April 27, 2006

Teaching In Someone Else's Shoes

I had to cover another class during my prep today, which is not uncommon at any of the schools where I've ever worked. When there is a shortage of substitutes, we teachers have to pull together and just deal. At one high school where I taught, it wasn't uncommon for me to absorb another teacher's entire class load into mine for the day because staff was so thin. So, do I mind covering for other teachers? Uhm, yea, I do. God love all the substitutes in the world because it's such a hard job.

When we cover for each other's classes we have less than five minutes to scoot our own kids out of class, dash down the hallway while trying to reset our mindset into another subject matter, and quickly figure out what is going on in the class so we can start immediately when the bell rings, lest the students take you for a fool and then proceed to make you life miserable for the next 50 minutes. Oh, this would be another example of common punting in my world.

Today I was recruited for an 8th grade math class, and I don't think these were exactly the star students of the school either. Now, I'm not judging, but when the teacher next door checks in just before class and warns me it might be challenging and offers to accept any problems into his class, you know it's not going to be a good experience.

There was an aide of some sort already in the classroom (from the university?) who looked too soft to be working in our neighborhood, and then a special ed teacher came in at the bell. He pulled me aside and told me that it was not going to be a great experience. He said it was much like the horrible class I had last year--you know, the one that nearly drove me to quit in January? Yea, that one. I looked to the soft-looking aide and he nodded his head to confirm that I'd just entered hell.

Great. And it's MATH! What do I know about math? Math made me cry when I was in school. So now I have to start class before it falls apart in the first three minutes AND put on a facade that I know and can help with their subject matter? I don't care that it's middle school math. I'm really bad at math. Deep seated fears here.

So, I marched to the front of the classroom, put on my best drill sergeant face, and gave them the assignment with a 30 second deadline to get their books and materials out. This isn't my first gig, and I know that wasn't happening for most, so I march up and down the aisles personally inviting (or badgering, whatever) students to start immediately. Yea, that doesn't make some students happy, but it's good to know right away which ones aren't going to be cooperative.

The real test came when I stopped at Troublemaker #1's desk and asked him to show me what they've been learning by doing the first few problems. The other teacher showed me in the book where it explained the problems, and in the next few minutes with Troublemaker #1, I learned enough to go around and review and reteach the concepts with the rest of the students. Thank goodness I'm kind of smart, and it was kind of easy, because while Troublemaker and I were reviewing, I was relearning something I haven't seen or needed in 20 years. But I was being all tricky about it by making it look like I was showing HIM where he needed to review.

I mean Troublemakers #1-5 bought it, and they were the ones I was selling to. A few times I had to ask the other two adults about a few things about technique or to get clarification, but for some reason, the students didn't lose faith in me or themselves. And these are the kind of kids who do exactly that.

The other teacher and the aide were pleased that the students were all on task and that we didn't have any major blow-ups. (Minor blow-ups happen frequently, and in the end that's what drives teachers to drink.) The students are lucky that they have so many adults in a class to help. I doubt they see that, though. And the school is lucky to have the regular teacher because she must run her buns off with that class.

But you know, a strange thing happened. I rather enjoyed my experience in class, and felt like I'd helped a few students by the end of the class period. As much as I dreaded it, it was nice to hang out in another subject matter with the students for a while.

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