I have been substituting for about two months now. Being a substitute allowed me to observe various teachers in various schools. It allowed me to test various teaching techniques and approaches. Of the many approaches to teaching I tried, only one worked.
I tried being the cool guy, an approach I saw at charter schools and kids walked all over me. I tried being the impressive guy and kids humbled me because they don’t care. But of all the approaches to teaching, only one works: being a teacher.
When I set standards, children follow them. When I set expectations, kids try to meet them. When I respect myself and my time, children respect me.
On my first day as 11th grade math substitute at a local charter high school, I was given a lesson plan good enough for 8th grade. The lesson plan was two slides and a fancy website. There was no context or importance for the lesson, there was nothing as far as truly teaching them of what it is they were learning.
I had a prep period so I threw together some slides about exponential functions, some slides about computers and when the kids arrived, I didn’t wait for them to get to class on their time, those who were not there were tardy and kids started to arrive into the class a little faster.
I explained to the kids who I was, I then told them frankly of where they are: “you’re behind.” To this I heard a collective relief and someone actually said “thank you!” I wasn’t lying, this school is in last place in San Diego. One of the worst performing schools in California. There are some smart and educated kids, but over half cannot add or subtract simple numbers without a calculator. There are kids who go to school for two years and still don’t know English.
But they are not stupid and I gave them a choice: “I’m not your babysitter, I’m here to teach you. You are not babies, if you want a babysitter go somewhere else.” They perked up. All eyes were on me. I launched into my lesson. I finished the lesson and let them work the problems. I had not done the problems as I didn’t have time before the class began but together we figured them out step by step and then we repeated this in the next class and the next.
At one class kids stayed late because they wanted to finish the problems and asked for a hall pass. “Our teacher will never believe that we stayed late to do problems.” The next class said things like “you’re the first person who has ever taught us math at this school.” The next one gave a standing ovation and asked that I come back and teach them.
Now I’m not a world’s greatest teacher. I made many mistakes. My notes were a mess, sometimes I solved a problem wrong, and they would catch me miswriting exponents. Some concepts were not my strong suit. And the bar was very low. But I did do one thing right: I treated them as students and demanded to be treated not as a “sub”, or a friend, or a cool guy, but as a teacher.
It’s important to also remember: kids are kids. Because no matter what school they go to or what their background is, they are all the same. They are people. They respond to one thing: respect. Not pandering, not doting, but respect. If a teacher respects themselves, respects their duty to teach, respects their own time and kids time, they will hold attention. If they call out those who interrupt or make funny comments or sleep, the kids will stop doing that. But give them an inch and they will take a mile. Because even an inch drop in standards means there are no standards.