I don’t wish to forget anything… ever. But increasingly I can no longer call things to mind as swiftly as I could when I was younger. I constantly now find myself unable to recall names of old movie stars I loved as a boy, dates of Civil War battles that I studied at length in the ’90s, the names of former school teachers that I had when I was a boy, and those I worked with as a colleague in the 1980’s. I fear reaching the point my father is now at, not being able to remember my own children.
Last night I had a nightmare about being a substitute teacher. I remember in the dream finishing a first-period class that was not the teacher I was covering for, because the sub-coordinator does that during the teacher’s planning period, using you in classrooms where no sub showed up. And I left that classroom feeling good about the class, but suddenly not able to remember where the classroom was that I was supposed to be teaching in next. I remember going into the office, one unlike any school office I have ever been in. The secretary behind the front desk recognized me by name. Then she asked me why I forgot to sign in that morning. I couldn’t remember. She asked me who I was subbing for. I had forgotten. I didn’t know her name or recognize her face either, something that never happens in a school you work at even for a single day. Secretaries actually run schools telling both teachers and principals what to do and where to go. The secretary was beginning to get irritated with me. I told her I must be having a bad spell. And then I woke up in a sweat.
That dream will probably never come true. I will probably never walk into a classroom as the teacher again, even as a sub, thanks to this horrid pandemic.
But I am having anxiety about forgetting in a very telling way.
I must confess that every illustration for this post was chosen because I saw the picture in my media gallery for this site and realized I did not remember posting these or even making the one at the start of this essay which is two different drawings put together with photoshop.
But I do have one small ace up my sleeve for dealing with serious forgetfulness. I have seven years worth of posts to look back on. That should help me remember a thing or two about… wait, what was this post about?
Rule #2 : Raise your hand to talk or leave your seat!
That rule was one of the two classroom rules broken most often in my classroom. The other was Rule #3 : Be respectful to everyone. Fortunately #2 was a rule that could be enforced without immediate detention, or a trip to the principal, or a call to the parents… Or being buried in the sand up to your neck so ants could eat your head. (And I almost never had to use that last option on #3 either.)
Kids in a classroom, especially the middle school ones between 12 and 15, are never going to be completely quiet in the classroom for the entire 45 to 55 minutes. And, truthfully, you don’t want them to be.
You see, no kid I ever taught learned only by sitting and listening. And I found that kids who actually learned from the talking teacher were rare, weird birds indeed.
If a question needs to be answered for a kid to learn something, the answer must never come from the teacher’s mouth. If the teacher says the answer, no matter what source it came from, it has only passed through the teacher’s brain. And no kid in the classroom got even a glimmering ghost of a learning sparkle going off in their own personal brain where the learning must take place.
As an example;
Fabian Castellano comes waddling in the classroom door at the beginning of 2nd Period 7th Grade English.
“Hey, Mr. B, are aliens real?” he shouts before even sitting down, let alone raising his hand.”
“What’s Rule #2, Fab?” A puzzled look briefly crosses his pudgy face. Then he grins and throws up one fat little arm.
“My cousin Rodrigo from Laredo said a flying saucer landed in his back yard, and a little green guy hopped out and said, “Hi, Roddy! I am called the Great Gazoo. And I have orders to make you king of the world for three days so you can learn important lessons about how your world really works.” And then he said… something I forget…” and then Fabian takes a deep breath. “So, are aliens real?”
“Are you talking about your cousin, Roddy Lopez? The one they call Liar Lopez?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“And has he ever told you a lie before?”
“Like when he told me that if I stuck jelly beans in my ears, the 6th Grade girls would all tell me I’m sweet and they want to kiss me? Yeah.”
“And does he ever watch a cartoon called The Flintstones? Where there’s a little green alien named Gazoo who makes wishes come true?”
“So, is anything Roddy tells you proof that aliens are real?”
“No, probably not.”
So, here you see the lesson in logical reasoning going on in the student’s head, not the teacher’s head. This is what is known as the Socratic Method.
So, Rule #2 is not really about keeping classrooms quiet and discussions orderly. It is entirely about enforcing the teacher’s will upon the classroom, suggesting strongly to the students that the teacher is totally in charge of behavior in the classroom, a thing that is not even remotely true, unless the teacher gets them to believe it by endlessly repeating the rule.
But you do have to talk to kids as a teacher. How else would I know anything about the infamous Liar Lopez and his love of cartoons? How else am I going to teach anything at all to a chubby vato loco like Fabian?
You gotta make the evil little hyperactive monkey heads raise those hands!
When I was a rookie teacher in the Spring of 1982, I had to take two busloads of eighth graders nearly a hundred miles to see the State Capitol in Austin for their annual 8th Grade Field Trip.
If you don’t see the potential for disaster in that, well, you are in for a tougher life going forward than the one I am about to complain about.
Anyway, it was an extra-warm sunny Texas day and we had an endless-hours journey in an un-air-conditioned bus with sixty kids and four teachers per bus. And I was the new teacher filled with sizzling rage from enduring eight months and fourteen days worth of get-the-new-teacher tricks by fourteen-and-fifteen-and-sixteen-year-old kids (I didn’t have to rage at the eighteen-year-olds on the field trip because the same things that kept them in the eighth grade until they were eligible for Medicare were the things that disqualified them from going on the field trip). And because the principal was convinced that you could prevent death by throwing things on a bus by having a teacher sitting near the perpetrator, or the potential target, the teachers had to spread out and sit with the kids. Of course, our bus had 59 perpetrators and one potential target (Tomasso, the kid nobody could stand). And the coaches got to sit by the vatos locos most likely to fling metal and hard food. I, of course, got Tomasso.
So, I sat for five hours on the way up to Austin practicing trying to kill apple-core tossers with my best teacher’s stink-eye while ducking gum wads, wrapper balls, and half-eaten Rice-Krispies Treats. And I was also listening to Tomasso’s endless weird questions and comments about penguins that made him the popular target. I got extra practice recognizing bad words in Spanish and resisting the urge to call them “pendejos” in return.
And we got to Austin tired, sweaty, and hungry because it took extra time in both San Antonio and San Marcos traffic, and we missed our lunch connection in a parking lot in central Austin. The kids were mostly not hungry. They were full of chips and hot Cheetos and other salty, unhealthy snack food. Instead of hunger, they were dying of thirst. And while the History teacher in charge of the trip and the coaches were consulting maps and trying to reach the lunch connection with a walkie talkie, I spotted a herd of students going over a wall into a nearby parking garage. I followed to see them walking over the hoods of parked cars to get to a fire hose that they were using as a watering hole.
We were, of course, unable to single out any individuals for punishment. They were dying of thirst, and it was a three-hundred-degree-in-the-sunshine parking lot where we were waiting.
We got to the Capitol and walked around, bored by the tour guide, and found the one entertaining fact about the Texas Capitol Building. Governor Hogg once had two daughters named Ima and Ura. Their pictures hang in an upstairs display case. Kids laughed and called them “pendejos”. Even the white kids.
Then, the way home took an additional seven hours. All of the coaches fell asleep on the way home, and I was the only teacher awake and standing between unpopular nerds and death by de-pantsing. I was told that somewhere in the middle of the writhing masses of eighth grade arms and legs and ultra-loud voices, a shy kid the teachers all liked lost his virginity to one of the more sexually aggressive girls while the other kids close enough to see in the general darkness watched. Was it true? When he got asked in the classroom, he just grinned.
I remember a lot of “Oops!” School Stories happening on field trips. I went on more than twenty of the big trips like that one, and I only remember a handful that went smoothly. But this one stands out in my memory because it was the first. And first experiences set the standard the rest are judged by. And I tell you this because, this time of year, if things were still like they used to be, and there was no pandemic, field trips to hell like that one would be going on for first-year teachers.
It has been my intention for a while now to tell funny stories on Friday. Specifically, funny stories about being a teacher and dealing with kids, the thing I know best in life. But, with the things that have happened, the pandemic, the screwball gangster President and his Friday follies, ill health, and other things pressing on my mind, I have failed rather badly.
So, bear with me (pun intended) as I give it another try with a story about Hope and Beauty.
Going back to the last millennium, in the year 1996, I had one solitary class of sixth grade English while teaching mostly seventh graders in a school building that was being renovated while we were learning within it. Often to the sound of electric drills and hammering. (A new wing was being added as our junior high school of grades 7 and 8 was being magically transformed by a school grant, and the addition of 6th graders, to become a middle school.
Esperanza and Bonita were the leaders of that sixth grade class. Fourteen kids, 7 girls and 7 boys. Esperanza and Bonita were the leaders because they were the two biggest 6th graders in the whole school. Not biggest by weight, the fattest boy in 6th grade was also in that class. The most mature. Bonita was hoping to go out for boys’ football in seventh grade, because she had been told that girls had won the right in court to play football if they wished. And she loved to tackle boys. The midgets in that 6th grade class were all terrified of her. One of the midgets spent his 6th-grade days pining in the back row to sit next to her but was too afraid to ever tell her that.
Esperanza and Bonita were best friends, and they were also the two best students in my class. They sat side by side in the front row. They would answer every single question in class if I let them. Of course, I didn’t let them. I got as much of a laugh out of other students’ wrong answers as they did. They were merciless about every goof Sammy Sanchez made, but Sammy had a good sense of humor about it, and I swear, he made some mistakes on purpose just because he loved to hear Esperanza laughing. She was probably the prettiest girl in 6th grade and had an equally pretty laugh. (That is not, of course, Sammy’s real name. I protect students’ real names in my writing. But the double S’s in his name were paired with the word “Stupid” in real life.) I was fond of both girls. And most of the time they were fond of me too.
“You’re my favorite teacher,” Esperanza once told me. “It’s because we can really talk about stuff in your class. Not just book stuff. But real-life stuff.”
Most of the “stuff” she meant was in journal writing that they did at the beginning of class. That is where I learned that she was a virgin. And it was where I advised her that it was entirely up to her when she gave it up and to whom. I told her no boy had the right to pressure her into doing anything she didn’t want to do. I gave similar advice to the boy in question privately after school, and he was actually a bit relieved to get the advice. I know that I was overstepping boundaries to give such advice. But they both believed that nobody else would ever be told about it. I was the only one who read that journal entry, and they knew that. And I have never told it until now, a fact about which you still don’t know the real names to go with it.
That class wanted badly to have a “class party” after Spring Break when the year was winding down. I only agreed if they would turn it into a learning experience. So, Esperanza and Bonita took charge. They planned and executed the lesson; “How to make and appreciate different kinds of Mexican Food”. The two of them taught it. Bonita was in charge of discipline. Esperanza taught us about all the ingredients in her aunt’s prize-winning sopapillas. Sammy gave us a memorable and even remotely possible run-down on how Doritos were probably made. And Max, the white kid, shared his Grandma’s recipe for German chocolate cake. You can’t get better Mexican food than that. And a certain mournful midget got to sit next to Bonita while they ate cake.
Both girls were in my class for two more years after that. I had the honor of being their teacher in both the seventh and the eighth grade.
As an eighth grader, Bonita broke my heart with a story she wrote about forgiving her stepfather for beating her in the third grade. It was a beautiful story. But I was torn. Teachers, by law, have to report child abuse. But Bonita pointed out that the man no longer lived with her, and besides, the assignment was to write a fiction story. (I never told anybody but my wife about my being sexually assaulted at the age of ten at that point in my life, but it was the reason I could clearly see what was true and what was fiction.) That story made more than just me cry.
And in the end, Bonita never got a chance to play boys’ football in middle school… or high school either. The boys eventually got bigger, and she didn’t. But that was a good thing too. Bonita at linebacker… the boys would never have survived it.
I will end by letting you in on a secret. In Spanish, Esperanza means “Hope,” and Bonita means “Little Pretty One,” or even “Beauty.”
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.
Because I have characters in a few of my books who are nudists, based on people I have met in real life, my books have caught on with naturists, particularly naturists who write novels about naturism. Ted Bun, a naturist writer and operator of a nudist resort in France, has read and reviewed several of my books so far. You can find his reviews using the link below.
It is a good thing to have your novels read by others. And I am sorta on the edge of being a member of the nudist community on Twitter myself. Of course, my days of comfortably going nude anymore is limited by psoriasis sores, ill health, and disapproval by family members. So, I guess I can only say I am a fictional nudist myself.
I have also been successfully spending time in schools (with all my clothes on) being a successful substitute teacher. I benefited yesterday from the efforts of an excellent teacher as I successfully conducted a U.S. History class with eighth graders all day long. It is rare to have a day when you don’t actively have to stop and redirect bad behavior at least once or twice during the day. But her well-taught series of classroom procedures made my day easy. I only had to tell them I was instituting her every-day discipline plan, and the classes seemed to almost run themselves. Especially in the two LEAP classes (Advanced Placement) . Those classes were heavily populated by students who are first or second generation Indian-Americans. Perry Middle School obviously has a nearby immigrant community of people who are originally from India. And probably smart, professional people too.
I am also still working on my next novel, A Field Guide to Fauns. I am currently at 8,672 words with 32 pages and three illustrations completed. I have been working on it for almost two weeks. It is the story of a boy trying to recover from psychological abuse while trying to fit in with his father’s new family, a stepmother and two twin stepsisters who are nudists, living as full-time residents of a nudist park. I hope the Twitter nudists will love it, but I am not writing it for them. As always, it is a book I am compelled to write.
I am also losing my eyesight. I have glaucoma. Bright lights now fill my field of vision with haze and blurry spots while floaters swimming in my eyes have me repeatedly swatting at bugs that aren’t there. I continue to have symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, including minor hallucinations. If school children I am trying to be a substitute teacher for ever find out, they will be repeatedly telling me that the misbehavior I am seeing is all a hallucination. So, finishing visual projects has a new urgency now.
My eldest son talked to friends in Oklahoma this weekend about acquiring cheap medical marijuana for my glaucoma. We shall see if I am to become a pot-head or not.
Anyway… this little essay is rather a mixed bag of ingredients, poured into a stew and loosely cooked together with poorly-written transitions. So, I now have done a pinch of this, a pound of that, and the stew must now marinate its very meat in weird broth. How do you like them apples?
Today I had a good half day with well-trained, well-behaved accelerated sixth-grade English students. It is gratifying to be able to use my best teacher skills and have them work. It is a rare day for a substitute teacher. And it is always the work of superior classroom teacher that makes this happen.
As a retired school teacher who retired for health reasons, I have a limit to how much I can teach. As I substitute, mostly for teachers who planned on being out for in-service training or special educational meetings, I can usually only do two jobs a week. That limits the number of kids you have contact with, especially the more gifted and talented sorts of kids. But that doesn’t really matter much. As a regular classroom teacher I always focused more on making connections with kids, especially the challenging ones. My two jobs this week consisted of sixth grade Science all day on Tuesday, and seventh grade AVID classes on Thursday.
Sixth graders are the rabid squirrel monkeys of the middle-school monkey-house. They are the ones who jump around the most, scream at each other the most, and swing from the light fixtures the most. And if you think of it as being only metaphorically true, you don’t really know much about sixth graders and modern education.
But the coach I was subbing for is very good at discipline. He gave them an article on the organ systems of the human body and told them to to use the annotation marks on his close-reading poster. Now, you and I both know that coaches don’t really walk sixth graders through note-taking and reading-comprehension drills regularly. There’s a reason coaches are more likely to teach Science, History, or even Math before taking on English or Language Arts teaching assignments.
So, I did a quick-teach using the two-page article on how to circle key words, underline main idea sentences, and how to do a SWBS (Somebody-Wanted-But-So Charts) analysis to summarize the article. They, of course, did not do that before in science class, or even in English that they could remember. I basically simplified his fifty-minute busy-work assignment into a simple twenty-minute reading assignment that would take the slow readers longer. So, I had to occupy the smart, quick, and evil kids with something else while I helped the stragglers finish. I drew a cartoon rabbit, a cartoon duck, and a Disney-esque Goofy on the white board, challenging them to copy it.
I got to work one-on-one with several slow readers. Xavier, a hyper, mouthy kid who had dyslexia was tickled pink to learn he could pick out and put together key words and main ideas. He was unable to write the summary, but he annotated correctly, possibly for the first time ever. And that was a break-through for him. I subbed with him in other classes where he was one of the awfullest chandelier swingers, so that connection made a huge difference for him for at least fifty minutes of his school life. Malik the Mouth who never does anything but insult the others, and gives somebody else’s name to the sub when he gets in trouble, actually kept his bargain with me from the last time he was baby-sat by me. He stayed in his seat and kept working all period. The only time I had to make him give me his name was at the end of class so I could leave a good-job note for the coach after class ended. I actually like those sorts of kids who other subs routinely blow up at and send out of class. Xavier and Malik (possibly not their actual names) are both a hoot to teach. And they help add to my list of funny classroom anecdotes when they lose control and get in trouble with me. I always try to turn those into teachable moments.
But when the coach came in at the end of his smartest class, saw everybody was done, and saw cartoons on his board, he got mad at them. I had to take the blame for them and explain why they were not simply blowing the assignment off and playing around. Coaches don’t usually understand that classroom learning can be fun.
Thursday I was subbing for AVID classes again. These are special classes where at-risk kids are put in college-prep courses and treated like gifted kids. The program is misused as a warehouse for failing discipline-problem kids by this school district. But the Field Middle School has their act together for this program. The kids were working with college-level education students as tutors, and had to fill out self-examination forms that evaluated how they were doing in working with their tutors.
These are well-trained, smart, and seriously funny kids. Xochitl (an Aztec name pronounced ZOACHIE for a Hispanic girl that I have suprisingly encountered more than once in Texas) was a giftred complainer and procrastinator who was too lazy to lift a pencil, yet did the actual work in a few short minutes when she finally got around to it. She had time to tell the kids at her table, one of the tutors, and me about a time when she knocked the head off of a cucaracha (a cockroach who speaks Spanish) and tried to wait for an entire day for it to finally die so she could pick it up and flush it. The thing is, a cockroach only needs its head to eat with and see with. It is perfectly fine otherwise until it starves to death or gets eaten by a rat. So, when she went to pick it up with salad tongs, it was still alive and wiggly. She pantomimed how she threw the thing across the kitchen in surprise, and when it landed in the sink, she nailed it with the garbage disposal. This girl is a gifted story-teller. She had us all laughing. And her school grades were all A’s and B’s.
I admit it. I love kids like that. They are the best things about teaching. And whether they are Aaargh! Sixth Graders! or Uggh! Seventh graders! (the chimpanzees of the middle-school monkey-house) I actually love them. (But PLEASE don’t tell them that!)
On Wednesday I subbed again for a science teacher at Long Middle School. They were eighth graders, the chest-thumping apes at the top of the monkey-house food chain. There was an AVID class with too many at-risk and under-disciplined kids in it. And the Long ESL classes contain too many rabid monkeys who don’t understand monkey-English well and are liberally dispersed through-out the harried eighth-grade teachers’ day. In other words, the Wednesday job caused me brain damage from which I haven’t recovered from fully at this writing.
So, today I am obsessed with finding the magic necessary to avoid having any more teacher-meltdowns and brain injuries like that 6th period debacle. (“Debakkil” is a magic word, but it is an evil magic word),
In the Disney animated classic Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother uses a magic spell called (in a song) “Bibbety Bobbity Boo”. In the course of singing the song, the old F-G turns a pumpkin into a carriage and mice into horses, the swayback horse into a driver, and the dog into a groom. I need a spell like that to remedy the monkey-house meltdown syndrome that I was victimized by.
So, here is how “Dibbletey Dobbletey Doo” will work.
The spell is cast initially on a male student, a monkey-like being swinging from the light fixtures, but obviously smarter than the other male monkey-students. You could magically turn his raggy clothing into a ball gown and embarrass him completely (which would be true to the metaphor, but would turn him into your worst nightmare)… but don’t. Instead, tell him that he is smart enough to be a leader. Put him in a position of power, making him in charge of a group, and telling him his consequences will be either a reward for good leadership, or the blame for the bad behavior of the group. Remind him that he has natural leadership skills. If he speaks to others respectfully, they will be respectful to everybody. If he shows them how to behave properly, they will use him as a positive example. He will get the credit for the good things they will do.
“Dibbletey Dobbletey Doo!”
It works. We had a poster project to do in groups of four. They were supposed to create a diagram of the mechanics of the four seasons of the year, with a sun and four representations of the earth with its axis and equator tilted properly in relation to the sun. That’s the kind of assignment that can result in the explosion of the science lab or the total cannibalization of the substitute. But I made it successfully work in four out of five classes.
Why did it go wrong in that last period? 1. Classes that are out of control for the regular teacher are impossible for even the best sub to control. 2. Too many students in one classroom are impossible to control when you have more groups than work tables. 3. Supplies run out at the end of the day, and empty pens and markers become projectiles. 4. Eighth graders all need to take mandatory naps in the afternoon (using sedative darts and a dart gun when necessary) but no school or principal is aware of that fact. 5. Cranky afternoon baboons grow longer fangs than they had in the morning.
So, Mickey must revise and rework this particular spell for the afternoons. And he must refuse the next job coming from this particular teacher.
Yes, I am writing this post in response to another hard day of substitute teaching. 6th graders! Aaargh!
But the real point of it is that most of the problems I had are due to every teacher’s daily nightmare… discipline management.
Teachers, even substitute teachers, are expected to keep an orderly classroom. But the truth is, no adult human being can make a twelve-to-eighteen-year-old member of the monkey house do anything… or refrain from doing the most harmful thing that occurs to the immature monkey brain.
It is just as Carl Sandburg once suggested in a clever poem. If you tell them not to put beans in their ears, the only thing they will definitely want to do is put beans in their ears.
So, this post is my list of excuse-a-mes for why the classes I taught yesterday all had bean-filled ears.
Excuse number one; 6th graders! Aaargh! Yes, I had four classes to teach, and three of them were made up solely of 6th graders. They are the squirrel monkeys of the middle-school monkey house. Unable to sit still and be quiet on their best days, they were super-stirred and hormone-activated. It is, after all, February, a week before Valentine’s Day, the hormonal-monkey holiday. It was a writing class and they had a writing assignment that they are supposed to be working on for the next week. And the generally accepted rule among monkeys; Do no work for substitute teachers, no matter their educational backgrounds in English and writing.
Excuse number B; To maintain discipline you have to know the kids. Here’s the most pernicious problem that substitute teachers are saddled with. I had never seen over ninety-five percent of these squirrel monkeys before… not in their natural habitat… not even in cages at the zoo. Boy, do the nerd-like teacher-pleasers who are actually classroom comedians and attack-monkeys in disguise really mount up in that particular saddle and ride you for the rest of the monkey-rodeo you thought was going to be a writing class.
Excuse-a-me Three; There are too many monkeys in the monkey house. Especially the Avid class of 30 super-heated seventh and eighth grade warm bodies that I had to teach as a bonus-penalty for being a “good” substitute. AVID is a special program for troubled and at-risk kids where you put them together with a good teacher and treat them like gifted students and set their lovely little monkey-feet on a path to college. Except, this under-funded special program that works spectacularly well in some schools, is basically misused and abused across Texas where practically all kids who are not white or not wealthy are at-risk for one reason or another. I got to walk into a classroom cold with these thirty high-risk monkeys because no other sub had signed up for this particular nightmare job. No lesson plans were available. No attendance sheets were ready. And it was a science lab, so the room was filled with kids who had helped themselves to rulers and yardsticks with which they were conducting sword-fights. The teacher next door who was giving a test found for me a stack of worksheets to give out. I located a class list to use for attendance. And then I proceeded to put them into seats with work to do and threatened several lives and put one overly-aggressive girl in temporary time-out and denied restroom privileges to scores of kids who probably weren’t going to actually explode into showers of pee. And I didn’t keep them quiet, but when the bell finally rang 50 hour-long minutes later, no one had died a horrible death. And they all had their clothes still on. And it appeared that the structural integrity of the classroom was still sound enough for one more class period. And I, of course, had to quickly rush back to the 6th graders for the worst class of the day.
Excuse-a-me Finale; The sub in the room next door was more incompetent than I was on this particular day. That isn’t really an excuse for my poor showing, but it at least made me feel sorry for someone besides myself. Some of his students came to me as their next official class, already charged up for a super-fun murder-the-sub day. Some of the students who came to me had to go to him for their next period and tried to stay in my room instead. Some of his students went for extended tours of the parts of the campus where they knew no assistant principal or security guard would be. There were fights in that class. They were banging on the the walls. They were noisier than my classes. The poor young guy had none of the substitute survival skills that I had, and I was too pressed to help him at all. But he was young and healthy. He had apparently been there for a couple of weeks as he was doing a long-term job for a history teacher who was having a baby. So, he will soon learn that he does not want to become a Texas public school teacher in his future.
So, as a disciplinarian, I was really dumb for a day. I do know how to handle these things correctly, and I will make future posts about the How-to-s of that. But for today, it is enough to say that I survived to teach another day.