Since I have retired from my career in air traffic control for the FAA, I have started working as a substitute teacher. Only part time, and only when I feel like it. It isn’t my calling, but I truly enjoy it; kids are funny and amazing and heartbreaking and encouraging all at the same time. One of the reasons I have so little worry about the future of our great nation is because I get to see these kids turn into the next generation of success. Don’t bother me with “new” math or “teaching to the test” or “not enough money”for schools. Those are all very real problems. But I just watched a little kid who can’t tie his shoes log into a school’s website to complete homework and take a test. The password wasn’t “password”, either. Each kid has a unique ID and a different password for each device they are tasked to log into. None of these kids had their passwords written on a sticky note, either. Raise your hand if your passwords are all written down. Yeah, me too.
Whenever I fill in for a teacher, a REAL teacher, I tell the class I only have two rules.
- No tears
- No bloodshed
It’s usually pretty funny and lets them all drop their defenses because they know the “sub” is cool and won’t give them a hard time. I tend to add a caveat about cell phones in the high school classes (“don’t make them a distraction and we will all pretend that you’ve left them put away the whole period”), which usually works.
I taught in an elementary school the other day. The movie during the lunch period was “Monsters University”. I hadn’t seen that before, but the 12 minutes I saw were great. (Teachers get TWO pieces of pizza if you want, by the way). Pencils only get sharpened at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day. But, as a substitute, I didn’t hear that rule until they ALL had to sharpen pencils in the MIDDLE of the day. Big no-no, apparently.
Justice. That makes sense to these kids. If HE gets to sharpen his pencil (and how could I say no? His pencil clearly needed sharpening. How can he learn letters if his pencil point is broken off?), then I should get to sharpen my pencil, too. And so on, until everyone got a pencil sharpened. My lyrical and cogent lecture on the critical reasons we must learn cursive may have gotten a bit diluted, shall we say, by the intermittent noise of the sharpener, but hey. There is a price for excellence.
A few vignettes: (I will change all the student names because they don’t need to be in the news just yet.) Jacob poked approximately 60 holes in Daniel’s paper. Daniel didn’t like that. “Jacob, why did you poke holes in Daniel’s paper?” “I don’t know.” “Do you think you can apologize for that?” “Sorry.” “Can you say a whole sentence to apologize?” “I am sorry.” (technically, a complete sentence. But, then again, so is “Sorry.”) “Can you say, ‘I am sorry for poking holes in your paper?'” “I am sorry for poking holes in your paper.” “Daniel, can you say thank you for apologizing?” “Thanks.” I say, “Can we move forward now?” They both nod in the affirmative.
Taten dropped the desktop on Kaitlyn’s fingers (did not know this yet). Kaitlyn was crying (one of my 2 very simple rules!) “Kaitlyn, why are you crying?” “Taten smashed my fingers in the desk,” she said with a hitch in her voice. “Taten, did you do that?” “Yes.” “Why did you do that, Taten?” “I don’t know.” “Can you apologize for that?” “Sorry.” “Can you say a whole sentence for that?” “I am sorry.” Can you say, ‘I am sorry for slamming your fingers in the desk?'” “I am sorry for slamming your fingers in the desk.” “Kaitlyn, can you say thank you or ok to that?” “It’s ok,” said Kaitlyn, tears gently beading down her cheeks.
Discipline is handled with clothespins. Everyone starts at green (I think) and clips UP for being a good helper or example and clips DOWN for doing something against the rules. Simple. Except (and this is why so many of these kids will be good at debate or the legal profession) when one of them sees another doing something bad. “Johnny took a drink out of someone else’s water bottle, can I move his clip down?” “No, I don’t think you should move it because I didn’t see him do it.” “Well, he did it.” “Johnny, did you drink out of someone else’s water bottle?” “No.” “Missy says she saw you do that. Are you telling me the truth? Because lying about it is worse than actually drinking out of someone else’s bottle.” I can see him gauging his response. “Yes, I did drink out of the bottle.” “Why did you drink out of that bottle?” “I was thirsty.” “Why didn’t you just ask to go get a drink?” “I don’t know.” “Do you think your teacher would have you clip down if you did that?” “Probably.” “OK, then you better clip down one.”
And, all of a sudden, I am judge and jury over a very kind-hearted, loving, energetic elementary student. What if this is the start of a long string of crime and misbehavior? What if he ends up in “Juvie” because I made him clip down for that behavior? What if he moves out of his house and lives under a bridge when he’s older because of me? What if the teacher returns the next day and sees he has clipped down, asks him about it, and then he is in trouble forever because he didn’t behave for the sub??? It’s a lot of pressure – especially for a peacemaker/golden retriever like me.
All of this happened before 11 am. I’d been there less than 3 hours. I had 5 to go. I was exhausted.
These students know these rules inside and out. Occasionally, I will take time to have students explain to me what, exactly, the rules are. We always raise our hand to speak, by the way. A rule which I LOVE, and one that I can enforce with little worry of future criminal record. Also, we take questions in the order that the hands went up. Ocassionally I resort to ‘whoever is the quietest person sitting at their desk’. (Except that has danger, too, because so MANY immediately get quiet so they can get called on and then are crestfallen when I don’t call on them and am I being fair and have I called on an equal number of boys and girls and have I ignored anyone and is the teacher’s pet getting away with something always having me call on her?) Unless it is a bathroom emergency. Then that student gets relief from the court. (I know you see what I said there.)
Clip ups lead to stamps on a card at the end of the day. Purple means two stamps and blue means just one stamp. The card is like a “frequent coffee” card. You know, 10 stamps and then you get to pick a prize (at least I think that is the reward) from the teacher’s stash. “No, you can’t pick a prize today because I don’t know where she keeps the prizes and she didn’t leave me a note about that.” Crestfallen. A grim acceptance of a darkened world because their normal teacher isn’t here.
A word about popsicle sticks. Each student has one. This is true for almost every elementary class I’ve taught. Usually the sticks have a number corresponding to the student. You’ve got to look at the name tag taped to their desk to find out which number stands for which student. Sometimes you use the popsicle sticks to pick what lunch you want that day (lunch menu located on the school website; have a student help you find that web page). Sometimes we use the sticks for the order in which we line up to go to lunch. Or gym (actually, “PE”, not “gym”) (I’m not sure why we don’t call it “gym” anymore). Or recess.
Encore recess is in the afternoon. It is a privilege and not a right. If you have school work left to do, you need to stay in during “Encore” and finish that work. If you’ve clipped down, you have to walk a lap for each level you clipped down. At which point, you must tell the teacher how you will do better in the future. “I promise I won’t poke holes in anyone’s paper because I know it’s wrong”. My role is to look somber and encouraging and thank them for saying that, “Now go have a good time for the rest of recess”. They scamper off.
One last funny thing – we take “restroom”breaks. On the way to and from recess, music, or gym (sorry, PE) we stop at the toilets/sinks/water fountains. A fantastic plan; everyone deserves physical comfort. What’s FUNNY about it is the kids who go straight to the “after you are done, line up here” spot. “You don’t need to go to the bathroom?” Snickers ensue. “What?” “Use the RESTROOM, not the BATHROOM!” “Oh, OK. None of you needs to use the restroom?” “No.” And, those of you who have seen this know what’s coming when we all get back to the classroom…
“Teacher, can I go to the restroom/ get a drink?” “Of course, will you come right back?” “Yes.” And off they go. I smile. They’ve got the system down.
Please hear me well now. The reason I love spending time as a substitute teacher is because I see EVERY DAY the resilience of the human spirit. I see these kids EVERY DAY work through difficult scholastic problems. I see them negotiate with their friends and with their small group partners and with their teachers how to solve each and every problem they face.
They are SO persistent in their pursuit of understanding, knowledge, teamwork. I cannot praise the REAL teachers enough about how successful they are in LOVING these students. These students have bought in to their education because these fantastic teachers CARE and LOVE and EXPECT and AFFIRM. Social contracts, written between teachers and classmates in order to lay ground rules, are all over the place. And they WORK. Bravo to the minds and hearts who instituted this.
Daniel and Jacob had a disagreement. Now they don’t. It is over and they move forward together. Kaitlyn and Taten had a disagreement. Now they don’t. It is over. Missy and Johnny had a disagreement. It is over.
No grudges. Just teammates.
We are going to be just fine.