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.

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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.

JOURNEY INTO PURGATORY

PURGATORY (N): “Derived through Anglo-Norman and Old French from the Latin word purgatorium. Term can refer also to a wide range of historical and modern conceptions of postmortem suffering short of everlasting damnation and is used, in a non-specific sense, to mean any place or condition of suffering or torment, especially one that is temporary.”

“Temporary suffering or torment?” That about sums up substitute teaching. Ha ha.

Up until about 10 years ago, districts usually hired their own subs. Since then, there’s been an increase of partnerships between private companies and public school systems. These companies handle certain aspects of staffing for public schools. A lot of districts in Michigan now get their substitutes from a company I’ll call “The Service Group of Educated Professionals (SGEP).”

Back in 2006, I worked for SGEP as a sub for one year. At the time, SGEP was a small company that only operated in a handful of counties in lower Michigan. The application process was pretty simple: background check + photocopy of ID + photocopy of teaching license + orientation meeting = sub jobs.

This time around, the process was way more complicated. SGEP now serves about 80% of the state. As the company’s grown, so has the amount of red tape I had to cut through in order to become a sub.

For example, this time around, I had to pass these online training modules about the following topics: STDs in Schools, Bloodborne Pathogens, Food Safety, Allergen Information, First Aid, and Sexual Harassment. Each of these modules was 20-40 soul-sucking minutes of audio accompanied by some of the most boring powerpoint on the face of the Earth. In addition, when SGEP did a background check, a “failure to yield to a stop sign” traffic ticket from 2004 came up on my record. The ticket was no problem for SGEP back in 2006, but it 2011 SGEP was treating this old traffic ticket like I was on the Terror Watch List (thankfully, they were eventually able to look beyond this travesty from my past).

The weird thing about substitute teaching is that nobody actually interviews you for the job. In many ways, your application is an interview. It’s a series of background checks and forms that are designed to weed out undesirable candidates, but there’s nobody at SGEP who sits down one-on-one with you and figures out if you have the right personality for the job.

Which begs the question, what other job doesn’t require an interview? Answer: suicide bomber. Imagine this conversation:

Terrorist Leader: So how did you hear about the job?

Prospective Suicide Bomber: I saw the ad in the paper.

Terrorist Leader: Well, I’m looking over your resume here and we just, ah, we were looking for someone with a little more experience…but we’ll keep your application on file and if anything opens up, we’ll contact you.

Prospective Suicide Bomber: Thanks for your time.

Choosing to be a substitute teacher, I guess, is like being a suicide bomber in that if you’re crazy enough to do it, nobody is going to stop you.

Ridiculous, right? What’s almost as ridiculous is the orientation meeting I had to go to recently. Back in 2006, the orientation meeting was a short affair on a Saturday morning that lasted about an hour. The orientation I went to three weeks ago was much more painful.

As a rule, the bigger a company grows, the more inefficient it becomes. SGEP is no exception. The meeting was scheduled for a Monday afternoon at 1pm. Right after lunch is a terrible time for a meeting. I’m unemployed. What else do I have going on?

The meeting (predictably) doesn’t start on time. I keep myself amused by looking around the room at some of the applicants. There are about 60 of us in this auditorium. Most of them are recent college grads who can’t find teaching jobs (suckers!) but there are a few older people who look like they’re entering the workforce after a hiatus. I see a guy who came to this meeting in a full-on suit. He’s rocking the “grey-wool-pinstripe-single-breasted-suit-with-vest-and-power-tie” look and he seems annoyed that everybody else is in jeans and t-shirts. Maybe he was expecting an interview? (Perhaps he should read the section above about interviews – ha ha.) I also notice a dude who bears striking resemblance to Robert Plant (not “golden-god-circa-1975” Robert Plant, more like “duet- with-Alison-Krauss” Robert Plant).

The meeting starts at 1:32pm when “Molly” the SGEP rep, walks on stage and says, “Before we get started, does anybody have any questions?”

Thus begins the worst orientation meeting ever. Here’s a tip for anybody who has to run a meeting in the future: do not ask that question at the beginning of the meeting. Ever. Because this is what happens: before the words are out of Molly’s mouth, eight hands shoot up in the air.

The first question comes from a woman who appears to be in her late fifties. She asks, “I’ve recently retired. How will substitute teaching affect my pension?” There is an almost audible eye roll from the rest of the room at the relevance of this question. “Molly” and this woman then proceed to carry out a conversation in front of the whole room. After nearly five minutes, the woman comes to the realization that substitute teaching is going to be a waste of her time and leaves. (Cool, more sub jobs for the rest of us!)

SO FINALLY this orientation starts. The SGEP staff pass out folders to us and “Molly” says, “Along the top of the folder, please write your last name, then your first name.” Almost immediately somebody says, “I need another folder.”

I had a soda with lunch (which I rarely drink), and by this point the caffeine really starts kick in and I get fidgety. “Molly’s” voice is slightly shrill and her voice is straining to fill the auditorium, so it kind of sounds like she’s just yelling at all of us for being here. She starts ripping through her Powerpoint and breezing past slides while saying, “we covered this, we covered that, etc.” To make matters worse, the Powerpoint is visually grueling to look at. It’s got a terrible template background with Arial font. Arial! The default! C’mon “Molly” be a little creative! Try MS Comic Sans to give the presentation a whimsical feeling, or go with Helvetica to bring that air of professionalism, anything but Arial!

During the orientation, “Molly” gives pointers for being a successful sub. She gives out tidbits of information that range from the obvious (“make sure you know where the school is and get there early”) to the practical, (“at the end of the day, ask the secretary if you might be needed tomorrow) to the banal, (“if you think like a child, you’ll be a successful sub”).

The meeting ends with “Molly” explaining that there are a lot of substitute teachers in the workforce right now and that getting a daily sub job is pretty competitive.

Gee, “Molly” thanks for the encouragement. You really know how to run a meeting.

DAY 1 – I’M BACK IN THE SADDLE, AGAIN!

With all apologies to Aerosmith, indeed I am back in the saddle  – metaphorically speaking of course. I’m back in two ways:

1) This blog is now my 4th attempt at writing something online.

2) Today was my first day back in a classroom since June 22nd, 2011. I’ve spent the last four years of my life teaching English at a high school in the Detroit area. Due to low enrollment, I (along with about 25 other co-workers) was laid off over the summer. After nearly four months of being a stay-at-home dad, I was finally able to land a substitute teaching job in the Lansing area. Yes, Lansing! I had to go all the way to Lansing! To substitute teach! Sons of guns, the Michigan economy is terrible!

Sensing my impending layoff,  I spent the summer applying to teaching jobs all over the state. I interviewed at four different schools and came up bust. This was a bummer (obviously). As the summer came to a close, it became apparent that I would have to substitute teach for the second time in my professional career.

Needless to say, I was quite excited to get back in the classroom today. As I was driving to this single-day assignment, I had the idea of chronicling my adventures as I went from classroom to classroom. For the obvious reasons, I’ve changed the names of the schools, staff, and students that are mentioned.

Today’s assignment was covering for a 6-12th grade Choir teacher who also happens to be a friend from high school. This teacher was taking one of his class periods to a competition at a local university, which meant that I got two prep hours today! Translation: I got paid to sit and read for two hours. He left a selection of movies for each class to watch, which narrows my job strictly to “crowd control.” Basically, I just have to make sure nobody gets hurt and no other teachers complain about the noise. It’s a straightforward gig.

First hour comes in and they decide that they want to watch the 2006 movie “Dreamgirls.” As I’m getting the DVD player set up, a helpful freshman named “Jane” offers to take attendance. As I’m fiddling with the broken TV remote, Jane begins talking to me in a friendly way about the long-concluded TV series, “Lost.” She first asks me if I’m familiar with the show, and I respond in the affirmative. She then launches into her theories about the show, as if fresh episodes were still airing (I suppose that I sounded somewhat like Jane when I was 15 and “discovered” Led Zeppelin in 1996 via classic rock radio). It becomes apparent that Jane is sort of a hapless nerd about the show. Her theories are really complex and she’s referencing stuff that I don’t remember, and then she talks about wanting to write an alternate ending for the show because she was quite unsatisfied with the finale. As I get “Dreamgirls” started Jane says, “This movie sucks so I’m just going to sit in the hall and do homework and listen to Bon Jovi on my iPod, okay?”  I nod and she heads out to the hall.

I take a seat in the back of the class, along with 20 other students and we sit there watching “Dreamgirls.” Various students whisper at an acceptable volume, or check their cell phones, or do homework. It’s a pretty relaxed class and I grab something to read. After about 20 minutes of reading, I become aware of the fact that students are just kind of drifting in and out of the room without telling me. They might be trying to skip, or they might be running to their lockers, or whatever, so I decide to take a seat by the door.

As I’m sitting there, I remember what it feels like to be a teacher and to not have the freedom to use the bathroom whenever you want. Because, if there is one rule about subbing, it is this: NEVER LEAVE THE CLASSROOM. The nicest class will devolve into a scene from “Lord of the Flies” within seconds if you leave that room. So, I’m watching Beyonce belt out some Motown-esque song and I realize that I should not have had that second cup of coffee this morning. Gahhh.

I keep checking the clock and, after a toe-tapping eternity, the hour comes to an end. I dismiss the students and tell them to have a good day. As the last student exits the door, she tells me, “You know, we have bells in this school, right?” and then leaves. I realize that I just let the entire class leave before the bell. Rookie mistake. To my defense, the school I used to work at never had a functioning bell system. I didn’t have to use the bathroom so badly, I probably would have cared a little more.

I get 2nd and 3rd hour to myself and I spend the time reading this book called, “I Hate New Music” by Dave Thompson. It’s an easy read and it’s sort of funny. But, parts of it come across like the old-timer sitting on the porch saying, “Ahh yes, those were the days.”

Fourth hour rolls around and I face my first challenge: thirty five 7th graders. They come into the class revved up from lunch and there are three boys who are taking turns throwing an empty plastic bottle at each other (For those who are not aware, this is typical middle-school behavior from boys). I tell them to stop and they do….for a while. I then seize the bottle and throw it in the trash.

I take attendance through the mindless chatter of the students and we get started. This class, after much debate, decides that they want to watch the Disney animated feature, “The Princess & the Frog.” I put in the DVD and fast-foward through previews for the following direct-to-video releases: “Cinderella II” , “The Hunchback of Notre Dame II”  and, “101 Dalmatians II” (which is not to be confused with “102 Dalmatians” – I am not making these sequels up).

Aside from an isolated paper-throwing incident, the remainder of 4th hour goes off without a hitch. As the students exit and 5th hour begins, it becomes apparent that 5th hour will be the most annoying class of the day (hereafter referred to as “MACOD”).

5th hour is made up of 41 8th graders. In my professional experience, 8th graders are fooled into thinking that they are the coolest people on the face of the earth (a title, by the way, that is held for eternity by Keith Richards). They try to make jokes, get attention, assert their authority, imitate relationships, etc. Anyway, the MACOD is extremely loud and it takes a while for the class to settle down. When I worked as an English teacher, I would rarely shout over a class – and as a sub I do it even less. Instead of raising my voice, I opt to stand in the front and pretend to check my watch. A few students catch on and start shushing each other. When that doesn’t work, a girl named “Elle” makes a big deal of standing up on a chair and yelling, “SHUT UP.” This makes me chuckle because I’ve seen this move in other Jr. High classrooms and I know what’s coming next; the class is silent for 0.43 seconds and then everybody starts talking again. I finally raise my hand and the class is quiet long enough for me to take attendance. I then introduce myself and then ask if anybody has any questions. A girl with stringy blond curls and a red sweatshirt raises her hand and says, “Can I call you Chester?”

“No.” I politely say. “But you can call me ‘Mr. S’ if you’d like.” I then face the MACOD and say, “I’m going to let you choose the film today by voting. When I hold up the DVD, please vote by raising your hand, not by shouting. Understand?”

They all nod. I then hold up the first choice, “Newsies.” Instantly, the room explodes in shouts, “NO!” , “YES!” , “WHAT IS ‘NEWSIES’ ABOUT?” and “CAN WE JUST WATCH HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL?”

I waive my hand and they quiet down. “Hey, vote with your hand, not with your mouth, remember?” And again they all nod. And again, I’m waiting for the next blast of noise from the MACOD. I then raise up the next choice, “The Princess & the Frog,” and again: “NO!” , “THAT’S MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME!” , “YESSS!” and, (I’m not making this up) “CAN I CALL YOU ‘CHESTER’?”

The class and I repeat the ritual one more time for the film, “Oliver” which receives no votes (thus proving that every generation thinks Charles Dickens sucks) so I get ready to sit through the first 45 minutes of “The Princess & the Frog” again. The 8th graders are still quite loud and fidgety. As the film plays, there is the constant din of conversation. I sit along the wall and pretend to read my book as I scan the classroom. I soon notice a small group of kids taking kleenex off the teacher’s desk and make little paper balls, which they then throw at their friends. It’s sort of funny to watch. This group of four or five kids is clearly the ‘cool’ group. I let it go on for maybe a minute and then sneak over and tap the kid who I perceive is the “leader” on the shoulder.

She looks startled and a little ashamed. “Excuse me,” I say in a low, even, unemotional tone, “Would you please stop throwing paper? I’m holding you responsible for cleaning this mess up at the end of the hour.” I make sure to have a neutral expression on my face and she’s having a hard time reading me. She isn’t sure if I’m going to write her name down for the teacher, or if I’m going to send her to detention, or if I’m going to ignore the problem and walk away – and that’s the point. Always leave them guessing. She stoops down to pick up the wadded tissue and I walk back over to a spot along the wall.

As I walk across the class, the girl with the red sweatshirt says, “Can I call you ‘Chester’? You look like a ‘Chester.'” and then she giggles at her own pathetic, Jr. High attempt at making a joke (or anti-joke, if you like Steve Wright and Norm McDonald). I walk over to her and say, “What did I say you could call me?”

“Mr. S” she says.

“Did I say you could call me anything else?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “but you look like a ‘Chester.'”

The really mean part of me takes one look at her stringy curly hair and I start flipping through the mental rolodex of jokes about haircuts that I learned from other students at my previous school. Ultimately, I settle on a joke, but hold back. I mean, I don’t want to make this girl cry. So, I just look at her friend and say, “Is she always like this?” Her friend laughs and shrugs and I walk away.

The whole time, the class is still jabbering at conversation volume and the pseudo-creole jazz soundtrack to “The Princess & the Frog” is only making matters worse. But, thankfully, the hour ends and the MACOD leaves the room to go to their final hour.

6th Hour, like 1st hour, is made up of high school students and they are way more laid-back than the middle school students. However, to my dismay, they vote to watch “The Princess & the Frog” and so I pop it into the DVD player for the 3rd time. Then, the bell rings and I’m out the door. One day down.