Monthly Archives: November 2011

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.

A TICKET OUT OF PURGATORY?

(I‘ve been trying to keep these entries around 1000 words, but today’s entry runs a little long, so get cozy. –M)

For most of the schools in the Lansing area, this week is the end of the first quarter. This is usually the time when districts also have the first round of parent/teacher conferences and professional development. As a result, I haven’t received any calls for work this week.

In other news, I recently interviewed for an ELA position at a local middle school. Could this finally be my ticket out of Substitute Purgatory? Unfortunately, no.

This recent rejection is the latest in a long line of frustrating job interviews. Some of my friends know this story, but for those who don’t, here it is…

I spent the last four years teaching English at a high school located in the heart (or maybe I should say “armpit” ha ha) of Detroit. There was a strip club literally 300 yards from the high school. During one of my first professional development meetings at this school, I was told that three-fourths of our students were coming from single-parent homes. I was also told that 98% of the student population qualified for free and reduced lunch. In addition, the district was underfunded and lacked some of the critical resources that a school needs to be successful. The school didn’t have a functioning library, the newest Lit books were from 1999, and the computer labs rarely operated at full capacity. In an era when a lot of schools now have SmartBoards, I was excited just to get copy paper. In addition to the lack of resources, the culture of the school was pretty negative. My former school was located in a part of Detroit that had been ravaged by crime and generational poverty. The surrounding neighborhood had such a negative impact on the students that came to my school. In short, this school was a tough place to work.

I’ll be honest; before I started working there, I had my doubts. Could I be an effective teacher without the materials that my college education had told me were essential? As a white teacher in a district where all of my students were African-American, could my students relate to me? Would they even listen to me? Would they respect me? Would any student try to fight me? (Sidenote: during my 4 years there, I only had one student try to fight me, and he wasn’t a member of my class.)

The job was both difficult and rewarding. I found that working in this particular district forced me to become a more compassionate person. I also found that there was absolutely no way to teach my students the content if I didn’t take the time to understand the circumstances of their lives. And some of my former students came from pretty intense homes and had lived pretty intense lives before they stepped through my door.

When I was in college, a professor told me that teaching would get easier each year. And in some ways, he was right; working in this dysfunctional school showed me how to effectively communicate with students that had an indifferent attitude toward school. More important than teaching the curriculum, I tried to show students how to become successful. If they happened to learn about Shakespeare in the process, cool.

For some students, I was a teacher. For others, a guidance counselor. And others, a father figure. I know that might sound endearing, but for some of my male students who had been storing years of animosity toward a deadbeat or nonexistent male parent, I was sometimes on the receiving end of misplaced frustration and rage (over time, I learned to redirect that frustration into positive behavior).

Did every student pass my class? No. Did every student like me? No. But, by the end of the fourth year, I could honestly say that I was making progress. Progress that I wish I had a chance to build on.

The district made poor financial decisions and certain people in leadership didn’t want make the tough choices to cut staff when the student numbers began to fall. Instead of making small layoffs over four years, the district made huge cuts during the 2010-2011 school year. The big cut was when I, along with 25 other teachers, got laid off in June of 2011.

Receiving the pink slip in the mail wasn’t a real surprise – I’d been getting them periodically since the middle of my second year while working at this school. But I was usually called back a couple days before the layoff was effective.

This time was different. This time, I was fairly certain that there would be no call back. I spent the summer combing the Internet looking for teaching jobs. I looked for jobs in districts that were nearly 3 hours away, I looked for teaching jobs in teenage rehab clinics, and I looked for jobs in Toledo (only an hour’s drive from sunny Detroit!).

Since the first week of June, I’ve applied to 46 teaching jobs and I’ve had six interviews – so why am I still a sub? It’s complicated.

During the second week of August, I had my first interview. It was at a high school in a wealthy (and mostly white) suburb just south of Flint. This school was recognized as one of the best high schools in the state and they had the facilities, the graduation rate, and the test scores (if that’s how you personally measure success) to back it up.

During the interview, the panel of teachers and administrators nodded in affirmation when I told them about the struggles at my old school and congratulated me on the success I had achieved over my short career. At one point in the interview, the assistant principal stated that the biggest “problem” his school was facing was, “the students coming from Flint schools who aren’t performing well on standardized tests. We need to close the achievement gap between our students and these newer students.” (For those not familiar with the Flint area, the subtext of the assistant principal’s statement was basically this: the recent influx of students from the Flint area, most of which whom are African-American, are lowering the test scores in the district.)

Given my unique experience at my prior school, I thought I had a decent shot at getting the job. I mean, I spent the last four years helping my students close that ‘achievement gap’ that politicians and professors talk about. That’s got to count for something! I thought “This job is right up my alley!”

Sure enough, two days after the initial screening, I was called back for a second interview. This second interview would consist of two parts: a 20-minute sample lesson presented to a class of students, and then a short one-on-one interview with the principal. Prior to this second interview, the assistant principal told me that the main objective of this sample lesson was to show the staff how well I could interact with students. My sample lesson went well and I had a lot of fun interacting with the students. I also thought that my interview with the principal went well…until I got the rejection call three days later.

I did a follow-up conversation with the principal so that I could get some feedback on where I went wrong. I was taking notes and here are some things she said (direct quotes):

1) “You have an excellent rapport with students. You’re obviously good at what you do. However, we don’t think you have had enough experience working with high-performing students or that you [can teach] at the same level.”

2) “We don’t think that you could provide enough academic rigor in your lessons.”

3) “In future interviews with high-performing schools, play up the high academic performance in your classroom.” (During the first interview, I talked more about students overcoming personal problems instead of the academic performance.)

I’m making it sound like the principal is a jerk, and she’s not. This suburb of Flint has one of the best schools in the state and I get where she’s coming from. I just think she has a really limited perspective and I disagree with most of her comments. Her basic assumption is as follows: it is much harder to challenge “smart” kids from wealthy families than to teach students who don’t even want to be at school.

I sent a copy of these quotes to one of my former professors, who scoffed and said, “It makes me angry to hear those administrative comments –if it is so much harder to teach bright, privileged students, why aren’t the experienced teachers flocking to the inner city schools where they can coast?” My thoughts exactly! In a weird way, it seemed like the talents and skills that I thought were my assets (working in a challenging urban school, motivating unmotivated students, etc.) were actually hurting my chances of getting this job.

At first, I thought this principal was biased and that her views weren’t widely accepted. But as I landed two more interviews, and got turned down for two more jobs, I noticed that these letters and phone calls of rejection were all saying the same thing:

“We understand that you’re probably an excellent teacher for your district, but we’re looking for someone who…ah…is just a better fit for this environment.” (Seriously, what the #$%& does that mean?)

“You seem to have a great rapport with your students. But we’re looking for someone more academically focused.”

“Given your past experience, we don’t think you’d be a good fit for our district.”

I relayed these comments to some teachers that got laid-off at the same time I did and they said that they were getting similar feedback in their job searches as well.

But the most annoying comment was yet to come. The aforementioned ELA position I interviewed for this week was especially maddening. The principal and the assistant principal asked me what I learned at my old school. I said, “I think the biggest thing I learned was that a teacher has a responsibility to not only teach the curriculum, but also teach students the social skills they need to succeed. I had to work hard to build social relationships with my students and I worked with my students a lot on how to be successful.”

“Well, here at _____________ Middle School, academics are, like, our number one priority,” said the principal. “Don’t get me wrong. Your students probably needed that social instruction, but this is a different culture here.” Ouch. So condescending!

Later in the interview, he actually said, “Well, do you think you can teach here?” My response, “Bring it, sucker.” (Not really.)

At this point, I was tempted to punch this principal, but I needed the job and I didn’t want to lose my cool. In the end, I guess it didn’t matter anyway. Ha ha. What struck me is the arrogance that this guy had. I mean, let’s be honest: any good teacher knows that without the social connection and the social skills, the academic learning won’t happen in a classroom.

Let’s be clear. I’m not playing the “victim” card, here. I can’t blame people for having biases. The real key for me is trying to figure out how to reinvent myself – much like David Bowie in the 1970s…but without all the glittery makeup.

DOING SOME ACTUAL WORK

Today, I was fortunate enough to sub for an English teacher that left actual lesson plans! I was back at a middle school and spent the day with a mix of 6th and 7th graders. The 7th grade classes were easy because they were working on essays in the computer lab and there wasn’t much for me to do. During the second half of the day, I got a chance to walk the 6th graders through a lesson about “fiction” versus “nonfiction.”

I’ll talk about the lesson in a minute. The first thing I want to talk about is the education-themed motivational posters that I saw in the classrooms of this particular middle school. (Sidenote: I’ve find confusing signs, vague motivational posters, and unintentional grammar mistakes to be absolutely hilarious. My wife informs me that I might be the only person who finds this stuff funny, so read on with caution.)

We’ve all seen the Successories posters. They’re the posters that have some word like “TEAMWORK” underneath a picture of a rowing crew paddling down a river, or something like that. These posters seem to be popular in small-to-mid-size corporations and offices. They’re cheesy and I’ve never, in my entire life, been motivated by a single one of those posters (with the exception of the kitty dangling from a branch and the phrase “Hang in there!” That particular poster gives me enough comic relief to motivate myself through the week…just kidding. I hate that poster).

Some of these posters feature pictures that don’t seem to connect with the message printed at the bottom. For example, I was walking through the hallway and I saw the following posters:

Poster #1: Photo (shot by artist William Wegman) of a Weimaraner balancing an apple on its nose and the phrase, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

Poster #2: Close-up photo of a football player’s muddy gloves and pads with the simple epithet, “Never, never give up.”

Poster #3: A kid sitting in front of a huge sandcastle with the phrase, “You’ll be amazed by what you can do when you put your mind to it.”

So far, all of these, though cheesy, make sense. Here’s the baffling one:

Poster #4: An oil painting of an eagle soaring over the mountains. At the bottom, in blue cursive script, are three words: Believe in yourself.

What does this eagle have to do with believing in myself? If I believe in myself, will I, too, grow up to be an eagle? It seems like this poster is made for eagles, not humans. How is a picture of an eagle supposed to inspire a 6th grader, still on a sugar-bender from Halloween, to “believe” in him/herself?

Okay, now that this issue has been addressed, let’s do some actual work.

The teacher left me detailed notes on how to run the class and the students gave me zero problems – however, that might have something to do with the fact that I told them that I used to work in a “pretty tough” school in Detroit, ha ha.

Aside from a small celebratory interruption when a girl’s tooth fell out (yes, this really happened in the middle of class), the 6th grade lesson regarding fiction vs. nonfiction went very well. It felt good to walk students through some actual learning.

One thing that struck me about the format of lesson was how similar it was to the format I used when I was teaching high school students. This was the basic order of the lesson the teacher left for me: introduce and define the concept (in this case “fiction” vs. “nonfiction”), read a fiction story from the textbook, and explain why this particular story fits the definition of “fiction.”

Obviously, this methodology – though often mundane – gets results. I had a lot of success in my classroom when I formatted my lessons in that particular way (define, model, identify). But, I was left with the following questions:

1. Since I was in 6th grade, did the overall academic expectations for 6th graders rise dramatically? (Sub-question: Do schools now run their middle schools like high schools?)

2. When I worked in the Detroit area, I thought my standards were high. But, were they? (Sub-question: I mean, how high can my standards be if I was teaching my high school students lessons that were formatted for middle school students?)

3. From 6th-12th grade, does every single ELA class teach the same old ideas with different books?  (Statement: This may explain why certain high school students seem to loathe English class….or maybe they just loathe Dickens!)

My answer to all three questions is: I don’t know. What I DO know is that this particular lesson format does nothing to really generate an interest of reading in students.  This lesson format is based on objectives. It’s more like, “complete the task” instead of “read the story.” As a result, I’ve found that students who have success are the students who already like reading.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure. But this is one benefit of being a sub; I get to observe situations at different levels. I don’t think I could make these observations without being a sub. In a way, my recent work in middle schools has helped me understand some of the attitudes and perspectives that I encountered at the high school level.

I guess the only hope is that I get a permanent job so that I can actually apply some of the stuff I’m learning instead of simply writing about it.

IT’S ALL A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE

For those not familiar, there are three major high schools within the city limits of Lansing. At various times, I’ve heard various people describe each of these schools as being, “rough schools” or that these schools are located in the “ghetto.” Due to previous work experience (teaching English at a high school in the Detroit Area), I was curious to see how these “urban” schools in Lansing compared. Was it going to be like my old school all over again? Was it going to be worse? Did I need to put on the “hard” disposition?

Since I started subbing last week, I’ve been on the lookout for jobs at these three schools I finally got the opportunity to spend a half-day subbing at “Central High School.” My first impression when I got in the building was, “Wow. This school isn’t ‘ghetto’ at all.” There was a substantial amount of student art displayed in the hallways and the bathroom had both soap and toilet paper (which couldn’t always be said about my old school). Based on the names on the attendance roster and the students I saw in the hallway, the school appeared to be quite diverse from an ethnic standpoint – which I view as a positive sign. Here’s how the rest of the day went:

I check in at the front office and learn that the school was operating on a “speed schedule,” for today, which means that there were going to be seven 20-minute periods and I’d be free to go at 10:40am. I also learn that since today is Halloween, students can be in costume, but they must take off any hats or masks when they enter the classroom, but that face paint is okay. This should be interesting.

I get to my classroom (which had really nice wooden floors) and look at the teacher’s lesson plans: they say, “Each class is supposed to read SILENTLY for 15 minutes…. the students will be graded on participation. Students are supposed to bring their own reading material.” And that was it.

There goes my opportunity to actually teach – I’m relegated to the role of “expensive babysitter.”

It kind of bugs me when teachers leave lesson plans like that. There’s no way for me to quantify something like “participation” and this teacher didn’t leave me any guidelines. This teacher also failed to mention how I should deal with students who didn’t bring anything to read.

The first class comes into the room and gets settled. About half of them are dressed in costumes, including one kid who is dressed like Greenman from the TV show, “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” I introduce myself, take attendance, and then read the teacher’s lesson plans (or lack thereof) aloud to the class. The students laugh because they see the banality of this lesson, too.

“Can we just chill today?” says a kid in the back row.

“I forgot a book,” says a girl dressed like the Mad Hatter from “Alice In Wonderland.”

“I wasn’t here on Friday so I didn’t know we were supposed to bring a book,” says a student who’s dressed like teenage slacker (wait, maybe he wasn’t in costume).

“Can we listen to our iPods?” asks another.

And then, a girl sitting in the front row quietly asks, “Excuse me, how will be graded?” (Really? C’mon. You don’t need to worry about grades for something like participation. If you have the initiative to ask a question like this, your grades are probably decent enough that you don’t need “participation” points.)

I interject, “How many of you actually brought something to read?” About 50% of the students raise their hands.

I wave my hand to silence their questions and say in a candid tone, “Look, I spent the last four years teaching English at a High School in Detroit…”

“I’m sorry!” quips a student from the back row. His comic timing is perfect and I laugh along with the class.

I continue, “Anyway, I’m smart enough to know that ‘silent reading’ isn’t going to happen, especially because it’s a half day and you’re only in this class for 20 minutes. Let’s make a deal: if you as a class can be respectful, and the talking stays at a reasonable volume, I won’t hassle you, deal?” The students all nod and then begin to go on with whatever they want to do.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be this direct with the class. Had this been a full day, I would have definitely sent students to the library to get books, and enforced the “silent reading” aspect. But the teacher left me with a lesson with no real guidelines, no alternative lesson or extra credit, and the class periods were only 20 minutes long. What’s the point? I’m just here to keep the peace. Most students decide to pass the time by listening to their iPods or doing homework for other classes. A few put their heads down and doze (which has always kind of grossed me out. As a teacher, I see desks that are written on, sneezed on, and spilled on throughout the day. I would never put my face on a desk.) From a behavior standpoint, I had no problems and none of the classes were really annoying.

I spent the morning, talking to the students and getting their perspectives on this school – which as I mentioned earlier, had a reputation of being located in the “ghetto.”

During 2nd hour, a student asks me, “So, was your old school, like, a rough school?”

“Well, how do you define the word ‘rough?’ Dangerous to me?”

She shrugs and says, “You know. Rough. Like this school.”

“What makes this school ‘rough?’”

“Well, it’s an old building, and there are some gangs and stuff like that, and some of the neighborhoods around here are kind of run-down” she says.

“Compared to my old school, this place is nice. You have Smartboards in nearly every classroom, you have up-to-date textbooks, and it’s a positive sign that the attendance is pretty high on these half-days. That shows that students are invested, or that their parents are invested in the school. At my old job, the attendance rate would usually be around 50% on half-days. ” Another thing that I notice later is that the students at Lansing Central don’t seem as guarded or “hard” as students at my old school – which is a pleasant change.

This student then asks me, “How much do you get paid to sub?”

“How much do you think I make?”

A few students who have been listening begin to chime in.

“$100 a day,” says one.

“No, stupid. Subs make, like $70 an hour,” says another.

“Acutally, I make $70 a day, before taxes,” I say.

One of the students shakes his head and says, “You’re crazy, man. Only $70 a day to put up with these kids?” he says as he comically gestures toward his classmates. “That works out to $10 a period. That’s, like, not even worth my time.”

I continue to have short conversations with students throughout the morning. Some students ask me questions about what it was like to work in Detroit. “Did your school have metal detectors?”  (yes) “Did you ever have to break up a fight?” (more than once) and so on. In way, their questions reveal their perceptions of the Detroit area. They seem to think that, while parts of Lansing are rough, working at a school in Detroit is something akin to the Thunderdome.

The most insightful conversation of the morning actually occurs after school is over. As I was locking up and getting ready to leave, a friendly math teacher next door stopped by and said, “Did everything go okay?”

“Everything was fine.” I say, “I had absolutely no problems. I guess I was kind of expecting things to be a little tougher here.”

The math teacher nodded and said, “Yeah, we’re still trying to change the reputation of the school. I’ve actually spent time in all three of the Lansing high schools and people like to say that one is ‘tougher’ or ‘worse’ than the others, but in reality they’re all about the same. I mean, I grew up in Pontiac and this school is way better that the schools there.”

I tell him where I used to work and he says, “Oh wow. Given your experience, you probably had an easy day here.” I nod and he continues, “I guess it’s a matter of perspective.”

Indeed.