November 2, 2016
For those who have been following my blog as a corporate executive stepping into the Texas public education system, I continued the journey by selecting my first elementary school position posted as a fifth-grade math/science substitute. I have always held the belief that a parent’s best parenting abilities have a sweet spot that matches a certain age of a child. As I reflect on my own parenting life phases, I believe I am a great parent for teenagers. I understand teenagers and know how to connect with them in a way where they will listen and consider thoughts and alternate ideas. I believe my secret is in how I communicate with them, trying to remain judgment free, helping them see the longer-term impact of their short-term decisions, and empowering them to make the best choices. I know that parental orders and demands are just manipulative tools that might get immediate compliance from a child but do not build sustainable values and better decision-making that will carry forward into adulthood. The teenage years bring stress and fear into the lives of most parents, but not me, younger children with wild impulses and underdeveloped frontal cortexes are my most uncomfortable parental stage. Now, I have chosen a classroom full of these youngsters. Bye, bye, middle and high school kids, it is time to embrace the elementary kids and find out how the public education system is serving their needs and shaping their minds.
My substitute teaching assignment was for a half day in the morning. I walked into Martin Elementary* about 25 minutes before the start of my assignment to check in with administration. When I do not have the opportunity to debrief with the regular teacher, I like to arrive a bit early to review the sub instructions, which helps me to have command of the class activities before the kids enter the classroom. My first indication of the school’s disorganization was when the main office did not have a sub sign-in sheet ready and my daily schedule was not available. This was uncharacteristic of my previous sub assignments. What was the morning plan? When did classes start and end? Where was the roster for attendance? The administrator said she would bring a roster to my room and gave me a key to unlock the trailer which served as my classroom. She handed me a map, pointed to the classroom, and left me to find my way. After locating my classroom door, I walked into a double wide trailer disaster. Two bathrooms stood in front of me dividing one side with 10 computers in various forms of disarray, partially empty bookshelves with books scattered over the floor, and disheveled cabinets half opened with contents on the ground. The other side of the trailer had a one piece U-shaped desk formation with about 4 individual desks haphazardly placed within the classroom space. The teacher’s desk and printer area was a disaster with paper and various stuff. I walked over to the teacher’s chair which was littered with three jackets and sweaters. I had to move them so I could sit down. I had never seen such chaos and disorganization in a classroom before.
I searched for the sub instructions on Mrs. Valdez’s* desk and found a stack of crisscrossed papers with several yellow sticky notes scribble with unclear instructions and 24 popsicles sticks with numbers. The instructions referenced using the numbered sticks for 20-minute rotations between with the computers and working through the worksheets. Counting the number of papers, it looked as if there were only enough for one class. What were the other classes supposed to do? I also signed up for math and science and all these papers where grammar and language arts. Was I in the right room? I thought I would be covering 4 periods in this half day. Considering the instructions, number of papers, as well as lack of roster and class times, I was baffled and concerned. At that moment, a woman walked into the trailer to give me two permission slips for two named kids when they arrived. I asked whether she could help me. “Sorry, but I’m just an administrator,” she said, “but maybe one of the other teachers in a trailer across the walkway can help.”
I immediately knock on the door of another fifth-grade teacher and introduce myself and my confusion. Mrs. McFadden* took pity on me and followed me into my classroom. She took one look at the instructions, shook her head, and said, “If I were left with these instructions as a sub, I would be panicking right now.” She said what I thought. She first told me that this class was different, because all the kids stayed in the classroom the entire day, except for large group (physical education, art, music, etc.). She said I had to escort them to gym first period and then I would have my free planning period. I now realized the paperwork would get the one class through lunch. Whew! I needed to rotate the kids in 20-minute intervals on the computers, but what were these sticks for? Mrs. McFadden said, “I have no idea what the sticks would be for. Just decide how you want to rotate them.” She was very annoyed with Mrs. Valdez, because this was not the first time that subs had been stranded and confused, which makes the school look bad and hurts their ability to get subs. She and other teachers had complained about Mrs. Valdez, but she said administration looks the other way. Mrs. McFadden highly encouraged me to give online feedback about this assignment with the hopes that the administration would listen to me and act. Oh boy, put in the middle of education politics.
With strategy in hand, the kids started to arrive and someone from the main office brought me a student roster. The first student to arrive was a tall, African American, and cheerful girl who greeted me with a big hello. Then she walked out of the room. More kids arrived, and they began eating, talking, and playing. I introduced myself and asked them questions to get to know them. I talked a little bit about my trip to El Salvador to drill a water well to bring clean water to a school. They were fascinated and could not believe that kids did not have safe water. Then, the first period bell rang, and I closed the door to the trailer. First, I took roll, and when I called out Amy*, all the kids said she was in another teacher’s classroom. One of the kids added, “Amy always has to go to another teacher when we have a sub.” I realized the first girl to arrive was Amy, because she was no longer in the classroom. After roll, I explained their assignments and the morning process. I asked whether they had used these 24 numbered sticks before. They replied that they each had an assigned number and knew theirs—no sticks required.
First period I walked the kids to gym, and on the way, I met Mrs. Peters* who was the fifth-grade rotating paraprofessional (para). She explained to me that Amy was pulled and should never have come into my classroom. She is not mean-spirited or a trouble-maker but jacks up the kids. Subs cannot handle her, so she is always removed. Mrs. Peters told me Amy might come into the classroom during a break, and if she does I am to tell her to get out, and if she does not leave I am to pick up the phone, press the # key, and the principal will come to remove her. Wow, ok, I have my orders.
When I returned to the trailer, Mrs. McFadden and her co-teacher, Mrs. Smith, pulled a cart into my trailer to get supplies from the cabinet. They were gathering materials for a group project on sedimentary rock. I asked whether I could help them. They politely declined, but talked about going outside to pick up acorns, leaves, and dirt. I responded that with a free period I was happy to help, and they took me up on my offer which gave me the opportunity to get to know the teachers better. I found out that Mrs. Smith used to teach at Bloomfield* Middle School, where I previously substituted as a LIFE Skills teacher, and she thought she would go crazy based on the kids’ behavior. She transferred to this elementary school and was much happier.
As first period was ending, I walked to the gym to escort my class back to their room. Hopping and skipping over to me as I stood outside the gym, Amy proudly announced, “I’m packing up my things and coming over to your class.” My calm response was, “Amy, I was told you are not allowed in my classroom, and I will have you removed if you show up.” She replied, “But, Mrs. Watkins, the principal, said I could.” I responded, “Unless I hear it from Mrs. Watkins directly, you can’t come with us.” Mrs. Watkins walked over and explained that Amy promised to be good and asked whether I would allow it. I’m laughing inside. I am the sub, and you are asking my permission whether a kid can be in my class. Mrs. Watkins then added that Amy would be punished and have her cell phone taken away at home if she did not behave. Any issues with Amy and I was to immediately pick up the phone to call the principal to the trailer. I turned to Amy and said, “Amy, you have a choice today. You are completely in control of your behavior. You can choose to have good behavior.” Amy said, “I will be good.” And off we went to class.
One of the single desks at the front of the room was Amy’s. Obviously, she needed to sit by herself and not in proximity to the others. Another kid, Raymond*, had a timer on his desk, and a third boy, named Charles, was dyslexic, which explained why he did not want to do his work. After I handed out the first paper, I explained they were to return it for the second, and so forth. I started to call out numbers, every other number starting with odd, so kids could go to the computers for those assignments. Those that remained at their desk immediately started to break out food from their lunches. I was told by Mrs. McFadden that the kids eat breakfast in their rooms, but this was a little much. When Mrs. McFadden came into the trailer to pick up a printout, I asked about the food policy. She gave a disapproving look around the classroom and said, “Mrs. Valdez always lets them eat during class. The other teachers only allow a snack at 11 am. I would just let them do it.” Obviously, the teachers do not approve of Mrs. Valdez’s structure and schedule.
A few kids were focused and methodically working through their worksheets. Those I rewarded with more computer time. Many kids wanted to converse with me, and despite their intelligence would not focus on their work. Mrs. McFadden also confirmed that Mrs. Valdez allowed her class to take off their shoes and walk around in socks, so Charles, began kicking sneakers around like they were soccer balls. I had to sternly say, “We do not kick shoes in the classroom like soccer balls, sit back down and do your work.” Raymond just sat for an hour eating and not touching his first worksheet. The kids complained that the articles they had to read and answer questions were too long and boring. Casey at the bat? My response was, “Life is not easy or fair and working through assignments you do not enjoy helps develop the discipline you need to get through life.” Heads went down towards the paper for a few more minutes of focused effort. Amy stood up and walked over to the computer area to look over the shoulders of others. She was not disruptive in terms of jacking the kids up, but just struggled to focus on her work. When she did her worksheets, they were accurate, but it took her awhile to focus. I estimated that half the class could focus and the others were either unmotivated or had stunted attention spans. Constant gentle reminders and re-direction on boundaries and compliance was all I needed. I used more words than I had planned, but the kids listened when corrected. I was having no real behavioral issues at least compared to my expectations, and I thought Amy was a delight to talk with and behaved well. The kids kept saying, “Will you come back and sub again? You are the best sub we have ever had.” I asked, “What is it about me that makes me your favorite sub?” They said, “You don’t yell at us. You talk to us.” Yelling was a common theme I have been hearing. Why are subs resorting to yelling?
Fast forward to 12:15 pm when Mrs. Valdez knocked on the trailer door. I opened the door, and after she took a few steps in, she spotted Amy in the room. With big wide eyes, Mrs. Valdez said, “What are you doing here, Amy?” Amy came running up and told her the principal allowed her, because she promised to be good. Mrs. Valdez turned toward me for confirmation, and I acknowledged with a nod, and then Mrs. Valdez hugged me. She turned to Amy, hugged her, and said, “I knew you could do this. I’m so proud of you.” Amy was ecstatic to be acknowledged. After Mrs. Valdez and I debriefed, I announced to the class that I was going to handout 4 Golden Passes (school money for treats and privileges). I gave the first one to Amy, because she completed all the work and her behavior was good. I then handed out the other three passes to those who had also completed all their worksheets. The kids were excited to be acknowledged. They all told Mrs. Valdez that they wanted me to come back. She turned to me and said, “If you see any of my sub assignments, I would love for you to take them.” As I was leaving the classroom, I waved goodbye and said I would see them again.
So, what were any new thoughts about public education from my elementary experience?
- The friendliness of the teachers towards subs is specific to the school and its culture. I felt welcomed and included, although the disorganization was initially a bit unnerving, because I have high expectations in being the best sub possible.
- On an individual basis, teachers can do a better job preparing their subs with instructions. This not only benefits the sub who will be more inclined to take jobs but also allows the sub to carry out the teacher’s plans.
- The kids are controlling the schools and the teachers/administration is using bribery (Golden Passes) and yelling/threats to illicit good behavior from students.
My experience with the older students in this elementary was positive, although I am gravely concerned in how they are raising and rewarding our children. Children spend about 8 hours or half of their waking lives in the school environment. Putting academic knowledge aside, the schools are shaping the soft skills of our children and how they will interact with the world as adults. Stay tuned for my next elementary sub experience!
*Names have been changed to protect personal identities.
For those interested in my other public education blogs visit:A Day in the Life of a Middle School Substitute Teacher; From Corporate Executive to High School Substitute Teacher; What Can An Executive Learn From A Middle School LIFE Skills Classroom?