Thursday, September 10, 2009

Wherein St. Blogwen Pinch Hits and Tries to Herd Cats

Yesterday I had my first go ever at substitute teaching at an area public school. And it was, well . . .

Actually, it was well.

We know how it's supposed to be with substitute teachers. You, as the student, are supposed to give them grief Just Because. Cut up and throw them off their game. Say outrageous things to embarrass them. Conspire for everyone to push his or her books off the desk at 2:00 PM to see how high you can make the sub jump. When I was doing the non-violent self-defense training class this past May, some of my fellow students, who had already started substitute teaching, told me how scared and shaky they were the first couple of times they got up before a class. Whoa! formidable bidznezz, subbing!

Tuesday, I got my call to come in at the crack of dawn yesterday morning. I didn't waste energy being scared about being in front of the class. I was more afraid of not being out of bed and ready so I'd arrive at the school in time to fill out the paperwork and then make it to the classroom before the students did.

Because I had to, had to go over the lesson plans for the day before the first class began. Aaaagh! What if the regular teacher had forgotten to leave them on the desk, or there was too much to read, or I wouldn't be able to comprehend it all? I knew I'd be filling in for a special ed ("Learning Support") teacher; what subject I'd be expected to tackle with the kids, the district secretary who called me had no idea.

But shock and amazement! I did get up in time. And found a handy parking place. And I didn't have to fill out the paperwork right away; I could take it away and do it later. And what do you know, the regular special ed. teacher wasn't sick or absent, she was just taking a day or two to write student evaluations. She was waiting for me in the classroom and went over the day's lesson plan with me.

Too funny: The subject was 7th and 8th grade Pre-Algebra lab. Me, I nearly flunked Algebra as a 7th grader. But this was the early, basic part, and the answers were all in the book.

The homeroom kids cleared out, the Pre-Algebra lab Learning Support students filed in, the regular teacher introduced me, then gave the eight or nine students some warnings and admonitions. Then she cleared out and the classroom was mine.

And you know, standing up in front of that chalkboard presenting the material, asking questions, and soliciting answers, it hit me, I've done this before. It doesn't matter that my previous experience with junior high kids was with confirmation class or Sunday School, I'm not really new to this, I've got experience here, and I'm ready to rock and roll!

As it turned out, these were Learning Support pupils who needed extra help for various reasons, but apparently don't suffer from clinical intellectual deficiencies. I was pleased to see how well they were grasping at least the basic algebraic concepts, and even more pleased to find how well they could do arithmetic in their heads (the only calculators in the room were on the teacher's desk).

As I hit my stride, I was aware of a certain spirit of rebellion-- in me, not in the students. Before the regular teacher left, she was calling out particular pupils as "having a bad attitude" or as being "certain to cause trouble." Yeah, I know there are kids like that; I've had them before in church settings. But I also know that you get the behavior you expect and that if you go looking for kids to be a pain, they'll oblige you. Besides, it's only the second week of school, good grief already! What you want to go labelling kids like that for so early in the year?!

So I made a point of asking these kids in particular to contribute and encouraging them when they did. Youcandoityoucandoityoucandoit! And asking and remembering everyone's name. And trying to make sure everyone got called on, not just the eager beavers with their hands up all the time.

And so, woot! first period went very well. I can do this! Even with Algebra!

I wish I felt as good about the rest of the day. First period was the only chance I had to do sustained front-of-the-room teaching. Two other periods I was in with the another, regular, Algebra teacher, observing and giving assistance. I think-- I'm not sure-- I was supposed to confine my attention to the handful of kids I'd be seeing later back in the Learning Support Algebra lab. But I didn't know who they were and besides, this teacher spent most of both of these periods going over the class rules and regs. I watched for kids who weren't looking at the material and floated over to get them back on task, but otherwise I didn't have a hell of a lot to do. Which was a letdown.

The other three periods I had back in the math lab were just glorified study halls with many of the same students returning two or three times. Whether it was the kids I'd had first period or the Learning Support pupils whom I'd first seen in the other teacher's class, they had the same Pre-Algebra homework and I was there to help them with it. But it was hard to keep them on task when I couldn't fix all of them with my eye. As I was at one student's desk, two or three others would be up wandering around. And it was always for some ostensibly good reason. I need to sharpen my pencil! I need the pass to go to the bathroom! Teacher! I need to go to the nurse! If I say No, am I being needlessly strict? If I say Yes to everything, am I being a pushover?

It was grimly amusing 4th period to have one of the kids from the 1st period accuse me of being "mean," unlike their regular Learning Support teacher. Yeah, the same teacher who had jumped on kids earlier before they'd done anything wrong. Oh, yeah, I recognised that for the emotional blackmail it was. I wasn't falling for it, or for the temptation to contradict him with my impression of their regular teacher's "meanness." Solidarity, solidarity.

Still, I was sorry that she and I hadn't had the time to go over what was or wasn't permissible. It felt like going on a childminding job and having the parents forget to go over the rules. Such as, is it really ok for the kids to toss around the Math Ball when they say they're done with their book work? I knew any kid had to have a medical pass to go to the Nurse's office; where the dickens were they? And that if a pupil misbehaves and disregards an initial warning, the next step in discipline is an after-school teacher conference with the child. But as a substitute, how could I do that? I wasn't about to send my particular problem children (two boys from the other math teacher's room) to the Principal's office; how lame is that? So all I could do is try to distract and channel the annoying behavior, and write a note to the regular teacher when the day was over.

For that matter, shouldn't there be a Batphone button on the class telephone to connect me to the Principal's office directly? Final period, it was essential we come up with some medical passes (one young lady had ripped her feet to shreds with some new shoes, and the bandaids I supplied her 1st period weren't making it). One of the students had to find me the phone list, and the blinking Principal's office wasn't even on it!

Last period, all the kids insisted their homework was done and I gave permission for them to play with the Math Ball, as long as they left the teacher's swivel chairs out of the game. But I'm not satisfied that we used the time as well as we might have.

From talk I heard, the Learning Support teacher may be taking tomorrow off as well. If I am called in again, I've got some ideas on how to get some more structure in the later periods. I imagine she imposes it, and I need to, too. Kittehs is nice, but I don't want to have to herd them.