lookout for Her fingerprints.

And they are there. I’ve seen them often enough now to know for certain. I am intimately known; I am being cared for and upheld; I am part of a divine plan to bring goodness and reconciliation to the world.

I know this. But I forget. And that’s why I love Lent. It’s a time to intentionally re-enter the house of peace and linger here, not needing to rush off.

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” — Isaiah 26:3

** I apologize to nice Christians who think they are signed up to read a nice pastor-lady’s blog. This pastor has a past. And I especially apologize to my grand nieces who sometimes read this blog and who don’t know about Great Auntie Mel’s mixed up past. I am more than happy to tell you all about it if you ask, and especially to tell you why you should not emulate my journey.

Ancestral Voices in My Head

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ANCESTRAL VOICES IN MY HEAD

I have these voices in my head. You know the ones I mean. Right?

(Please tell me that you do.)

Mine mostly entail shoulds and oughts and shames. Judgement. I’ve spent years in therapy, meditation, and prayer, and many hours in recovery programs for dysfunctional families, trying to rid myself of these voices.

Girl shouting with fingers in ears

Before that, I just drank and did drugs and overworked, trying to quiet the unacknowledged chattering. As long as I had a romantic partner, I could throw myself into the drama of trying to fix them and “us” instead of noticing the voices in my head. As long as I was an environmental lobbyist, I had a whole planet to save. Who has time for self-awareness?

I was oblivious to the submerged script that directed my life, causing me to make unwise choices and judge others and numb in any way I could.

I coped. I was OK. I didn’t always feel good about myself, but I was OK.

When I began my journey of spiritual and emotional healing, I finally started to hear the voices. I did not hear them in an auditory sense, but their words were clear and loud: “What is wrong with you?” “Why are you are so stupid?” “I can’t believe you did that!”

They were regular and insistent and alarming. Who talks to someone like that?

Well, as it turns out, everyone in my family did.

Digital Mouth

Family Voices

“Whose voice is that?” my therapist would ask. And I’d close my eyes and try to pinpoint it. It was often my mother, my sister, or my brother. They weren’t unloving people, they were just responding to the harsh and commanding voices in their own heads, I guess. It pains me now when I hear families talk to each other like this because I know it’s being internalized, especially by the youngest ones.

These are ancestral voices, passed on through generations. When I trace mine back as far as I’m able, they belong to my grandmother, born Zillah but called Beedie. Her judgmental voice haunted my mother, who passed it on to my older sister and brother.

It’s not Beedie’s fault. Someone talked to her that way. She grew up highly privileged, the daughter of a wealthy diamond mine magnate in South Africa, surrounded by servants and governesses and nannies. Of course she had a strong sense of the way things ought to be and the way people ought to act. They ought to act like wealthy British imperialists, better than everyone else.

And so when I don’t measure up to Beedie’s standards, the critical voices kick in. The underlying “truth” of all the negative voices is “You are not good enough.”

I imagine she felt the same way, or she would not have internalized the judgement and passed it on.

Placing the Blame

Of course when you find someone else’s voice in your head and it’s been hounding you as far back as you can recall, you get angry at them. You need to blame someone for your own brokenness. It’s my family’s fault! It’s that kindergarten teacher’s fault!

The problem with blaming someone else is that it disempowers you. You give away your power of recovery to someone else, and you get stuck. Might as well pour another Scotch, I can’t get these voices out of my head anyway.

The other day my therapist asked me what I would say to Beedie if she were here today. And I said without hesitation: “You are dead and I am still alive.”

She has lived her life with her voices. I still have a chance to heal and become more whole. In fact, that’s a good way to honor those who have come before us.

Birthday Blessing

Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She was born on February 15, 1889 in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa. In honor of Beedie, I’ve decided to let go of the blame and negativity that I’ve held. I release her judgements and her critiques — I don’t need them. Instead, I choose to think of her with compassion and love. I want to remember her true, best self.

Happy birthday, dear Beedie. Thank you for your sense of humor and absurdity and fun. Thank you for your love of animals and flower gardens. Thank you for your small kindnesses (often involving chocolate) and for passing on your appreciation for “a proper cup of tea.” Thank you for holding to your values and always doing what you thought was right.

You were a strong woman, Beedie; you were courageous. Your best friend was murdered by Zulus when you were a child; you lost your own little boy; you lost your husband’s love to his philandering and then his young life to a ship fire; you lost your fortune and lived in poverty but kept your family together. Gangrene stole your ability to walk and dementia stole your ability to think.

Nevertheless, you persisted.

Thank you for being who you were, Beedie. Thank you for being an example. I treasure the day that you were born. I love you.

♥♥♥

Thanks for the WordPress prompt: sound

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