SUBSTITUTE PURGATORY: THE SERIES FINALE!

Before I get started, I just want to thank everyone who took some time from their day to read these posts. Even though the last post was in December, the hits keep coming and I thank you for your messages and encouragement.

Given that it’s been nearly 16 weeks since my last post, most of you probably figured out that “Substitute Purgatory” is finished. Like a good British mini-series, I figured it was best to have a short run and end it before it got stale.

Here’s a quick refresher: After subbing around the Lansing area, I was able to get a long-term sub position teaching English in a high school. In January, it was decided that I would stay in this position until the end of the year. So, I have steady employment until June 6th! There’s also a shot that this sub job will turn into a regular position next year.

Originally, I intended to post on a weekly basis until school ended in June, but there are three reasons why I decided I shouldn’t update “Substitute Purgatory” except to do this final sign-off.

REASON #1: MY COVER WAS BLOWN

After Christmas break, a student came into the classroom and, without any type of greeting, exclaimed, “I found your blog! It’s really good! I actually showed it to a few friends, too.”

“How did you find it?” I asked.

“I was Googling your name over break and I came across it! It’s actually pretty good!” said the student – who was acting like Googling someone’s name is totally acceptable and doesn’t resemble stalker-ish behavior at all. I mean, how creepy would it be if I then said to the student, “Hey, during winter break, I Googled your name, too!” However, in 2012 I suppose that looking someone up on the Internet is like checking references or something. Maybe I should be flattered that the student even took the time to do a lo-fi background check on me.

Anyway, when I lost the anonymity, I also lost the ability to be direct in my writing. I knew that if I continued to post, any time a new installment went online I ran the risk of students in my own classroom:

a) complaining that they’d been unfairly represented

b) possibly telling their parents if I said anything remotely negative about them

c) repeating what I said out of context

d) losing trust

If you’ve ever seen any type of Mafia movie, you know what happens to the informant; someone eventually finds out that the guy, who was such a nice guy, was in fact a snitch. Then two hired goons pull up in a car and take the snitch to the Meadowlands of New Jersey…and, well, you know what happens next. The point is, in almost every single movie, the informant’s cover is blown and trust is lost.

Although there was never any risk of being driven out to the Meadowlands, I didn’t want to lose the trust of my students. I didn’t want my students to think that if they said something quirky, or amusing, or the slightest bit embarrassing, that their words would be recorded on the Internet for all to read.

From the beginning of this blog, when I composed an entry, I always tried to frame students and their (often entertaining) behavior in the context of showing the reader, “Isn’t this amusing?” I never wanted “Substitute Purgatory” to be a collection of posts where I said,  “boy, these kids sure are dumb!”

Over the course of “SP” there were two posts that I composed that were pretty mean-spirited. Segments of those posts ended up in “Thanksgiving Leftovers,” but most of it was deleted because revenge-via-print is just not my style.

REASON #2: LACK OF FREE TIME

Before I landed the long-term sub job, I had loads of free time. When I was subbing at different schools, I usually had zero teaching responsibilities and I would often start composing that day’s blog entry as the class was watching movies or doing worksheets.

However, when I took the long-term job, I also signed on to do lesson planning and actual teaching. I have no complaints about the increased responsibility. Believe me, it is way more satisfying to use my skills! I also make myself available for tutoring after school 2-3 days a week. The demands of the preparation, planning, and grading leave me with little time to write for fun.

I also go to the regular staff meetings, professional development days, and I also participated in this year’s Parent-Teacher Conferences (which was amusing – but I really can’t write about that event. If you live in the area, call me up and we’ll go out and I’ll tell you everything in person).

Of course, even though I treat this sub job like a real teaching job, I still get paid like a sub. The financial compensation is the only major drawback to this job.

REASON #3: FAMILIARITY REDUCES MAYHEM

Since I’ve been working in the same classroom since Thanksgiving, I’ve had a chance to build a good rapport with my classes. For most of my students, I am now their “real” teacher. That rapport drastically reduces the chances of any type of classroom mayhem. For the most part, my classes are well-behaved and respectful. While working at this long-term job, there have been a few behavior problems, but nothing on the level of what I had to deal with at my old job in Detroit.

The most comical thing that’s happened so far was when I was showing the students a movie and, after starting the film, left the class to briefly talk with another teacher. When I returned back to my class, the students had reversed the order of the desks so that everybody was facing the wall instead of watching the film. I had a good laugh and saw this as evidence that the students actually enjoyed having me as a teacher. It’s like they cared enough to actually play a practical joke on me.

CONCLUSION:

So, what’s next?

I think one of the best parts about this long-term sub job was that I had an opportunity to teach in a functional district. The school where I work now is such a departure from my old school in Detroit.

I’m already in the process of applying for teaching jobs for the 2012-2013 school year. I’ve also spent time researching other careers if teaching doesn’t pan out. From a financial perspective, I can’t spend another year without steady, full-time employment. I’ve considered going back to college and completely changing careers (pharmacist, electrical engineer, professional Renaissance man) but I’m still holding out for a teaching position in the mean time. So, if you’re hiring, give me a call!

Thanks for taking the time to read this. And, like any good sitcom, there’s always a possibility of a spin-off. So, coming this summer to a blog near you: “Job-Hunt Purgatory!” Check your local listings!

Thank you & good night!

A NORMAL HOLIDAY ASSEMBLY (FOR ONCE)

When I worked back at my old school in Detroit, the Christmas choir performance / Holiday Assembly was always a stressful affair. This stress came from the fact that assemblies were chaotic events. Most students saw this break in routine as an opportunity to screw around. Other students would skip out on the assembly and roam the halls with their friends, and a select few would sneak into the locker room and get high.

Often, the students who remained in the auditorium didn’t fare much better. Constant disruptions were the norm. On more than one occasion, the choir teacher stopped mid-song in an attempt to silence the audience. There were a couple times when he actually cancelled the whole assembly and told the teachers to take their students back to class. This was a failure because a majority of the students, already out of class and a mere 30 minutes away from Christmas break, would simply walk out of school instead of returning to class and finishing the day (in retrospect, maybe that’s what the choir teacher was trying to do in the first place, ha ha ha). I remember one student skipping out on the assembly and saying, “I’m going home. They won’t suspend me because then it would be, like, 4 weeks without going to school.” (He was right – the administration was reluctant to have suspensions go past Christmas break for fear that the students would simply go to school somewhere else.)

So, this year at my long-term sub job, when I got a memo that there would be an assembly during 6th hour on the last day before Christmas break, I went into “battle mode.” I was anticipating the skippers and the disruptions. I was anticipating the possible fights. I was anticipating anything – except a normal, high school holiday assembly.

It turns out that my fears were totally unfounded. It was a normal holiday assembly. I got down to the auditorium and was greeted by the principal, who was dressed like Santa (which never would have happened in my old school). The Spanish club led the school in a bilingual sing-along, another club organized a candy-cane eating contest (though I think an eggnog chugging contest would have been more entertaining), and the choir performed two songs. The 450+ students in the audience were so respectful that the choir teacher was able to make announcements from the stage without using a microphone.

If you’re a teacher in another district, or you grew up in a functional suburban high school, and you’re reading this, I know that what I described above might sound pretty average to your school. But for me, this successful holiday assembly was a revelation in just how different this school operates in comparison to my old place of employment.

Overall, working in this particular district has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve worked there for over a month and I’ve regained some of my enthusiasm for teaching. I’ve also gained a better understanding of the gap between well-funded suburban schools and under-funded urban schools. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew there was a gap, but I don’t think I fully understood the degree of the gap until now. And I’ve also come to the conclusion that the gap is not totally financial.

The success of the Christmas assembly is a perfect illustration for the gap between my new school and my old school. The staff at the new school doesn’t have to spend a majority of their day enforcing rules. Therefore, they don’t mind giving the students a little freedom to organize events. In turn, the students follow the guidelines and the event goes off with no problems.

At my new job, it’s almost like there is this subconscious social agreement (which may, or may not be fully recognized) between the staff and the collective student population. It’s like, “Let me do my stuff and you can do yours.” (You know, I let you talk in the last five minutes of class if you remain silent during my lecture, etc.) There’s this foundational respect or code that’s somehow been instilled throughout the school. And it’s also something that really puzzles me. How does the staff create this environment?

Somehow, students at my old school couldn’t collectively embrace this concept of “give-and-take,” or “subconscious social agreement,” or “trust,” or whatever you want to call it. There were students who understood this social agreement and would try to organize spirit week, or dances, or assemblies. But often the student-organized events would get cancelled because other students wouldn’t go to class, or the principal would decide that the most recent “disruption” (aka “fight”) in the lunchroom was reason enough to pull the plug on student-organized events. It’s this gap of understanding that seemed to be part of the problem with the social environment of my old school.

In my classroom, even this concept of give-and-take was totally foreign for some of my students. I would say something like, “Look, if I see your iPods/mp3 players out, I’m supposed to take them. But that’s a hassle for me. If we get through today’s lesson with time left over, you can listen to your headphones or respond to that text message that’s “supposedly” from your mother, or whatever…” and so on. Despite this announcement, which I would make frequently, I STILL had students breaking the rules. It was totally baffling.

I don’t want to start psychologizing here, (or spend time debating if “psychologizing” is even a real word) but is this understanding of a social give-and-take between adults and students the real difference between failing and successful schools? Can it be that simple?

For a variety of reasons – some reasons more valid than others – a lot of my students in Detroit expressed doubt toward authority figures (parents, other teachers, police officers, etc.) and I’m left wondering if it’s even possible to develop that type of social trust between students and staff when the students have already developed a sense of mistrust. Is it totally lost by the time a student is 16 years old?

Furthermore, over the last four weeks I’ve been wondering what would happen if the entire staff and administration at my new job were suddenly transplanted into my old building. Obviously, a dedicated staff is important. But is an excellent staff enough to conquer the social attitudes of the students?

Today, I guess I have more questions than answers.

“I ALMOST KILLED MYSELF OVER THE WEEKEND” – A CAUTIONARY TALE

For some reason, the weirdest classroom chatter always occurs on Monday. Perhaps it’s the combination of the students not seeing their friends for two days, plus all the free time that students have over the weekend to do anything except homework. So, when a good-natured student walked into class on Monday and excitedly declared, “I almost killed myself this weekend!” I was taken aback.

This particular student is comical, outgoing, and slightly annoying. Therefore, he is sort of like me in high school. Anyway, given his personality, I knew that the phrase “I almost killed myself over the weekend” was going to be a set-up for some sort of bizarre story and not a cry for help.

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“Okay. It was totally crazy. I almost killed myself by huffing. Do you know what that is?”

Shaking my head, I say, “Of course I know what huffing is; I listen to the Ramones*. Why were you doing that?”  (*Aside: I didn’t know what huffing was until I read the liner notes for the first Ramones album. In the liner notes, Joey Ramone explains that members of the band would spray bathroom cleaner and glue into a bag and “huff” it to get high because they couldn’t afford booze – which sounded extremely desperate to me. The Ramones reference flies right past this student. Anyway, back to the story… )

“Well, it was a total accident. I had a spray can of compressed air, like the ones that you use to spray the dust of computer keyboards, right?”

“Go on.”

“So I started playing with the can. At first I was spraying the compressed air in my cat’s face. My cat was really digging it and thought it was a game and she would try and bite at the air.  It was really funny! And after a while I was like, ‘I wonder what this feels like?’”

“Of course! I mean if the cat was having fun, you wanted to know if you were missing out,” I sarcastically quip.

The student – completely missing my sarcasm – says, “I know! Right? Anyway, so I start spraying myself in the face with this compressed air and after about five minutes I start feeling really calm and really dizzy. I’m also starting to black out a little bit but I’m telling myself not to panic. I calmly call to my mom and say, ‘Mom, I really don’t want to die.’”

“So what did your mom say?”

“Well, she comes running into the room and she’s like ‘What are you doing? Are you okay?’ and I’m like, ‘I was spraying myself in the face with keyboard cleaner’ and my mom is like, ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME? YOU WERE HUFFING?! THAT’S COMPRESSED CO2! YOU COULD DIE FROM THAT!’ and I’m like, ‘Well I know that NOW, mom.’”

“What happened after that?”

“So, after a couple minutes, my vision came back and I felt fine. I then spent the rest of the day convincing my mom that it was an accident and that I’m not huffing.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re okay. Let’s get started with class now.”

I proceed to take attendance and then I try to get class started. Before I can explain the assignment for the day, the student who I was just talking to raises his hand, and in front of the whole class says, “Since I almost died this weekend, can I be excused from doing work? I’m still recovering from the trauma.”

The whole class, who has presumably heard this kid tell the story multiple times throughout the day, responds by laughing.

This job never gets old.

THE HONEYMOON IS OVER

(Let me start by apologizing for the length of time in between recent entries. This long-term sub job requires a bit more preparation than I first realized. As stated earlier, I’m currently leading two classes of 10th graders through the process of writing a research paper. In the future, I’ll try to shorten the length of the post and post more frequently.)

As I’m becoming more comfortable in the class, the façade of politeness that some of the students were showing me is now coming down. I think the students were used to the idea that if a sub is in the classroom, then they don’t have to do work. But, I’m not that guy. Over the last two weeks, I’ve been setting deadlines and making down for missing work – just like a “regular” teacher. Some students are totally on board, but others say things like, “You’re not a real teacher” (My reply? “I am certified so I am a real teacher.”) or “These deadlines are too hard to meet” (“They’re not hard to meet if you’ve been doing your work.”)

I’ve also had a few students say to me, “I hate you/this essay/this class.” I should clarify that these students, like most teens, merely use the word “hate” to mean they’re annoyed with something. It’s not like they “hate” me like the way Hitler “hated” people (or at least I hope not).

If fact, if a student says they “hate” me, I usually interpret it to mean that they’re at least comfortable enough in the classroom to criticize me. And that’s some sort of progress, right?

In other news, I was asked to attend the staff Christmas party (woo hoo!) and the weekly staff meetings. I view these invitations as a welcoming act – which, as a sub, I didn’t experience very often.

The staff meeting was pretty laid-back. The biggest point of discussion was when the assistant principal announced that there have been 18 out-of-school suspensions since September. Last year at this time, there were only 13 out-of-school suspensions. A few teachers stated their opinions as to why there had been the increase (“the junior class is crazy this year”) and others offered ideas to solve the problem (“can we change the process so that they’re not missing school”). I found this conversation sort of humorous because I used to work in a school where there would be 20+ suspensions every week.

Another thing that I didn’t anticipate about the steady work was the fact that I would have to buy a couple new pairs of dress pants. Somehow, I “mysteriously” gained, like 25 extra pounds since my old teaching job ended back in June. I could give a number of excuses for the added bulk (lack of gym membership, the absence of a regular routine, etc.) but basically, I just ate too much crappy (aka “delicious”) food over the summer and didn’t work out as much.

Anyway, before this blog turns into a grainy black-n-white montage from “The Biggest Loser,” I’ll get back on topic:  I’m stuck with a limited wardrobe. Due to the added “muscle” I’ve packed on, I only have three pairs of dress pants that fit properly. As some of you know, I’m somewhat of a cheapskate, so the thought of not being able to fit into half of my dress clothes really burns me. This was not a problem when I subbed in different buildings. Barring any sort of stain or visible grime, I could easily wear the same outfit three days in a row to three different job sites. Obviously, I can’t do that now. In fact, the wardrobe issue was probably the only upside to unemployment / under-employment. How many people can get away with wearing the same thing three or four times a week?

THESIS FOR THOUGHT

It’s now been a full week since I started my long-term sub position and things are going really well. As I mentioned earlier, I go to work around noon and do most of my prep before 5th hour starts. I teach 5th & 6th hour, grade all the work from the day, and walk out the door by 3:30.

Since the students are working on research papers, I’m not spending a lot of time lecturing. Most of the students work independently and are turning in work at every stage of this lengthy research assignment. I enjoy not being worried about classroom management because that allows me to focus on the individual needs of each student. In the past week, most of my time has been devoted to working with students 1-on-1 and giving each kid direct advice on his or her work.

I think the biggest difference between the students I currently work with, and the students I used to work with in Detroit is that more of these students are self-motivated and have a better understanding of how to manage time. Most of these students also have better writing skills. However, nobody’s perfect, as the following examples prove. These are actual thesis statements that I came across when the students wrote their outlines last week:

1) “The JFK assassination changed the life of the American people themselves, and the country itself, in more than one way.”

(I myself was deeply impacted by JFK’s selflessness to America.)

2) “The Apollo moon landing were an inspirational happening that pushed American achievements beyond what we thought could be achieved.”

(You’re right, I WERE inspired by this event.)

3) “Y2K is an underrated attack on America, that started an epidemic.”

(Ahhh yes, who can forget the tragic Y2K attacks on America? The attacks were so very underrated because nobody panicked. We, as a strong nation, banded together to fight off our attackers – those cursed machines!)

Of course, there are some students who goof off. And, of course there are students who miss deadlines. But I’m dealing with a lot less goofy behavior and fewer late assignments and I feel like I’m not as overwhelmed.

In the past week, I’ve also connected with certain students to the point where they feel comfortable enough to initiate small talk (“Hey Mr. S, did you see the Spartans last night?”), or tell a joke (“What do you call a mermaid’s underwear? Algebra! Get it? Alge-bra!”), or tell me about their hobbies and interests.

For example, a girl named “Elaine” – a self-described nerd – is a Jeopardy! fanatic. Elaine explained to me that a week’s worth of shows are taped in a single afternoon so contestants are required to bring multiple changes of clothes in order to give the home viewer the impression that each show is occurring on a different day. “However,” Elaine added, “sometimes a lazy guy will wear the same shirt and just change his tie or throw a vest on for each episode.” I found this tidbit of information particularly hilarious.

The students also ask me a lot of questions about my old job and what it was like to work in Detroit. Last Thursday, while I was taking attendance, a student named Jack (who is clearly the class clown of 6th hour) asked me, “What’s the worst fight you saw at your old school?” The question made the room go silent.

“It’s a long story, so I’ll tell it in the last 15 minutes of class if you’re still interested.” I said.

“Just tell us now, because I’m not going to get anything done anyway,” Jack quipped.

“How about this – Jack, if you don’t do your work, I won’t tell the story.”

This made the class laugh and it also put pressure on Jack to get his work done (which he did with no problems). Toward the end of the hour I told the class a story about “the worst fight I ever saw” which was probably my worst day at my old job.

Here’s the shortest version I can tell: In September of 2007, which was my first year as a teacher, the school district that I worked in was in some serious financial trouble. In order to get some quick revenue, the superintendent and the administration of the district decided to let a charter school from the east side of Detroit rent space in our high school. At the time, there was a wing of the high school with about 10 classrooms that were completely vacant.

The principal of this charter school claimed that their program already had teachers and security guards and only needed building space. There was no announcement made to the students. In fact, the teachers in my district were told about this on a Friday and then the charter school kids showed up Monday morning.

On Monday, there was a small fight between some kids from my school and kids from this charter program. The fight had a ripple-effect through the building and as the week progressed, tensions increased between the two groups of students.

To further complicate matters, the principal of this charter school embezzled the payroll funds from the charter school’s accounts and then left the state. As a result, teachers and security guards who worked for this charter school stopped coming to work because they didn’t get paid. The teachers in my building tried to cover a few classrooms, but scores of students from this charter school were left unsupervised…and you can imagine the result.

Everything came to a head in the second week when someone phoned in a phony bomb threat to the school. As per the district’s guidelines, the entire school was evacuated. As the two schools walked out of the building, a massive brawl erupted. Fifty or sixty students were fighting outside the school. The local police was overwhelmed and after about 15 minutes, the riot police showed up and launched tear gas at the students.

To be clear, not everybody was fighting. A sizable number of students stayed away from the action. After the riot police showed up, things were mostly under control. I kept most of my freshmen students (who looked at this crazy scene with confusion and amazement) well away from the mayhem.

As I told the story, 6th hour was completely silent. I have no idea what their take on this story was. My take? I think the events that I described to this class were so far outside their scope of experience that they didn’t know how to respond.

I also felt conflicted after telling my students about this particular event. By telling this story, did I perpetuate some of the stereotypes that my students have about the Detroit area? Do my current students understand the socio-economic issues that my former students dealt with? Furthermore, why did my students want to hear a “fight” story? Would they have sat through a story about how my old school was able to raise its ACT scores?

I’m eager to see what other questions these students will ask me as time progresses.

STEADY GIG!

I’ll cut to the chase: I got a long-term sub job! (Score!) And I’m teaching English! (Double score!) Through a series of events, an English teacher at a local high school (who doubles as one of the school’s counselors) decided to take a leave of absence and the school needed someone to take over her two periods of 10th grade ELA from now until the end of the semester (which is Jan 20th).

Over the next three weeks, I’ll be walking the classes through the process of writing a research paper. The prompt for the paper asks students to combine research about a historical event with an interview from a person who lived through that particular event.

Although I only work for half of the day, it’s a really good deal. I get to report to work around 11:45, which means I don’t have to pack a lunch (see “Thanksgiving Leftovers” to understand why this is such a big deal for me). Plus, my wife and I don’t have to worry about finding child-care for the whole day. I also get to take my 4-year old to afternoon pre-school on my way to work, which yields some interesting conversations (“Dad, can we listen to loud music?”).

This is a really good opportunity for me to get some recognition in a very good school district (it was names as “One of the Nation’s 100 Best High Schools” according to US News & World Report – a magazine that is only seen in doctor’s offices). Between the two classes, I have 58 students – which is an extremely manageable workload. The job also allows me to have some consistency with students. Seeing the same students every day makes classroom management a lot easier, too.

However, there are a few drawbacks to the job:

1) THE PAY: Since I’m still technically an employee of SGEP, I get paid at their ½ day rate ($35 / half day, pre-tax) and I won’t get any extra compensation for going to staff meetings, grading papers at home, and writing lesson plans.

2) WORK OVER CHRISTMAS BREAK: As I stated earlier, I’m leading these 10th graders through the process of writing a research paper. The paper is due Dec. 16th, the last day before Christmas break. That means I’ll have to grade those research papers (which are 3.5 – 5 pages each) over the break…again, for no pay.

3) PEOPLE QUESTIONING MY CREDENTIALS (still!): I went to the school right before Thanksgiving to introduce myself to the two classes, and on my way to the class, another teacher asked me, “You’re certified, RIGHT?” I wanted to say, “Yes, I’m certified; CERTIFIED TO OUT-TEACH YOU BECAUSE I WORKED IN DETROIT, LADY!” But, I just nodded and said, “Of course.”

The positive aspects of the job (consistent work, consistent students, going in at 11:45, working in a great district) far outweigh the negative aspects and I’m really excited to actually TEACH.

In closing, I met the two classes last week and all I can say is this: I’m certain that working with these students will yield a lot of material for this site.

Stay tuned!

THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS

Most school districts frown upon teachers taking days off before the holidays, so the work has been slow. I did some short half-day jobs, but there wasn’t much to write about. So, in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, I present to you the “leftovers” from Substitute Purgatory. I try to keep each entry around 700 words and sometimes I have a leftover story, or small joke that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the entry. What follows is a bunch of “leftovers.” Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

From October 2011:

Overheard by a student who is studying a vocabulary list: “’Dubious.’ That must mean you smoke a lot of doobies. Ha ha.”

From 10/31/11:

Before the bell rings, a student explains that for Halloween, they are driving out to Seven Gables (near Dansville). I find this an amusing way to spend Halloween because when I was in high school, people would go out there to:

a) get drunk

b) make out

c) get drunk AND make out and

d) try to frighten other people who were sitting in their cars getting drunk and/or possibly making out.

Judging by the looks of this student, he is going out to Seven Gables for option “D.”

From 11/2/11

If you haven’t heard a 6th grade boy trying to describe the difference between Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Chupacabra to his friends, then you have not witnessed true comedy.

Also from, 11/2/11

I’m walking down the 6th grade hallway of this middle school and the walls are decked with posters for book reports. For the most part, I see that students have chosen books from the typical “young adult” canon (Gary Soto, Judy Blume, “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” etc.). But the one poster that catches my eye is done by a kid named “Clayton” who chose to do his book report on a book called “Ronald Reagan: An Introduction.” Clayton’s hand-drawn illustration, which shows the former president riding a horse, accurately captures Reagan’s “gumby-esque” haircut perfectly.  Displayed on each of the posters is a “meaningful quote” from the book. On this poster Clayton wrote, “A meaningful quote from this book is when President Reagan said, ‘Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev.’” Clayton will probably grow up to be the next Karl Rove.

Depending on your political preference, this news either gives you hope for the future, or fills you with dread.

From 11/7/11:

Conversation overheard in an Honor’s English Class:

tudent A: (Who seems to have a bit of a ‘cool-geeky’ vibe) “Mr. Smith told us a really funny joke in chemistry class today, do you want to hear it?”

Student B: “Sure.”

Student A: “What did Hydroxide say to Magnesium?”

Student B: “I don’t know.”

Student A: “OMG!” (Which, when written in a chemical equation, reads “OH + Mg”)

Student B: (Totally deadpan) “Who would think that joke was funny?”

Student A: “Lots of people!”

Student B: “Whatever.”

From 11/9/11:

Since I’ve been rejected for so many jobs, I feel somewhat like Doug Fister, a baseball pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. For those unfamiliar, Fister was a pitcher who got traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Tigers in the middle of the 2011 season. When he came from the Mariners his record was 3 wins and 12 losses. Fans and sports-talk radio personalities in Detroit were scratching their heads like, “Why are we bringing this loser to Detroit? This guy’s record sucks. He’s 3-12!” But, here’s the thing: Fister didn’t suck. He was just on a sucky team. When he was pitching in Seattle, his team couldn’t put up the runs to give him the win.

When Fister came to Detroit, he got the run support he needed from a powerful offense. In the last half of the 2011 baseball season, Fister pitched 10 games for the Tigers and his record was a respectable 8-1! He just needed to get on a winning team for others to see that he didn’t suck! Attention all school districts: I’m still waiting for the call from a winning team.

From 10/26

This final piece of leftover writing was edited out of the first entry. It’s about eating lunch on the job:

The act of packing and eating lunch is another dynamic of subbing that often gets overlooked. It seems like no school ever has the same schedule. As a sub, I’ve eaten lunch as early as 10:04am and as late as 1:22pm.

I hate eating lunch too early in the day. Eating lunch before 11:00am feels like “brunch” and it makes the rest of the day drag on. As a result, I’m usually hungry for a real lunch by 1:00pm.

When I was a teacher, I had access to a microwave in the teacher’s lounge and would usually pack chili, pasta, Chinese leftovers, and other stuff that tastes better when heated. As a sub, my lunch pretty much consists of packing sandwiches. But even this is a complicated matter because, by my own admission, I’m a food snob. I’m limited by my own cursed palate. Chicken salad is a disqualified choice for lunch because the bread is usually soggy by lunch time. Sprouts, one of my favorite sandwich toppings, is also disqualified as a choice because they become a watery, globby mess by lunchtime as well.

I usually eat lunch in the classroom by myself. It’s quieter and it’s also easier than going to the teacher’s lounge to attempt conversation with people I don’t really know. At various times, I’ve tried eating in the teacher’s lounge with other teachers, but history has shown that to be an awkward experience. For example, the last time I went down to a teacher’s lounge to have lunch, I ended up unknowingly sitting at what I later perceived was the “ladies” table. Here’s what happened: I walked in and found an empty seat next to a female teacher – who happened to be pregnant, and introduced myself and I made the usual small-talk with this teacher (“How’s the day going?”, “What classes to you teach?” etc.)

Within five minutes, five or six male staff came in, and sat at a different table to eat lunch and discuss the most recent Detroit Lions game. Then a wave of female staffers came in and sat at my table. The ladies began to talk about all sorts of pregnancy horror stories and comical anecdotes about awkward moments involving their water breaking in public, or profanities that they’ve shouted at their husbands during labor.

Now, I was in the delivery room for the birth of both of my daughters, so I’m not really feeling grossed out as the ladies mention the word “afterbirth” and “tearing” in casual conversation. (I swear I am not making this stuff up – someone actually said “afterbirth”). However, by the time this conversation gets deep, I am feeling a bit awkward. In normal conversation, people want to contribute to the topic being discussed. But in this instance, I’m clearly not going to add to this conversation because a) no matter what any guy says about child birthing process, a woman’s perspective will always be more accurate (which is valid) and b) I don’t know any of these female teachers well enough to sympathize with their experiences without sounding like a creep.

So, this Thanksgiving, here’s a tip: don’t share your birthing experiences at the table. I’ll be back with more stories next week.

LOST IN TRANSLATION

Today was the day I’d been waiting for: I finally got an assignment to work at “Lansing West” High School. I grew up in the suburbs of Lansing and Lansing West had the reputation of being the most “ghetto” school in the area. When I was teaching in Detroit, and would tell people about the tough working conditions at my school, people from Lansing would always nod solemnly and say, “Ah yes, it sounds like you work at Lansing West.” Since so many people in casual conversation associated Lansing West to my school, I was curious to see how it compared with where I used to work.

In short, there is no comparison.

Lansing West High is a much nicer school than its reputation would suggest. Like Lansing Central, it seems like Lansing West has been unfairly maligned (see my earlier entry entitled “Perspective” to get a better grasp of the high schools in the Lansing area). However, there are some minor differences that make Lansing West stand out from the other Lansing high schools. From a socioeconomic perspective, students at this school might have a few more students living under the poverty line than the other Lansing high schools. Lansing West also seems to have more English as a Second Language (ESL) students and the school appears to be quite ethnically diverse compared to the other schools I’ve subbed in.

The teacher I was covering for taught three sections of 9th Grade English, and two ESL classes and yes, I was forced to show movies – again.

The first few hours of the day passed very slowly. The teacher had me show the film “The Secret Life of Bees” to all three sections of 9th Grade English. As a sub, it’s annoying to watch only the first 45 minutes of a film three times in a row. And, although it might be a good film, watching those first 45 minutes left me with no desire to see the rest. Anyway, the funny thing about having the class watch this film, was that male students in all three classes hooted, hollered, and said things like, “she’s fine!” when Alicia Keys appeared onscreen. It appears that Alicia Keys’s attractiveness transcends the boundaries of race and economic standing.

The second half of my day was absolutely fascinating. I had no prior experience working with ESL students and I was curious about the types of students that are placed in these classes. The first ESL class was geared toward reading enrichment and familiarity of the English language. When it was time for class to begin, nearly all 26 students were completely silent and staring at me expectantly. Based on the information I got earlier in the day from the secretary, students in this class represented the Hmong, Bengali, and Burmese populations of Lansing.

I introduced myself to these ESL students, and there was no response. I asked a question, like, “So, how’s everybody doing today?” and there was no response.  I was starting to feel like an amateur stand-up comedian (“I know you’re out there! I can hear you breathing!”)

Now, I have no idea what types of activities the teacher usually does with these students, but this teacher had me show the first “Twilight” movie to this class. I wanted to attempt some sort of connection with the students so I took a wild stab at conversation and said, to nobody in particular, “What do you all think of the ‘Twilight’ series so far?” Somehow, my attempts to make conversation were lost in translation. In response to my conversation starter, a few students smiled and gave a friendly look – a look that seemed to say, “I have no idea what you are saying, but I’ll be polite enough by not talking over you” and the rest of the class just stared at their books or at the TV waiting for me to turn the movie on. After a couple moments of awkward silence I said in a cheerful voice, “Well, then I guess we better get started on the film!”

I put on “Twilight” and studied the students as they watched this film. Their faces seemed to display expressions of confusion and amusement. I would have killed to get inside each of their brains to hear what they were thinking as Robert Pattinson brooded across the screen (one thing I bet they were wondering was why vampires always seem to talk in a loud whisper and act so unhappy). When the hour ended, the students left as quietly as they came in.

My final class of the day was another ESL class that met in a computer lab. A majority of the students in this class were also in the previous class, but none of the students seemed to acknowledge that fact and acted like they were meeting me again for the first time when I took attendance. It was sort of funny, and sort of awkward.

The focus of this class was learning the English language by using Rosetta Stone, the popular language learning program. Most students worked diligently at their computers, clicking through screens with pictures of common nouns (houses, cats, hamburgers, etc.) and looking at common phrases (“I have a question” or “Hello, my name is…”). Those who didn’t do Rosetta Stone spent the hour reading news sites or watching videos on YouTube in their native languages.

The class was nearly silent all hour except for one amusing outburst of laughter from two Bengali girls. I was reading at a desk in the computer lab and I started to hear giggling. I looked up and these two girls were trying to suppress their laughter at some sitcom that was in Bengali. This particular video showed two actors dressed in military uniforms standing in front of a wall that had been painted like a jungle. Soon, the two unsuspecting soldiers were “pounced” upon by a stuffed tiger (translation: a tiger with a molting taxidermy job was lowered with wires from the ceiling of the TV studio). This was clearly a low-budget feature, yet it was also an interesting window into a different culture. For the rest of the hour, I found myself wondering what they would think of American television. I’m sure they would still find the cast of “Jersey Shore” to be quite annoying.

THE BREAK UP

Today, I was back at the middle school that I worked at on Friday. And, yes, “Chester” girl saw me. And, yes, she still called me, “Chester.”

Anyway, I only worked a half-day and my responsibility was to show films. Since I’m sort of becoming a regular presence at the school (I think this was my 4th time there), I’ve developed a little bit of a rapport with certain students. This, in turn, makes classroom control a little easier.

Save for another minor paper throwing incident, everything was pretty relaxed. I spent the time reading “Rolling Stone” and “Food Network Magazine” (which has a recipe for sweet potato pie topped with candied bacon that I will be making this weekend). In fact, I should have brought more reading material because after I finished both of my magazines I began to thumb through the school’s “Code of Conduct” handbook.

These handbooks contain various procedures and rules and are given to parents and students. I also believe that current research shows that absolutely nobody ever takes the time to read these things (ha ha). I actually might be the only person in the school who’s taken the time to read it, and that was out of boredom.

But the real source of entertainment was when I stumbled upon a piece of paper that had been carelessly wadded up and tossed on a desk. Being a fan of “Found” magazine, I uncrumpled it to see if it was something interesting. It turned out to be a break-up letter written by a 7th or 8th grader. I’ve included a scan below (I’ve blacked out all the names):

So, was the guy really a jerk? Hard to tell. I mean, the actions of “being mean” and “hitting someone with a book” sound like typical behavior of an immature middle school guy. This note could have been written to any boy in the 7th or 8th grade. Props to the girl for composing the well-crafted closing line  “You are a nice guy, don’t be a jerk.” Words to live by, no?

PHYSICAL SCIENCE / LESSONS IN HUMOR

Yesterday, I had a chance to go back to the middle school that was the location of this blog’s first entry. I got this sub job by networking – which seems to be the most efficient way to get sub jobs. This 8th grade Physical Science teacher definitely had one of the most organized classrooms I’ve worked in.

For starters, her lesson plans were three pages long and extremely detailed. She listed names of students that she appointed to take attendance and carry out certain tasks in the classroom. Since this teacher set up her classes to operate in her absence, there wasn’t much for me to do except keep order. It seemed like I was going to have a pretty easy day, but her lesson plan ended with this warning to me about 3rd hour:

“This class may be a challenge. Some students have a problem exercising self-control and following directions. The last time there was a sub in the classroom, an incident occurred which resulted in 3rd hour getting a seating chart. If any student becomes a problem, send them to the office.”

Since I used to work in a high school in the Detroit area, I wasn’t really fazed by this warning. In fact, I was actually kind of eager to see 3rd hour because I wanted to see how these students compared to some of my former students (or if there even was a comparison).

The first two hours of the day were fine. Then it was time to do battle with 3rd hour.

However, instead of the battle in 3rd hour being “me vs. them” it was “me vs. all the awful, unfunny, attention-seeking jokes I had to sit through.” Here’s the best way to explain it: Have you ever had the experience of being in close proximity for an extended period with someone who tries too hard to be funny? That’s what this class was like. There were 27 students in the room and 18 of them wanted to be the class clown. For 61 minutes, I was subjected to this weird brand of 8th grade humor, which seemed to consist of unfunny jokes and bizarre anti-jokes.

It started, ironically enough, with the girl who called me “Chester.” (Sidenote: For the backstory on this girl, read “Day 1 – Back in the Saddle Again”). As the students were entering the classroom, I was straightening some chairs in the back of the class and I heard, “Hi Chester! Hey everybody, look! Chester is our sub!”

I looked at her and said, “Are we really starting this nonsense again? My name is written on the board.”

“Okay, Chester.” She responds.

“Wow, excellent listening skills,” I deadpan.

This girl continues to call me Chester throughout the hour, even though nobody in the class is laughing. In fact, one of her friends finally gets fed up with the unfunny routine and nearly shouts, “Listen, his name is on the board. Learn to read!” to which Chester Girl just laughs.

This was not the only lame stab at humor that I witnessed in 3rd hour. I was also subjected to a girl who attempted get some cheap laughs by feigning a cognitive disability. She came up to my desk, and said, in a normal voice, “Mr. Shuptar, I have a question.” She then started to fake a facial twitch, grunt, and slur her words. After finishing this routine, she abruptly turned and walked back to her desk where her friends are all laughing. Judging by the way this girl and her friends dressed and carried themselves, I could tell that they were part of the “cool” group in school.

I generally like to think I have a pretty good sense of humor, but I can’t stand it when kids make fun of people with disabilities. For some reason, that level of insult really burns me. I felt like I had to address this girl’s poor attempt at comedy, but how? I had three options:

1. Use a really serious comment to correct the behavior (ex. “Hey, that’s not funny.”)

2. Ask for an explanation to the behavior (ex. “Why do you think that’s funny?”)

3. Be extreme (ex. “You think that’s funny? Go to the office and explain that joke to the principal and see if he laughs.”)

I decide to go with Option 1 and I also decide to add a bit of guilt into the equation. I get up, walk over to the group and say, “Excuse me, was that some kind of joke?” The group of girls sort of half-chuckle and exchange guilty glances at each other. I put on a solemn expression and say in a low voice, “Well, I suppose that faking a disability is funny if didn’t grow up in a family where your brother has Tourette’s.” I watch as this girl’s face just crumples into an expression of shame and her cheeks become flushed. Without waiting for a response from her, I simply walk away. I can hear one of her friends say, “Nice going, Julie” as I walk back to the desk. For the rest of the hour, “Julie” (not her real name) was completely silent.

At this point in the story, I should also note that I didn’t grow up in a family where my brother had Tourette’s either. I was simply stating a fact to “Julie,” that jokes made at the expense of the disabled aren’t funny; especially if you know someone with a disability. Hopefully, “Julie” learned a lesson in good taste.

The rest of the day was fine. 5th hour featured more weird attempts at humor that were prime examples of 8th grade humor. During 5th hour, there was this kid named “Mark” kept a group of boys entertained by inflating a pink balloon and pretending it was a boob, which he then stuffed under his shirt.

Hmmmm, I wonder what Freud would have said about that one.