After finishing my few weeks in high school biology, I felt tense about taking the jobs in 5th-6th grade that were coming up way more often. Even though when there was a possibility of actually getting hired for the high school position. As if I was in a sense abandoning my ideals. Having told others that middle schoolers were my favorite level because of their dynamic, challenging, still mostly untamed selves. Heard myself saying they were the ones who needed experienced teachers, teachers who had parental and life experience, teachers who could handle, and nurture, different ways of seeing things and doing things. Thinking that any good content-knowledgeable and reasonably organized teacher could handle the demands of teaching older students, especially since by that time the really tough kids, the failed kids, had been diverted into Options or Special Ed or one of the various extra-supportive programs.
Yet… I have four children of my own, and I’ve noticed that when I come home after a day with middle schoolers, I’m sometimes low on the mental and emotional energy my own kids need. Not always, but on days like one last week, when the teacher called in sick at the last hour and there wasn’t much of a plan. The printout said have them work on the packet that was due that day, the one she had assigned before the weekend as optional extra credit, or just read or play math games. In ninety minute block periods. And no time to make enough copies of the packet anyway.
So I ditched that plan and grabbed a random math book that a student said they hadn’t started yet, and taught the first lesson out of it–statistics. Had them gather data, table it, tell me about it, and graph it in two different ways. And then they played the math games we could find in the cabinets. Math games very loosely defined, because when you don’t know the kids you can’t assume that building designs with shape blocks is too easy, or the UNO card game is too elementary. The homeroom kids came back for a period at the end of the day, when they were wound up from being in school all day and being out of routine. They were expecting to do what the teacher called “free choice time,” and though I don’t like to chance that sort of thing as a sub, I went with it. Some drew, some read, some did homework, but a lot decided to stay at loose ends. It was tough to keep the balance in favor of those who knew how to keep things positive and reasonably calm. Some wanted to be a bit testy, with their tossing paper, walking back and forth, then packing up fifteen minutes before school ended and messing around by the sink or gathering in small groups to laugh and jostle one another, looking over to see how I’d take it all.
I smiled as warmly as I could, subtly steering some kids toward behaviors that were reasonable given the situation and the maturity of each kid, at which I was guessing. Knowing a lot of subs would crack down, I just felt empathetic, didn’t blame them at all for preferring to shoot the breeze and do a bit of leaping. I circulated, hung in there, and sighed when the bell rang. With a mental note to self to bringing read-aloud material, educational game ideas, personal stories and something to show and tell. Especially when a sub job comes up for this teacher, who, the T.A. told me, often calls in sick on Mondays. This is the same teacher whom I observed demonstrating on the board how to do a problem on the test the class was about to take (she left it on the board).
Today I was back in that class, switched at the last minute from that of her colleague due to a lack of subs. The colleague was pulled from her training, and, yes, it was Monday again, and I heard another teacher comment about that Monday pattern with this teacher. With the plan notes (same template, with a few changes) that apologized for the “unplanned” absence and the lack of materials, advising me to adjust if necessary. But this time I was prepared, and there was some decent work to do.
It was, over all, a good day. By this time I could remember most kids’ names, the boy who “didn’t do well with subs” had apparently adjusted to me, and was pitching in with all kinds of help and participation. There was more order and flow in general. I knew which kids hadn’t accomplished enough to go to the game cupboard last period, and had the extra support from para-eds so that they could get extra help. The most trouble I had was with the attitude of the “personal assistant” (a T.A.) of a supposedly horrendous discipline case now back in class. After a day of seeming docility, the student (out of boredom?) had managed to provoke the T.A. and she was pissed, couldn’t (of course) get the girl to take out her work again. I, choosing to be oblivious, came over and asked the girl to show me her work so we could go over it, but the T.A. said she was not to do any work, but just to read, because she was being difficult. So I moved on until the T.A. was with some other students (where mutual provocation also shortly arose), and I think, wow–she’s falling right into the trap. The trap I know so well, that I fell into so often as a new teacher, where the teacher comes across as annoying (we can’t help it sometimes), so the student resists, so the teacher gets further annoyed and then disrespectful, and the student feel justified in resistance, and teacher feels powerless, and maybe yells or does something out of frustration. And the student enjoys the sense of power that comes from annoying an authority figure they’ve decided they don’t like right now. Which can be worth a trip to the office, points docked from the golden ticket system, or even a call home.
Seeing the T.A. struggle, I admit I was feeling smug. Because it was so much easier for me to avoid that confrontation, having been on the sidelines, and I felt there was a way to get on the same team with this girl. The second time I went over she started an avoidance game with me, said she never got the worksheets. But she let me find them in her binder, and pretty soon–it was all in her hands, and we both knew it–she decided to work with me. She got the math problems, by the way.