Yesterday I was the Substitute Librarian, and substitute teaching is always an adventure, especially when you’ll be dealing with little kids.
After my stint in Morning Car Line I headed upstairs to discover that the librarian had filled the bookmark basket with an assortment of holy cards mixed with publishers’ postcards advertising children’s books. The overwhelming majority of the kids chose holy cards for their bookmarks, and there was much comparing of the pictures on those cards.
One first-grader displayed the Pope Benedict card he’d chosen and asked me to pronounce the name under the picture. Since these kids are only 6 or 7 and wouldn’t remember any pope besides Pope Francis, I explained that Pope Benedict was the pope before Pope Francis.
“I have a Pope Francis card!” another little boy bragged, waving a picture of Pope Benedict in the air.
“No, that’s Pope Benedict. Both of these pictures are Pope Benedict.”
“But this one is wearing red! He’s not the same one!”
I thought I could empty out that tote bag next to my desk at home. It contains a zipper pouch full of stickers, a pad of Post-It notes, a Sharpie, a chalk holder, and a pen. It’s got my “baseball,” two water bottles and some granola bars. There’s also a comb and a hair tie or three.
With that bag, I was ready to hit the ground running and deal with a class of 25 students or less on ninety minutes’ notice.
I am a substitute teacher.
It’s something I’d resisted for years. When I began volunteering in the school library the year Little Brother entered kindergarten, a few teachers asked me why I didn’t sub.
I guess I could have, but I never did. I never wanted to have to walk into somebody else’s classroom with little to no warning and deal with a bunch of kids who were chomping at the bit to take advantage of unsuspecting substitutes, all while wearing uncomfortable shoes.
And then the librarian asked if I would sub for her when needed. That was OK, because I’d volunteered so much in there that I knew exactly what to do and when to do it and where everything was.
Last fall, the school’s substitute-teacher pool was decimated after a couple of teachers were out long-term. I was asked to consider subbing for the classroom teachers.
To my surprise, I found out that I liked it. It’s not a huge school, so I know most of the kids (by face, if not by name.) And they all know me.
There’s a lot on a substitute teacher’s plate. You never know, going in, how detailed the lesson plans are going to be (or if there will be lesson plans at all). You might have to teach subjects you’re ill-prepared for (physics, anyone?) Murphy’s Law will have it that you’ll have at least one Duty (morning dropoff, recess, or bus) and there’s always the chance that your Special will be canceled, which means no bathroom break for you.
What does a substitute teacher do?
She reassures the children that their regular teacher is OK and will be back soon.
She tries to keep classroom routines and procedures in place.
She listens to children who need to tell her how their regular teacher usually does things. Every ten minutes.
She puts happy-face stickers in homework notebooks and remembers not to write cursive with students who have not yet made their First Communion.
She remembers that the second-grader she met in the library two years ago is hearing-impaired and needs the teacher to face her when speaking–even though there’s nothing in the sub plans to remind her.
She figures out, on the fly, how to deal with various other special needs that present themselves without warning in the sub plans: the kid with a behavior chart, the OCD child who can’t work if she can’t find her pencil case, although there’s a perfectly good pencil on her desk that she could be using, the one who just doesn’t do any work all day long.
She muddles her way through fire drills and lockdown drills and shelter-in-place drills.
She leaves a journal for the teacher, detailing what work was completed in each class period.
And she uses her Teacher Glare liberally with older students whom she’s known since they were in Pre-K, and who should know by now that she doesn’t put up with much.
When I started working at CatholicMom.com last March, I took my name off the sub list. My job affords me a very flexible schedule, but I really can’t be at school on 90 minutes’ notice anymore. I subbed a few times last spring for teachers who had made reservations before I started working at CatholicMom, but that was really it. I went back to my one-morning-per-week library volunteer gig and was happy as a clam to be there.
And then this summer, the librarian asked once again if I could sub for her. She gave me more than two weeks’ notice, so I had plenty of time to make sure that I got things done at work. It was flattering when more than one teacher said, “You’re HERE? You’re subbing???” but I had to remind them that this was an unusual circimstance–and that I’d see them Friday as usual for library.
When I walked in to the school Friday morning and signed my name in the volunteer roster, I heard voices from the office: “She’s here. You can ask her right now.” Uh-oh…I knew what was coming. Sure enough, they needed me to sub one day next week for a middle-school teacher who’s been out for a week already.
It’s just one day, I had plenty of notice, and I knew they wouldn’t ask me if they hadn’t exhausted other alternatives first.
So on Thursday I’ll be picking up that tote bag once again, packing my lunch, and heading to school dressed in my teacher clothes, hoping I don’t have outdoor-recess duty–and packing an extra hair tie in case I do.
I was in the fourth grade today. The teacher had a death in the family and was attending the funeral.
And the kids blew me away with their compassion. I was reaching for a tissue at 8:05 AM.
As soon as they walked in (and before I even got a “good morning”) two kids were waving a huge piece of construction paper in my face.
“We’re working on a card! We have to get it done!”
I slowed them down long enough to determine that they had started working on a sympathy card for their teacher. These boys had come up with this idea on their own, and they were bent on getting it finished.
They got busy drawing enough lines inside the card so that every single fourth-grader in the school had a place to sign it–as well as the other fourth-grader teacher and me.
Checking the lesson plan, I figured out a good time for the boys to take the card around the classrooms for signatures.
Many of the students left encouraging messages on the other side of the card, in addition to signing their names.
My plan, before school, was to steal a few moments during religion class to have the students make cards for the teacher. I didn’t need to do that, because the kids took the initiative and had that giant card started first thing in the morning.
I’m sure their teacher felt all the prayers the children sent up today, and I know that when she returns to the classroom her heart will be touched by their very real, very spontaneous, very urgent compassion.
I’m done with my long-term sub job, and I’m at peace with that decision. “Drop-in” substituting is much more my speed, and based on requests I’ve already gotten this week, I’ll be busy enough. Yesterday I was in kindergarten, and I got lots of waves, hugs and yells across the cafeteria from my former foster-second-graders.
Tales from the kindergarten room: I had to tell one child that Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” is not an appropriate song to sing at school. This brings back memories of my own kindergarten days, when my teacher kindly took me aside and informed me that I couldn’t sing “Pass It On” at (public) school.
And two kids cried during math. I can’t even figure out why one was crying, because he had the answers right on his paper.
Of course, the best part of the day in kindergarten is storytime. I let the class helper choose the story, and he picked a Magic School Bus book. WIN!
Then the kids decided they wanted to call me “Ms. Frizzle.” I guess it’s easier to pronounce than my real last name.
I gave myself permission to get rid of all those original boxes from my Christmas ornaments. Recycling, here we come! I’ll wrap things well in bubble paper or tissue. Matching ornaments to boxes takes forever, and it’s the whole reason I avoid putting away Christmas ornaments. Last year I avoided it completely. I just put the giant tub of unwrapped ornaments in the basement and ignored them. This afternoon I’ll turn on some mindless TV and get this job done.
I rewarded myself with a latte (Cinnamon Dolce!) after I managed not to lose my mind during a mother-daughter trip to ShopRite that involved lots of miscommunication, at least 3 items from the list not purchased, and plenty of opportunity (for both of us) to lose our tempers. Now I’m trying to figure out how to pronounce my new first name. (It’s usually the last name that people get wrong.) Look! I got an extra vowel–and an extra syllable. Do you think that final “e” is silent?
I finished off a case of Grumpy Martyr Syndrome (to which I am susceptible more often than I’d like to admit) by praying an Express Novena on behalf of a friend of mine who’s battling cancer. It’s really easy: 9 Memorares in a row for your intention, then a bonus Memorare in thanksgiving. Try it! And in your kindness, pray one for my friend G!
Happening now all over social media: parents crowing about their children returning to school on Monday.
I know that I’m ready for school to start and normal schedules and routines to resume.
What I don’t know is whether I’m going back to school along with the kids.
As far as I know, I’m done. I was asked to be there through Christmas. On December 23, I handed in my keys and told the secretary and my grade-partner teacher where I’d left a binder containing lesson plans, attendance records and grades. I took home my Christmas tree, Nativity scene and chalk holder.
I have no idea whether the teacher whose class I’ve been substitute-teaching will be back on Monday. I guess, due to those health-privacy laws, all kinds of things have to remain secret. And if I had a health issue that kept me from my job, I’d appreciate that privacy.
As Christmas vacation comes to a close, I am left more and more with the feeling that on Monday at 8 AM I’ll be getting a “where are you?” phone call.
My mom, whose decades of experience teaching in Catholic schools give her an opinion I can count on, says that it’s not my place to chase down anyone to find out if I need to be there Monday–but I should make sure to have some school clothes ironed, just in case.
So I guess I’ll clean the leftover candy canes out of my school tote bag and make sure there are plenty of stickers, band-aids and birthday pencils.
Beyond that, I’ll have to settle, right now, for not knowing what Monday will bring. That’s been one benefit of this long-term job. I knew where I’d be each day, and what I’d be doing. For me, that knowledge provides comfort.
I might have a day off on Monday, or I might be called in. I’ll feel better once I know.
It’s been a loooooooooong day, spent doing what I call “tap dancing” the whole time. That’s when the substitute teacher has to readjust the plans while simultaneously keeping 18 kids in order, teaching a lesson, and making sure no one trashes the bathroom or breaks anything.
I didn’t succeed where those last two were concerned today.
But let’s back up to the beginning.
The schedule was off because we were going to Mass. Little Brother appeared in my classroom after the day’s opening prayer, because his class is my foster homeroom’s Buddy Class and we were going to Mass together at the suggestion of Little Brother’s teacher.
I was all for it, because my foster students are 7, and pretty wiggly, and I thought it would be good if they saw a good example of church behavior. The only thing that worried me was seating, because the classes have set locations in church and doubling my class size (with Buddies) would mean that other classes had to sit farther back. I left that whole thing to Little Brother’s teacher to figure out.
The seventh grade trooped in and we matched them with their buddies and lined everyone up. Their teacher explained to all the kids how Communion would work (since my kids don’t receive yet) and since he had to get to church to set some things up, we headed down the hallway.
Mass went amazingly well. The Buddies helped my class find the right pages in the hymnal. There was no horsing around or whispering. Definitely this was the high point of the day. After Mass we returned to our classroom and got started on the Snack-and-Bathroom Routine. Then I found out that my class wouldn’t be going to gym today.
There went my chance to use the bathroom and heat up the coffee that had gotten cold before I had five sips of it. But I figured I could fit in a quick restroom detour when we went to play rehearsal.
We finished our snack and did our Jesse Tree ornament of the day and moved the Holy Family a little closer to the manger. Then I lined everyone up in the right order (which has changed 4 times this week) and reminded everyone to use “Marshmallow Feet” in the hallway and on the stairs into the cafegymatorium. We exited the classroom silently and practically tiptoed down the hall. I was super proud of the kids, until the principal stopped us and said, “You’re not having rehearsal this morning.”
So we turned around and went back and I had to find something to do for 40 minutes until lunch, because my lesson plan said “Rehearsal.” I decided we’d work on the Snowman Handprint ornaments the kids were making for their parents (the other second-grade teacher got this all going. I’m craft-impaired.)
We were deep into an assembly line of “name on paper, paint on hand, hand on ornament, ornament on paper upside-down, go wash” when a first-grade teacher came in to offer to hold rehearsal in her classroom. I asked if I could send the kids as they finished their messy craft. And that was all fine until a Tiny Tattler informed me that two other girls were trashing the bathroom with the white paint. It was smeared all over the floor and mirrors.
I made the two of them clean their mess up as best they could with Lysol wipes. We all finished the craft, practiced “Joy to the World” in the first-grade room and then headed off to lunch. Late. I retrieved my cold coffee, went upstairs to the faculty room to (finally) use the restroom and nuke the coffee, then returned to my classroom to eat lunch alone because I was upset enough that if anyone had even said “hello” to me, I might have broken into tears right there.
As we were having inside recess due to cold weather, I retrieved my kids after my 20-minute break, and they played for half an hour instead of going outside. We worked for a little while on a timed reading test, then got ready (again) for our 1:15 rehearsal. Then the classroom phone rang; we weren’t going to be able to use the cafegymatorium until 2 PM. A first-grade teacher popped in to suggest that I have the kids all packed to go home, with coats ready, before we went to rehearsal at 2. That sounded good to me, so we got our coats, then since the ornaments were dry, we decorated them with Sharpies.
Everything was going along quite nicely until an ornament rolled off a desk and hit the floor. There were tears and shards of glass everywhere. No, I wasn’t the one crying–it was the little girl whose ornament hadn’t stayed on her desk. I reassured her that she could make a new one first thing Monday and we got on with our day, and then at 1:55 someone poked their head in the door to tell me that, no, we weren’t rehearsing after all.
I grabbed a Christmas storybook out of the teacher’s storybook box and we read a story. Then I took the boxes of inside-recess toys out and let them have some extra playtime. Every last one of us was just DONE at that point.
Birthdays are big deals in the primary grades (as well they should be.) Yesterday I learned just how big they can get.
The Birthday Girl sashayed into the classroom with her hair topped by a plastic tiara and a huge shopping bag in her hand. Inside the bag were 3 foil-covered pans and a stack of purple napkins and paper plates. I wished her a happy birthday (as I’d also done in the Morning Message on the blackboard) and showed her where she could put the treats until lunchtime.
The PE teacher took me aside to let me know that she’d talked to the Birthday Girl’s Mom, who’d indicated that only one of the pans of snacks was nut-safe. We do have one child with a peanut allergy in the class, though apparently it’s all right for other kids in the class to have food containing nuts. Anyway, the teacher asked me if I could serve the snacks in the classroom so we could make sure that the nut-free child got nut-free snacks. No problem; it was raining and we’d be having inside recess anyway.
When I delivered the kids to the cafeteria, one little girl asked where she should sit, because in the lineup she’d wound up across from the boy who needed to be nut-free, and she had a PBJ sandwich.
That’s when I started wondering why the Birthday Girl’s Mom hadn’t just made 3 pans of nut-safe treats, since she’d made the effort to make one.
After lunch we returned to the classroom, sang “Happy Birthday” and had the brownies on purple paper plates. The Birthday Girl then asked if she could take along a friend and start the Birthday Tour, in which the Birthday Child visits every single teacher in the school, offers a treat, and gets a little present like a sticker or a pencil.
I knew about that tradition, so I had brought along a bunch of fancy pencils and let her choose one. She wanted to begin the Birthday Tour right away, even though I told her that half the teachers were at lunch right now and wouldn’t be in their classrooms. That didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to hear about waiting. I didn’t feel like fighting this battle so I sent them on their way. Everyone else had a grand time with their usual rainy-day activities like puzzles and rainbow looms and drawing pictures and building things with the math manipulatives.
The Birthday Girl and Friend returned from the Birthday Tour 5 minutes before the end of recess. When I directed the kids to start putting away the toys and return to their seats, the two of them protested, “But we didn’t get any playtime!”
Me: “Sorry about that. You were busy delivering the birthday treats. Playtime’s over now.”
(What was I going to do, let the two of them play while we went on and did a page in the grammar book? Seriously?)
After a little while when the Birthday Girl and Friend had finished the page we were working on but not everyone else was done, I let them finish the Tour. They returned and the afternoon went along as smoothly as any afternoon involving 18 7-year-olds and one middle-aged substitute teacher can reasonably be expected to go. As dismissal time neared, I sent groups of children to get their schoolbags and jackets and start packing up to go home.
The Birthday Girl approached me: “You forgot to give me my Birthday Note and bookmark!”
Me: “What note and bookmark?”
Birthday Girl: “Regular Teacher always gives us a Birthday Note and bookmark!”
Me: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know about Birthday Notes and I have no idea where Regular Teacher keeps the bookmarks. That’s why I brought pencils for you to choose.”
The Birthday Girl adjusted her tiara and sulked as she lined up for dismissal.
It seems like forever since I’ve written a Small Success post. I’ve been pretty busy substitute teaching these past few weeks; right now I’m in long-term for a second-grade teacher. Because there’s only so much time in the day, not everything I want to get done is getting done. So please don’t look at my dining-room table, which is covered with a stack of paper plats and little metal buckets of utensils, all clean but not yet put away after Saturday night’s Folk Group Pasta Party. And definitely don’t look at my kitchen floor.
Instead, look at this:
I’ve (mostly) managed to get a home-cooked dinner on the table every night. Except Monday, when Hubs called to say he’d be way late and they were getting pizza at work, and I hadn’t started cooking yet, so Little Brother and I got Chick-Fil-A.
Yesterday afternoon and evening’s crazy plan all worked out.
Our microwave broke a couple of weeks ago, and I’d pushed for as late an installation time as I could get, since I can’t leave school until 3:15 or so.
I got home by 3:20 and found the installation truck sitting in front of the house. The gentleman assured me that he’d only just gotten there.
He was done and out of here within an hour. I had dinner going in the crockpot since I wasn’t sure how long this would take and Little Brother had a rehearsal.
I got Little Brother to his rehearsal in time for me to attend the parent meeting beforehand and find out how we can order tickets for the show and volunteer for hospitality jobs during the performances.
I made it home in time for folk group practice, which is in my house, so if I’m not home, no one’s here to let everyone else in.
Hubs got to the rehearsal in time to pick up Little Brother and two other Young Thespians who’d arranged to carpool with us.
Yesterday one little girl told me, right before snack, that she had a headache. I suggested that she eat her snack and see how she felt afterward (because once you send ONE second-grader to the nurse, many, many others will want to follow.) She never mentioned that headache again until after dismissal, when she was walking back to her mom’s classroom. I was surprised; I told her that I thought her headache had gone away and I was sorry that I didn’t know it didn’t. Her answer: “I really liked the activities we were doing…”
And for a little religion-class comic relief:
Me: “November is the Month of the Holy Souls. We pray for them to help them get into heaven.”
Student: “I thought November is Men’s Cancer Month…”
This past week, I’ve been substituting for one of the second-grade teachers at Little Brother’s school. I’ll probably be there for the next couple of weeks, which is a little terrifying.
Substitute teaching is not just a job. It’s a ministry. And it definitely isn’t babysitting.
Substitute teachers minister to students who are used to the way their Real Teacher does things. Subs try to maintain the usual routines, learning them as they go along and finding out halfway through a task that their Real Teacher does things differently. The kids aren’t being rude or defiant–they’re looking for the comfort of the routine their teacher has so carefully established. In second grade, it’s all about routine. There’s even a procedure for sharpening pencils. I’m a big fan of procedures, but the kids know them and I don’t, so I’m at a disadvantage. This week has been Procedure Boot Camp in the second grade–for me!
Substitute teachers minister to parents who worry that without their child’s Real Teacher, the kids will fall behind or miss out on learning key concepts. We’re not doing busy work here; I’m not babysitting the kids. I am teaching them the next math chapter and helping them practice their spelling words. We worked on the Oxford comma this week (and I even taught them its official name, which was not in the book, but that’s just a bonus you get when your substitute teacher has an M.A. in English Literature.)
Substitute teachers minister to the principal, who wants to make sure that learning is happening, the children are following the routines already in place, and no one’s swinging from the light fixtures or getting hit by cars in the parking lot AKA recess playground (yes, I’ve had to prevent that last from happening.)
Substitute teachers minister to the Real Teacher, especially when it’s a long-term situation. The sub walks that fine line of making sure the Real Teacher knows that the sub does not want to replace her, but just wants to do the best possible job as an unrehearsed understudy.
The students and I pray for their Real Teacher every day, which is a lovely perk of working at a Catholic school. It’s nice for me to be working, but I don’t want to poach her job. I know she’d rather be in her classroom with her students, and I’m trying to make it as easy for her to be away from them as I possibly can. When she comes back, I want her to just be able to step back into her usual M.O.
We’ve had our challenging moments, like today when I was frustrated because we were assigning next month’s classroom chores, and there was a dispute about whether someone could choose a job he’d already had in September, because “you can’t have the same job 2 months in a row” means, to some children, “you can’t have a job you’ve done before EVER.” I made an executive decision and shut down the dispute fast, and half the kids were not happy. Oh well.
We’ve also had our sweet moments. If someone drops a crayon box, half the class hits the deck to help pick them up–unasked. One child has measured me for a rubber-band bracelet. And yesterday when they were answering some questions from their religion book, they reached one that asked, “Who helps you learn about Jesus?” and a few of the kids asked if I would write my name on the board so they could spell it and fill it in for that answer.
I’m following someone else’s procedures and carrying out someone else’s lesson plans. I’m trying to be fair to my grade-partner teacher who is shouldering extra burdens as she helps me pick my way across an unfamiliar curriculum and grade level. I’m going home each day with tired feet and a tired voice and wearing chalk-dust smears.
I’m teaching in someone else’s shoes. They don’t quite fit me, but for the sake of the kids, the parents, the principal and the Real Teacher, I’m doing my best to make it work.
Thursdays at CatholicMom.com begin with a look at the past week’s Small Successes!
I figured out that I can READ while I use the exercise bike at the gym. What with the blaring pop music, I can’t read nonfiction that requires thought, but it’s a great opportunity to get some “fun” reading done–and I don’t even notice the time going by.
The first week of school is in the books! Little Brother seems to be settling in to a good morning and afternoon routine, despite constant interruptions from his friends who get home almost an hour before he does and can’t understand why he’s not finished his homework yet.
I might have to hang the “Play Later” sign up if this continues. (The other side reads, “Friends Welcome.”)
Last Friday I subbed in the fourth-grade class. I’ve known most of these kids since they were in kindergarten, and they are not without their quirks. I consider it a success that I got through the day without losing my mind, even with all of these roadblocks:
it was a beastly-hot day. My classroom was 88 degrees all afternoon.
I had lunch duty. Outside. And there were no “specials” so I had no prep period.
One child narrates her way through the day and insists on showing me EVERYTHING. Including her tin of 5 lip balms, which she wears layered.
Actual conversation with a fourth-grader: “Is today Back-to-School Night?”
Me: “No, that’s Wednesday.”
Fourth-grader: “The other Wednesday?”
The school celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and on Tuesday the PTA brought in enough birthday cake for every student. I learned about this on Monday night, and within an hour I was put in touch with the Mom In Charge Of Cake, who graciously provided me with cake mix and frosting labels at school on Tuesday so I could calculate the carb count of Little Brother’s slice of cake. (They also had separate treats for gluten-free, dairy-free and food-coloring-free diets. WTG, PTA!)
And not a success but an observation:
13 years ago today I was teaching first- and second-grade Spanish at a local elementary school when the Twin Towers came crashing down during the 9/11 attack.
Today I will be substitute-teaching in a third-grade classroom so a teacher can attend a 9/11 memorial service with her family. And I am thankful that, since I work at a Catholic school, we’ll be able to openly pray today.