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.

special-education-clip-art1

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.