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Thoughts from subbing a year ago

Sine wave of confidence in myself at a low right now. Many factors contributing–a talking-to here, a piece of someone’s mind there, a few more failures to be as good a parent as I aspire to be, and I end up (after the first reaction of anger or irritation and self-justification) weary, feeling small, with no one to dry those tears. Who was I kidding, that I had the nerve to aspire to be a teacher? Looking back on the moments in which I had nothing to offer but a hoping for the best, and a sense of knowing I don’t know much.

After a few days of thinking things had gone well during my eight days of subbing, I took some days off, thinking I deserved a break. Turned out to be four, to be around for my kids who are opting out of testing. Now I’m feeling irresponsible, for not adding to the finances as much as possible, and at a time I should be trying to reinforce my commitment to teaching and making a good, memorable impression on administrators so I have a shot at a job in the fall. Plus when I’m adrift around the house these days, I lose some of my groove–the home projects don’t fulfill like they used to, and the kids don’t need/want my leadership in the same way, naturally. The role of housewife is stale, especially in the awareness of my having fallen short in the area of training the children to co-manage with me.

Failures at home carry over into a sense of insecurity about my worthiness to teach in a formal setting. Even if I have proven myself in some ways, got the stamp of approval or requisite number of stars, what about that other thing? If I get to the short list of candidates for the science positions available, say the screener or principal decides to do a quick internet search on my name? Up come two letters to the editor  in which I advise parents to opt out of testing. Just before the wave of student opt outs in our three high schools, as if I was maybe some kind of adviser behind the scenes. Which I would have been proud to be, I guess, though that was not the case–I met no one and sensed no rumblings of a local opt out movement when I made my move. But what concerns might an administrator have about what kind of employee I might be if hired? Insubordinate? Overly independent? Or courageous in the cause of educational ideals and democratic process, a good example to the young citizens under our care? Will I get the chance to explain that I did this in the role of parent, that if I were a full time teacher I would be agreeing to abide by professional protocol and remain neutral? Not mentioning, of course, that my version of neutral includes providing options and full information as to the nature, quality, and reliability of tests, and student/family right to choose.

At first I felt that my classes last week went well, considering the diverse needs and low motivation that I’d been warned about. But am I deluded? In two classes it felt like I was stringing beads on a thread without a knot at the other end, in my efforts to find ways to help student focus on and see the point of and value and accomplish the tasks laid out for them. Meanwhile one to two sets of table groups are completing them without much need for me at all, except to find out what to do when they were done. One table was all English language learners, and without knowing their particular language, I couldn’t even distinguish the ones who simply needed translation from those who had trouble with math in any language.

I walk around the classroom with my high ideals, seeing the value for all of these activities they are supposed to do–working with speeds and times and rolling carts, then doing the math, but I’m dragging them along through glitch after glitch and, what was the point, again? Connection with environmental science, again?

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2015 in Education

 

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Sub notes, and a bit about screen time

Summer already, and in a state of drought [This is a post started back in May]. Already I’ve been watering–not enough rain to keep the seedlings alive until they send roots deep enough, or to bring up the worms to chew up that compost on the top. How to convince my sweetheart that now is the time to divert the gray water from our showers and kitchen sink into the vegetable garden my current challenge. He can do it, no problem, he says, but he’s a busy man, and we have so many other projects on the go. I don’t want to pester, or to be shrill, as I feIt was sounding, a little, talking to the pool manager about how I wanted my kids to get summer jobs that didn’t involve fuel consumption–yes, it’s normal, but we have to make a new normal, or we’ll all be in trouble, I proclaimed.

The other day I suggested to another teacher that it might be a good idea for school districts to trade staff around to minimize commuting distance and hence fuel combustion. And add good staff showers to the next renovation plan, so it would be easier to bike in. I asked around before Bike to School and Work Day about showers, and no one seemed to know. It would have to be one not used by students after early morning weights–too awkward.

I load the clothesline each day–sometimes I go out at night and hang as I listen to the coal trains rattle by; sometimes I’m out early in the morning hearing the birds–a pileated woodpecker knocking on the cottonwoods, robins, crows, chickadees and sparrows, and the faint rush of freeway commuters. Aromas of roses, apple blossoms with the occasional touch of sea air permeate the blankets and undershirts, puffing back out as I gather them together in my arms to place in the basket the next day.

Today was my last day subbing for a traveling high school teacher. I had all four classes, three of which require a lot of effort to keep them working. Or to clarify that it is completely their choice not to do any work, knowing they have been offered support and options. I had three sign notes to that effect. All very professional, and they seemed to appreciate being released–catch and release? I would have liked to have sent them home to work on a better plan. These are young adults, and while I recognize that the years have given me wisdom and can justify me being in a position of authority to set requirements and standards, as well as some ways of trying to help them develop a vision, a purpose for all this study, I want to honor their capacity and right to make their own choices.

One student said she had been away for several weeks because she couldn’t be bothered coming to school. I asked her why she decided to come in, and she explained that it was due to the departure of a welcome visitor at her home, a relative. I guess she felt lonesome and came for the social life. Her table mate, before this having been on the edge between marginal effort and none toward the class work, decided she was going to play cards. Did they expect this to result in an escalation, and that they would have to exert their right to self governance? I’m not into that, at their age, with my limited understanding of them personally.

This morning the instructional assistant that’s been helping with some of the students in one class came in specially to tell me that one of the students–one I had urged repeatedly to try to do the work, and who kept making excuses and evasions and claiming I was picking on him, was “special ed.” She seemed like she had been sent to tell me, after, probably, having a conversation with someone downstairs about how my interaction with that student had not gone very well the previous day. It was humbling, though I was glad to have more information–if only a label. At the end of the previous day I was aware that I’d need to be more gentle and creative with this student. Ironically, I felt that this boy’s social skills were on par or above those of the I.A. in some ways, who said almost nothing to me the whole four days, not even looking at me or answering when I said hello as she walked by me on her way in on the second day. No introduction, no sense of us being a team, in fact, a cold avoidance from the beginning. Her interaction with students she was working with (she stayed at one table the whole time, not to my knowledge offering much to the “special ed” student I had had the minor conflict with, involved a kind of “coming down to their level” which included whining, sarcasm, complaining, and bickering. It was strange, and made me wonder about her, as I assume she had skills and training, and an interest in being there. As the trainer said, kids can learn from all kinds of educators’ styles, as long as they’re consistent. So I’ll try not to judge.

The other I.A. was completely different–a tall, kind, bearded man who used a combination of goofiness and simple explanations as he circulated around helping struggling or off track students with their lab work. He kept an open line of communication with me, showed respect, and was a real sunshiny presence.

Today I finally confiscated some cell phones from students–should have earlier, maybe, but that’s a touchy thing to do as a sub. I didn’t want to physically touch the hones, so had each student wrap theirs up in scrap paper and put it in the drawer of the teacher’s desk, One had been repeatedly told over the course of the week to put her phone away, and was drawn like a magnet back to her screen again and again, oblivious to all else. She looked forlorn when it was gone–it was a case of withdrawal, I said, as I shared with her the science behind those feelings, loss of dopamine rush, as of an addict from a drug. She looked a little startled. Is no one teaching these kids the science of addiction, or that it doesn’t have to be about drugs present externally? I suppose we’re all scrambling to develop a philosophy, a policy, about something so powerful, ubiquitous, and sort out the elements of our ambivalence.

It might be a good idea to turn it over to the students themselves, this question of appropriate use of digital and/or web-based technology–let them research it, discover what the scientists have concluded, what’s being looked at, examine their own biases, teacher biases, parent biases,  try to be objective after all. I haven’t seen very much work on this, and it’s pretty important–at least as important as bullying. Maybe it’s not being addressed because it’s such a can of worms. Questions might arise such as, How does business influence students’ use of technology in the classroom? What student data is gathered by student use of district-adopted software and apps, and how is it used? How are web-based tests affecting students, and what do they measure well and not so well? Why is Microsoft eager to supply low or no-cost hardware and software to schools? And so on.

Flood ’em with information, theories, and opportunities to research and test. Put themselves in the place of an educator, a parent, a person trying to interact with them at dinner as they hold that thing in their hands. If the internet is really making them smarter, then they have to be responsible with that additional brain power, and use it to work it out on their own.

Meanwhile, I would like to use my students (among others) as subjects in an experiment of my own. I’d like to know whether there is a relationship between screen exposure and one’s ability to sit still without any direct stimulus, just to be still with one’s own thought and feelings. Somehow I feel this is an important question, and might provoke some valuable conversation about the brain. Maybe also the soul.

 

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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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What doesn’t kill you either makes you stronger, or initiates a slow and inevitable death

Again I reflect on what could be going on in this huge world filled with individuals so connected in some ways that they seem like part of some huge protoplasm phagocytizing the latest presenting body, absorbing whatever is diffusing through this cultured medium, yet also so fundamentally alone, cut off, unique and mysterious, perhaps even breaking off the main body entirely. Whether that makes for freedom and independence, the establishment of a new population of adaptable organisms, or drifting vulnerability, death of the apparently unfit–are we all comfortable with that?

After the middle school class had received their tests and were getting down to them, continued from yesterdays’ work, I noticed one boy just sitting at his little table, lank hair hanging over one eye. I asked him if he had missed the previous day and so had not got a test started. He said no, he didn’t have a group. Group? You mean study group of this material? Yes. And why not? He just didn’t get a group, so wouldn’t be doing the test. Everyone was joining groups and he didn’t get in one, and didn’t want to interfere with anyone else’s. So I don’t do the work, I just read, he said. That’s what I do. Besides, there are so many questions, over eighty, on and on, and it’s too hard to read all that, I won’t be able to do it.

I tried for a little while to make the connection between the test as a tool for just finding out what he knows about U.S. history, and learning U.S. history as a way to be informed and capable of making smart decisions and not just being a pawn of the influential, and…he just looked at me quietly with those big eyes in that small, pale face. Sensing that what he got something from all this was that someone was at least noticing him, talking to him. Under cover of the quietness of everyone writing the test–as I continued, a somewhat unnatural quietness, as if there was a curiosity about this interaction, those fellow students having more background, and what was this sub on about with the boy who never did any of the work?

We started with The American Dream. It was on the test, after all, and I just told him about it, how it meant the idea that everyone had the chance to succeed through hard work, not only the rich or connected or advantaged. Could he imagine two boys, one who was told from an early age he could do just about anything if he worked hard, and the other, that he was dumb or didn’t have what it took or that the world was a messed up dog-eat-dog place and it was the luck of the draw. Which one would be more likely to succeed, if it was a matter of mindset? His hair hung over his face as he sat on a stool by mine, and I couldn’t tell his expression. Was I skating close to something painful? I imagined a quiet weeping behind that curtain, though he made no sound. Because this boy struck me as, more than anything, deeply discouraged. And usually that comes from external sources at that age, someone shutting him down somehow. He had adopted a fundamentally passive stance toward events in his life; it seemed the only form his righteous anger–if it could be so called, could take, and probably the most powerful. No one will tell me I’m doomed to be a failure–I’ll do it to myself, of my own free will!

There was so little time. Who was working with this kid? Who had time? And anyway, why bother? Survival of the fittest, right?

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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Of course I have favorites

Is it all my failures at home that have given me this advantage when it comes to dealing with students bent on offending, rebelling, sassing, dissing, and being generally, in their own minds at least, free thinkers and nobody’s fool?

There was this girl in my class the other day, and she’s sitting with her friend at a new table during group work time. One of the boys at that table is attempting to explain to her why she and her friend can’t be in that group. They have already started the assignment, are on a different topic, and there can only be groups of up to four people and that would make five. The boy’s expression shows a mixture of determination and trepidation. He’s speaking hesitantly but reasonably. The other boy looks on, believing this may not turn out well.

The girl is sitting hunched, her back against the wall, glaring, red-faced (could be sun burn). I sense the need for intervention, and approach. What’s up, I ask. I hear the boy’s explanation. I ask the girl what her name is, because she’s not noted in my seating sketch yet. She turns her glare on me. “your name?” Yes, she has heard me, and she is giving me the silent treatment.

Glares? I can handle those. So I say, “Okay, just asking. I’m not going to do anything nasty with your name, only wanted to be able to address you properly to be polite. How can I help?”

“You can’t. I’m NOT moving.” She is not quite gritting her teeth, or holding her hands in fists, but there’s the feeling of it.

I look at her friend, a girl I’d previously spoken to, whose name had been offered then on request. She awaits the verdict–she is in a support role, willing to also look a little fierce, if not openly defiant. Trying this out, maybe under a thrall a little. I look around at the students at the table. “Okay, see what you can work out.” I move away, thinking, these boys are in over their head, and here’s an incident waiting to happen. I confer with the special ed teacher, who nods, looks determined, and says, I’ll deal with it.” I’m hoping she doesn’t have her back up at all, thinking she might, suspecting she thinks that as a sub I can only make things worse. Something has to give. I wonder if a call down to admin would be a good preventative. Still, I move off, act normal, continue to check in with other groups without any indication that there’s a problem anywhere in the room.

A few minutes later I see that the SpEd teacher has worked her magic and the girl is gone from the boys’ table. She’s working out in the commons with two other girls. Since there are three educators including the instructional assistant, I stroll out to check in on the three groups out there. The girl is looking relaxed. I offer a few thoughts on how each group might include indigenous peoples’ angles on their Washington state history research on transportation, women’s roles, child rearing, industry. Remind them that these social studies concepts were realities not invented by the colonists. They are all open, but prefer to consider the state history part from the twentieth century on. There are no kids with indigenous roots in this group, I think.

I am smiling at the girl, along with the others in turn as I ask questions, offer suggestions. Suddenly she says, “I’m sorry I yelled at you in there.” Which is not, strictly speaking, what happened, but that’s how it felt to her, apparently. So obviously she was all set to yell. “I was just mad at them for not letting us in their group.” I reassure her that I know she had nothing against me personally. “But thank you; that’s sweet–I forgive you.”

I try to be professional when I’m working with students. Try to convey an equal interest, equal warmth, equal approach to intervention or disciplinary actions, equal respect. But to admit the truth, I really look forward to the opportunity to interact with strong willed students. Yes, I have some strong willed children on my own, and am not as alert to the need for staying on my best game at home, in being patient, in holding my ground while being empathetic, in giving frustrated children space. But it seems I’ve learned a few things along the way even so. And so now I feel so responsible to use that, to offer that, to allowing myself to be in that challenging place where I handle things in a way that really does some good for students like this. They are students who offend, and no one thanks them for that. They have their reasons for being mean, rude, defiant, difficult, touchy, and so few adults have the inclination to ask them what those are, to come alongside and understand, then work to help these kids discover and practice ways to harness their strength in a direction that helps them succeed.

 

 

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An unexpected journey

I’m still susceptible to those bad boys. My charming, soft-hearted, intelligent, and highly skilled mate having that element of beastiness (not to say beastliness) that appeals to this day. He relates to Shrek, though I assure him that most folks aren’t ready for the real Fiona. He is not a tame husband, though I appear to keep testing that. I know he likes that feistiness about me too, though at first it appeared otherwise. Fresh from spiritual revival he was, a genuine experience of God, but also an inclination toward seeing some sort of reproduction of is mother’s excellent example of the Christian wife. Myself fresh from my own deepened spiritual life and hoping not to reproduce my own mother’s excellent example of the beasty wife. And so we got a little off track from our true natures. At least I can speak for myself in that.

One of the things I discovered over the years is that he likes to be teased, the more pointed the better (avoiding any real sensitivities, of course). Putting the challenge right back in his face, the most welcome defense a good offense. As in, “Honey, didn’t you get the kitchen clean?” “No, my dear, I had better things to do, so I called the help, but they were booked, so I’m waiting for you to fill in.” He loves it. And it sure is more fun than taking offense and feeling like a failure. Though I still have my suspicions that the righteous way is more service oriented and humble. I trust that my heavenly father has the longer view and more room for a meandering kind of growth, through my various stages of unadulterated self.

As a teacher, likewise, as I explained in the staff room yesterday, I find it easier to deal with equanimity with the kid who slams his books on the table and says, “I’m not doing this–this is stupid!” than the one who asks me how to do something every five minutes and whines that it’s too hard. I can relate to the first, and also there’s a strong will there, which I think is a very useful thing, something that can be directed. But the second is sounding an awful lot like a victim, and that’s the part of me I don’t like. Not very fond, either, of the complete conformist who only aims to achieve an acceptable task completion score.

Take the boy I’d been warned about on the phone by his teacher that morning before classes started, in case he wasn’t removed from the classroom for the day as requested, as he didn’t deal with subs well. He came in with a slam, snatched the paper handout I gave him with a “What’s this? I don’t want to do this!” And so it began, and somehow it turned out all right, and I wish I knew exactly why so I could package the formula and sell it to the trainers from the insurance company, not to mention pressing the same buttons the next time it happens to me. I guess it had to do with not being shocked and awed, treating him as if he had something worth contributing to the discussion about ways to earn a living, and doing some waiting it out or as the trainer said, giving him sometime and space. On the question about which was “goods” and which “services,” clarifying that the weed would be the goods and the dealing, services. And trusting him, when he said he couldn’t work with the rest of the class (corroborated by others) to take a few fellow students into the common area outside the classroom and work there. When I checked in, he referred to me to the others as a “homey.” For which I asked a definition and found that it means one accepted into one’s group. I said thank you, and that I’d noticed he had been pretty mad when he came in. He assured me that he hadn’t been mad at me, and I said I hadn’t thought so, and wandered back into the classroom.

Who needs fire walking, or tight ropes, or handstands on rings, when you can teach middle school? Lots of falls, years of practice, thrills and spills and a sense of accomplishment/relief when things work. And that there’s always the next challenge, and life is short.

And that weird balance between trying to “keep control” and admit that it’s in their hands, and making that appeal to their better nature. Today was tough–I was in a classroom with high, hard walls and windows, all echoing so that every voice had the feeling of three, and what seventh grade boy or girl can resist joining a cacophony of three? About half of the former and a fourth of the latter, in my estimation. All I could  hope for was for things to keep moving along, and for those so inclined to be able to learn something and get their assignment done, and to fairly distribute the consequences for not, per policy. And to maintain equanimity. Though one kid said I had to stop being nice because nice doesn’t work with those kids. Yes I felt that at the end of each class, no matter how raucous, I wanted to be able to smile and say thanks and have a great day, to have them still believe what I’d told them in the beginning, that I love subbing in middle school classes. There are a lot of bad boys. Next time I’ll write about the fierce girls.

 

 

 
 

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Some days are good days.

“I think you are not unhappy here,” said my next door teacher, an intelligent, soft-spoken physics teacher with a deep appreciation for language—its potential for precision, rich meaning, and play. He doesn’t seem soft spoken due to shyness, but in order to intentionally create a peaceful space for communication. He thinks before he speaks, when he feels he can improve the silence. Another good influence to add to my development as a teacher, along with the youthful, energetic, and always cheerful ways of the teacher I’ve been subbing for while he’s on an eight day travel leave.

The variety of really lovely personalities is continually being revealed as I go through my routines throughout the building–getting my keys from inside the secretary’s office (why can’t all secretaries be like that?), attendance sheets from the office administration assistant, who is always calm, approachable, and organized, a chat with the principal in passing, who thanks me, with genuine feeling, for being there, and the assistant principal, a person of lofty stature who holds himself with a spirit of humility, and, again, approachability.

In the staff lunch room each noon I have chatted with a core of five or six who bring their lunches down–the fellow who works with special ed students is brimming with friendliness and fun, the instructional assistant with deep compassion and patience, the music teacher with a love for quality and ways of causing students to rise to the occasion. These people seem to be happy here too. I sense that they feel useful, working in their gifts and respected for what they do as well as appreciated for who they are. This is a hard job, but maybe this is a place where someone has got your back in it all, and one brings home only the kind of fatigue that is refreshed by food, sleep, and weekends.

The science teacher I worked with before is there today too, and encourages me with word that there are more science positions opening up that she has seen in a while. She has sent in several glowing references on my behalf. She’s another teacher I’d enjoy working with–I’ve seen her in action while I was sitting off in the corner helping grade papers–firm, kind, respectful, enthusiastic, consistent. I feel a little shy around her, perhaps because in some ways she reminds me of me.

Every day I work I add to my vision for how I would set up, organize, and especially–here’s where words fail me–I’m looking for an action verb sort of like “sculpt”, but applicable to the ongoing work of nurturing an essentially positive and ultimately inspiring atmosphere.I mean that–inspiring—where there is a spirit, a breath of something special–learning, knowledge, yes, but of a complex kind, knowable and able to be felt, but not measurable. As my teacher neighbor asked, will they ever realize that so much that is valuable cannot be measured by tests?

Say students like the ones I have right now show up on the first day of my teaching job in the fall. Thirty students, three with very little English, five at risk of complete disengagement for various reasons, one homeless with spotty attendance, ten highly motivated and craving challenge and intellectual connections with teachers and fellow students, four having been told they are smart but afraid of taking risks and making public errors that might contradict that claim and shatter the image, and the usual number of others with no obvious mental “tags” for me such as the previous mentioned ones, but concealing as many wonders, challenges, talents, as the rest. This time as a substitute teacher is in many ways a preparation—I am thankful to have it, as I didn’t in my first job fresh out of school–for that attempt to be useful to students, at the very least, and, at best inspirational. In the words of John Sumarah, one my former professors, it is the apparently unrealistic vision that nevertheless drives me.

 

 

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