I was going to try to put together a how to manual for new substitute teachers, but I realized I wanted to pass on something that couldn’t be passed on that way. I suppose I could give some useful practical tips, in the tradition of saying things that might possibly not be known by the extreme novice, in the tradition of the instructions in the beginning of woodworking project books that include photos of hammers and types of wood. Which, of course, you don’t need to see in your second project book. I could write about how it’s a good idea to use a clipboard to carry around seating charts, to bring extra pencils, to take notes on who’s out of the classroom, who acts out. But a person can learn that on their own pretty quickly.
On the other hand, there are some things I now think are obvious that apparently aren’t, such as try not to spit on students when you talk, don’t use put-downs to control students, and if you don’t know something, admit it. I hear about those errors from my kids and other students. Sometimes I see them; sometimes I have done them. So I might write something up after all.
I still think that the best education “text” a professor had us read to prepare to be teachers was the one full of nothing but stories of exceptional people, as in people who had all the abilities others had, except maybe sight, or legs, or the ability to learn to read. Beautiful stories they were, and I wish I could tell these beautiful stories I am collecting inside to share what I feel about teaching, and offer warnings by telling some of the stories that look like they are taking a negative turn. Though I sometimes scoff at the ubiquity (and financial success) of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, I get why people are so receptive to them. They are stories, take from them what you wish.
I feel like the guy who was scheduled to give us a talk at a Christian student leader’s conference in Ottawa over twenty years ago, something to inspire, inform, maybe impress. He had prayed and sought wisdom and sweated and prayed and scanned the titles in his library and the topics in his Essential Discipleship manual, but all he could think of, all he thought the Creator wanted him to say to us, was that the Creator loved us so, so, so much. So, so, much, more than we could imagine. I was in the front row, and the speaker was sitting on the side of a stone hearth. His voice was low, he looked at each of us, and snow fell on the orange-lit city streets outside. Best sermon I ever heard, for content, delivery, and impact.
Here are a few small stories about names.
Alternative high school, classroom in a portable, students those who choose to show up, today two. One, I am told, can be allowed to watch online videos, and that’s a good day. I get the sense that he’s been a threat at times, and should not be taken lightly. He’s a big white guy, thickly built, with long, curly brown hair hanging in his eyes. Acne, loose fitting athletic type clothes. He’s wearing headphones and dances in his chair now and then, chants out lyrics occasionally–not very nice lyrics. I walk over to solicit his attention; he sees my mouth moving and takes the headphones off. I ask his name, and he says Josh; I tell him mine. He puts the earphones on again and turns to the computer screen. The para-educator, a warm, smiling fellow at least ten years younger than me, with glasses and a trim black beard, smiles and comments, “That’s funny–he introduced himself as Josh to the other sub too.” I can tell he’s an easy going person, probably one of the reasons he gets to work with kids who have had trouble with confrontational teachers. You have to get them away from teachers who get in their faces, however wrong the students might be.
“Oh–that’s not his name,” I answer. “He’s the first one that’s fooled me in a long time.” So I find out his real name, just in case. I’m no fool, and I know names really are handles of a sort. A teacher needs names, first of all, if at all possible. Yet I understand why sometimes students don’t want to give theirs out until there’s at least some trust. It made me wonder about this young man.
In the last ten years I have decided that if something like shyness or fear tries to get hold of me and stop me from doing or saying something that seems good, I’ll brush it aside. So I went over to his guy, who was then on a different computer farther away–maybe a boundary thing–and congratulated him for tricking me. Of course he knew I could find out his name from the para-ed, but in a way I wanted him to know that I would take care of that knowledge. I asked him why he had said his name was Josh. He said because people always shortened his name to the usual nickname, which he hated. “So I just don’t answer,” he said. If he ignored a person in authority, of course he’d be seen as disrespectful. Don’t we all hate being ignored? It’s one of the most powerful forms of passive aggression,and people in authority are rarely immune to the aggravation.
I told him I understood, that I felt it was disrespectful to assume things about people’s names, and I especially disliked hearing teachers use the generic, “Buddy”. I’d remember to call him William. A good name, same name as my grandfather and my uncle. Then I went away.
The next time I subbed there, he was at his screen still. I said hello and went to work with the other student on math. I asked the other para-ed what might the other boy, the one not a mere nickname, be expected to be working on, though the plan set as a reasonable expectation that he would watch videos or play games and not give anyone any trouble. She hunted up his binder and some astronomy (astronomy??) work, and said I might give him a heads up that in five minutes we would do some astronomy. “Make sure you give him a heads up,” she advised.
So I went over, showed him what we’d found and as sweetly as I could, asked if he’d be willing to try doing some astronomy. He said no. “But you’re here to do some academic work so let’s just try this out, or else why are you here?”
“I’m only here because my officer says I have to be.”
“Please? Just for five minutes, and if you hate it, you can do what you wanted.”
And he says, “I’ll consider it,” and turns away again. The para-ed raises her eyebrows.
Then she pulls out Fargo, a game with a math component, to play with the other student, a tall, lanky white senior with a serious manner, yet somewhat childlike. Proud of his math abilities, and willing to do a little beyond the daily assignment. I invite the first student, say please, and he joins us. The para-ed raises her eyebrows again.
We had a fine game, the boy with the name teasing and gloating and boasting, and making considered and careful plays, and coming in third. The astronomy to wait, but this fellow has given something significant in accepting the invitation to play, something the other para-ed, when he got back, said is unusual.
Was it because he was asked, and not “expected”? Was it something to do with his name?
Another story is from years back, just after I’d started at a new grad school, taking a few classes part time. I met a Chinese woman while we were washing hands in the ladies room ans we told each other our names. I repeated hers to check my pronunciation, and and as soon as she had gone away, wrote it down phonetically. I knew my weakness at remembering names, even ones like Steve and Barb, and I didn’t want her to think I’d forgotten her, next time I saw her.
When I did (it was a small campus), I greeted her by name, and I’ll never forget her reaction–she was so surprised and pleased, even relieved, to hear her name remembered and spoken. She thanked me several times, and allowed me to feel that I had been the means of blessing to her.
Because I’m dealing with new faces and names often as a substitute teacher, I see this tenderness people have about names often. I always, at the beginning of each new class, sketch a seating map and go around filling in names, whether I ask students directly, or ask some to help me fill in others’ names (for example, if they are busy shoving someone or shouting across the room). I feel students’ appreciation when I know their names, even when I ask. Some ask why I want to know, a few even ask if they are in trouble–I always explain that it’s just so I can call then by the proper name, and thank them when they give it to me. If I fail to do this name-gathering and try to do any teaching, I feel their disconnect and sense of “I don’t have to listen to or respond to you.”
I’ve also got better at remembering names this way, which makes everything go smoother.
Names are important. My advice to you, new teacher, is this: try not to mess with people’s names. Ask what they’d like to be called, make notes on pronunciation until you get it right, learn to spell the unfamiliar ones, and practice using people’s names. And here’s a straightforward, practical tip on this topic: don’t forget to give yours, and write it on the board.
Everyone has a name.
Please open this link with the lyrics to go with the song, embedded below, as you listen.