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A Rough First Day

A morning with fifth graders and an afternoon with second graders sounded like a good way to ease into subbing. But the second graders turned into a large and unexpected handful. Included: A description of a first-time substitute teacher's day.

My first substitute assignment came through for the first week in October, and I was feeling fairly confident. Not fearless, but prepared.

I was assigned to one of the elementary schools to cover for a fifth grade teacher in the morning and a second grade teacher in the afternoon. The morning, I assumed, would be the harder stretch, as I pictured a room full of pre-adolescents oozing attitude. The afternoon would be more relaxing with some seatwork, stories, and maybe songs with the little ones.

How wrong I was.

The fifth graders were a substitute's dream. Quiet, polite, helpful, and well versed in classroom procedures. They lulled me into a false sense of self-confidence. The second graders were morechallenging.


Education World In The Classroom


Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending one day a month as a substitute teacher in one of the Middletown (Connecticut) Public Schools' elementary or middle schools. She is learning and writing about the daily challenges substitute -- and permanent -- teachers face.

OFF AND RUNNING

I arrived almost 30 minutes before school started to hear the name of the teacher for whom I was filling in that morning being called for bus duty. When I checked in at the main office, I was assured that since it was close to bus time, another teacher would fill in.

The principal and secretary greeted me; they knew I was there not just to sub, but also to write a story. They gave me a folder of instructions, including a map of the school, and pointed me toward the room. "I'll check in on you," the principal said.

On my way down the hall, I met another teacher who introduced herself, and asked if I was filling in for Mrs. D. I said yes, and she led me to the room, where the sub plans did indeed indicate I had bus duty.

"Oh, don't worry," the teacher said. "They just called me to cover it."

I read the sub plans and felt a wave of terror at instructions to go over math homework with students. Unfortunately, I left most of my math knowledge in high school.

The rest of the morning seemed covered -- math worksheets, sentence dictation, a review of the use of it's and its, and some language arts worksheets. The teacher noted that Daria was her monitor, and could help me out.

The afternoon would be more relaxing with some seatwork, stories, and maybe songs with the little ones.

How wrong I was.

While I was reading the plans and searching for papers, a girl came in, wished me good morning, and began taking chairs off the desks. She told me she was Mrs. D's helper, but was not in my class.

With eyes on the clock (everything in schools, I've noticed, is tightly scheduled) I walked to the gym where the principal pointed to my class, sitting in a row on the gym floor. I tell the first boy in line I am Mrs. D's substitute, and he said, "Oh, okay," and the row stood up behind him and filed quietly down the hall to the room, where they began putting things away.

A student handed me an amplifier with a microphone, and explained that I needed to wear it around my neck because she is deaf in one ear.

As they settled down into seats in four horizontal rows, Daria, the student monitor, told me quietly that it was her job to take attendance and the lunch count, lead the Pledge of Allegiance and a song. That sounded good to me.

Another girl, Jolie, told me that she collected papers. Assignments were collected, paper-clipped, and put in a box on the desk.

The students were quick to remind me of how they did things and quick to correct me if I mispronounced a name. This was a group that seemed to have bonded only a month into the year.

MATH AND MORE

I discovered, happily, that my multiplication skills were intact enough to successfully review the homework.

I assigned them math problems, watched yellow paper being passed out, and students began working. Quietly.

This gave me time to read over the post-math assignments, compose sentences for the its and it's lesson, and write some notes. I noticed that some of the children who were done with their math simply pulled books out of their desks and were reading.

The only glitch was that the sub plans called for them doing their math worksheets until a bathroom break at 10:30. By 9:55, students were trotting up to the desk to say they were done.

I handed out some math puzzles I brought with me and then found some worksheets labeled "Extra Math," which I passed out to those who made short work of the puzzles.

After a bathroom break during which no one was lost, I turned to language arts. After dictating sentences, they started on worksheets about its and it's. Soon it was time to line up for lunch (which they also did quietly). This was the only small bit of dissent I heard; a few muttered that Mrs. D often let them walk to the cafeteria alone, but I said I would join them. After thanking them for being so cooperative and helpful, I escorted the students to the cafeteria.

There I discovered I had no lunch duty, and was free until the second graders finished recess.

Shortly before the class arrived, I went to the room and read over the sub plans. More math, but all in a range I could handle. A story. Discussions about the date and the calendar. If they completed everything early, they could play with math manipulatives for the last 15 minutes of the day.

Two-and-a-half more hours and I would have cruised through my first sub assignment.

THE LONGEST DAY

I met the children at the door, revved up from recess, and they were eager to rush back to the room. One little girl, Michelle, said she would be my helper. Several others volunteered to be helpers as well, and I thanked them.

The realization that there was an unfamiliar adult in the room seemed to have short-circuited whatever self-control second graders possess. Before the end of the day, most seemed to have forgotten that I was even there.

No doubt I was the first substitute teacher they had this year. I'm not sure when I lost control of the class, or if I ever had control to begin with. But the afternoon went downhill fast. The realization that there was an unfamiliar adult in the room seemed to have short-circuited whatever self-control second graders possess. Before the end of the day, most seemed to have forgotten that I was even there.

Settling down took time; everything and everyone was a distraction. This group of children seemed tougher somehow than the fifth graders, with many sporting attitudes and shoulder chips, and the class appeared less cohesive. After more delays, math journals finally came out and I told them, per Mrs. G's instructions, they had a free day to compose a math problem and a story and picture to go with it.

Within moments, children were parading to the desk to ask questions, seek reassurances about their choice of problems, and inform me who was not doing what they were supposed to be doing.

Tyrone, a big boy sitting at the end of a cluster of desks, kept up a steady chatter that included comments that always seemed to hit a nerve with someone, and kept everyone in his cluster from getting much done. Attempts to silence him resulted in protestations of innocence.

Soon the kids were circling me, begging me to "share," that is, read their entries. Versions of the "normal" routine varied. "We all share on free day." "Well, some of us do." "No, all of us do." "Didn't you already say I could share?"

Sharing was done on the rug in the back of the room, but the circle of students was ragged and temperamental. Tyrone didn't join, jutting out from the sphere. Others drifted in his direction. Nick, who like Tyrone was constantly chatting, wanted to share, but did not want to read his journal entry.

The chatter continued, not focused on anything specific. Some was misbehavior, some had to do with students admonishing the talkers, the talkers complaining they weren't doing anything, and others commenting on those doing the admonishing.

I reminded them repeatedly to be quiet, be good listeners, and raise their hands in order to speak. One or two did, but the rest seemed incapable of following those directions. Those who called out answers upset the admonishers (and me) more. They almost seemed to have forgotten that I was in the room.

Michelle, who kept trying to be my helper, was beside herself. "Stop!" she kept saying. "We're going to get a bad report."

Another noted they might not get playtime, which the sub plan indicated they would get if they finished everything.

In what probably was a tactical error, I assured them that no one was getting playtime because of their poor behavior, which temporarily quieted the circle. But then they probably decided they had nothing to lose.

DOWN WE GO

Finally, we finished reading the math journals, but those children who wanted order restored to the afternoon seemed to be losing ground.

The requests to go to the bathroom or get a drink were non-stop.

In what probably was a tactical error, I assured them that no one was getting playtime because of their poor behavior, which temporarily quieted the circle. But then they probably decided they had nothing to lose.

I pulled out a story to read about a shark swim-a-thon, but some wanted to return to the rug (not me); others didn't.

Through talking, fidgeting, migrations out of seats, accusations, and complaints of "I can't see" and "I can't hear," I finally finished the story.

SUGGESTIONS

On to the calendar lesson, which was done with students sitting on the rug in front of the board.

At first, students jockeyed for position on the floor, and then began moving chairs to the front. Only those with skirts can sit on chairs, I'm told. No, no more than five. Soon there are about ten chairs in a row with kids complaining about lack of room.

Now even some of the students were feeling sorry for me. One told me the sign to be quiet was to hold up two fingers in a V. Another told me that Mrs. G turned off the lights to get attention. And if people kept talking, they needed to put their heads down.

The final step was writing names on the board, which meant no recess.

"EVERYBODY'S BEING BAD"

I chose someone to write the date on the calendar, but no one seemed able to focus. At some point I told Tyrone and Nick to put their heads down and banished Tyrone to a table at the back of the room.

Don and another child got into an argument about who should be sitting in a specific chair; and other students took sides. I announced that no one could sit in chairs, and with groaning, clanking, and colliding, they dragged the chairs back.

Except for Don, who finally got up from his chair and went to sit on the floor in the back of the room and refused to move.

"Everyone is being bad," Larry told me. He offered to tell the class that if people didn't stop talking, they wouldn't get a cupcake when he brought them in to celebrate his birthday.

And my complete low point: One girl, Lucy, came over to ask in a whisper if she should go get her teacher from last year to come help.

About this time, the other second grade teacher popped in and managed to lure Don out of the back of the room and into the hall for a chat.

"Everybody's being bad," Larry told me. He offered to tell the class that if people didn't stop talking, they wouldn't get a cupcake when he brought them in to celebrate his birthday.

Don was subdued when he returned to his seat, but nobody was pulling out their notebooks for the math problem of the day, which I had announced was the next assignment. After more hand signals and light flicking, most children had their notebooks out. Michelle passed out copies of the problem, which students were told to glue into notebooks, and another student handed out glue sticks. The gap between the arrival of the problem and glue stick caused more restlessness. I read the problem out loud, but sensed I was the only one listening.

MORE REENFORCEMENTS

Finally, I saw the start of some gluing and writing. The principal came in, smiled, and asked how things were going.

"Okay," I managed to say. "They arechatty."

"Are they supposed to be talking now?" she asked.

"No."

"Would you like me to do something about it?"

"Please."

Karen stood at the front of the room to read her problem, and told her classmates she was waiting for one to sit correctly, another to stop talking, and someone else to put down a glue stick before she started. "I hate having to stand up here and say things like this," she said, rolling her eyes.

She reminded them of the rules, including that they were supposed to be working silently. "Is this partner work?" she asked.

"No," came the response.

"Then there should be no talking," she said simply.

Tyrone muttered something, and the principal took him out in the hall.

Shortly after she returned Tyrone to the room and left, we moved on to math workbook problems.

But order did not last long after the departure of the principal. It seemed every time I looked up, someone was out of his or her seat, walking in the back of the room. Lucy told me Nick said he would hit her. I told Nick I did not want to hear anyone talking about hitting.

Karen was crying, because Carla was talking to her and she didn't want her to. Carla, now crying also, said that Karen kept putting a hand up in her face.

Later, Karen stood at the front of the room to read her problem, and told her classmates she was waiting for one to sit correctly, another to stop talking, and someone else to put down a glue stick before she started.

"I hate having to stand up here and say things like this," she said, rolling her eyes.

BUS RUSH

I had distributed worksheets to children who finished the math problems in the book, and then realized I had just a few minutes to hand out homework.

When I announced that it was time to pack up, kids flew across the room, grabbing for their gear, and I had to chase them down to give them the homework assignment. I wasn't convinced I reached everyone.

I decided to go with a general description of "they were chatty and distracted," rather than name names. After all, how much did my lack of experience contribute to their lack of self-control?

Buses started to be called, and students wrote the numbers on the board. When the last was gone, I picked some papers off the floor and sat down to write a note for the teacher. I decided to go with a general description of "they were chatty and distracted," rather than name names. After all, how much did my lack of experience contribute to their lack of self-control?

As I walked back to the office, I saw the other second grade teacher, who asked, "So did they give you a run for your money?"

They did, I said, sticking with the chatty and distracted description. When she asked, I mentioned some kids who were the most disruptive, and she nodded knowingly. "Where have we heard those names before?" another staff member asked.

Don had some problems on the playground that could have contributed to his mood, the second grade teacher noted. She congratulated me on making it through my first day of subbing.

In the office I apologized again for missing bus duty, and thanked the principal for her help. She said something encouraging, and I can't remember if it was her or the second grade teacher who said to me, "Well, you're still standing. And you made it through your first day."

True, and I didn't lose anyone and no one got hurt. But I had felt completely ineffective and like I had let down the children who wanted order restored.

I've got a month to regroup and learn from my mistakes.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

(Editor's Note: All students' names have been changed)