Thursday, December 13, 2012

School, Part I

Education is the way forward for humanity, and certainly for the country. That might sound a little too lofty, so I'll put it in more simple terms: There is wayyyy too much stupid in this world.

If you can help fix the stupid problem, you should. So in mid-November I applied for a position as a substitute teacher at the local school district. The district is fairly well-respected in the Boston area. The application process asked a lot of questions about my background. I was brutally honest: I've taught classes before, but never in a formal "education" environment. It's one thing to conduct a seminar; another to have responsibility in some measure for a piece of the future.

Nevertheless, the day after I applied, I got a response: Come in Nov. 27 and talk to us.

So I did. Four of us interviewed in a big, old conference room at the school administration building. Two of the interviewees had teaching certificates and Master's degrees.

Heady stuff. I was clearly at the low end of this food chain.

And then I waited. But last Thursday, Dec. 6, I got mail telling me I was in. I had a bunch of paperwork to fill out and return. I could have lazed through the process, but instead I put it together and took it in the next morning to the district.

The process to actually fill an opening is to obtain a Web ID and password for an online service that is pretty coordinated. If an opening comes up, it's logged into the system. If you've got a skills match, either a district representative will call you, or a robocall from the service will call.

I figured that it would probably be a while before I was called.

"A while" turned out to be a 6:30 a.m. Monday morning. A local elementary needed an aide for its first-grade classes.

I jumped.

This caused a little stir, as schedules had to be juggled. The students' day starts at 8:50 and runs until 2:55.

I needed to be there by 8:25. I was there by 8:15.

There were five sections of first graders, with (I was told) a student:teacher ratio of about 25:1. My day would bounce among all of those sections, including one twice.


I looked up directions to the school. It's a modern building, shiny, even on a damp overcast morning.

There are about 450 students there in grades K-4. I was nervous. Very nervous. When I got there, I pulled into a parking lot, and asked an emerging teacher if it was OK to park. Yes. First hurdle cleared.

Checking into the office, I was told which wing upstairs was for the first graders and sent to a teacher for more instructions.

Ms. N has 14 years of experience, a calm demeanor and clearly knows the ropes. I went to her room and she cooly wrote out a schedule I would have as a Teacher's Aide. The schedule was a little unusual in that the times varied from place to place. But off I went on this adventure.

Ms. L's class would be first. I got there about 10-15 minutes before the first bell. My approach was "whatever you need." In her case, she really needed about 30 copies of various items that would be distributed to students throughout the day: reading materials, math work, writing projects, drawing projects. I was more than happy to do this even though it was totally administrative... it would allow me to chill out a little.

The copier was in a nicely presented library (or as it was labeled, a "media center") down the hall. But when I got there... no paper. So then I had to find out where that was. I made the copies and returned them, and Ms. L expressed surprise that I had completed the task quickly. My first gold star!

However, it was a long process, and at 9:30 I was off to Ms. B's class. Things got real real fast.


If my job was to consist of making copies and being a presence, this was going to be easy. The big objective I had was to observe and take notes and try and see how the day proceeded, its rhythm and flow. Hopefully I could do this a while and get a feel for how to do the job on this temporary basis.

I haven't been in a first grade classroom much in the last few decades. And when I was in first grade was no reference point. It wasn't exactly "one-room-schoolhouse" stuff but it was pretty different. One of the biggest differences then, at least to my memory, is that the subjects were taught by specialists. Looking back I may be completely wrong about this and probably am. But it seemed like at least a few of the elementary years experiences were with instructors who taught just math, or just reading/English, or just history/social studies.

These classrooms are inclusive. The students do almost everything in the same room. That makes the teacher's job even more of a challenge.


As I entered the next classroom, Ms. B motioned me to her desk. She handed me six copies of "Biscuit Goes to the Big City." And, five kids.

We were going to a breakout room down the hall to read. She gave me some instructions but honestly, I was a little in shock and can't remember specifics. The book was very simple. The students took turns reading pages. We talked a little about the things Biscuit the dog saw and I asked them if they had been downtown. Settling in, I asked them about the things they would see, like Biscuit saw. I asked them if they had pets. I got through it.


Back to the classroom, and it was time for recess. The students lined up and the classes trod to the playground. I met a few more of the teachers and asked for tips; the recess job is basically making sure no one gets killed. I spoke to one woman closer to my age and noted that our playground setting was probably damned dangerous by comparison... especially the Death Wheel. I mean, the Merry-Go-Round.

If you think about it, a Merry-Go-Round must have been designed by a sadist. Kids who get on the thing spin till they either puke, almost puke, or become so disoriented that they could get seriously hurt by either getting wrapped around those upright steel bars or flung off like a scythe wiping out all kids in their path.

The kids hanging on at the edges or running in a rutted dirt circle along the perimeter are also in danger of becoming bowling pins or puke receptacles from the kids on the Death Wheel, or falling in the rut and getting trampled by the other kids running in a dervish.

And, of course, we haven't even begun to talk about the Monkey Bars...

At 10:15 we were back to the classrooms, and I was off to Ms. T's class. Another breakout reading project. This time the book was a pun-laden work called Commander Toad and the Space Pirates. The puns were very Bill Scott. This isn't what I want for American Youth.

However, the book had a lot of bigger, tougher words, like scourge, copilot, salamander, guide. That was a challenge, as was when a boy slipped in his chair and hit his mouth on the table. A wee bit of blood, and a new dilemma for me. I should have had a student walk him to class, instead of me. The remaining students were to continue reading page by page.

The scrape was minor, and I was soon back. Round 'em up, and on to the next class.


Ms. C had a handful in her class, including three boys who each posed problems. E and A constantly act out; H does a little but it seems as if his issue is just being a bit easily distracted.

A was not having a good day. He just didn't want to participate. Ms. C had to go on with the lesson and got A toward the back of the group work and tried to minimize his disinterest.

I felt bad for her. How tough it must be to teach with a noisy distraction in the mix. I felt bad for the other kids... how difficult it must be to focus on the work with that going on.

And I felt bad for A. What triggered this behavior? There has to be a way to get him to participate in a constructive way.

I would think about Ms. C's class a lot.


The project that I got to help in was the students had to describe a "How-to" activity... it was decided to be "How to prepare for school" and had to be at least three steps with an illustration.

The aide floats around the tables and pitches in where they can. I decided to sit with H and work with him, as he was stumped. My mischief crept in. He wanted to start with drive to school. We backed up the process. "First, you wake up, right? Then what do you do?"

H looked to be thinking it over. I said "Do you go to the bathroom?"

Bingo. Big smile/giggle. Project rolling.

Fortunately before he could get to the illustration part, it was time for another recess and lunch.


Something had clicked with me and some of the kids in Ms. C's class. As we headed for the playground, H gave me a sticky note with his name on it. J tried to trick me with a sort of "knock-knock" type joke. D showed me the stuffed animal, a little puppy, she carried with her.

Soon it was time for lunch. I asked about the menu. "What's good?"

D: The nuggets!
Me: Do they have anything to dip them in?
D: Ketchup!

10 minutes later, she was slathering the delicious nuggets in ketchup. And washing them down with chocolate milk.

During the lunch, I helped a kid open a package of mini carrots, and another untie a knotted shoelace.

From 12:30-1 was my lunch, but by the time I helped herd the kids back to their respective classrooms, I had less than 20 minutes. I hadn't eaten all day but I was still fueled by adrenaline.


I had two more class periods, capped with Ms. N's group. She read a book on Hanukkah to the students. That was a pleasant surprise, since a multi-culture approach is pretty rare in my neck of the woods.

The school has a nice mix of cultures: I interacted with white, black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian kids. A melting pot, as it were.

And then it was over.

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