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.