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.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Guide to Becoming a (Substitute) Teacher: Episode 2

It's been 10 days since I joined the ranks of CPS' Day-to-Day Substitute Pool, and I haven't had the guts to call myself in as "available." To be honest, I'm freaked out.

Where will they send me? What will the kids be like? How will the other teachers treat me? Will I know what to do, or will I come off as an idiot? What if it's dangerous? How should I introduce myself? Should I bring some work for the kids to do? Will someone brief me on school policies and procedures? How do I present myself as an authority figure, but not a warden? WHAT IF THEY DON'T LIKE ME?

I know, I know, being a teacher means not worrying about being cool, or getting the kids to like me, or even being the smartest person in the classroom, but I still want all of those things. Does that mean I'm not ready?

What if something like THIS happens?

It's possible. I know my diet and what it does to my body, so this is very, very possible. And what if something like this DOES happen? My friends, family, and husband reassure me that I'll be fine, no matter what, but I need to get out there first.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Guide to Becoming a (Substitute) Teacher: Episode 1

Hi World! I'm a teacher now! Look at me! Look at me! I have a certificate and everything! LOOK AT ME!

No, really. Please look at me. Please?

It turns out that getting someone, a school, a principal, or even a seasoned veteran teacher to look at me is really tough. Granted, I've been unemployed before, so I know that this is the time to network, tweak my résumé and write a bazillion cover letters, but knowing the process doesn't make it any less awful.

Luckily, I subscribed to a dozen educator websites and programs, which allow me to see that there ARE opportunities out there for a freshly-annointed, eager-to-please... oh. Special Education, Elementary, Math, Science, History... Where are the jobs for Secondary Education (6-12) English teachers? Wheeling, Crystal Lake, Bloomington? But that would make my commute 2+ hours one way.  What about all of the schools in Chicago? Hey, CPS! What do you guys have available?

A "Substitute Teacher Selection Event," eh? That sounds promising.


I went to the "event," which turned out to be a bizarre cattle-call scene, ultimately leading to more paperwork and membership to the CPS Day-to-Day Substitute Pool. Not bad, but not great either. It was a rigorous and annoying process that involved essays, background checks, a fresh TB test, and a 10-panel drug screening. I can't even name 5 drugs.

At least I'm officially in the system now. I'm glad I took the time to jump through the hoops, because now I have the option of subbing in different schools. I'm looking forward to seeing what is actually happening in Chicago classrooms, meeting teachers and students, and figuring out what I like and don't like while I apply for jobs and network a bit.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guide to Becoming a Teacher: First Steps

Now that the dust has settled on my voyage through teacher certification, I'm still finding that there a lot of steps I need to take before I can call myself an honest-to-goodness TEACHER. For starters, I need the State of Illinois to recognize me as a certified teacher. Off I go!


Dang. That sucked.

As it turned out, I needed the Regional Office to recognize me as legit before I could apply for my certificate with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), but in order to do that, the Regional Office needed proof of my name. Yes, my name. Since I began the certification program with my maiden name, that was all they had on file. In fact, my maiden name was associated with nearly every bit of paperwork, every state-mandated test, and every transcript, which made it VERY difficult to get a teaching certificate in my married name. "Why not get the certificate in your maiden name? What's the problem?" The problem is that the Social Security Office and every government document I have is in my married name (now).

Okay, okay, I'll fill out the paperwork and jump through the hoops, ISBE.

Wait, now you need my transcripts? I thought you got those already. Oh, you didn't? Hang on while I track down the nameless, faceless entity at my school who holds all the transcripts. I'll get those right over to you.

Got 'em? And copies of my marriage certificate, driver's license, social security card, passport, 8th grade diary, Facebook-LinkedIn-Twitter profile? Got it all? Anything else?

"No, we don't need anything else now, except your patience while we process your paperwork. It could take up to six weeks."

"SIX WEEKS??? What should I do in the meantime? I can't apply for jobs, can I?"

"No, you can't apply for jobs, because claiming that you are certified while we twiddle our thumbs is illegal. You should just wait."


I got the green light on my certificate. I checked in to the ISBE website everyday, hoping to see the "pending" change to "certified." When it happened, it was as unceremonious as receiving my order at a Burger King. I thought there would be some magical moment when I would feel as if I had "arrived," but I ended up sliding and skidding about, willy-nilly.

Overall, the post-graduation experience has been a little rough, but I'm finally ready to start applying for some actual teaching jobs, which is very, very good. I know that I've learned a lot about being an educator in the classroom, but figuring out how to be an educator in the greater (mine)field of bureaucracy makes me feel so unsteady. One step at a time, right?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Student Teacher Supply List

I survived Student Teaching, and now, all I can think is, "HOW???"

Since graduation, I have been sorting and filing all of my work from my classes and the classes I was fortunate enough to have taught, and it has been quite an undertaking. Between the work I did to get my degree and the tools and worksheets I created to teach with, I'm astonished at how much paperwork there is. The good news is that I'm a fairly organized person, so cataloguing documents has been relatively painless. On the other hand, I've been struggling to give anyone advice about what to expect and how to prepare for their own Student Teaching experiences. 

I want to help, so here's my advice:

-DO NOT TAKE STUDENT WORK HOME WITH YOU. This was the best advice my cooperating teacher gave me, and even though I eventually had to, I was glad to have my time at home devoted strictly to lesson planning. Use your off-periods to grade work. Additionally, you won't run the risk of spilling coffee or a burrito on some poor kid's essay, or worse yet, losing their work.

-STICK TO A BEDTIME. Everyone says, "Get lots of rest," but no one tells you how. If you know that you're going to wake up at 5am everyday, then you need to go to bed at a reasonable hour. There will be nights when you think, "I could make ONE more handout/worksheet/display," but you need to fight that urge. A teacher's work is never done, and although commitment to your craft is commendable, you won't do anyone any good if you're exhausted. 

-UPDATE YOUR CONTACT INFO. Make sure you have the phone numbers for your cooperating teacher and the main office at your placement site IN your phone. You don't want to find yourself sifting through a folder or old emails while waiting for a tow truck at 7am.

-DON'T SMILE. At least for the first week of teaching. Be yourself around adults, but set the precedent with your students that you are not to be messed with. It's the hardest thing to do, but if your kids think you're looking for their approval instead of the other way around, they'll put you through hell. When kids aren't being awesome, they're the WORST.

-LET IT GO. You'll have days when you'll feel like a terrible human being because some kid yelled at you, or cried, or tells you they hate you, but you have to let it go. Every day you teach is a new day, and teaching is more like an ongoing series of experiments. What works one day may not work the next, and vice versa. Also, students have terribly short memories, so if you don't treat something that happened on a Monday like it was a big deal on Tuesday, they won't either. Unfortunately, the short-term memory also applies to successful lessons, so remember to reinforce the good stuff.

-BE NICE TO YOURSELF AND YOUR LOVED ONES. When you feel like you're in over your head, or you just can't take it anymore, do something nice for yourself or for someone you love. I didn't do enough of that, and in retrospect, I could have taken the time to go out to dinner with my husband, or spend a few hours doing something for myself. The world wouldn't have ended if I didn't work every waking hour, and I know how grateful my friends and family would have been to see me. 

I think that covers the "advice" section. Now, for a supply list! Remember how exciting it was to get your "school supply checklist" before starting a new school year? I do, and I wish I had thought to make one for myself before beginning Student Teaching. Here's what you'll need:

  • Snacks. Granola bars, fruit, delicious tidbits and treats for the days when you can't stop for lunch.
  • A portable file box and plenty of folders.
  • Stampers, stickers, or anything to put on graded work. It's amazing how universally pleasing it is to see a "received" or "completed" stamp on your work, even if it isn't graded.
  • Gradebooks. A hard copy AND an electronic version. 
  • Index cards. I used more than I thought I would, and they worked beautifully in several situations, especially for bellringers and exit slips.
  • Chalk or dry erase markers. The markers were notorious for running out quickly, so I always had an extra supply on hand. 
  • Binder clips. Every size. These little doo-hickeys were incredibly handy. Paperclips and rubber bands too.
  • Electrical cords. Adapters, extension cords, and USB cables. Have your own and make sure to label.
  • Colored tape. This was a handy way to label my stuff, mark out desk arrangements, block off sections on the classroom boards, and hang up student work when bulletin board space was unavailable.
  • Hand sanitizer. Kids are filthy. Keep your hands clean.
  • POST-IT NOTES. For everything. 
If I think of anything else, I'll be sure to add it to this list. If anyone else wants to add to it, please feel free to make suggestions via "comments." 

Student Teaching may have been the most difficult job I have ever had, but I'm sure others have had it worse/better. The best thing my husband told me before and during the experience: It'll just get easier. 

It does. Good luck to you, future teachers! It only gets better!