I’ve done a few plays in my time, in civic theater and in school. No matter how good you are, or at least think you are, there’s always that tightening in the gut before curtain, when you wonder if they’ll like you-really, really like you. The only difference between that and being a substitute teacher is that you don’t really care if they like you. You just really, really don’t want them to throw things at you.
This past school year has been a little rough. Many days were great, and went smoothly. Other days, I couldn’t believe I had wanted to be a mother, much less a teacher. Kids seem to be a species apart on those days; a scary phenomenon that makes you want to scurry inside after you pick up the paper from the front porch, should you happen to see one of them passing by on the street.
On the good days, interaction with kids is one of the things that keeps you young in mind and soul. You can see the enthusiasm and playfulness that used to fill you when you were young and could roll out of bed and hit the floor running. You can see a newly minted world which had become stale in many ways; a new way of seeing things that you had forgotten might be normal for many. To talk to kids, especially middle school kids, is a guarantee of experiencing that odd feeling of deja vu, that ephemeral feeling of having gone through a similar situation in your own life, with your own parents, friends, and teachers.
One of the most annoying behavioral issues with middle school kids is the tendency to giggle and laugh. I’ll look up and see two or three of them silently communicating, or what passes for silence in their minds, barely able to hold in the guffaws. I’ll watch them for a moment and wonder what it is that is so darn funny. Some of them will work and still have fun, others are just having fun. It wasn’t so very long ago that I remember going through the same thing when there was a kindred spirit sharing my work or school space. It may have taken the mere exchange of glances to send us off on a tsunami of ever-increasing, breathless laughter. I had to apologize recently to an eighth-grade girl for taking her to task for not doing her work. She appeared to be doing much talking and laughing. She held up her paper and said, ‘I can work and have fun, too’. I remembered being taken to task by a purser for having too much fun while I was working a flight because he assumed I wasn’t working. I knew better; I was working hard, but it doesn’t feel like it when you work with fun people. I was reminded of that in a flash of insight as she showed me her neat, completed work.
Being a substitute teacher is being the stand-in for the regular guy at a store, or a restaurant, or a show; the guy that everyone likes, or at least is used to. It means that there is an immediate awareness that rules are relaxed or even non-existent, because the sub ostensibly doesn’t know what they are. Subs are an unknown quantity; I’ve heard kids asking one another as they leave the class and another class is entering, whether ‘she’s mean’. Many of the students regale me with stories of subs whom they considered mean. I remind them that their behavior was very likely the cause of the rift between them and a good class.
My ultimate goal as a substitute teacher is managing the class. Without good classroom management, no one is having a productive time, much less a good time. When I first started out the year, I was merrily crossing off schools I vowed never to go to again. If my throat was raw at the end of the day, that was a deciding factor. My biggest problem is getting the majority of the students to make the others behave. Not an easy task. It is definitely ‘us against them’ in the substitute teacher world.
I finally hit on a solution that works in almost every class. When the noise level starts to rise, or no one appears to be on task, I begin counting down from ten. By the time I get to eight, almost everyone is quiet, and waiting to see what will happen. I stop counting and tell them that if I get to ‘one’, they lose a minute at the bell. In a world ruled by time and measured in minutes, this is huge. With a mere four minutes for passing time in the halls, thirty minutes for lunch, and a burning desire to leave when the final bell rings, this will ensure that the majority of the class will gang up on their less aware peers, and make them toe the line. One boy kept telling me that a minute was no big deal; his next class was just across the hall. I kept telling him that in that case I’d add another minute. Finally, another boy told him to ‘shut up!’ When you can get the majority to see it your way, you are queen for at least fifty minutes.
A teacher’s eyes tend to rove, constantly monitoring student behavior and focus, or lack of it. Sometimes, I’ll stop and really look at a student. A student who may be dreaming, working diligently, or telling me something significant. I’ll realize with a pang that I’ve overlooked the individuality of the children, or overlooked the good, because the bad was taking my attention.
On the bad days I feel as if every child is irrevocably selfish and self-absorbed. On those days, as I am picking up the classroom floor, replacing books, and straightening desks, a child will begin to help me. On those days, as I am walking out of the school, a child will suddenly walk quickly in front of me in order to get to the door and hold it open for me, showing more awareness than many adults. On those occasions, my smile of thanks is filled with relief and genuine gratitude.