Substitute Teaching – Part I The Experience

If there is one person who most students hate, it is substitute teachers. When a child arrives and sees the scared eyes of a sub, they feel a sense of power that is unlike anything else. I personally never thought I’d ever be one. But Covid created a substitute shortage and I had time so I figured why not.

My first day at a school I arrived a half hour early. I got the key to the class and I went into the 6th grade thinking of what I might do. The teacher arrived 15 minutes before the bell, printed out a few worksheets and a lesson plan and was out as the kids began walking in, The school was in the mostly Latino/Philippino area of San Diego. Teacher was white and strict. Kids came in, not one was white. I’ve taught some summer engineering courses to kids same age, but usually my classes were 15 or so, here there were 30 kids staring at me. You simply do not realize what happens in a class where you do not have the capacity to see everyone. You try but you are constantly missing something and they take advantage of it. People are lying liars and children are expert liars.

This class was for the most part a great start. They were generally good and when they were disrespectful, they apologized. They cleaned up and while their abilities were nothing to write about, they were willing to learn. When I went home, I actually felt like this wasn’t bad.

At the end of the day they played PE. Most girls sat on the sidelines until threatened with a bad grade. Then they joined softball and actually helped the team win. Their team ended up having a couple of good players and they managed to do well. I observed how the kids with the most problems in class had the best athletic ability. It really is often one or the other.

My second class was in the same school district. It was a two day gig for a teacher who was Hispanic and was out for the rest of the year. I’d say half the class didn’t care and understood that I had no way to control them. They talked the whole time, went to the bathroom non-stop and just generally ran the class. I gave them a strong speech at the end but the teacher and I was as much at fault as they were. While in the first school fellow teachers stopped by and checked on me as well as the principal, here no one checked, I was on my own in a den of lions. If they had torn me to pieces, no one would have found out.

The next day when I came back to the class, I realized that they had destroyed the class and I was too tired to see it. I had them clean up the class and ended the poor system by the teacher. Strictness paid off with less distractions and I dumped half the lesson plan by creating my own lessons which seemed to have them engaged.

One thing I realized is just how easy it is to make a child angry. You won’t know why but you will know in a change of behavior. Talking to them can get them to share but if its nothing you can change, then getting them to behave and listen will be difficult. One thing I was able to do was an old trick I learned form a mentor: make the main bully have control. Making the criminal the cop ensures that they are busy ensuring control and makes the class more obedient. It’s a terrible thing to reward the bully but the bully will never listen to anyone other than themselves and the rest of the kids can never make the bully behave.

At the end of the day we went to PE, 8 minutes late as a result of me tacking on minutes for every time they were disruptive. At PE I like to organize a game. Interestingly, girls are as unparticipatory at sports as they are in answering questions in class. It’s a sad thing to see just how an average girl is are compared to the average boy and how much louder as a result the one that speaks up ends up seeming.

The fifth grader girls were more active than sixth graders when compared between the two schools and two grades. There were more nerdy kids at the second school and more kids who had difficulties. Kids with difficulties never ask for help. I could almost tell what would happen to the kids later in life. I could see the trajectory. In middle and high school there are classes for the smart, but in elementary they are all together and so the home situation is evident on how they read, how they interact, how they learn.

At the end of the second day we did PE again. One girl joined the boys in basketball. I was enthralled in their abilities. While some were not great, they all had passion and the ones who were good certainly could have outplayed me. Reminded me of my days on the basketball court at their age and how even in 7th grade I couldn’t really score a basket. Girls of course simply did their thing, one boy would chase them while one girl would chase the boys. The nerdy kid tried to build a pyramid out of wood chips that others would knock down. School is a terrible place in so many ways, but at the same time, that is where you learn the pecking order many many skills of the jungle. While one learns what is expected between adults in the real world, the children really do create a Lord of the Flies island and the teachers are visitors, the school is in reality their domain.

The next gig I got was in the same school district but a different school. I was excited, it would be 6h grade. When I arrived, they stuck me into a special ed class of 4th and 5th graders. The class looked like a bomb went off. The teacher wasn’t there and neither was a lesson plan. She came in and I could tell this person has some kind of issue. She couldn’t even print the documents and just left a poorly made slide show and left. Here I was in a class with 10 kids with issues ranging from aggression to autism, with three aides who were border line useless and no idea what to do.

Slowly I figured out the plan. I tried to do a little ice breaker of who I was but the main leader of the class, a kid named Charlie began testing me immediately. Walking around the class doing what he wanted. I could tell he was grooming or destroying other kids. When he didn’t listen once, the aides seemed lost. When he cussed, they did nothing. So I sent him to the principles office, once, then second time after he cussed, and on third he basically left on his own and the office sent him to a teacher who by my guess, he had a crush on. It was what he wanted all along.

The rest of the kids, for the most part had no idea what is asked of them or why, and battled every problem. Making things fun distracted them for a bit but in the end most of them did the bare minimum. There was a kid with autism who was a sweet kid and did surprisingly a lot. It was fascinating to hear him think and talk as he would suddenly drop into a world of monsters and make belief.

Other kids either couldn’t focus or had learning difficulties. No one said what they had, just gave me a lesson plan and the aides had no idea how to run the class so I just did the best I could. One kid required that everything be written first and then he would copy as he had no ability to create the words in his mind and put them to paper. Another was actually intelligent. No idea why he was there as he was capable and gave me the ultimate compliment: “you’re a cool guy and a good teacher”. What more could someone want, well, a lot. And that’s for part two.

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