Going to different schools and classrooms each day sets up so many avenues for a critique of education, as it manifests itself in our schools. How I would love for every parent, every administrator, every politician to gain the “fly on the wall” viewpoint of the substitute teacher! I went to two schools recently, and thought I had seen enough contrast to share with you – but no – then I went to the third! This will require more than one episode. Certain details are altered for anonymity. Behold!
Classroom #1: Co-teaching – two subs in a CTT (Combined Team Teaching) classroom. Despite the fact that I have closed the door of the room before coming down to collect the class, my co-sub leads the 4th Graders upstairs and allows them to thunder into the room at will. By the time the end of the line of 32 arrives, they are clamoring to hang up their backpacks, put their lunches away and catch up on class conversations. A fight has already broken out as one child tries to get to his hook by shoving everyone around him. The co-teacher is therefore screaming instructions at them in an angry tone. “Sit in your seats!” “Stop talking!” “Show some respect!” There is also a 1- to -1 Paraprofessional who is trying to corral her student who, overwhelmed by the stimulus, is running from student to student and pushing them fiercely.
As I approach the co-teacher, she glowers at me: “They’re impossible! They don’t listen. If I knew it was a 4th Grade I never would have come!” By walking quietly from table to table, offering praise for students who are proceeding with any purposeful task, I gather their attention. As I have been coming to this school for 5 years now, they are familiar to me, I know most of their names, so I greet them – (my, how they have grown!) I inquire what the morning routine usually is – I know this teacher, she has procedures in place. So we begin to settle down, although the tension is high. We introduce ourselves; there is a brief summary of the schedule, a report on the weather and the calendar. The first two periods were Dance and Science, so our first actual class will be Math, followed by Independent Reading.
As the regular teacher expected her co-teacher to be there while she attended a workshop, her plans are very rudimentary. The co-teacher got deathly sick that morning, and they had to call a sub at 6am – hence my unwilling companion. There are 3 different Math books and a teacher guide. I have read through the teaching point, but apart from the fact that this is new terrain for me, it is hard to get students’ attention. “They have no attention span, it’s pointless,” announces my co-teacher, from her distant chair. They are to complete a review page to document learning. As I walk around checking the pages, most children have completed the calculation, but no-one has even tried to do the verification. It seems as if they have no idea why they would have to bother – or how. (See the slide show, from the Singapore Math website: http://www.hmhco.com/shop/education-curriculum/math/math-in-focus-singapore-math )
Before we can debrief, and carefully put away our math books, my co-teacher has looked at the clock and decided it is time for Reading. In the wink of an eye she is screaming “Get out your Independent reading books! It’s time to read! Stop wasting time! Your reading book should be on the table!”
I jump in with a request to quietly close their math books and return them to the desks. “It is time to make a transition.” The co-teacher motions me over. “I think we are at cross purposes,” she says. “It won’t work if the children feel you are counter-manding my instructions. We need to be on the same page.” Seizing a teachable moment, I answer “I make it a policy not to shout at children. I find that it immediately sets up an adversarial situation, and that we will have a better day if we invite their co-operation.” She looks at me in disbelief, so I add, “I’ve known these kids since K or 1st grade, and they are pretty adorable, so I want to work with them and have a good day.” I go on to say that we should allow time to complete one activity before turning to the next, as they are used to keeping their areas organized. “OK,” she says, “I will follow your lead on that.”
Independent reading is probably quiet when their regular teacher is present. Some children are immersed in their books, but the book choices seem random. Everything from Henry and Mudge to Junie B. Jones – and then Minecraft!
We manage to get to lunch, and on return to the room I’ve closed the door and insist on an orderly line before sending the children in to hang up jackets in groups of four. They are now settled at their tables, and independent writing begins. There is a lovely anchor chart reminding the children that “you are important, and the things that happen to you are worthy of writing down in your journals as personal narratives.” They will need the usual writer’s hooks and strategies, but the most important thing is to get everything down on paper. Sketching is allowed, and they can label the parts of the picture and the main characters. (This is 4th Grade. Hmmm.) Noisy, combative at times, plenty of inertia, and I’m not sure they are convinced of the literary excitement of their lives. “I went to the laundry….” “My grandma had a birthday…”
Next is the Social Studies Read Aloud – a biography of Jackie Robinson. My co-teacher has asked to do this part of the day, so at the appointed time, she simply begins reading the book, without warning or preamble. The children are confused and startled – should we try to put away our journals, clear our desks and take out our reading notebooks? She asks some questions, such as “Do you know who Jackie Robinson was?” “Have you ever heard of slavery?” This gets the kids’ attention, and they answer quickly – “Yes! A famous baseball player!” And “Yes, we studied slavery!” When it gets to the parts about the color bar, and how Jackie Robinson was taunted and abused, not only by the crowds but by fellow players, she asks “Do you think that was right?” “No!” They answer. Later, they want to know what happened to Brown people (Hispanics or Middle Easterners, as compared to African Americans, in their world.) “How brown did you have to be before you couldn’t play?” “Who decided who was black and who wasn’t?” They hold out their arms and anxiously ask “Am I too brown? Would they let me play?” “What if you just got a tan in the summer and they thought you were black and you weren’t?” This is treacherous territory; there are no reasonable explanations, and as I answer – “This is how it used to be, that’s over, now they only choose the players who are the best for the team,” I feel like a total hypocrite, because no matter how far we come from segregation, Mike Brown still gets shot in Ferguson, and Eric Garner still gets strangled to death in Staten Island. But I can tell them that Jackie Robinson was a shining light in the face of bigotry, and that if you go to Citifield today, the whole entrance hall is a celebration of his life. Several of them have gone there, and remember seeing his words around the upper dome. They have to answer three questions in their Reading Response journals, and then we have them write their homework and pack up. There is a brief period of choice time, during which they may read, draw, play Connect 4 or chess/checkers. Some boys make paper planes, which are a favorite of mine, but as one of them lands atop the AV projector, our absent buddy walks in with his Paraprofessional. Instantly he has seen it, and is immediately climbing on a desk and hanging suspended from the arm to get the plane down. Surely there is a God, as I am able to support his weight long enough for him to find his footing back to the desk without bringing the whole thing crashing to the ground. Now it is time to go to afterschool or dismissal. Contrary to their normal routine, the co-teacher calls all the afterschool children to follow her to the cafeteria, and I take those who dismiss to their parents. Happy reunions all around and goodbye for another day!
Read about the other classrooms in follow-up articles here at yeahstub.com