Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Finding Focus

My second day was a bit bumpy at the end, but I suppose not sleeping for two days can do that. I need to get my head above water with planning and organizing. I still have so many questions, but luckily my principal is amazing and fiercely supportive. Today I realized that I can do this job. No, like really DO this job, and enjoy the frustrations as much as the victories. Now, all I need to do is get better at lecturing. I tend to meander and go on tangents... Tangent is a funny word. It reminds me of tangrams. Remember those? 

Wait, where was I?

Monday, August 26, 2013


It happened! I finally got a real teaching position, at a real school, with a real staff, and real students! It's so much better than the imaginary school I was going to everyday. My first day was a whirlwind, and I suddenly have so much to do, but it feels great to be doing what I love.

My to do list includes:

-Mapping out the classroom environment
-Creating a syllabus for each of my classes
-Crafting some unit plans and mini-lessons
-Filling out a TON of paperwork! Yikes!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guide to Being a Substitute Teacher: En Español

If you don't use it, you lose it, right? I subbed for a Spanish class today, and it was muy difícil. That means "very difficult," I learned. Languages have always been hard for me to master, but not for lack of effort. I mean, I am a Language Arts teacher, after all. I have more breadth than depth when it comes to foreign languages. I grew up with Urdu, studied Spanish and French in junior high and high school, and tried my tongue with Irish (not to be confused with Gaelic). The results? When I try to speak in any language other than English, it comes out sounding like a radio being tuned by a schizophrenic. I throw Spanish into my Urdu. I mix French with my English. When I try to pronounce something in Urdu, I use an Irish accent on all the wrong syllables and inevitably end up (unintentionally) insulting someone's mother or dog or shoes.

Not actually me. Might as well be.

So, I teach English. At least, that's what I was trained to do. I'm beginning to worry about losing my ability to teach at all, because, hey, if you don't use it, you lose it, right? While that phrase is typically associated with learning and practicing foreign languages, it seems like it might apply to any acquired skill, like knitting, or painting, or... teaching.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Guide to Being a Substitute Teacher: Bring a Book

I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, I'm not cut out for teaching. See, I have all of these amazing skills, like being able to connect to different types of learners, see what sort of support they need, and craft engaging lesson and unit plans for them. I'm also pretty darned good at analyzing how successful or unsuccessful my teaching methods are, and then making the necessary adjustments. I pay attention to national standards. I pay attention to school policies. I pay attention to what other teachers are doing.

With all of these skills present in a substitute teacher, including the motivation and need to be useful, what do you think CPS does? They assign me to cover 2 periods in the morning and nothing else. Yep, I spent my day assisting a scheduled guest speaker for 2nd and 3rd period, then scrambling, no, begging, for someone to give me something useful to do. I approached teachers, security guards, and janitors, but everyone told me, "Why don't you just relax? It's an easy day for you, so enjoy it." I don't want to relax. I don't want an easy day. I want the stress, the challenge, and the satisfaction that comes with the territory. I want to work, dammit. Why else would I have struggled through two years of graduate school? So I can relax?                                  

I ended up spending 5 hours in the library, scanning and labeling textbooks. Oh, and I read.

So, maybe I'm not cut out for subbing. What is substitute teaching? At this point, I'm going to loosely define it as a waste of everyone's time. It's not like babysitting because students aren't babies. They're young adults, struggling to grow up. They need role models; adults they can trust and rely on to steer them in the direction they want to go, or very often, provoke them to think about where they want to go by asking pertinent questions and challenging them in ways they hadn't thought of. I tend to believe that everyone, regardless of age, wants these things. I sure do, but subbing doesn't allow for those opportunities.

CPS is looking to shut down 54 schools due to "inefficiency," but maybe they need to take a closer look at how they're utilizing the resources they actually have first.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Guide to Being a Substitute Teacher: Know That You're an Idiot

I'm an English teacher, or at least that's what my certificate says. "Type 09, 6-12 English/Language Arts with a Middle School endorsement." That's me on paper.

I know a LOT about English -- as a language, a subject, and how to teach it. I know the most current instructional practices for a 21st century teacher, I know how to read a linguistics tree diagram, I know how to motivate students (thanks to this guy), and I know I'm not an idiot.

But here's the thing: I am an idiot.

I spent my day subbing at a high school that I would like to work at, but I was stupid enough to assume that I would be subbing for another English teacher. Nope. I was assigned to cover an Advanced Algebra class of sophomores, and I was totally unprepared.

Something I understand
Something I don't understand

When I got to the classroom, class rosters in hand (by the way, if you're subbing, invest in a clipboard), I found a stack of worksheets under a note that read, "Have students complete worksheets." Seems simple enough, right? Explain the assignment for the day, take attendance, and monitor students. Glorified babysitting, at best. Let's look at my day in the form of a word problem:

The teacher enters the classroom with a roster sheet indicating that there should be 27 students in the class. After the bell rings, the teacher counts 22 students. 5 minutes later, 3 students walk out of the classroom, claiming that this isn't their class. 8 minutes after the bell, 4 students walk into the class, but only 2 of them have passes. Before the teacher can explain the assignment, 6 students ask to use the restroom. 15 minutes after class begins, the teacher spends 5 minutes explaining the assignment. 8 students claim that they did the assignment the previous day. 5 students claim that they do not understand how to do the assignment. 6 students are playing cards. 2 students are sleeping. 4 students gather their belongings and leave the room. 

If you are the teacher, WHAT DO YOU DO?

This is how I attempted to solve the problem:
1) I divided the remaining class time into thirds and explained that I would allow students to leave the classroom one at a time during the second third, with a pass, but no one was allowed to leave during the first or final 20 minutes of class (block schedule). 
2) I encouraged students to work together on the assignment, to learn from each other, as long as they could keep the noise level down. 
3) I chased after the students who left, found them hiding in a bathroom, and called security to handle it. These kids scared the crap outta me, and said some awful things that made me wonder if I would find my tires slashed, but once security arrived, I went back to the classroom to find
4) Utter chaos.

Looking back on the day, I still don't know what my primary objective was supposed to be. What should my objective be, as a substitute teacher? Attendance? Discipline? The lesson? For now, I'm going to make my primary goal "don't cry," because I can feel like an idiot all I want, but I can't let these kids know it. They have more important things to learn.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Interlude: Escape to The Magic Kingdom

I know it's a little too soon to reward myself, but I HAD TO GO TO DISNEY WORLD. Had to. And it was magical.
Up until a few weeks ago, I thought my parents had taken us to the Magic Kingdom when my brother and I were children, but when my friends started talking about their own memories of rides and exhibits, I realized that I didn't know what they were talking about. So I texted my older brother:

ME: Did we ever go INTO Disney World, in Orlando? I have no memory of the park, except for the outside of Epcot Center.

MY BROTHER: We never did the Magic Kingdom. Did go to Epcot.

Whaaaaat??? How did I miss that? My mother reassured me that I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Daytona Beach, but she informed me that we only went to Orlando because my father had a conference to attend. I am seriously impressed with my parents for keeping me, as a 7 year-old, happy with coming so close to Disney World, but never actually going in. Then again, my parents are pretty awesome.

So is my husband. After he was done cracking up over my faulty memory, he made it his mission to give me the best experience possible. Romance! Adventure! Hijinks! We spent the first half of our vacation at a swanky hotel in Vero Beach, where we met up with some friends who were also looking to get away from the gloom of Chicago. It was a blast, but in an "Ahhhhh... so relaxing" kinda way. Then we drove up to Orlando to meet up with our other friends, a couple of seasoned Disney-goers who decided that they didn't want to miss the chance to see my first time at the park. These two knew the park inside-out! Not only did we get to see and do just about everything, but they introduced us to the semi-secret, underground-ish, super-cool pin-trading industry.

Yeah, pin trading. Apparently, there is a whole industry, specific to the park, where decorative Disney pins are made and sold to patrons. Sure, you could buy some pins, many of which are adorable keepsakes, but our friends taught us that you can also trade pins with cast members (staff) at the park. I managed to collect a complete series of classy, black-and-white cameo pins of Winnie the Pooh characters, and I love them. It's neat to be able to start and finish a collection in a single day.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Guide to Being a Substitute Teacher: Know Who You Are

As I walked around the school grounds for the third time, desperately looking for the elusive "Entry #11," I realized for the first time that day how very, very wrong my expectations for substitute teaching were. It isn't anything like "the first day at a new school." There wasn't anyone to greet me or help me navigate my surroundings. I knew nothing about this school, except for the name and address that were given to me by the CPS Substitute "gatekeeper" at 5:30 that morning.

"Hello, this is the CPS Sub Center. Are you available to work at _______ today?"
"Wha-? Good morning. Um, sure. Where is it?"
"_______ High School is located at _________," said the voice on the phone. She was curt, but polite. As I stumbled out of bed, it occurred to me that she must be very busy, so I answered as definitively as I could, even though I was terrified of what I was agreeing to. She thanked me, told me to report to the school at 7:45, and hung up.

There it was. My very first substitute teaching assignment. I showered, dressed, made myself a lunch, and packed up in the pre-dawn darkness. My husband got up and took me out for breakfast to commemorate the moment and boost my confidence. "Just be yourself! They'll love you!" If only that were true...

"Who are you?"
"Well, I'm Mrs. -- and I'm your-," I started to say.
"Yeah, yeah. A sub. Cool. Can I go to the bathroom?"
"Oh yeah! Me too!"
"I need to go to my locker."
"Where's Mrs. --? She usually lets us work on whatever, but I don't have any work to do."

I took a deep breath, and launched into my best I'm-the-grown-up-so-you-need-to-listen-to-me voice.
"Class. My name is Mrs. --, and I am teaching today for Mrs. --. She has left very specific instructions for you to work on your previously assigned project. I expect you to do that. Mrs. -- expects you to do that. Does anyone have questions? No? Then I'm going to take attendance while you begin."

"You look like Claire Huxtable," a student blurted out.
"Naw! She looks like, like, whatshername? From Fresh Prince. The stupid chick!"
I didn't mean to validate the insult when I said, "You mean Hilary? Will's cousin?" but I did, and as soon as they felt they had permission to criticize, mock, and make fun of me, all hell broke loose. I didn't stand a chance. I couldn't get anyone to sit still, let alone work on the assignments for the day. I couldn't keep students from hurling insults at each other, or me. I couldn't even take attendance without being mocked for mispronouncing names. Now, when a person treats me like I'm stupid, I can handle it pretty well, but when 25 people treat me like an idiot, I can't help but feel terrible about myself.

What am I DOING here? Is this really what being a teacher is all about? I wondered. Why can't I just take control of a classroom, make it my own for an hour, and have some fun with it? What am I doing WRONG? I spent a good part of the day beating myself up. Every new class that walked into my classroom that day had at least 15 students who seemed to think it was their duty to make me cry, either by ignoring my instructions, making fun of my clothes, or questioning my credentials.

I wish I hadn't let it get to me, but the truth is, there was a large part of me that thought these kids might be right about me. The clothes I wore that day did not reflect who I am, but I wore them so I could look like a professional. My attitude was affected, and I was trying very hard to emulate my idea of a good teacher. I had no confidence in what I was saying or how I was saying it because I have so little experience. If I were a student, and I saw someone young, inexperienced, and uncomfortable in her own clothes trying to tell me what to do, I wouldn't trust her either.

I made so many mistakes that day, but I found retribution during one of my off-periods when a student came in looking for help with his résumé. The student and I worked together, one-on-one, until he felt he had made some positive changes to his work. I asked him open-ended questions, taught him how to use action verbs, and gave him the chance to brag about the things he was proud of. When he left, he thanked me and asked if I would be getting a job at the school. I told him I didn't know, but I would certainly try

That student reminded me that I didn't need to "try" to be a teacher, because he already saw me as one. My mistake was that I was trying too hard to be someone I thought I should be, instead of simply being myself. My lesson for the day: Trust yourself. You're still learning, and that's okay.