Breathing Room

It’s been a busy several weeks. Subbing has kept me on my toes – I haven’t worked every day, but I’m working more often than not. Most of my work comes from the neighborhood public school, which is a convenient location, but I’ve been less than impressed with the school itself. In a town of less than 3,000 people, there simply aren’t enough students to achieve a balance of attitudes. The end result is that the disruptive, disrespectful kids tend to dominate the school, creating a negative culture that often just drains me. I’ve been ignored, talked over, and sworn at on a regular basis. Not that I haven’t faced that kind of behavior before at bigger schools – I have, and much worse (at least no one here is throwing punches yet), but usually there’s also the opposite side of the coin to balance out all the negative. Usually there are good kids who band together for solidarity against the crappy attitudes and give us teachers some breathing room and hope for humanity. This school is just too small, so the handful of good kids cower in the corner or sit by in silence while their loud, obnoxious classmates overrun the school.

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Obligatory “Back-to-School” post

It’s taken me a while to figure out that “back-to-school” time does bring changes for me this year, despite my lack of employment.  Initially, I watched the hype unfold with a sense of detachment.  I walked past sale racks of notebooks and pens without feeling the urge to walk through and pick out fun new stuff.  My friends went to their meetings, posted pictures of classrooms on Facebook, and even asked my advice on curriculum, but none of it seemed to really apply to me.  It wasn’t until I drove past a school building and saw kids and parents streaming in and out of it that I was jolted into reality.

My plan is to sub this year.  It’s my fallback when I don’t have other consistent employment, and all-in-all, I don’t hate it.  It gets me into the classroom, spending time with teenagers, using the skills that make me good at what I do.  Sometimes it leads to connections and more long-term work, too.  And of course, subbing leads to stories that make good blog posts.  🙂

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Apologetically Uninvested

“Hi, Mrs. Roberson!”

I smiled at the girl’s cheerful greeting as I entered the building, but in my head I was wondering who she was and how she knew me.  Was she in one of those vibrant Honors Chemistry classes I’ve subbed a few times now?  Was she in the health class that tried several stall tactics to avoid work, or the history class with the overly social tendencies?  I felt bad for not knowing who she was, but it happens all too often.  Students learn who I am long before I can begin to place names with their faces.

Being totally honest, unless I end up in long-term work, I generally don’t put in too much effort learning the names of the students I meet.  A few memorable characters stand out.  Anthony, the social freshman who tried to avoid work by continuously asking me personal questions.  Donny, the squirrelly boy whose name I always have to call over and over again to get him to focus – but still makes me laugh with his antics.  Sofia, the sweet, serious girl who carefully tracks every detail of every assignment and reminds me to introduce myself to the class when I forget to say my own name.

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How to Make a Good First Impression on a Room Full of Teenagers

“It’s kind of hard here, isn’t?  You have to figure out a lot on your own, don’t you?”  The other sub was older than me, in her forties at least, but she was looking to me for advice.  She’s right; we subs aren’t given much guidance, but I hadn’t really thought about it until she started asking her questions.  I know how to manage a classroom, even if I don’t know the particulars of school policies, so I just do what comes naturally.  And between all the moving, subbing, and starting over, I’ve had a lot of practice at making a good first impression on a room full of teenagers.

I connect well with my students.  It’s probably my biggest strength in the classroom and a trait that has carried me well over the years.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked into a new class for the first time, either as a sub or as a long-term teacher.  While I’ve never really had the opportunity to see if I have staying power beyond one year, I do know that I can make a good first impression.

So in the spirit of the Weekly Writing Challenge, this advice goes out to my fellow substitutes, or to anyone else who may need to walk to into a high school classroom for the first time.

1.  Come in with a smile.  Now, I’ve heard the quips about not letting students see you smile in the first week, and I understand the reasoning.  Students need to know to take you seriously.  They need to know you mean business.  But I’ve learned that I can be firm without being grumpy.  A smile lets the teens know I enjoy my job, and I enjoy sharing a room with them.  That’s important.

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The Wisdom of the Walls

One of the things I enjoy about subbing is exploring the classroom walls.  Every teacher puts a unique touch on their classroom.  Some cover their walls in motivational posters, others in student work, and still others in subject-specific information such as math equations or proof-reading rules.  The classroom I’m in right now doesn’t have any windows, so someone painted a picture of a window for the teacher to hang next to his desk.  The teacher I subbed for yesterday decorated her room with posters from movies like True Grit and The Great Gatsby.  On slower sub days, I sometimes entertain myself by trying to guess each teacher’s personality and quirks based simply on the room decor.

Edgar Allan Poe, as created by Mark Summers for Barnes & Noble (click for more if his work!)

Edgar Allan Poe, as created by Mark Summers for Barnes & Noble (click the image for more if his work!)

I already have a collection of things I keep for the day when I can decorate my own classroom again.  I have two different One Page Books Shakespeare posters, the prizes pieces from my first teaching job.  At a school rummage sale, I also scored four of those giant, framed, stylized images of authors that had once graced the walls of a Barnes & Noble store.  Someday I hope they will grace the walls of my classroom.

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My History with High Heels

I’m short.  Five feet two inches, to be exact.  That’s 1.57 m., for my metric-minded readers.

In terms of body-image and whatnot, I’m fine with it.  I always have been.  I’ve never wished for a few more inches for appearances’ sake.  I’m good with my 5’2″ view of the world.

Seriously, I’ve never had an issue with my height (or lack thereof), even when I went to high school with boys who towered over me.  Our small school boasted a nationally ranked basketball team, so most of the boys in my class easily surpassed 6 feet and some were pushing 7 feet.  My closest tall friend was actually a 6’4″ baseball player, but I also counted among my friends basketball boys like the 6’6″ British guy and the 6’9″ Lithuanian.  Several guys literally had to tilt their heads to the side just to walk through a regular doorway.  I remember walking out of the cafeteria once behind one of the tallest basketball players (a 6’11” Nigerian) and realizing I was disturbingly close to being eye-level with his belt.

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My Subbing Wall

“So how’s it going in there?  Is it really boring?”

My fellow sub had caught me right in the middle of a bite of my sandwich, so she waited until I finished chewing before I responded.

“No, that’s not a problem.  It’s just… The only student interaction I have is negative.  If they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, I don’t get to interact with them.  It sucks.”

I’ve been a study hall monitor for a week.  I have one day left, and then it’s back to regular subbing.  I’ve appreciated the certainty of this week, going to bed every night knowing that I’ll be working the next day, knowing that I’ll be pulling a good paycheck this month.  I’m grateful for that.  I’m also glad that the consistency has provided me with the opportunity to get to know some of the other subs in my building.  It’s more than the lunch conversation (which is nice, because most of my subbing experience has involved eating alone).  It’s the opportunity to learn the ins-and-outs of the district from them, the differences between the internal subs and the external subs, the frustrations and strategies of the online scheduling program, and the best routes to navigate the crowded hallways.  I have more teaching experience than some of the younger subs, but they know the district better, so we can mutually benefit each other.  That part has been nice.

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Sucked Into a Screen

Today I’m filling the oh-so-exciting role of “Study Hall Monitor”.  Actually, that’s going to be my job for the next week – watching kids do homework.  Awesome.  (Read that with a note sarcasm, please.)  Mind you, I’m not complaining about a week’s worth of sub work lined up.  That part is awesome.  I just have to come up with ways to entertain myself while I’m at it.  I have my laptop, but I’m still waiting for the paperwork that will let me connect to the internet to finish being processed.  I’m typing this post in a Word document which I’ll copy to WordPress later.

Fortunately, I’m a natural people-watcher, so that provides its own entertainment for today.  The students in this school district are a good demographic – a nice, solid middle-class mix of generally behaved kids.  Most of them sit quietly in their assigned seats without being reminded not to talk.  They aren’t all working, but at least they’re quiet.  One young man in the corner has his head down, catching a few more minutes of sleep before his next class.  Others are drawn into the world of their personal devices.  Yes, the smart phones, iPads, and iPods are allowed in study hall, just so long as they don’t disrupt the people around them.  Earbud headphones cross all the cultural and social boundaries, the only common accessory among a sea of fashionistas, athletes, academics, and artsy types.

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Back to School! (Sort of)

If I had a normal teaching career, this would be the beginning of my 6th year teaching.  As it is, it’s the beginning of my 6th year in the field of education.  However, I’m not approaching it by prepping for my own classes, putting together a classroom, or sorting out curriculum.  Once again, I’m beginning the new school year as a sub.  My résumé from the last five years includes equal parts full-time work and subbing spread out over ten different jobs in six different states.  (All that moving was for my husband’s career, not mine).  I’ve worked as a high school English teacher in three different schools and subbed in countless others.  This year tips the balance.  At the end of this year, I’ll have spent more time as a sub than as a full-time teacher.

Seattle may not have been great for my career, but it did have some wonderful hiking!

In terms of my career, the first move was the hardest.  I walked away from my first teaching job with just one year of experience under my belt as we headed off to Seattle.  Did I mention this was 2009, right when the economy was tanking?  No one was looking to hire at all, much less someone who was still fairly new to the profession.  The only work I could find was subbing, so that’s what I did.   Continue reading

Adventures in Substitute Teaching

Today, instead of my typical advice-imparting, life-lesson-giving posts, I’ve decided to share some of my tales from my days substitute teaching.  The stories I chose for this post come from my early years of subbing, so my personal friends may already know them.  To everyone else, just enjoy the humor and insanity of what happens when a regular teacher leaves the room.

The Anatomy Lesson:

This particular story took place in a small study skills class with only four 7th grade boys. I quickly noticed that these boys had a hard time focusing on their work, so I kept a close eye on them. I had to cut off a few inappropriate conversations as well. They had individual laptops that were kept in the classroom for the kids to use, and I was occasionally circling the room to make sure they were actually working and not just playing games. During one of these rounds, I discovered one of the boys looking up a scientific diagram of female anatomy. He was so engrossed in his “studies” that he didn’t notice me walking past behind him.   Continue reading