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.


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.

Fearless or Fear Less

An excerpt from Sandra Dillon’s El Salvador Mission Journal (October 10, 2016)

I feel remiss in not having issued a mission journal entry since early August, but frankly I think I was so busy with life, serving, and school that I wasn’t paying much attention to anything God might have been whispering in my ear.   Yes, I have been short-changing God and paying the price.  However, I believe God is stirring something powerful in my heart prior to taking a team of 11 to drill a well, repair wells, teach hygiene, and play with the village children in El Salvador with Living Water International.


My reminder to move into my fear

In September while I was visiting Alex and Wes in Colorado Springs, I stopped at the Focus on the Family Bookstore—one of my favorites and one I never miss when in town.  As the cashier was ringing up my book purchases, I looked down on the counter at several bracelets with one-word descriptions such as faith, hope, believe, etc.  For those who know me, I am not a jewelry person, yet this one word, “fearless” caught my attention.  I looked away to finalize my purchase, but my eyes were drawn back to this one bracelet.  Given how strange it was that my attention was drawn towards this item, I took the time to resonate on what I was feeling and thinking.  Fearless, fear less, less fear, strength, etc.  I decided to add the bracelet to my total, so that I would not hold up the checkout line.  I would figure out what God was telling me later when I had more time.  Fast forward to when I returned to Houston—I put on the bracelet, thinking this would inspire my thoughts and any messages.

Fearless—was it simply an adjective, or was it fear less, more of a call to action, to identify my fears, face fear, turn my fear over to God by doing exactly what I feared.  Although I have never counted the number of times that any one word is written in the Bible, a simple unverified internet search says that “love” appears more than 500 times and “fear” as expressed as “do not be afraid” or “do not fear” appears about 120 times.  This was less than I would have estimated, but enough to send a clear message that we as humans suffer and struggle with fear in our lives, as there are many Scriptural references to “fear not.”

What fear does God want to bring to my attention and how might this be related to this mission trip?  Darin and I have talked at length that we are not afraid of physical harm or death.  Many people are fearful to go on a mission trip into a third world country.  I remember well the pleas not to go to Nairobi, Kenya in October 2013 from well-meaning friends and family, because we were traveling just weeks after the Westgate Mall Christian massacre where hundreds of Christians were either killed or injured.  We were scheduled for outreach in the slums of Ongata Rongai which was a mere 5 miles from this mall.

I know that fear is a powerful, self-inflicted weapon used to hold us back from everything we are called to be and when we are called to act.  I am fully aware of my fears, when I feel fearful, and I have been working on confronting and moving into my fears.  Fighting fear is a journey I take with God by my side, and so far, I wish I were farther along, but I am proud of my progress.  I clearly see how my fears are the obstacles that block me from fully moving in the purpose God has for my life.  Clarity of purpose helps me visualize the wall of fear that stands before me and how I need to walk through my wall of fear, climb over it, or go around it with these last two options taking a longer yet still successful path.

Acts 18:9 (NLT) speaks to my heart: “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, ‘Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent!’”  Although there are a few interpretations for this Scripture, the message that resonates with me is to not be afraid of the things God is calling me to do that are outside my comfort zone.  Speak of those fears so they cannot hold power over me or build walls that block my path towards my divine purpose.  What am I afraid of?  Right now, I hold only two fears that I am aware of—public speaking and the yet to be answered, “Will I be successful when I launch my life and marriage coaching business next year?”  Why is God having me focus on my fears in a specific way just before we are to go on mission to El Salvador?  Or is the timing just coincidence?  I am not sure, but Darin and I are always surprised by every mission trip.  We think we know the purpose of the trip, and then God shows up and delivers the message of our true trip purpose.  Somehow I think “fearless” will be tied into whatever message God wants to share with us.  I look forward to living out this journey with my 10 teammates and finding out what connection this trip has with “fearless.”

As I shared my personal fears, did you think of any fears that are holding you back from your life purpose?