This 2019-2020 school year was my first as a retired school teacher earning extra money by substitute teaching. It ended before I was ready. I not only didn’t get a chance to earn all the money I needed, I did not get the chance to see some of the kids in five different middle schools I subbed for that I had learned to like and hoped to see again before the year ended. I did put in enough time to get rehired for next year. I even got to keep my sub badge so that I can go back if the schools ever reopen again. But I despair a bit over what I have lost. My health may not be good enough to go back to the job I love so much. In fact, I don’t really expect miracles to happen that would let me survive this pandemic. If I do go back to school next fall, it is more likely to be in order to haunt the hallways than to teach again.
The last few nights I have been sleeping longer than I have at any time since I retired in 2014. And I have had vivid dreams of being a teacher in a classroom yet again. But always in schools that are only vaguely familiar and are obviously new jobs with new kids that I haven’t seen or trained before. And yet, as it always is with teaching, they are all the same classroom, all the same schools, all the same kids, just in new packages that I haven’t seen before.
One of the things that is hardest about being a substitute rather than a regular teacher is the fact that one day, one class period, is not long enough to build a relationship with every kid. You cannot get to really know them in such a short amount of time. That’s why going back to certain schools is so exhilarating because you get a chance to cover the same classes again, see the same kids, and work on being a good teacher for them in the way I used to do it for kids that were mine for an entire school year.
And I was one of those rare teachers who actually likes kids.
Many teachers never get over the difficulty of managing a classroom and doing discipline. It is for them a never-ending battle for order and quiet. They only manage it by becoming fearsome ogres or anal-retentive control freaks. Most of those only ever consider discipline to be punishing kids enough to make them mind.
Those sorts of teachers don’t believe me when I tell them that the way to do discipline is not by quashing behaviors and limiting behaviors through punishment, but by encouraging the behaviors that you want. And by leading them into the excitement of reading a good story or learning an interesting new thing.
As a sub I went into the classrooms of punishing teachers and weak-willed teachers who let students do whatever they will. Invariably you meet boys who are convinced they are stupid and doomed to fail. They suspect their parents don’t like them. And all they want to do is stop lessons from happening by being disruptive. And invariably you meet girls who think the only hope for them is to capture the right boy (without any earthly idea what the right boy will be like). And they suspect their parents don’t like them very much. And all they want to do is fix their make-up, talk about boys with other girls, and talk boys into disrupting lessons to show their manliness.
As a substitute, I also went into the classes of teachers who knew the secret and actually loved kids. They had positive posters on the wall that could be paraphrased as, “There are wonderful things to do in this life, and I believe you can do them. You should believe it too.”
And they will say to their kids things like, “Look at this wonderful thing you have done. You are really good at this. And when you do things like this, nobody can tell me you aren’t a good and wonderful person that makes the world a better place.”
Kids need to see the evidence and hear those things from their teacher. And if the teacher is giving them that, they will even behave well for the substitute with very little work on the part of the substitute.
So, I have been dreaming about being a teacher again. It is a thing that I love to do, and I fear that, because of this pandemic, I will never be able to do it again. Even as a substitute. And if that is the case, then I hope that at least one person reads this and discovers the answer to the question, “How do you become a good teacher?” Because I believe I have it right. I know it worked for me. And I think it is true even if no one ever believes me.