Will College Debt Affect Who You Decide to Date or Marry?

December 15, 2016

The flip side of that question is “Does your college debt make you less attractive to date or marry?”  Many want to believe the most important ingredient to a happy and fulfilled marriage is love, because true love can overcome the normal struggles endured by marriages over their lifetimes.   These same people would also like to believe that college debt should be immaterial to the decision with whom you spend the rest of your life—after all, the right person is the right person, no matter what the circumstances.  I would propose that love is a choice—a choice to fall in love with someone with whom you can create a successful life.  If this holds true, I would wager that most successful people are not necessarily looking for partners with money but for spouses who make sound financial decisions.  Why?  Because fiscal literacy and responsible financial stewardship are extremely helpful in developing a solid marriage foundation from which to move forward in individual life calling and marriage purpose.

Overwhelming costudent-debt-ball-and-chain-2llege debt can sap energy and joy, as well as interfere with life calling, because significant resources are funneled to pay off those loans—making it feel like one is dragging around a ball and chain for ten years.  Not even personal bankruptcy can dissolve this financial burden—a lifetime sentence until it is repaid.   I am neither advocating for or against pursuing a college degree, and these words come from a chemical engineer with an MBA, who will also receive her second masters in life coaching in 2017.  I believe a college education can open more doors for career and job choices as well as develop new worldviews, critical thinking, discipline, commitment, friendships, and a sense of community.  However, I am recommending that before taking on any debt that everyone understand what they are called to do, how post-secondary education will support that purpose, and then using sound judgment to determine the best path forward.  Approaches can include community college, part-time vs. full-time, scholarships, employer incentives, military benefits, etc.  You may ask how did I pay for my education?   I focused on good grades, worked when not studying, saved, sacrificed, applied for scholarships and loans, and was rewarded with grants and reasonable loans to pair with my savings the first time.  The second time I worked full-time while going for my graduate degree part-time, taking advantage of my employer’s partial tuition reimbursement benefit in conjunction with my savings.   The third time around I worked and saved for my full tuition, hence my return to college at 53 years old.

Mentoring and coaching high schoolers and young adults, I often see them struggle with evaluating and deciding how to afford a college education.  Surprisingly, many of these students are encouraged by their parents to apply and attend universities above their collective financial means.  The parents and students alike are swept up in the hype that a college education is the gateway to a successful life—the more prestigious the school, the better, and whatever debt is required to achieve that dream is worth it.  With this momentum and the euphoria of acceptance letters, it becomes difficult to bring good judgment and reasonable thought in deciding whether to pursue a degree, what degree, its timing, and how to pay for it.

The sad reality—burdensome college debt has stalled many young degreed graduates who cannot turn back time.  They are drowning in debt that cannot be expunged.  Consumer Reports (2016) issued a report on the impact on student debt, and the survey statistics are sobering:

  • 45% of respondents said their student loan debt was not worth the cost of college
  • 47% said if they had the chance to do it all over again they would accept less financial aid and go to a less expensive school
  • 50% are having problems making student loan payments

With half of recent graduates wishing for a do-over or struggling with debt repayment, these statistics should be a wake-up call that the current approach in securing a diploma is broken.   What are the impacts to graduates overburdened with college debt?  Consumer Reports (2016) found:

  • 44% cut back on daily living expenses
  • 37% delayed saving for retirement or other financial goals
  • 28% delayed buying a house
  • 12% delayed marriage
  • 14% changed careers because of student debt

In many cases, these necessary life adjustments resulted from not understanding the impact of long-debt.   Although not specifically addressed in the survey, many young graduates reluctantly return home after college to live with their parents, resulting in a “failure to launch” not by personal choice.  Although subsidized room and board allow these graduates to pay off college debt, they struggle with financial independence and attracting financially independent mates.  Consumer Reports (2016) revealed that 44% of respondents wanted to know how much student debt a dating partner had before beginning a serious relationship with 36% and 20% of respondents saying “no” or “unsure”, respectively.

With these statistics as a wake-up call, the next question most students should ask is “How much college debt can I afford?”  The general rule of thumb is a graduate can afford college debt equivalent to the first year of salary.  For example, if you are pursuing a teaching degree and expect to be paid $50,000 per year as a teacher, you can commit to $50,000 of student debt.  A post-graduation balanced budget should be drafted to confirm you can re-pay this debt while ensuring you can put a roof over your head, food in your mouth, clothing on your back, and the means of getting to your job to earn that income.

When I student-loan-payback-schedule-10-yearscoach students and parents on personal finances, this simple matrix translates the amount of student debt into a monthly payment for 10 years at various interest levels.  Some students are financing teaching degrees at prestigious 4-year universities, taking on over $100,000 of debt for a job which will only pay $50,000 per year.  When asked “How will you put a roof over your head if you have to pay $1,000 a month towards school loans?” their facial expressions reflect confusion, surprise, and worry.  What I find more troublesome are students who are financing college under an “undecided” major.  These students usually take upwards of 5 to 7 years to graduate—incurring more debt than if they would have paused after high school, worked, figured out what degree fit their life plan, andstudent-debt then pursued their education over 4 years.   Powell (2016) reported that the average college graduate debt is $37,000 in 2016.  Many of the entry-level, non-science based jobs for these graduates do not pay that amount per year.  Many graduates have no idea when their loans will be paid off.

If you think colleges are educating you on prudent decision-making and the harsh realities of debt repayment, they are not.  Universities are businesses, trying to make enough money to keep their doors open.  If they sign you up, the colleges will receive income through your financial aid and tuition payments.  They are not incentivized to explain what debt you can and cannot afford.  By default, they are operating on the concept of Caveat Emptor, translated Let the Buyer Beware!

Pursuing a college degree can be one of life’s most significant and costly decisions, because the debt you take on can have a lasting impact on your quality of life.  The debt you carry can also impact your ability to attract a life partner.  Many students never stop to consider all the long-term ramifications of debt choices.   I encourage you to pause, think through this decision, reach out for help, and make wise choices!  Your future depends on it!

References

Consumer Reports National Research Center (2016). College Financing Survey: 2016 Nationally Representative Online Survey. Retrieved from: http://www.consumerreports.org/student-loan-debt-crisis/degrees-of-debt-and-regret/

Powell, F. (2016). Ten Student Loan Facts College Grads Need to Know. U.S. News. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/slideshows/10-student-loan-facts-college-grads-need-to-know


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She coaches others in how to develop and execute life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.

A Female Engineer Coming of Age in the 1980’s

What is it like to be a female engineer forging a career in a male-dominated profession?  I would expect the answers to be wildly different depending on the decade when a woman engineer first enters the workforce.  My career as a chemical engineer has spanned four decades, and as I reflect on those early years in the 1980’s, my stories would probably have many of today’s young female engineers question the peg on my honesty-meter.  With a spirit of humor, I share some of my more interesting, coming of age stories and lessons learned of what it was like to be a woman chemical engineer in a sea of male colleagues.

sandi-marvin-mobilBefore I begin, you may wonder what prompted me to now share these personal stories after almost 40 years of a long and successful career.  Well, as I was rummaging through some personal files buried deep in boxes stored in the spare bedroom closet, I stumbled upon this photo of me and Marvin, another young engineer, circa 1988. What is odd about this photo? I immediately chuckle at the silliness of me, a process engineer, in the control room of the Mobil Chemical plant in Edison, New Jersey, wearing a hardhat, white blouse, gray pleated skirt, black pumps, and a string of pearls.   In truth, this was a staged photo, taken by the Mobil media team who wanted stock photos of various Mobil engineers to use at job fair booths where teams recruited young engineers.  However, this was a standard photo of the day.  Women were a fraction of the engineering profession relative to the long history of the chemical industry, and neither females or males had yet figured out how to acclimate this gender blending.  Females struggled with how to act, interact, and dress for success within this male-dominated society.  Most males were uncomfortable working with us—this was especially true of those who were older, who in most cases were our superiors making decisions about our promotability, raises, and job opportunities.

In my opinion, most male engineers related to women as mother, wife, or daughter, but not colleague.   Even if they were comfortable working side-by-side with their female counterparts and accepted them as equals, women engineers still made the male engineers’ environment slightly uncomfortable, because it disrupted their relaxed and established behaviors of swearing and telling of sexually based jokes. Now, male engineers were forced to think before speaking so they did not offend any woman colleague in the room.  Note, I said woman colleague, not women colleagues.  I cannot count the number of times in a meeting, when a male engineer would get passionate about a topic, say “sh*t,” “fu*k,” or some variant expression of such, and the room would go silent.  He would then turn towards me and say “Sorry,” or “Pardon my French.”  Personally, I can swear with the best of them and was not offended in the least, but what did offend me was the fact that these men were uncomfortable swearing in front me.

The painful reality is that any time someone is on guard in your presence, you may be allowed in the group, but you are never fully accepted.  I knew in my heart that my opportunities at Exxon Chemical would be limited, because people are only willing to invite others into their ranks when they are comfortable with and trust them.  Field studies of company organizations by Jackall (1988) indicated that employees have little chance of being promoted into higher levels of management without “…mirroring the kind of image that top bosses have of themselves [and making] the people [who are] most responsible for [one’s] fate comfortable” (p. 58).  Women were only advancing into lower-level management positions, mostly because of affirmative action and political and societal pressure.   Although women might be able to gain trust through hard work and performance, I knew many of the male decision-makers would never feel comfortable with women engineers in their higher management circles.

Statistics show that in 1999 women accounted for 25% of all engineers under 25, but only 5% of engineers over 49 (Wikipedia, 2016).   In 1999 I was 37 years old, and my best estimate was women accounted for less than 10% of the total engineering workforce.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  Going back to the early 1980’s, my story begins as a newly graduated chemical engineering recruited into Exxon Chemical. In 1984 the oil/chemical industries were crawling out of an economic trough.   Despite Lafayette College’s reputation as a prestigious engineering school, only half of my chemical engineering class received job offers.  I was one of the lucky ones, hired by Paramins, a division of Exxon Chemical.  I was surprised to receive their offer, because I used Exxon as my first practice interview when they visited the campus.

In the early 1980’s women engineers struggled with how to dress for an interview.  The prevailing trend was to dress as much like a man to fit in and subjugate your female gender. So, we donned either blue pin-striped or gray suits with shoulder pads for that masculine look, white collared blouses, and a paisley ascot or necktie fashioned into a bow.  We had matching kerchiefs in our breast pocket.   Our only differentiation was the skirt versus slacks with low heeled pumps.  Did I win Exxon over with my academic and work accomplishments or my ability to visually fit in with the rest of the male engineers?  Was I the chosen candidate because of affirmative action?  Regardless, I was grateful for the job offer as a contact engineer, working in a chemical plant making lubricant additives.

Despite all these facts and figures, what are some of my most interesting personal stories as a young, female engineer starting her career at Paramins in July 1984.  I soon learned that this division normally hired 25 graduating engineers per year, but with the economic turn down, they had not hired any during the previous 3 years.   Myself and another woman, Joan, were the first new hires in several years.  I quickly learned that the rules which I believed governed success did not apply here.  For 22 years of life, I was conditioned that if you did the work well, you got rewarded, which represented how the typical academic world operated.   Learn the material, apply the material, earn an A.  These rules did not apply at Exxon.

Let us start with the uniform?  What is the appropriate Exxon dress code? As contact engineers, we were expected to dress in a way that balanced our need to spend time in both the plant and office.  As I looked around, there were two women role models.  What were they wearing?  The standard female dress for Exxon was to look like a man, which meant khaki pants such as Dockers, a long-sleeve buttoned-down shirt, and penny loafers or boat shoes.  I owned none of those outfits but soon invested in a few.  Afterall, I wanted to make a good impression.  The women did not wear make-up or jewelry, except on occasion Diana wore a pair of small gold hoop earrings.   Initially, I played the dress game, even though these outfits contrasted with my personality.  I felt suffocated in this Exxon uniform.  Over time, I started to add color to my wardrobe with jeans and print tops/sweaters.  I wore make-up and jewelry.  Although closed-toed safety shoes were always worn in the plant, I traded my penny loafers for clogs when around the office.  No one said anything, including my boss, but the repercussions came during my first salary action.  I had a glowing performance appraisal, but when I got a relatively poor raise, I asked a lot of questions that my boss was uncomfortable answering.

I then found out about Exxon’s forced ranking system, which means that everyone within a band of job classifications must be ranked “1 through last” by a committee of supervisors.  This exercise is completely independent of performance reviews and used to allocate merit increases.   Although no one is privy to their ranking, I did find out I was in the bottom third.   The typical Exxon employee response would be to accept your ranking without question, but I needed answers.   I felt badly for my administrative boss, Paul, who was left to answer my probing questions.   Uncomfortably, Paul, shared that my ranking was based on the way I dressed.  The other supervisors in the room who do not know my work performance judged me on my appearance in the office hallways.  I do not remember his exact words, but Paul implied that I was flashy and not conservative enough.  I agree that visually I did stand out from the other few women engineers, but seriously, my salary increase was partially a reflection of me being too female?

For argument’s sake, I asked Paul for an example among my peers who was considered a top performer and why.  Paul referenced Doug because of his dedication to the job; he typically arrived at 7 am and left at 7 pm.   Although I did respect Doug’s abilities and contribution, I knew that at the witching-hour of 5 pm, Doug closed his office door so he could take care of personal work such as writing checks and paying bills, all the while leaving the impression he was hard at work for Mother Exxon.  Frustrated, aware, yet unwavering, I decided I was not going to dress like a man or make false appearances of working longer.  I still held out hope and a worldview that the same rules which applied in academia would eventually win out at Exxon.  I had not yet figured out lesson one which is as an individual you cannot fight culture and win.   You either chose to adapt or you need to get out and find “your people.”  However, this was my first real job, and I was learning the hard way about the real world on many levels.

My job as a contact engineer required me to work with many different people and levels within the organization.  I worked alongside unit operators, providing technical support on production, quality, turnaround, safety, and environmental issues.  I worked with the operators’ first line supervisors.  I had dual supervisory reporting structures, which for a first job can be very stressful.  I had my administrative boss, Paul, who provided general direction and did my performance appraisals, and had a dotted-line boss to the operations manager, Alan, because I supported his production units.  Paul was a young chemical engineer, who was very comfortable with female colleagues.  Alan was an older chemical engineer, near retirement, and known to be a “male chauvinist pig” which was a common term used in the 1980’s.  I learned there was a long-standing lawsuit filed by one of my operators, Kurt, who was suing Alan and Exxon for making him crazy.  Yes, crazy!  Kurt claimed that Alan would intentionally assign him jobs/activities that were frivolous and designed as inappropriate busy work to retaliate against Kurt because he did not like him. After knowing and loving Crazy Kurt, as he was affectionately called, I would agree that Kurt was “off”, but the question that loomed was whether Kurt’s craziness was a chicken-or-egg-first with Alan.  We will never know, but with the pending lawsuit, Alan was especially cordial to Kurt on those rare occasions when both would be in the control room.

I developed outstanding relationships with my four operators (Kurt, Victor, Eddy, and Angelo), but not before some trials and tribulations.  I first met Victor a few weeks after starting my job when he finally came on day shift.   My first stop of the day was to visit the control room to inventory the previous night’s events.  I walked over to the NP/NPS/DDP desk, where Victor sat reading a magazine, and I introduced myself.  After a long pause, Victor slowly turned his head towards me, lifted and shook his finger at me and said in a low, measured voice, “You better not get snotty on me.”  After the shock of his introduction, I responded, “I won’t get snotty on you, if you don’t get snotty on me.”  Then a big cheesy smile broke out over Victor’s face, and he said, “I like you.  We’re going to get along just fine.”  Victor and I became fast friends, with him warning me of all the embarrassing pranks the operators liked to pull on the new engineers who did not have any practical experience.  These pranks included asking the engineer to get them a nitrogen blanket or to pull a sample from a vacuum tower.  An experienced engineer will get a chuckle and know why that’s impossible, but the young engineer will try to accommodate the request without success.

Working at the plant also came with its challenges in handling sexual advances.  Despite all the policy and rhetoric about respecting women, many men paid no heed, because there were no repercussions for bad behavior that went against announced policies. Angelo, a short Italian fellow, had the nickname of Goose.  I never gave much thought as to why, because I always called him Angelo.  Well, one day Angelo and I were walking up the alley to unplug some vacuum jets, when I felt him pitch my butt.  I was shocked, turned towards him, and with disbelief asked him whether he just pinched my butt.  He gave me a big smirk and said, “Yeah!”.  I then slapped him across the face and said, “Don’t ever do that again.”  I then turned and kept walking towards the unit.  I never said another word about it, and we picked up right where we left off.  I did not hold it against him, but I firmly established my personal boundaries.   Overall, I had close relationships with all of my operators—partners who troubleshot the units for quality and production rates.  As we were fighting a quality issue one day, I asked Eddy, “What do you think is going on?”  He responded, “Why are you asking me, I’m just the operator?”  I replied, “Because you know these units like the back of your hand.  Why wouldn’t I want to know what you think?”  He said that most of the young engineers think they know better so the operators choose not to share.  Working with the operators provided many valuable lessons.  I learned and reaped the rewards in treating every one as an equal at the table as we worked together, which built a strong foundation of trust.  I loved working in the plant, because I could be my authentic self in relationships and utilize my engineering skills.  Then I had to remove my steel-toed boots and return to the office environment.

My office struggles mainly focused on my relationship with Alan.  How does the youngest female engineer handle an older male chauvinistic pig who is her boss?  Not sure where or who started the reference to Joan, Diana, and me as Bogie’s Angels, but I did hear Alan gloat about it when we were brought up in conversation as his angels. You see, three of the four women engineers reported through Alan Bogard’s operations chain of command.  With Charlie’s Angels one of the most popular TV shows at the time, Alan enjoyed his label of having three female engineers under his direction.  It gave me some comfort that I was not the only person, male or female, who did not like this overweight, cigar-smoking, and arrogant man.   My beloved Crazy Kurt had his lawsuit against Alan, and no one else talked favorably about him.  My “Alan story,” which changed our relationship, started with a product quality issue on the NP unit.  For several days, this continuous manufacturing process was not converting the raw materials into product. With all hands on deck and through a process of elimination, the team suspected that some contaminant was interfering with the catalyst but could not determine the root source.  Water was a known killer of this catalyst, because it reacted with the BF3 to form HF.  Prior to my hire, it was a well-known belief, that you could not measure water content in the reactor.  If you had a water leak in the coil, the only way to determine such was to shut down the unit, clean out the reactor, and pressure test the coil.  The cost and lost production was significant and a choice of last resort.  Against specific protocol, I had an operator take a reactor sample to the lab for water analysis.  As Alan, the supervisors, an operator, and I all discussed the problem in the control room before making the decision to inspect the coil, I volunteered that I had a water analysis running in the lab which would be available within a half hour.  Well, did I get a reprimanding up and down by Alan, in front of all my colleagues.  He publicly humiliated me, telling me I was stupid for wasting time on a foolish approach, basically implying that I was incompetent, because everyone knows water will be reacted into HF and not delectable.  I bit my tongue and held back the tears of anger, frustration, and humiliation.   With no further ideas from the group-think, the team disbanded.  With tail between my legs, I left the control room for the lab.   Surprise, the gas chromatograph revealed several percentage points of water in the reactor.  I was vindicated.  Oh, how I dreamed of what I wanted to do next, all of which were not constructive.

What I did do was walk into Alan’s office and close the door so no one would hear our conversation.  I told him in no uncertain terms that how he addressed me in the control room in front of my coworkers was uncalled for, unprofessional, inappropriate, and embarrassing.  I put him on notice that I would never tolerate him treating me that way again.  I continued by saying that if he wanted to reprimand me in the future, he had every right to do so, but he would do it behind closed doors.  After I finished defining my boundaries, Alan just stared at me.  I truly believe he was speechless.  Before he could say anything else, I then informed him of the high-water analysis that could only be from a leak in the reactor coil and that we needed to shut down the unit immediately for a repair.  He was dumbfounded.  I never remembered getting any apology for his bad behavior, but I do know that he tip-toed around me moving forward, treated me politely, but he got me on my next performance appraisal.

The lesson learned is you can embarrass someone into compliance and better behavior, but you cannot change their attitude or heart.  I may have won some battles, but I certainly did not win the war.  I was proud in how I handled Alan by standing up to him behind closed doors, but realized I was just treading water where I worked.  This company was a great training ground but would never embrace diversity enough to accommodate my style that builds success.  They were operating on a different model, which rewarded conformity in all areas, including having the right sexual anatomy.   A woman could have modest advancement within Exxon, but to do so, it required her to morph hersesandi-exxon-going-away-lunchlf more into a man and his behaviors.  I’m flexible, but not that flexible.  After three years of lessons learned, I decided to take my experience to another company called Mobil Chemical. My good friends Henry, Jofran, and Joan hosted a going-away lunch, with an invitation that suggested I would be climbing the corporate ladder at Mobil.  What’s wrong with this photo, which was pulled from a trade magazine?  In the 1980’s women engineers were stereo-typed climbing storage tank ladders, wearing 3-inch heels and slit skirts?  At least we have on hard hats for our personal safety.  Believe me, I cannot make this stuff up and am thankful to have a paper relic from the past to prove what I say is true.  I do not know what this photo was originally trying to advertise, but I cannot think of one appropriate product or service where this image would be practically appropriate.  Remember, this was the 1980’s, when women’s roles as engineers were still being shaped, and men, who were in decision-making positions affecting their careers, did not quite know how to assimilate them.  The engineering road for women was not yet paved, at best most of the timber was cleared so you could see the path.  Both men and women engineers were uncomfortable with some aspects of their workplace as genders mixed.  I cannot speak for men, but I do know that many women chose not to speak out for fear of being pigeon-holed or labelled a troublemaker.  Better to suck it up, play nice, and hope for a reward.

Regardless of the black comedy stories I am privileged to share as a female engineer of the times, I would not trade one of them or this career path I chose.   Chemical engineering has served me well in how it trained me to think strategically and solve problems, and as well it has afforded me job opportunities that were stimulating and rewarding.  I have traveled the road less-traveled and for that I am grateful.  If you think all my interesting stories have been told, they have not.  Stay tuned for more adventure stories of this female engineer as she navigates Mobil Chemical next….

References

Jackall, R. (1988).  Moral mazes: The world of corporate managers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0-19-503825-8.

Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_women_in_engineering#Statistics


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She coaches others in how to develop and execute life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.

Executive Survives as Substitute Teacher in Elementary School

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 judgmeelementary-schoolnt 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?

What Happens When Middle School Students Are Asked To Self-Reflect?

November 8, 2016

For those who have been following my public classroom observations and stories, this former business executive continues to be amazed by what the public education system is not developing or inspiring in our student body.  These students are ourschool-blackboard-jolly future leaders, and quite frankly, I am worried about who will be making decisions about our country and its policies when I retire in 12 years.  Why am I worried?  Well, I accepted a substitute assignment as a 6th grade ELAR (English, Language Arts, Reading) teacher at the same middle school where I had previously served as a LIFE Skills teacher.  Although I enjoyed learning about the world of special needs, the experience naturally did not give me an accurate perspective of the average student population.  Hence, I stepped into a normal middle school classroom for a deep dive.  Wow, the students’ reactions to the various curriculum activities revealed how the system is cultivating academic robots who are trained and rewarded to learn and regurgitate information in excess so that natural self-reflective thinking paralyzes them.  The classroom focus seems to be more about controlling behavior than it is about learning.  You may think I over-exaggerate, but alas I do not.  And the story goes…

I arrived for my full day assignment 25 minutes before the first bell.  When I entered Mrs. Whitmore’s* classroom, it was extremely neat and organized, and I appreciated that she had left a 3-ring binder with detailed instructions, seating charts, and handouts.   As I read the day’s agenda, she helpfully listed the behavior-challenged students in each of the classes and gave strict instructions to send them to the Assistant Principal’s (AP’s) office if their behavior was not appropriate.  She had zero tolerance for bad behavior and wanted a list of those who acted up, because she had warned them of an automatic d-hall for bad behavior with the substitute.   Mrs. Whitmore had an all-day in school planning meeting, so I would see her at the beginning and end of day.  I had ELAR blocks (2 periods) of on-level, above-level, and then on-level students through the day.  As I scanned the rosters and seating charts, I noticed that each class had about 20 students who sat in table clusters of 3-5.  Very manageable I thought to myself!

Even in middle school, the teachers have a reward/punishment system.  Mrs. Whitmore let me know that I had the authority to dispense rewards in the form of school blue bucks which give special privileges.  In addition, she had developed her own in-class reward system with blue raffle tickets.  These reward methods incentivized good individual behavior.  She also employed a third reward system for good team behavior.  On the blackboard for each class, she had five hollow squares that made room for printing the word J-O-L-L-Y.  As the class demonstrated good behavior another letter was added.  With bad behavior, Mrs. Whitmore would erase a letter.  When a class spelled JOLLY, they were all rewarded with an extra break and a Jolly Rancher candy.  Are we in elementary school?  Does bribery with candy still work?

When the first bell rang, the kids started to file in and grabbed the worksheet that was stationed on the shelf.  The kids were very friendly, greeting me and asking questions.   After introducing myself as Mrs. Dillon and taking the roster, I explained their teacher had left detailed instructions for multiple assignments that I would take the class through over the next two hours.  The first assignment was easy and appeared to be routine, because when I said they would have 10 minutes of silent reading, they immediately pulled out their books.  The room was so quiet!  Off to a good start.  Next, the students were to fill in two blanks of a sentence pertaining to a question about their book.  Except for Frank*, who would not do any work and just rested his head down on his desk, everyone was focused on the assignments at hand.  I learned later that Frank was either not taking his medications at home or needed a higher dose as it was affecting his ability to wake-up and engage his mind.  Mrs. Whitmore had called his parents to inform them of his class behavior.  During the second half, Frank’s medication kicked in, his brain woke up, and so did his disruptive behavior.

Then they had the worksheet to complete on similes and metaphors for the remainder of the first block.   As opposed to the other classes to come, this first on-level class was not to work with partners, and the teacher gave strict instructions for them to work alone.  I had to address the students many times with, “No talking.  This is not a group activity,” or “If you’re done you can read independently.  No talking so your classmates can concentrate and finish.”   About two-thirds of the students completed the worksheet, and the other third could have finished but instead chose to goof around despite my continual warnings of how much time was left before I collected the papers.  These kids did not seem to care whether they completed the assignment for a grade.  Despite academic performance, these kids were relatively well-behaved.

The bell rang, signaling end of first period, and the kids rushed out of the room for their 5-minute break to use the bathroom or socialize with friends before starting the second half of the block.  The next assignment was 10 minutes of vocabulary.  Only a few minutes i-am-poem-templateinto this assignment, Mrs. Martinez* walked into the classroom.  I greeted her at the door and asked how I could help her?  She explained that for this on-level class a para-teacher floats among the classrooms to provide supi-am-poem-instructionsport.  With only 20 kids, I did not understand why the school needed the additional expense.  She was here to stay for the remainder of the period.  As she walked around the room interacting with the kids, I noticed the class dynamics changed.  Everyone started talking, and I eventually lost control of the students. Why did Mrs. Martinez approach kids who were diligently working on their assignment and start a conversation?  I repeatedly had to announce, “Focus on your work, please.  This does not require discussion.”  They did not listen.  What is going on with the group dynamics?  Are the students falling into regular behavior patterns with her presence?  I continually paced the room, occasionally parking myself near the table of students who were most disruptive.  I had to use the evil eye a few times to get compliance.

The last assignment was the “I am” poem.  I explained I would be handing out two sheets of paper.  One sheet was the partial poem and the other the instructions on how to complete it.  This poem was based on introspection and self-reflection.  After handing out both pieces of paper and instructing them to glue both sheets into their Writer’s Notebook, I watched as most of the class became parallelized. Only a handful of students were thinking and writing, thinking and writing.  The first line of the poem required them to choose and write two adjectives that described themselves to complete the sentence of I am….   Apparently, this was a stumper question.  The noise level increased as they murmured their frustration.  I said to the class, “This should be easy; this poem is about you, and you know yourself best.”  More blank stares.  Students responded with “I don’t know what I am,” and “This is too hard!”  I was baffled.  I then added, “If you are having difficulty filling in the first line, go to the next and then come back.”  The second line was I wonder…, and I said, “Complete the line with something you are curious about or wonder about.”   More blank stares.  My suggestions and the students’ responses continued in the same vein.   Every other assignment which required answering questions about what was read or learned was a simpler task for these students than pulling information from their heads and hearts—answers that are neither right or wrong.  Since I could not believe their responses, I rationalized that maybe it was an issue with this class—they had lost concentration by the disruption of the para-teacher.  I would test this assumption during the second block—an above-level class with no para-teacher.

Meanwhile, I could not wait until this class was over.  The students kept asking me if I was going to give Mrs. Whitmore a bad report about their class.  My response was, “I guess you will find out tomorrow.”  I kept asking myself, “Am I in elementary school?”  The dynamics were dysfunctional, and my words and instructions fell on deaf ears.  I even had to threaten pushing the button to bring in the AP.   Then Mrs. Martinez, who has not helped me in the least to encourage good behavior, tells the kids to listen to me which falls on deaf ears again.  The bell rang early because of the mandatory DEAR program.  Interesting concept—on specific days, all school activities stop at an appointed hour and everyone reads a book for 15 minutes.  DEAR could not get here soon enough.

The second block students were identified as above-level.  Their behavior was great the first half, but upon starting the “I am” poem, they too, started complaining, wringing their hands, and racking their brains.  This was an independent assignment and the chatter was loud.  I had difficulty getting them to focus, so they could work through the poem.  Many could not complete it.  After 40 minutes, some had a few lines written on their paper, and some had blank lines.  This was an above-level class?  I was awestruck regarding the mental aptitude and capabilities of these students.  Are these 6th graders who cannot answer simple questions about themselves?

Fast forward to my third block.   Although this experiment is over, and my initial conclusions drawn, I am holding out hope for this last on-level class.   The same pattern was repeated.   I kept repeating to the students, “You know yourself better than anyone.  This should be easy.”  My words fell on deaf ears.  I struggle in how to reconcile what I experienced.  My only explanation was this assignment was atypical, in that the students were asked to not just spit back information taught but were required to have some creativity, independent thinking, and self-reflection.  I believe this assignment challenged them to think differently.

I am gravely concerned that the Texas public education system is teaching to pass the STAAR Test and nothing more.  We are not cultivating the ability to think independently, tap into creativity, or problem-solve, which are critical life skills for success.  We are creating a bunch of academic robots, who store information, retrieve it from their memory banks, and spit it back upon request.   What a disservice!

If I could choose one word to describe what I have I experienced as a substitute teacher in six different classroom settings, that one word would be IDIOCRACY.  Several years back a friend suggested I watch a fictional movie called IDIOCRACY (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiocracy) with a story line that describes what America has achieved 500 years into the future.  After watching this black comedy, it reminded me of the expression “the dumbing down of America.”   As I continue to walk through the classrooms of our public education system, I think we, as society, are laying the foundation in making IDIOCRACY a reality. Truly terrifying!

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of teachers and students.

A Day in the Life of a Middle School Substitute Teacher


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 relationshipteens-on-computers 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.

teengirlsportsI 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.

What Can An Executive Learn From A Middle School LIFE Skills Classroom?


October 17, 2016

As a corporate level executive turned substitute teacher, I blogged of my first teaching experience at a public high school (From Corporate Executive to High School Substitute Teacher), where I referenced my next teaching assignment as a middle school substitute teacher in a LIFE (acronym for Learning in Functional Environment) Skills classroom. Although I am a student at heart and now pursuing my second masters—Human Services Counseling, Life Coaching, I frankly know little about public education, the teaching profession, classroom management, and the behind-the-scenes struggles and rewards of the teaching profession.  Part of my quest is to peek into the world of today’s teaching environment and share my observation, thoughts, and impressions.

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I accepted a half day LIFE Skills teaching job.   Assuming I might be in over my head by accepting this assignment, I emailed the teacher asking how I could best prepare for my first LIFE Skills class.  Mrs. Walker* never replied.  Oh no, I swallowed hard, doubting whether I could handle this, but then I remembered the high school experience I survived the week before, and told myself, “I got this.”

When I pulled on the front door of the school around 10:30 am, I was surprised that it was locked.  I was buzzed in after pressing the call button.  Security procedures have certainly changed since the last time I was in middle school.  Is this a sign of the times?  After I registered with the substitute teacher administrator, I was pleasantly surprised she asked questions to learn more about me and why I wanted to be a substitute.  Once she learned I had no experience as a LIFE Skills teacher, I could read the look of concern on her face.  I couldn’t discern whether she was more worried for me or her students—my guess was for me as she commented that I should be fine with the two great paraprofessionals (paras) in the class.  They knew the kids, the routine, and could show me the ropes and keep the kids in-line.  As she continued to explain how the paras knew what to do, she mentioned the only reason they needed a sub-teacher was because state law required a teacher in the classroom.  Although I believed her intentions were to ease any concerns, I left the office feeling unwanted and just a powerless figurehead.

One of the LIFE Skills kids opened the classroom door, and I walked into a windowless room with a large kitchen area as big as the instructional area.  A speech therapist, Mrs. Smith*, was leading the class discussion with the teacher and the paras (Mrs. White* and Mrs. Black*) standing around watching.  No one approached me, so I quietly reached out my hand to introduce myself.  Mrs. Walker appeared nervous, as I asked about the afternoon plan. She said the paras would explain everything and then left.  Since the paras were not very welcoming, I just stood behind the students listening to the speech therapist.   Within minutes the two paras bolted from the room without any explanation or indication on when they would return.   Mrs. Smith and I worked together for another 15 minutes.

I found it interesting in how they teach special-needs students.  The kids were all in a U-shaped desk configuration with the therapist standing in the middle.  She would tell them to put their heads down on the desk, close their eyes, breathe deep, and relax.  After 20 seconds, they picked up their heads with faces that represented happy, sad, confused, or in whatever mood Mrs. Smith would request.   She would ask what things made them happy or sad.   She would then ask how they would communicate with a best friend who moves away.   Answers included write a letter or call them on the phone.  Next, Mrs. Smith would ask for two volunteers—one to make a call and the other to receive it.  The two kids would role play, which was then followed by classroom discussion on how the call could have been better.   The questions and role playing were powerful techniques to keep the kids engaged and improve their mental and emotional capacities.

When the instruction ended, Mrs. Smith packed up and left me alone with the 12 kids.  Then some of the students began packing up for lunch and were trying to leave the room.  The lunch bell would not ring for another 15 minutes, and the paras were nowhere to be seen.  I was alone and had to step up ass teacher. I told everyone to come back and sit down at their desks, because we were not finished with the lesson.  Hannah* and Michael* became anxious and started putting on their backpacks.  When I said it was not time for lunch yet, Hannah looked at the computer clock and her panic about being late for lunch subsided when she saw it was 11:10 am.  She knew the exact time when they were to go to lunch, 11:20 am, which was 5 minutes before the normal bell.  Hannah just stared at the clock, waiting for it to change to 11:20, while I corralled most of the kids back to their desks.  I started asking questions about pets.  Who had pets?  Who wanted pets?  What kind of pet did you have?  I was buying time and hoping Mrs. White and Mrs. Black would return before 11:20; otherwise, I expected a few meltdowns if I didn’t let the students leave for lunch. The two paras arrived back at 11:19 am—my prayers were answered.  They apologized for leaving suddenly and explained that a LIFE Skills kid from the other class went missing, and they needed to help find him. Outcome—safe and sound.  The paras took the kids to lunch and left me to my half hour lunch break.

The paras basically ran the day with me asking a lot of questions.  I tried to learn more about them as people and why they picked this profession.  In general, I found they were not talkative or communicative.  They were respectful of the system that required a sub-teacher to be in the classroom, but I felt they had no value for me.  I asked how I could help and support, and they gave me assignments such as leading the science lesson, reading stories, and helping with language arts.  They took the kids to the bathroom, lunch, and walks around the school.  I have a great respect for teachers and paras who have dedicated their lives to help kids who are mentally and emotionally challenged.  Mrs. Black told me she has been doing this type of job for 17 years.   The paras’ class management style was fairly strict, and of course, they physically handled the children.  Lots of no’s, “come over here”, “leave him alone”, “do your work”, and “stop.”  They did counterbalance with “thank you for…”, “great job”, and “you did good.”  I think the paras were slightly nervous about what I thought of their classroom management, because it’s different than the normal classroom environment where you can’t touch the kids.    I told them I thought they did a “great job” managing the kids, and I meant it.  Sometimes you have to firmly grasp a kid around the shoulders and escort him to another part of the room if he is not complying.  Although there was some stern correction, most times the kids complied after 1-3 verbal requests.  I thought these LIFE Skills middle schoolers were better behaved than the last sub assignment I had at the troubled high school, where I had to press the white “call” button to get assistance.

Upon introspection, maybe Mrs. White and Mrs. Black were more stand-offish, because they didn’t know what I would think of their style without prior reference to a LIFE Skills classroom. What I saw and experienced was appropriate, and although I did not feel welcomed, I do have high respect for these paras.  I looked up a LIFE Skills Para job posting on the district’s website and was shocked to learn they make about $20,000/school year.

word-tracing-at-words-worksheetBack to the school day.  This middle school has two LIFE skills classes that alternate classrooms—one is higher functioning and the other lower functioning.  After lunch the lower functioning class had language arts which entailed tracing letters to make words.  Unfortunately, some could not hold a pencil.   Others could not focus, but just banged their hands on the paper and desktop and then stood and leaned against the wall.  One might say, what’s the point in having these types of students in class? When one of the adults talked to these students, I could see them comprehend the message.  I see the value of having them part of a group, and interacting even if only through observation.   As foreign as this world is from my own or any personal experience, I can honestly say I enjoyed my day with these students.  I got to learn about this world and interact with the more communicative kids.   These same kids returned later that day for creative arts where they colored.  Most sat at their desks with marker and paper, while I sat in the middle.  I praised their drawings and asked questions.  Later I read a book about a cat named Fluffy.   My time with these kids was special in many ways.

My favorite class was teaching science to the higher functioning students.  They had studied solids, liquids, and gases and were moving onto recycling.  They got out their notebooks and had to name 5 solids, 4 liquids, and 2 gases.  This was a continuation from the day before.  I distributed a reading package on recycling and had each child read aloud one page to the class.  The reading abilities varied, and I would help each student sound out words as necessary.   I would estimate their average reading level at 2nd grade.

I learned that the pecking order was the regular classroom, special education, LIFE skills, and adaptive behavior.  Throughout the day I overhead conversations between the paras.  Surprising to me, one of the kids in the higher functioning LIFE Skills classroom tested academically at on-level and above in math, but his autism and resulting classroom behavior was too distracting so he was assigned to the LIFE Skills class.  The paras believed he was not being served in his best interests.  I asked who makes the decision (teachers or administration), and the paras did not know.   It made me think of my sister-in-law, who is a well-known advocate for students’ rights for state-funded education appropriate for their needs.  Is this child receiving the education he is entitled to by law?

I felt my experience in the LIFE skills middle school classroom was eye-opening, educational, and enjoyable on many levels.  I would love to sub for a Special Ed classroom next before returning to LIFE Skills.  LIFE Skills truly takes a village, and thank goodness the paras were so knowledgeable and dedicated, because they certainly aren’t showing up every day for the paycheck.  My only complaint about my experience was the paras lack of engagement with me as the substitute teacher, for which I don’t know the underlying reason.  Perhaps future sub assignments will give me better insight into the perceptions held by teachers for sub-teachers.  My only remaining questions are whether other LIFE Skills programs and children are receiving the same, better or less quality education.  I have no reference on how this program stacks up.  Of the kids who were among the lowest cognitive functioning, I think they need one-on-one instruction to help them live up to their full potential.  My heart goes out to the parent of a LIFE Skills student to find and facilitate the best care and education within the public system.

*Names have been changed to protect individual identities.

From Corporate Executive to High School Substitute Teacher


October 13, 2016

Everyone has heard the famous quote “You just never know where life will take you,” but how many people shake their heads, reflect, and feel either blessed or saddened in how far they have climbed or fallen.  Today is one of those days, when I can honestly say, that I never imagined my career as a corporate executive would turn towards substituting as a world history teacher in one of the most behaviorally-challenged high schools in the district. Although I did not choose to lose my corporate position during a company downsizing, I did pursue training as a substitute teacher in the public school system.  As I work towards my masters degrevirtual-assistant-canstockphoto1605831e to become a life and marriage coach, I thought it would be worthwhile to get a glimpse into the education system that is grooming our next generation, give back in a productive way, and earn a little extra spending money.  I have a heart for helping late teens and young adults who are transitioning from dependents to fully functioning adults. My first adventure story in the classroom is both humorous and sobering, a black comedy that leaves me with many unanswered questions about family life and the public education system.  And so the story goes….

I clipped my photo badge on my shirt lapel as I entered Mayfair High School* so that everyone could clearly read that Sandra Dillon was a validated Substitute Teacher, good through May 26, 2017.  Yes, I had an expiration date.  Yet, how did I get here?  Less than one year ago, I was a Director of Corporate Development at TPC Group, even holding the title of Vice President for many years.  Now I walked the halls towards the World History classroom where Mrs. Fox* would debrief me on the afternoon’s curriculum and classroom dynamics before her escape.  A year ago I was paid six figures, and today I would collect a premium wage of $45 (equivalent of $90 for a full day).   When I entered her classroom, I guessed Mrs. Fox to be 30 years old; she was many months pregnant and looked worn out and harried.  She gave me the classroom rosters, explained the assignments, and said two of the three classes were AP (Advanced Placement), so the students would be fairly well behaved.  She warned me of the on-level class which would be a challenge, especially if Tommy Butler* showed up.  Tommy was recently transferred to the school, spends most of his time in in-school suspension, and appears to be working towards getting himself kicked out of this school.  She also mentioned her need for a long-term substitute when she goes on maternity leave and told me to let her know if I was interested after today.  Me, the engineer, teaching world history?  It smelled of Mrs. Fox’s desperation.

Mrs. Fox showed me the white “call” button next to the classroom door.  She said if I pressed it, someone would ask me what I needed over the ceiling intercom.  I wasn’t to leave the students unattended for any reason; however, someone would come to my classroom if I needed assistance.   As Mrs. Fox was giving me her best instructions, Mr. Winn* and Ms. Karr*, two younger World History teachers, walked into thhelping-students-clipart-1-jpge room to eat lunch as was their custom.   During this quiet period, I asked many probing questions after I shared a bit about myself.  What did I find out?  The news was surprising!  When I accepted this assignment, I hadn’t done any research.  Hadn’t I heard?  Mayfair was in the news last year for multiple student fights that broke out during lunch times and sport practices.   The teacher turnover in recent years was ~ 40% with the current principal known for not liking kids.  I thought on the other hand that maybe she was just scared of her own student population.  Because teenagers were entering the school to sell drugs, the administration had to create a policy that all Mayfair students prominently wear ID badges to identify themselves as registered.  I was also lucky to get substitute instructions, because over half the time teachers never leave plans for the subs.  After a few helpful tidbits, Mr.  Winn wished me good luck and encouraged me to reach out if I needed anything.  Ms. Karr, a recent graduate in May 2016, warned me not to let the students know this was my first substitute job, because they would eat me for lunch.  She mentioned that many substitutes had left the school crying.  I didn’t know how this afternoon would unfold, but I surely knew I wouldn’t be shedding any tears of fear or frustration.

The bell rang, and as I stood in the doorway welcoming the first class of AP students, from across the hall Mr. Winn was yelling, “Get your badges out, they need to be visible!”  For those who were not wearing their ID around their neck, I politely asked to see badges.  Many complied.  A few tapped their hands on their backpacks, implying it’s in there.  When I asked to see it, most ignored me and continued to walk towards their table.  What do I do?  This is when I told myself, “Choose your battles carefully.”  I let it go and felt grateful on those few occasions when I got a respectful compliance.   The last of the students rushed into the classroom as the bell sounded late.   I kicked the door stop away, closed the door, and realized we were locked in this windowless room for the next 50 minutes.   Cell phones were everywhere.  I told the class to settle down and put their cell phones away.  I introduced myself as Mrs. Dillon, which sounded so formal in the work environment, and explained their written assignment for the day.   After answering more questions, I started the movie.  Many times I had to ask them to settle down and put away cell phones.    The students constantly asked to go to the restroom.  Luckily, the rule was one at a time with a hall pass.   After the first student took 15 minutes, I learned my first on-the-job lesson—set expectations!  The next students were told 5 minutes max.   I watched the clock on my desk and was thankful as each minute passed.  I felt barely in control.  During the movie, I repeatedly asked them to be quiet and be respectful of their fellow classmates who were working.  I received half-hearted compliance, and within 10 minutes they were up to the same noise volume, pushing and shoving at the table.  If I didn’t know I was in a high school, I would swear I was in elementary based on their behavior?  The bell rang.  Whew!  I made it through this first class unscathed.

I took a deep breath to get ready for my second class—on-level.  Once again I was at the doorway to welcome the students, and Mr. Fox asked how I was doing!  “Great,” I responded.  If the teachers were taking bets on my survival, I wondered what they thought my odds.  After the same greetings with similar responses to my badge requests, I closed the door and carried out the same class introduction, just with a different assignment.  Despite its on-level demographics, I knew this class would prove more challenging, because there was no movie distraction, only class time to complete an independent project.  I pulled out the roster and apologized upfront for butchering any student’s name as I called it out.    Many laughed at my pronunciations and congratulated me when I got a few difficult ones correct.  I struggled with the names as many were ethnic; my guess of the racial breakdown was 10% white, 60% African-American, and the rest multi-racial.  When I called the name Tommy Butler, I heard “here.”   Oh boy, where is this student going to take me?

After taking attendance, I asked everyone to put away their cell phones and to start the assignment, directing them to examples at each table.  Everyone complied except for Tommy who was sitting with two other boys.  None of them were working on their project as evident by having not paper or supplies in front of them.  As I sat at my desk, I watched Tommy put in his earbuds and start to watch a movie on his iPhone.  I approached the table and asked them if they needed anything to start the assignment.   After the two boys replied no, they kicked Tommy under the table to get his attention.  He looked up at me, and I asked, “Would you please put your iPhone away as it is against the school rules?”  Tommy just stared at me, and I repeated the request.  He slid his iPhone from the table onto his knee.   I said, “That’s not good enough, please put it in your pocket.”  He continued to stare at me as he hesitantly slid the iPhone into his pocket, yet still leaving the buds in his ear.  At this time I was internally claiming some victory, but also knew I needed to leave this alone for now.   I had pushed this rule as far as it was going to go in this moment.  The substitute teacher handbook is clear that no teacher may take away a student’s cell phone.  We are at the mercy of a student’s compliance.

I walked the room asking how I can help and eventually returned to my desk.  As I looked back at Tony, he had his iPhone out again, watching a movie.  I looked around the room and there were a few kids “sneakily” looking at their phones.  I stood up at the head of the room and made an announcement, “Please put your iPhones away.  I do not make the rules, but I have to enforce them.”  I pointed to the pink flyer on the wall that expressly said no cell phones allowed—one warning and the next time consequences (undefined I might add).   When I asked Ms. Fox when I should use the white call button, she responded for continued cell phone violations and behavioral issues.   After my announcement, Tony just stared at me and made no attempt to put his cell phone away.   Tony was purposefully taking me into a showdown.  He wanted to see what this substitute teacher would do.  Did I mention before that I felt like I was in an elementary school and not high school?

I approached his table and specifically asked him to put his iPhone in his pocket.  He dared me with his eyes.  I responded, “I have asked you repeatedly to put away your phone, my next step is to get the Assistant Principal involved.  It is your choice, I don’t want to take that next step.”  He just continued to stare at me.  I finally turned, and as I walked toward the call button by the door, I heard a low collective gasp from the students behind me.  I pushed the button.   A woman’s voice asked, “What do you need?”  I replied, “I have a repeated cell phone violation from a student.”  She responded, “I’ll send someone.”  Then I heard shuffling as everyone was jamming their iPhones into their backpacks.  Even Tommy, yet with a nonchalant attitude, slowly took the buds out of his ear and put his phone into his backpack on the floor.  Then Tommy and his buddies continued to talk quietly at their table while the two boys who faced me gave me the death glare.  With the aftermath of the call button scare, most of the class worked diligently on the project.  I helped some students with their drawings as I looked towards the locked door for teacher assistance.   I waited and watched as I didn’t know how long it would take.   About a half hour passed, and no one came.  With only 10 minutes of class left and the imminent threat gone, the cell phones reemerged including Tony’s.   Defeated.  I just let it go!  I may have won a battle, but I lost the war.

I could not wait for this school day, and especially this class, to be over.   Although I certainly had to contend with the cell phone battle, I also had to intervene and tell a group of three students, who were getting annoyed with each other, to stop hitting.  My only tools were my voice, intimidation, requesting, begging, and sending to the principal’s office.   I heard through the grapevine that teachers, who send students to the principal’s office, are considered ineffective, because they are deemed to have no classroom management skills.  A teacher can never touch another student, even in a friendly manner.  We cannot take away any of their personal property.   I feel like teachers’ hands are tied behind their backs.  Later, when Mr. Winn asked how the on-level class went, I told him how no one came to the classroom after the call button.  He exclaimed, “They didn’t?  Just like them, they don’t support us teachers.”

My third and last class was another group of AP students.  I was climbing out of the emotional trough and appreciative that this class would be relatively easier.  Class three was a reflection of the first.  Although I had to do more shhh-ing, the stress was much lower.   I collected the papers from the students as they walked out the door.  As one table of girls was finishing, I walked over to their table.  One of them said, “You’re the best sub we’ve ever had.”  Surprised, I responded, “Well, thank you!  Just curious, how did I earn that title?”  She responded, “All the other subs are quiet and never say anything.”  Then the second girl said, “You have a good vibe about you too.”

So that was my first story of corporate executive turned substitute teacher.  I didn’t have any preconceived ideas on what my experience would be like, but I was hopeful to make a positive influence on these young minds.   By my own assessment, I felt I was a babysitter at best, a shrew at worst, and would give myself a D (just passing), for my first classroom assignment.   I graded myself against my own standards and expectations, but on an absolute basis, I still remain confused on how the school system would rate me if I had been observed. This cannot be the state of our public education system in the suburbs of Houston.  Most people have a taste of public education in the ghetto as reflected in those feel-good movies such as Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds, where a few gifted and motivated individuals overcome horrendous obstacles to get their education.  I was not in the ghetto, but I felt some of the same ghetto mentality working in many of the students’ minds.

In this high school, I felt like a glorified babysitter.  I was babysitting kids who defiantly opposed and disrespected authority for fun or to test their own situational power and kids who have no desire to learn or do well in school.  I don’t know of their family background, home life, struggles, or mental and behavioral disorders.  My heart goes out to the disruptive students and to those students who are trapped in this environment and truly have a desire to do well.  My heart also feels for these teachers.  They have been given responsibility and accountability, but have fundamentally been stripped of authority and power.  The kids appear to run the classroom by the teacher restrictions put into place, and the students are aware of their power.   Although my personal experience with the administration was not favorable albeit limited, I wonder how much the teachers are supported in the classroom.

Today I missed those long ago days of my high school when students feared and respected their teachers and parents.  Times change and so do institutions to accommodate.  Can a school adapt enough to even partially compensate for the degradation in family structure and values?  Has the school system changed in a way that supports the best education for 2016 and beyond?  With the average taxpayer cost to educate a student at > $10,000 per year, are these ample funds to create a well-functioning education system?  All I know to be true is that with $45 minus taxes in my pocket, I’m left with an unforgettable experience, more questions than I have answers, and a desire to know more about our public education.  I have more schools in which to serve before I draw my final conclusions.  Next assignment, life skills sub for a middle school.

*All names except for mine and my previous employer have been changed to protect both the innocent and guilty.