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.

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