October 20, 2016
As a corporate executive turned substitute teacher, I am on a quest to learn more about today’s public education. Having issued two blogs—a regular high school classroom (From Corporate Executive to High School Substitute Teacher) and a middle school LIFE Skills classroom (What Can An Executive Learn From A Middle School LIFE Skills Classroom?), this third blog reflects my full day experience in a traditional middle school for keyboarding, communication, and girls’ athletics. Smithfield* Middle School has a reputation for having a higher performing and well-behaved student body, so I accepted the assignment as a litmus test of what some of the better public education institutions offer. I did caution myself that these classes were electives and not core subjects such as math, science, social studies, and language arts, which will be added to my substitute schedule in the future. Based on my interaction with the LIFE Skills staff during my second substitute assignment, I hoped to get some answers to my looming questions regarding the relationship between regular and substitute teachers.
Mrs. Watkins* left detailed instructions and documents for each of her classes, which I greatly appreciated, although this also benefited her students by keeping them on task. The day started with Advisory, where three classes of 8th grade students came into my classroom for 15 minutes to plan for their high school curriculum based on their academic capabilities. Mrs. Judge* and Mrs. Whitmore* were the instructors, and Mrs. Judge arrived in my classroom before the students. She entered my classroom and stood across the room from me. Since she did not approach me, I walked over to her and introduced myself, asking whether she was Mrs. Judge or Whitmore. I tried to engage Mrs. Judge by asking her what Advisory was, how it worked, and how I could help. She answered my questions respectfully but was not interested in conversing. I let it alone.
My first students arrived and were extremely friendly by initiating “Good morning,” and “We have a sub today?” I was impressed with their spirit and demeanor. Laura* even volunteered to pass out the Advisory booklets—very helpful. Mrs. Whitmore finally arrived and immediately approached Mrs. Judge and ignored me. Once again, I approached Mrs. Whitmore to introduce myself. After the allotted 15 minutes of Advisory, Mrs. Judge left the room. Mrs. Whitmore continued to work with individual students as I stood waiting to excuse the advisory students who did not belong in my first period class. After an extra 10 minutes, Mrs. Whitmore told me she would be done soon. I thought to myself that in the working world, time management would have forced any students to come after school to get answers versus holding up the entire class from instruction. I was just the sub and kept my mouth shut.
After we got on with class, most kids worked diligently on their class projects or as I observed broke out other subject books to work in small groups. I surmised a math project was imminently due because of the number-crunching on their calculators. I remember my daughter’s day in high school, when they worked on other class assignments that were most immediate. Although there were 20 kids in the class the noise level was low and controlled, with kids either working quietly my themselves or together in groups. Mrs. Watkins indicated they could help each other. I thought how refreshing this was from the high school history classroom the week before where raised voices, pushing, and disrespect ran rampant. This day was starting well. They even politely asked to go to the bathroom and no hall passes were required.
The next class of 30 students was as well behaved as the first. I thought “this sub assignment is easy, breezy.” Instructions are clear; kids can work independently. My proficiency in Microsoft Office Suite paid dividends, since a few kids needed help with formatting options for their flyers. Period 3 was a bit tougher but manageable. I had to reprimand 3 boys a few times to stop hitting each other. Another boy argued with me in front of the class that he didn’t have to print his flyer, because the written instructions from the teacher said to save the file to his personal drive. My written instructions from the teacher was to have them print it. I shut him down by saying, “You have two sets of instructions, one written and one verbal. You are to both save and print it.” Problem settled. I think he just wanted to argue with the sub.
Period 4 was a communication class where the students were split into 5 groups with each group putting together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and documenting how each person worked and communicated during the process. As students entered the classroom, I greeted them and told them my name. A boy named Peter* responded in an outburst, “Hey, I’m Peter.” Right behind Peter came Mrs. Ryan*. She was friendly, introducing herself right away, and said she was with him as she pointed at Peter. As Peter tore off to the back of the room, Mrs. Ryan explained that she was basically Peter’s fulltime sitter. She was assigned to Peter to sit next to him in the regular classroom to help him behave and give rewards for good behavior which included praise and candy every 5-10 minutes. Wow! Who knew this type of job existed in the public education system? As the students worked in their groups, I got to find out more about Mrs. Ryan and her role. She previously worked in procurement in the oil and gas industry for 20+ years and was laid off in early 2016. Since she could not find work in her field, she accepted this fulltime job—she is an employee of the district. I was not privy to Peter’s medical issues and diagnosis, but I found it interesting that Peter had a fulltime aid assigned to him so he could participate in the regular classroom. How much did Peter’s education cost the taxpayer? I’m not insinuating that Peter should not have the full-time aid, but I was just surprised that this was an option, and as a taxpayer, I’m interested in knowing its cost.
Class 5 was studying the digital camera. They had two in-class assignments—10 words to find in a word search puzzle and complete a worksheet after reviewing a PowerPoint presentation. As soon as the kids received their instructions, half the kids diligently went to work on their assignments and the others pulled up the Golden Cookie game to play and compete.
I was surprised that the school system would allow access to computer games. Many just whittled away their time by accumulating fake cookies on the screen. With 25 minutes left in class, I gave them a time warning and suggested they focus on their graded assignments. One girl pushed back her chair and gave me a thumb’s up. Some of the game players now scrambled to focus on their assignment. I kept giving warnings every 5 minutes. With 10 minutes left, the same girl asked me in front of the class what I thought about them playing so much of the Golden Cookies game. I responded to all the students, “I think it’s foolish to waste time playing a game and jeopardize graded assignments.” She agreed.
Half the class were diligent workers and the other half were procrastinators who suffered from immediate gratification. These students are old enough to decide where they want to focus their efforts and live with its consequences. I was somewhat surprised at the difficulty level of work assigned to these 7-8th graders. Although the worksheet assignment from the PowerPoint was appropriate, the word search for simple camera terms reminded me of a 3rd grade assignment. Are we dumbing down the assignments so they can get good grades? Is this a gift of a grade?
My period 6 was a free period—planning period for the teacher. Since my classroom was released to the yearbook staff, I had to find refuge until period 7—Girls’ Athletics class. I went to the administrative office and asked whether it would be okay to leave the campus for period 6. The sub administrator and her supervisor didn’t know, because they hadn’t been asked that question before. They gave me no answer. Strange. I decided not to turn it into an issue, so I walked to the gym to observe the period 6 class and get an idea of how I would be facilitating. Earlier the substitute administrator assured me there would be another coach with me as they combine classes several Athletics classes. Wearing my sub teacher badge, I hung by the gym door. When one of the two coaches approached me, I explained I was substituting for Mrs. Watkins the following period. She hesitantly invited me over to where the coaches stood—was I a distraction? When I followed her to the other side of the gym, both coaches ignored me. I asked their names, which they mumbled, and when I held out my hand to shake theirs—one obliged me and the other ignored it. Rejected!
I was surprised in how the coaches were conducting Physical Education (PE). They did not interact with the girls but played an instructional program on the IPad which provided instructions to the girls in how they were to run across the gym—all spoken by a mechanical voice through the overhead loud speakers. Not like when I was in gym class, where instructors blew their whistles and told you what to do. I wondered whether these coaches were even needed to run the class, or whether in this case, they were sitters in case the kids got out of line. After the program finished, they threw out volleyballs onto the court and told the girls they could play Nuke’em. Then the coaches returned to observing the class from a distance and occasionally looking at their iPhones. Ten minutes before the bell rang, the two coaches told the girls to change clothes, and they followed them into the locker room. One coach came back out of the locker room and asked me to help out by standing by the gym door where the girls line up to wait for the bell.
I was not to let them go standing near me watching the boys’ PE come out of their locker room. I asked whether she ran the boys’ class. Yes, but she mostly coached the girls’ PE, Athletics, and the basketball team. She mentioned she had 39 years of experience. I was impressed and told her she needed to write a book. She laughed and introduced herself as Mrs. Grant*. She was friendly, and I found out she was my coaching partner for the next class. I was happy to converse with a teacher who at least appeared to like me and wanted me to feel comfortable at the school. She explained my role at the door for the period 7, and I would meet her in the girls’ locker room afterwards. When I entered the locker room, the 3 coaches (2 from before) were all in their big office. The first two coaches continued to ignore me, but Mrs. Grant showed me the ropes and explained the typical questions and flack you get from the girls. Coach Grant was stern, fair, and approachable. I would have loved having her for my basketball coach in high school. I shadowed her—easy! Girls dressed, outside, drills, sprints, back inside, and redressed. Simple and period 7 few by!
As I wrapped up a full day at middle school, I reflected upon this experience and also compared it to my substitute teaching in the other two assignments. Today was the most enjoyable and stress-free, because of the students. Student behavior makes the difference! Another observation was that friendly and welcoming teachers for the subs are the exception and not the norm. Shocking! And the friendliest teachers were at the school with the worst behaving students. I’m not making any final conclusions, because statistically speaking, I don’t have enough data—very preliminary. However, I do look forward to collecting more data, and hopefully, the all teachers will realize that welcoming subs helps the public education system.
*Names have been changed to protect individual identities.