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Middle school, the reality: this is a test

The middle school bell rings, and students start coming the classroom. Most sit down, but three or four continue roaming around, and mess around a little. You ask everyone to settle down; you are about to start, and two of the remaining sit, but one keeps throwing and re-throwing crumpled paper toward, and missing, the garbage can. You approach, and, a bit more insistently, tell the student to sit down, please! You don’t know names yet, and the seating chart isn’t much use. A good number of seated students are watching with interest, and some of those who had sort of settled down are now starting to get restless, and even get up to move around, sharpening pencils, trying to borrow erasers, and so on. Others have seen there’s a distraction and have taken out their smart phones or started new conversations among themselves.

It’s test day, and this time the test is for you. You are not automatically in charge, and without some fast and creative thinking, it could get out of hand so that it’s tough to get on the track of helping students learn.

I’ve felt that distress and frustration, that sense of personal offense. Why won’t they behave? What is one to do? At that point, you’ve probably stopped using the most creative and intelligent part of your brain, so the options you can think of are limited: yell, threaten, whine, shame, make an example of someone, call for assistance.

But we teachers talk about test taking strategies, and during a test, you’re on your own. All the questions are flooding at you at once, and you have to keep you footing and your head above the water. It’s a rush.

Here are some of the questions on this test, in the voice of the students:

  1. Are you confident in your right to be in authority over us?
  2. What’s your style of authority? Are you chill, strict, somewhere in between, or inconsistent?
  3. How do you handle stress?
  4. Do you have a sense of humor?
  5. Do you respect me and my classmates?
  6. Do you let me help you?
  7. Do you have emotional self control?
  8. Do you know what I need?
  9. Do you like me?
  10. Are you worthy of my respect and support?
  11. Can I learn something worthwhile from you?
  12. What are the boundaries here, and are they reasonable?

These questions are not just in the minds (at least subconsciously) of the main testers, but also in the minds of the rest. Though the latter may not have the desire, creativity, or confidence to “act out,” they can still take advantage of the opportunity to learn about you. The overall question here is, “Who are you, and can I work with you? Can you work with us–all of us?”

Even when I was failing these tests many days as a first year teacher and beyond, I felt there was a legitimacy in this kind of testing. Yes, I would take things personally, get riled, get frustrated, and exhaust myself because of my lack of experience, but I could never really blame the “testy” students for being hard on me. Even the sympathy of more experienced teachers and their willingness to make me feel less responsible didn’t really work, though it was well intended. I still see this process as a necessary part of establishing students’ relationship with the teacher, especially a new one. Although I’m not averse to students giving me automatic respect and complying with my plan, I know that’s not realistic, or even best in the long run for either party. Or maybe because I’m not the kind of person who automatically accepts authority (in my heart), I get it.

Fortunately–you could look at it as fortunate–if you fail the test, you get a re-test. And another, and another, and another. If you fail part of the test and pass another part, you get a retest. And you get frequent reviews to keep up your skills. It will happen so many times, eventually you’ll learn not to take it personally, and how to both respond to and sometimes even preempt the test questions, in your own way.

A boy I met a few months ago keeps coming to mind. He’s boisterous, physically active, highly participatory, and, so I heard prior to the start of class, troublesome–it was in my sub notes, and I was also told by a teacher next door. In that he doesn’t sit down, he speaks out of turn, he does things to entertain and distract his classmates, and sometimes, apparently, he loses his temper and has to be removed from the classroom.

He’s also full of fun, and since after all these years I’ve become better at taking a joke, even one on me, it worked out okay between him and me. He got used to me after the first few days I subbed there, and as long as I could do that strange dance, things went well. The other students helped make it work, and the boy himself consented to the dance steps. Yes, he’s out of his seat, talking out, interrupting, but we keep doing our thing and don’t stop for the show. When I can, I have him do the demos, hand out the papers, even demo some of the math, once I find that he’s capable of it.

Why is there a show anyway? Why does he want to strut around, call attention to himself, do anything but sit down and try to do math? He’s a class clown, a born entertainer, possessed of charisma and confidence. And he’s one of the kinds of people we need in this world. Can you picture him grown up? He’s the life of the party! He meets the shy newcomers at the door and makes them laugh in the first thirty seconds. He moves around the room and figures out what’s going on in the big picture. He’s the MC. Yeah, in the course of his years at school, he’ll have to learn to let others have some peace and quiet, to listen and not just talk, and to keep calm when people disagree with him or he doesn’t get his way. But meanwhile, we’re the mature ones, and we as teachers need to nurture nature, not create assembly line workers, molding and cutting cookies, grading samples and sending the culls down a different hatch for quality control.

The way teachers and authority figures deal with these full-of-it kids can really sour them in the long run. I’ve met some alternative high schoolers who probably had a similar way of being in their fifth grade classrooms, and they’re all grown up. Still loud, still walking and talking, still engaging with anyone and anything around them. But also tense, angry, and carrying around a cumulative file full of disciplinary infractions, records of interventions, and numbers that just don’t qualify as ready for college and career ready. You have to wonder if they’ll survive, what they become. Some are positively creepy.

So can we ask ourselves: how do we save the life of the party, instead of creating a monster? Yes, it’s environment, family, circumstances, but what do we do with these students while they are with us—testing, testing—for one hundred and eighty days per year for years?

Intervention should not just be an event. It should be subtle, every day, in the context of community. So you nip all the criticism in the bud that reinforces the “troublemaker” self image (see this post, and instead call it a different name: Lively. Unique. Enthusiastic. No nonsense. High social intelligence. Curious. Be preventative and pro-active (see this post). Solicit help from more mature fellow students–to set an example, ignore attention-getting behaviors, show patience. Catch them doing something right (broadly interpreted). And, as I used to tell my kids when they’d be unkind to one another, keep your heart soft, and be patient. These things take time.

 

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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12 Tips for new middle school substitute teachers

I relate to so many of the stories I read about the challenges of subbing, the desire to get things right, the love/exasperation relationship with those kids that we care about and are trying to serve, the nerves and sometimes fear. Now that I’ve made it through a year of teaching middle schoolers full time (right out of school–yikes!), then a few years of subbing in those grades, as well as raising four children (the youngest now in middle school), I feel I can offer some assistance–the kind I was desperate for when I was starting out. Keeping in mind that the journey is very individual and personal–getting a feel for your own style and the cultures and conditions in which you teach.

Some of these tips are crowd management techniques, while others are based on what I think students have a right to expect. None if them are about teaching, which I hope you will get to do in your areas of expertise, and in your own ever more effective and satisfying style.

  1. Stuff to bring: extra pencils (old stubby ones for emergency handouts) and pens, a clipboard with scrap paper, a notebook to gather tips for your future jobs and journal during your prep, backup stuff in case of inadequate plans, list of key personnel.
  2. As a hook, bring something to share—either a fascinating object or an anecdote, a puzzle, or a cool thing you can draw on the board (and later show them how). Last year I brought a large wolf spider carcass and a true spider story. This week I shared “dried slugs” (dried Italian plums). You could also save this treat for the end of the class after you wrap up the lesson.
  3. Read up on what you’ll be doing and how (individually or groups, to hand in or not, when work is due, what to do if done early). Mark it up for a quick reference. I also write the plan on the board.
  4. Explore the classroom. Look for all the machines, get the layout, find safety info and supplies, assignment trays, books, other useful materials. Don’t be shy about looking in cupboards and drawers–they are for teaching materials, and you’re the hired teacher.
  5. Before kids arrive, sketch the seating arrangement and fill in as kids arrive (you might use tone provided by the teacher, but students often switch when they see a sub, and I don’t make them switch back unless there’s a problem). It’s also a way to mingle, connect, etc. If it’s time to start before the bell rings, fill the rest in later. If a kid pulls the wool over your eyes and gives a false name (you’ll learn to see it in their eyes and in the delay as they try to think of what name to use), share the joke. The map is useful for a quick attendance (confirm with the kids who’s absent) and for taking private notes (see below #12). I use a clipboard for these seating maps, the sub plans, and scrap paper, and carry it practically everywhere.
  6. Write your name on the board and leave it there all day. When you introduce yourself (a common courtesy you should never omit), give a few basic details. For example, how long have you been subbing, your specialties, whether you have children. Cheerfully, briefly, set out basic expectations. Don’t be the heavy at that point, or you’ll probably be tested sooner and more dramatically (as in “Make my day”). Let them know you’ll be following the plan left by their teacher, with your own variations. I err on the side of caution/safety when it comes to rules & procedures on my first few days until I know the students. If I hear “Mr. B lets us….” I say, yeah, but he’s way nicer than I am.” Or I explain that since I’m new I’ll have to be more “strict” until I know everyone better. They understand. Ask individual students during the course of the day about any important details not in the sub plan, like does the teacher usually meet them at the door after recess, where’s the remote for the document camera, is there a hall pass, does the teacher usually collect this work, etc.
  7. Make allowances for normal, natural human behavior. This includes socializing, friendly teasing, humor, curiosity about things not on the lesson plan, creating classroom entertainment, wanting to move around, and testing the sub. Remember your own youth. Yes, you can ask for and expect quiet during instructions or reading, hands raised for group discussion, and minding their own business when work is being done, but don’t be unreasonable and overly controlling. I have students get up and stretch or walk around to get blood flowing and to relax muscles between seat activities, kids breathe deeply to settle down after a humor interruption, sometimes invite antsy students to walk around at the back while they read, or pick them to do a job requiring movement or talking.
  8. If a student is starting to disrupt the flow, try to get him/her back on track subtly with a stroll around the room, a tap, a look or signal, with as little interruption as possible. Try not to let the disruption become classroom entertainment. Appeal to reason and the student’s conscience, with your underlying communication: You know what I ask is reasonable, don’t you? Please do what you can to make this class time work well for everyone.
  9. Repeated interruptions and off task behavior call for quiet intervention aimed at determining the real reason for the problem–is the work confusing for the student? Can they not handle sitting near distractions? Is there an ongoing issue that you as a sub cannot address? So many variations here, I hesitate to advise, except to say, use empathetic discernment, clarify expectations, and be firm when student persist in interfering with the learning of other students. The phrase, “I insist” can be helpful here, if you don’t glower at the same time. Occasionally I realize the problem is bigger than I, and I regretfully hand the student over to the school discipline people (I call ahead and send the student down to the office). I try to check in with the student again later, and with staff members who know him or her.
  10. If assignments are due, ask students who aren’t handing it in for some reason to write that reason in a note to the regular teacher. Try to include these details in your own notes too.
  11. If a student asks you to sign a permission form, e.g. for a field trip, have them ask a regular staff member instead, explaining that they have the authority to do that. If you can’t find hall/library passes, make your own, noting the time and reason.
  12. Keep notes, in your own scrawly handwriting and code, on who’s working well, who’s goofing off (and so got moved), who got the day’s work done (have them show you to be signed off)–to be used for the neat sub notes you leave for the teacher. Try to finish up each class with a few minutes left for students to tidy up and relax.
 
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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Education

 

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Tips for substitute teachers

  1. Prepare mentally. As you drive, visualize your confident competence, and/or pray for favor with staff and students, wisdom, insight, confidence, anything you feel you need to have a good day. And expect a good, challenging, successful day.
  2. Check in with the office staff, introduce yourself, get teaching plan, schedule, map or directions, names of people to call for assistance.
  3. Bring your basic supplies to the classroom and stash them near your desk: water bottle, snack, lunch, extra writing tools, a notebook, and some riddles, mental puzzles, group games that require no props, etc., for lag times.
  4. Read the sub plans carefully, underline key items for quick reference, jot down bell schedule if it’s not included on the plans.
  5. Write the basic plan on the board for students (and your) easy reference. Also write your name.
  6. Make a classroom tour. Locate all materials and supplies, and check equipment functions. See what other supplies, books, and charts are there. If you have time, look at posted or shelved student work.
  7. In your notebook or on scrap paper, draw a rough seating map. Some students like the freedom to switch seats when a sub shows up, and since you don’t know names and faces, it’s a good idea to make an up-to-date map. As each class arrives, you can have a student fill in the names, or go around yourself and jot them down. I prefer the latter. Students seem to appreciate the small check-in, and I tell them I want to be able to call them by their names. If they joke around and give a false name, I go with it tell them I’m going to use the one they give, and expect them to answer to it. Usually that brings out the truth. THIS SEATING MAP IS MY MOST USEFUL TOOL!
  8. When class starts, get attention and introduce yourself simply, pointing out your name on the board. I hope at this point you can communicate that you’re glad to be there and meet them all. Then get busy right away with first items, and keep it moving.
  9. Stay alert to “testers,” and win them over with subtle communications (shake of head from across the room, touch on shoulder while talking to class generally, specific, quiet instructions, etc.) while protecting their dignity (Don’t stare at them, single them out, frown them down, come down hard without warning). Try to give most of your positive attention to those engaged with the learning process, and keep things moving.
  10. Carry your seating chart around (and schedule/plans, if you like) on a clipboard, with a notebook to jot down anything that helps you–notes by names of students, who’s out at the library or bathroom & when they left, questions for regular teacher, etc. When students ask what you are writing, tell them.
  11. If necessary after prolonged sitting, give students the opportunity to stand, stretch, and get their wiggles out.
  12. Ask students for help–most appreciate the opportunity to be useful. Where do you keep supplies? Does Mr. R___ read this aloud? What’s the next door teacher’s name again?
  13. Ask for students’ thoughts and opinions on the material, or anything that might make a good discussion (hands really are necessary to hear everyone, even with older students). Try to wrap things up with some synthesis or review.
  14. Say goodbye, and thanks.
 
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Posted by on June 9, 2013 in Education

 

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