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End of Chapter One: Substitute Teacher

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END OF CHAPTER ONE: SUBSTITUTE TEACHER 

My first stint as a substitute teacher — with absolutely no training, mind you — ended as painfully as it began.

Fortunately, nobody got physically hurt. But after a week of wrestling (sometimes literally) with a gaggle of rowdy second grade boys who were testing every limit they could find, something had to give.

My back was the first to go, then my weak ankle, and finally my patience. Consequently, I started my fateful last day with an apology to a little girl I had screamed at the day before. I explained to the whole class that I had never been a teacher before and they were my very first class.

“So I’m trying something new, and we are all doing our best, right?” I concluded.

“But you have kids, don’t you?” asked the precocious little girl to whom I had apologized. I told her I did not. This seemed to shock them all into silence as they reflected on their discovery that not all grown-ups are parents. What on earth are big people for if they aren’t parents?

My purposeful vulnerability and honesty — a big risk — seemed to help. Everyone calmed down and paid more attention to my directions. We got on famously for about ninety minutes. We were all excited about going to watch the sixth-grade class doing a dress rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast.

This break in the routine meant I did not have to teach math (yes, I even have math anxiety about addition and subtraction), and I thought it would be a treat for the children.

The Saint and the Beasts

I did not realize what “a break in the routine” means for kids this age. It is not a good thing. I learned the importance of routine when my Mom had dementia, and the same rules apparently apply to kids, especially those struggling with behavioral and emotional problems.

When we got back from the play, one of the boys raced to the classroom, pushed in the button on the door knob, and slammed the door. We were all locked out in the hall. Mortifying substitute-teacher moment. The children thought this was a major crisis and got all riled up, but the head of the lower school came to our rescue, unlocked the door and calmed them down.

She also told the class they were lucky I was a saint.

The rest of the day was a test of my sainthood as the kids got increasingly loud and aggressive. Several boys got in trouble for fighting on the playground at recess, and the “take a break” corners were full all afternoon. Then, as we prepared for dismissal, two boys strapped their backpacks to their bellies and began charging into each other like bulls, careening around the room and endangering the other kids who were obediently sitting in our “closing circle” on the floor.

I did not yell this time. I merely took both boys by the shoulders, escorted them to the door and told them to go to the front office and tell them why they had been banished.

Another student told me that those boys “are not known for doing what they’re told,” so I looked down the hall and saw that they had been collared by the woman who had dubbed me a saint. I guess her patience was thin, too. She suspended both boys.

I was devastated.

Who suspends a second grader?? This could scar them for life!! They were already struggling! They would end up in jail or drug addicts or worse!! What had I done??

I knew the teacher I was replacing would be unhappy. She loves those kids. And so did I, as it turned out. 

Perspective

I came home feeling like a total failure.

“I almost made it,” I wailed to my neighbor J, relating how I had sent the kids to the front office a mere ten minutes before the end of my six-day adventure.

“No, you *did* make it,” she said. “The boys are the ones who almost made it.”

“But I got them suspended!”

“No,” J said again. “They got themselves suspended.”

Oh. Right.

Last night, I dug out my books on codependency, a mindset which among other things causes you to think that you know what’s best for everyone else and that you can “save” everyone and are responsible for doing so.

“My God, I’m completely codependent with second-grade boys,” I said to a friend. “I just felt so powerless to help them.”

“You did help them,” she said. “You kept them safe, and you taught them that there are consequences for their actions. You gave them time to think.”

Thank the Lord that I have time to think, too.

I need some distance and perspective. And if I’m going to teach, I need some much stronger emotional boundaries.

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.

A Child’s Story of Saint Patrick

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A CHILD’S STORY OF SAINT PATRICK

As knocked flat as I was yesterday by the force of fifteen first and second graders, and as much as I am dreading going back to my substitute job today, I couldn’t help writing them a little story about Saint Patrick because they are all *so* excited about St. Patty’s Day!

Thought I’d share it. You might learn something new about him  — like that his name wasn’t Patrick and he wasn’t Irish!

Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Maewyn. He was born in England and was doing pretty well in school until one day when he was fifteen and he was captured by pirates!! This is a true story! The pirates took him to Ireland where they sold him as a slave. There his job was to be a shepherd, taking care of a man’s flock of sheep.

For six years, he was kept prisoner, living out in the hills with the sheep. He was lonely and afraid and so he talked to his God a lot because it made him feel safer. He got to thinking he knew God pretty well, and then one night he had a dream and he felt like God was telling him to escape and go home.

Maewyn ran away from the man keeping him prisoner, and he talked some sailors into letting him ride on their ship. But they got lost after three days and ended up leaving the ship behind in France and walking. Maewyn walked for a whole month – 200 miles! – until he found his way home.

Maewyn felt like God had helped him so much when he was a prisoner in Ireland that he wanted to help God do good work for the rest of his life. So he studied to become a priest, which is like a minister or a Rabbi or Imam. A leader and helper. Priests are Catholics, and they sometimes choose new names when they become official priests, so Maewyn got a new name. Can you guess what it was? It was Patrick! He became Saint Patrick!

He went back to Ireland to teach and to serve the Irish people, because that’s what he felt God wanted him to do. So most people think that Saint Patrick was Irish, but he really only lived there and worked there. The people there chose him to be their patron saint after he died, which means they think he still protects them. March 17, today, is the anniversary of the day he died.

Saint Patrick used to use the green shamrock to teach about God and about nature, which was an important part of Irish religion, taking care of the earth. That’s why we always have shamrocks and wear green on Saint Patty’s Day!

In America, Irish immigrants – what’s an immigrant? Someone who moves here from another country – were teased and were victims of all kinds of unfairness. Just the way we see immigrants getting treated badly sometimes today. So Irish-Americans started having parades and parties to celebrate their Saint Patrick and being Irish together.

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

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