diary of a substitute #3

sometimes it is sooooooo hard to keep a straight face while telling a sixth grader to be quiet, especially when what they are supposed to be listening to is possibly the least important presentation they will ever hear.  i’ve shown up just in time to participate in their community meeting.  the topic this week: dress code.

the administrator has put together a lovely powerpoint presentation for the fifth and sixth graders, with pictures of shirts tucked in, shoelaces tied, and a demonstration of the stark contrast between a boy with a hat on, and his hat taken off.  see how he’s taken the hat off?  yes.  i do see.  the hat is off now.  god.  i’m DYING to check my smartphone and see if something interesting has happened.  actually, i would take anything at this point.  any status update, any e-mail, anything at all to break up the banality of this guy’s voice.

which is why i can’t in good conscience come down too hard on these children who have already sat through about 20 minutes of this heroically and who are finally reaching their breaking point.  their shoulders are moving.  they’re starting to hang their teeth off the backs of their chairs, experiment with what the world looks like upside down, pluck at the headbands of those around them… anything.  they’re getting desperate.

the crowd has started chit chatting.  “excuse me.” the administrator says dryly.  he waits an unwise amount of time with an unwise amount of uncertainty as to what response he’s expecting from that ‘excuse me.’   the chattering continues.  he looks around stoically.  “if i need to do a count-down, that’s five minutes from your recess.”  i look at the kids and i see literal physical pain on their faces.  the last thing they want is time off their recess, yet they don’t know how much longer they can take without some kind of stimulation.  they scrunch their eyebrows and kick their legs, trying to send the inconvenient energy and curiosity out through their toes.

he’s moved on to the slide about “professional day.”  “can someone tell me what professional day is?”  a small girl towards the front raises her hand.  “yes, young lady.”  some imperceptible amount of sound comes from up front and he asks her to stand up.  she meekly scratches her head while she begins an admirable attempt at addressing the entire school for, maybe her first time.  “um… well, professional, professional day.  it’s, um… when, like, the rest of the days?  cause you have to wear your uniform usually?  but on professional day?  you don’t cause, um, it’s professional, like, so you have to wear different.  you have to dress different on that day.” she quickly sits.

“ok,” the administrator says.  “cara says you dress different on professional day.  do you all agree with her?”  the kids aren’t sure if they’re supposed to talk.  a few say yes.  a few others slowly nod.  still more look like they’re about to cry.  “excuse me.  i asked if you all agree with her.”  a few more say yes.  “that’s better.  ok.  so, if it’s true that we dress differently on professional day, why is that we dress differently that day?” a few brave, or maybe just bored, souls raise their hands.  “yes, young man.” he says to a boy up front.

“professional day is when you wear suits and look professional like you were going to a job interview or an interview for college so that you can learn what it’s like to be professional.”  i let out a sigh of relief that’s slightly too loud.  i think for a moment that this child has just succeeded in saying everything that needs saying about professional day and that we can now move on to another, possibly more interesting topic, like, maybe, the types of hair accessories allowed on campus.  but the administrator is not so easily thrown.  “young man, that was a very good answer, but i asked why do we have professional day?”  i’m totally at a loss.  i thought for sure this prodigy just answered that very question.  he raises his eyebrows in nervousness.  he’s drawing a blank.  what did he miss?

“we have professional day because that’s the day the upper school has college day, and we’re preparing you for college day.”  oh.  i see.  this kid jumped the gun.  he forgot that middle school is actually just preparation for high school, and that everything they teach you is in order to make it easier for your highschool teachers to control you.  what he doesn’t know is that he’ll actually need to unlearn all of this by the time he applies to college if he wants to have a prayer of seeming like an individual thinker.  here’s the lesson, kid.  here’s what this whole assembly is about.  don’t get ahead of yourself, and don’t think too deep.  focus on the rules, and the small world that forms your school.  don’t think outside of this little learning factory.  you won’t be ready for that until you’re good and broken in and ready to follow the rules.

“so, what types of clothes are acceptable on professional day?” asks the administrator as he clicks to a new slide showing pictures of men taken from catalogs, all wearing sports coats, collared shirts, ties, etc… one by one children raise their hands and guess parts of the dress code for professional day.  i am in absolute agony.  the boredom i feel is bringing me right back to childhood, waiting for my mom to finish a parent-teacher conference while i sat in the lobby thinking, jeeeeeeeeeez this is taking a long time, practicing the utmost will power to keep from running circles in the lobby, tearing all the art off the walls and making confetti with it.  except now i have something easier to gratify my excess energy which is a smartphone, and i know it holds all of the answers to every negative emotion i’m feeling right now; distraction, social interaction, new information.  and it’s just sitting there, burning a hole in my pocket.  i need it.  i need to look at it.  no!  definitely not.  i’m supposed to be modeling for these kids how to pay attention, and looking at my smartphone is an absolutely unacceptable example to set.  so i try to focus on the kids, since the presentation isn’t going to do anything to hold my interest.

what i see really kind of breaks my heart.  the kids have gone past their breaking point and they have regressed into zombie-like infants.  pulling on their tongues and lips, rolling their eyes maniacally.  they’ve lost it.  well, i don’t know what they’ll learn later today, but at least they’re docile.


diary of a substitute #2

i showed up to the school about an hour late.  one benefit to taking a day-of call is that you’re forgiven almost any level of tardiness.  i got the call at 6am and was told to be there by 7:45.  unfortunately it was an hour and a half commute.  the thing that sucks about being late, though, is that you might not have time to prepare for the class, so you always have to make sure that you’re mentally prepared for chaos when you walk in.  i checked out the neighborhood on my walk from the bus stop.  lower-income, but not untidy.  many of the small neighborhoods had tight little rose bushes perced next to the gate.  i smelled them on the way, letting the sunshine-warmed petals touch my nose.  i wanted to savor every moment of peace, since i didn’t know what awaited me at this new school.
i walked in and was greeted warmly by the secretary.  “we’re so glad you’re here.” she said.  huh.  that was a rare greeting.  i looked around the office.  all the signs were there.  the calendar display was on the right month.  there were no students in the hallway.  a colorful display of students’ names who were heading to college was prominently displayed.  i looked at the secretery again.  she didn’t seem hurried or stressed.  fuck yes, this was a Good School.  “since i know this is your first time here, here is some information about our school.”  i looked down at the page she handed me and i was floored.  never in my career had i been handed a more helpful document.  on the top it said, “guidlines for substitutes.”  what followed was a list of exactly how subs should handle all of the typical sub problems, as well as the expectations for how each class should go.  i looked up at the secretary and i wanted to hug her tightly and never let her go.  “thanks so much, this is great!” i said instead.
“here’s the log in information for the computer.” she said as she handed me another piece of paper.  i noted that the log in was “sub2013”.  wow, i thought, they have their own sub login.  i wouldn’t even have to hassle another teacher for theirs.  what was this?  some kind of sub paradise?
i walked into the room.  it was neat and pleasant.  on a table were two piles of papers.  one pile for my 2nd and 5th periods, and one pile for my 3rd and 4th periods.  i looked them over, as well as the lesson plan sheet that was left for me, and neatly wrote instructions on the board, as well as my name “Senora Rachel.”  it was an a.p. spanish class and i was eager to practice my spanish skills with the kids.  when i got the call, my agency rep wanted to confirm that i could teach spanish.  of course, i knew that in fact, i didn’t need to know anything to sub for this class, but i was prepared to speek spanish as much as possible.
the first student entered my classroom right after the bell.  “can i come in?” he asked.  this is an important moment for a sub, when they greet their first student.  they must immediately assess the entire school culture based on one students’ body language and disposition.  this student seemed immediately deferential, pleasant, awake, and polite.  so i opted for the “please help me know the rules” approach.
“how do you usually enter the classroom?” i asked.
“usually we line up and shake hands.”
“great!  then let’s do that.”  i said cheerfully.
this approach can be dangerous in the wrong situation.  with engaged, pleasant students, this approach relaxes them, makes them realize that you’re not going to be mean, that you’re a human and thus makes them inclined to be helpful and considerate, and find you funny and interesting.  with irritable, angry, aggressive students, this approach relaxes them, makes them realize that you’re not going to be mean, that you’re a human and thus makes them inclined to be manipulating, confrontational, and bullying.  if i have any doubt at all about my ability to manage a class, i will never ask a student what the normal expectations are.  i decide on a policy at the beginning and i stick with it with an iron fist.  i show an unwavering, dictatorial attitude to even the slightest infractions.  if that seems to work, then i gradually loosen the reigns.  if the angry, aggressive students have any indication that you are trying to be nice, they will use it against you to break you down.  it’s important to show that you have no interest in their opinions whatsoever.  this has taken months of trial and error to figure out.
but on these pleasant, rare occasions where i get to be with students that seem genuinely excited to learn, i can show myself a bit more, and all of us can let our guards down.  as i stood at the door and shook hands with students as they came in they each smiled a healthy grin at me and said “hello” and “how are you today?” as they entered.  beautiful.
the bell rang and i went up to the front of the class.  i straightened my spine and prepared my confident, happy, projecting sub voice.  i smiled and began.  “hola todos.  obviamente no soy su profesora normal.  soy una substituta.  se puede llamarme senora rachel o rachel si prefieres…” as i talked the students lit up.  they looked around at each other in surprise.  one student whispered to another, “damn she speaks spanish!”  i felt proud, but as the excitement grew, so did the volume.  they were all chattering with each other now.
“bueno.  necesito silencio en CINCO, quatro, tres..” by the time i said “tres” they were all silent, looking at me with the utmost seriousness and guilt.  oh come on, this was too easy.

diary of a substitute teacher #1

don’t cry.    do.    not.    cry.
the laughter crescendos as i struggle to keep composure.  “who threw that?” i ask pointlessly to the horde.  the paper balls have been hitting my back and head every time i turn around to write on the board.  there is absolutely no way for me to tell who’s been throwing them.  it’s probable that it’s multiple students.  i look around the classroom.  it looks like a war zone.  for some reason, the students have been finding crayons and meticulously dissecting them onto the floor.  then they’ve been mashing their remains with their feet so that bits of crayon are now spliced into the very essence of the tile.  i don’t even know where the crayons keep coming from.  do they bring them with them?  are they stashed in their backpacks just for this purpose?  the worksheets i was supposed to have us work on as a group have been transformed into paper airplanes that are now stuck in various corners of the room.  some have penises drawn on them.  others are simply demonically colored head to tail in effortful lead pencil.
i try to convey as much seriousness and severity as i can while asking them calmly but forcefully to be quiet.  it does nothing to change the smiles on their face.  the problem with this game is that the madder i get, the funnier they think it is.  i am tempted to give up, but i know that as bad as it is right now, it can and will get worse if i sit down.
i know this because of the one day i decided to give up.  the students were screaming over me and ignoring me completely.  i knew i had no control and the support staff couldn’t get the kids quiet either, so i wrote a message on the board that said “please pick up your assignment on the table below.  work quietly.  if you have any questions, come up to my desk and ask me quietly.”  i sat down at the teacher’s desk and opened my book.  the volume level rose.  i defiantly stared at my book and refused to be phased.  people started screaming, “hey!  what are we supposed to be doing? teacher!  teacher!  TEACHER!”  i pointed to the board to indicate that i would only respond to people who came up to my desk to ask me questions.  without turning their heads and attempting to read the board, they just gave me a scandalized look, like i had just asked them to shove their faces in a toilet.  i put my head down and looked at my book.  then I felt the wind of a large stick hurled at my direction that hit the window behind me.
“is you gonna cry?” a student asks excitedly.  i snap back into the present.  at least they are only throwing paper balls.  at least they’re not trying to physically harm me.  at least – “AAAH!” a female student screams.  she is holding her face.  “BITCH!”  She screams as she hurls herself at another student.
i dive into the middle of the two girls who have remarkable strength for the age of 12.  the other students are ecstatic for the most part, except the two or three “good students” who are resting their heads on their hands and looking exceedingly depressed.  the students around me have taken sides.  they’re laughing full bodied laughs, as if everything is funny.  The whole world is funny.  Nothing is ever serious, and the more serious people want them to be, the funnier it is.  the girls are impressively yelling at one another, puffing up their chests and cocking their heads from side to side.  it’s really quite a production.  i’m standing between and telling the girl who initially jumped at the other girl to sit down.  i’m standing confidently but i have no idea how this is going to end or what i’m going to do if she swings at me.  “leave the class!” i finally scream.  “NOW!”
the volume subsides a bit as i march to the door and open it.  i point outside.  “OUT I SAID!”  the thing is, i have a pretty scary screaming voice when i want to use it.  the kids are caught off guard.  the student runs out of the door mumbling something about how i can’t tell her what to do.
the thing about yelling is that it has shock value.  but the more you use it, the weaker the power becomes.  you must reserve yelling only for moments of true crisis.  so at this moment i feel momentarily relieved but also fearful, because i know that i’ve just used my secret weapon, and it won’t be possible to use it again and have it work during this class day.  as i shut the door, i feel a paperball hit the back of my head.