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Graduating to
Fourth Grade

After a trying launch to my year as a substitute teacher, I entered a fourth grade class determined to do better. Thanks to the class and some outside advice, it was a low-stress day for the kids and I. Included: A look at a day as a fourth grade sub.

I spent the month after my first substitute teaching bruising, I mean experience, (see A Rough First Day), collecting feedback and doing some homework.

Some suggestions I mentally filed in the "in-case-of-fire-break-glass" category. A friend said that during his substituting days, he made sure there was a large metal trash can just inside the classroom door. As he walked in the room, he gave the trash can a healthy kick, sending it clattering across the front of the room. This display was followed by the comment, "Boy, am I in a bad mood today." He assured me it almost always quieted the room right down.


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.

I decided to start my second day as a sub with a tip I got from the Substitute Teacher Institute at Utah State University. The institute's executive director, Geoffrey G. Smith, suggested having an assignment on students' desks for them to do as soon as they sat down, to get them focused and show I was serious about learning. I came prepared with a current events assignment.

So when the call came to sub on the first Thursday of the month -- I had to postpone my teaching day from my pre-arranged day of the first Tuesday of the month, which spared me from a day of children in day-after-Halloween sugar-induced frenzies -- I felt more confident. I returned to the same elementary school, to spend the day with a fourth grade class. Still young enough to be agreeable, I thought, but old enough to exercise more self-control than the second graders I encountered in October.

The school was decorated in the fall, pre-Thanksgiving mode, with a few bashful turkeys peeking out from walls and bulletin boards, and boxes for food donations lining the hallways.

Another fourth grade teacher, Mrs. S, offered to show me to Mrs. D's classroom, the teacher for whom I would be substituting. Mrs. S told me she would be right down the hall if I needed her, which was nice to know. Mrs. S noted that the school had fewer fourth grade classes this year, but they were slightly larger than last year. "This is a good class," she told me about the group I was about to meet, "but very needy." The wide range of abilities among the children made it difficult to meet all the students' needs, she said.

"This is a good class," another fourth grade teacher told me about the group I was about to meet, "but very needy." The wide range of abilities among the children made it difficult to meet all the students' needs, she added.

I put my current events assignment on all the desks for students to do as soon as they came in, but then realized the teacher already had listed on the board two language arts activities and a math assignment for them for them to kick off the day, and I did not want to disrupt the morning routine.

I read the lesson plans and rejoiced at the discovery of a seating chart. The students were organized in rows, named after the houses in the Harry Potter novels. I also noted that Mrs. D had outlined the procedures for when the class first came in, traveled, and left at the end of the day. In the morning, after they put their belongings in their desks, she called them row-by-row to hang up their jackets and book bags.

SETTING THE TONE

As I was reading the lesson plans, a girl came in and began taking chairs down from desks, and introduced herself as Megan, the teacher's helper. I asked how her Halloween was, and she said great, but woke up the next day and ate a lot of candy. "I'm pretty much back to my self now," she added. (Whew. A bullet dodged. I can't imagine why Mrs. D did not pick Tuesday to be absent.)

Megan is joined by a classmate, Tanner, who helped her take down chairs, and then they talk quietly together while sharing a book. I viewed this as a good sign.

I picked up the class in the cafeteria at 9:05, and instructed them to put their belongings away. I was pretty much prepared to veto any requests that smelled like they were diversions from the classroom routine, except for something along the lines of, "Ms. Delisio, can I please move my seat so more ceiling tiles don't fall on me?"

One boy asked, a little tentatively, "Can we all just put our things away?"

No, I replied. You'll wait for your row to be called.

A girl asked to get a drink, which I also turned down, suspecting a test of a drink policy I had not yet read.

I was pretty much prepared to veto any requests that smelled like they were diversions from the classroom routine, except for something along the lines of, "Ms. Delisio, can I please move my seat so more ceiling tiles don't fall on me?"

GETTING STARTED

I smiled when another girl commented that my name was easier to say than their teacher's name, which also began with D and ended in a vowel. No one had ever told me my name was easy to pronounce (I mean Delisio, not Ellen) and Delisio wasn't rolling off the tongues of most of her classmates. I told them I would answer to Ms. D as well.

I met the aide assigned to work with one boy in this class. She told me she would be periodically taking him out of class. "He's pretty much in and out all day," she said.

I hastily got the attendance and lunch count done as the student courier waited anxiously at the door, and told the class to start their morning assignments.

I walked around the room while they worked, making an effort to point out good behavior, another tip I read somewhere while doing my substitute teaching homework. "I like the way Ariel took out her book right away and began working quietly." For the most part, everyone was quiet. I noticed, happily, that students who finished early were silently reading.

I remained on alert, though, for anyone trying to test my knowledge of standard operating procedures. A boy asked to go to the bathroom. I'm always reluctant to interfere with people's biological needs, but I did not want to trigger a torrent of bathroom requests. I looked at him directly and asked if Mrs. D allowed people to go to the bathroom individually, or if there were designated times for bathroom breaks.

"She said we can go, but only one at a time, but if a lot of people keep asking, she will probably say no, because then it is like they're wasting time," he said.

I applauded his honesty and sent him off to the bathroom.

I walked around the room while they worked, making an effort to point out good behavior, another tip I read somewhere while doing my substitute teaching homework. "I like the way Ariel took out her book right away and began working quietly."

One student, Marian, seemed determined to find any distraction possible to keep her from completing anything. She asked if they could work with partners, which I nixed.

"We never do this with partners," another girl said reproachfully. Hooray for the nave truthfulness of fourth graders.

I passed out spelling worksheets and continued to monitor the class. When a few murmurs started, Brady shows me how to signal for quiet by raising two fingers in a V.

TELLING TIME

I realized that the class had gym at 10:05, just an hour into the school day. Timing is a problem for me as a sub. I tend to push things until the last minute anyway, but reporters and former reporters are accustomed to milking every millisecond from a minute. I have seen reporters practically cry with gratitude at being granted an extra two minutes to complete a story. Besides, why leave five minutes before you need to be somewhere if chances are you can get there in three, and use the other two minutes forsomething.

But I keep reminding myself that it takes some time for students to shift gears and line up, and I announced we would stop in two minutes to get ready to go to gym.

Karen turned around to look at the clock, and said that would mean leaving seven minutes before gym.

Cheryl turned around to face Karen. "I think she knows what she's doing," she said. A small vote of confidence, but I relished it because it is my first in the substitute teaching referendum.

Cheryl turned around to face Karen. "I think she knows what she's doing," she said. A small vote of confidence, but I relished it because it is my first in the substitute teaching referendum.

"We can leave early," another girl said helpfully.

I postponed our departure time from my original time, lined everyone up, and arrived at the gym at 10:06. The teacher said I was free for the next 45 minutes.

Before I left, Karen came up to me and whispered, "Be sure to be back at 10:50."

"I will," I assured her.

PREPPING FOR PHASE TWO

Back at the room, fueled by some coffee, I wrote down some notes and read instructions for a language arts lesson. I outlined the sections of the lesson on the board, as the teacher had instructed.

I also came across policies regarding pencil sharpening (another frequent request) and confirmation of the drink and bathroom procedures. After coats and book bags were put away at the beginning of the day, Mrs. D usually called each row to sharpen pencils to cut down on sharpening requests throughout the day.

I arrived at the gym at 10:48, and most students lined up promptly. Per Mrs. D's instructions, they are allowed to get a drink in the hall before walking back to the room, and some restlessness remained.

I announced that while we had missed pencil-sharpening in the morning, everyone would be allowed now to sharpen pencils for the day before starting the language arts packet.

The packet was lengthy; students had to read a short story and then complete multiple worksheets. We reviewed some vocabulary words and then I turned them loose. Belatedly, I read in the instructions that those who have not finished a previous assignment on Chalotte's Web must complete that before doing anything else, and about 45 minutes into the packet work, I instructed those students to call a halt to the short story until they finished their Web work.

Many grumbled at the volume of work in the language arts packet, and with few making significant headway, I delayed the start of a math lesson, which is not my strength anyway. When I started the math lesson, I reviewed a chapter on different forms of categorizing data, including tallying, and assigned some problems. But the explanation was not too clear to them or me, and they struggled with the problems and asked when it would be lunchtime. (Fourth graders ate lunch near the end of the school day, at 12:45 p.m.)

I told them that we would review the math assignment more after lunch and I also would give them more time to work on the language arts packet. Then I realized we had a health program after lunch with another fourth grade class, and I had to amend what I said to we probably would have time to get back to those assignments.

I reviewed my class's math lesson, and felt a small sense of accomplishment when a few said, "Oh, now I get it."

At some point before or after lunch, my voice might have risen some, and a woman stuck her head in the door and introduced herself as another sub.

"I tell everyone that this is my favorite class," she said. "Don't make a liar out of me." She reminded Nick to stop rocking his chair, wished me a good day, and was gone.

I thanked her for the visit.

Before we leave for lunch, Karen told me where I needed to meet them after recess, and what bell to listen for to know it was time to get them. "I'll be there," I said.

HEADING FOR HOME

After recess, the class read briefly before heading off to the library for health. I talked with the teacher doing the lesson during lunch, and she asked me to monitor two students taking a math retest while she is teaching the lesson. At the word "math" my neck hairs tingle, but she assured me it is subtraction and something I can handle.

After some moderate success with the math test, we marched back to the room. I reviewed my class's math lesson, and felt a small sense of accomplishment when a few said, "Oh, now I get it." Those that finished the math problems returned to the language arts packet, either on their own or with my encouragement.

For those who completed that, I handed out another math worksheet, and when that was done, I moved on to the current events assignment I brought.

As the one-hour mark before dismissal neared, the chatter and distraction levels began to rise. While some were industriously plugging away, one or two seem determined not to finish one math problem. The bathroom and water requests were growing in volume. I declared a moratorium on pencil-sharpening for the rest of the day when those requests also started to pop up; I can't bring myself to forbid bathroom trips.

The principal visited, but she did not issue any reprimands.

The last assignment was watching a video on gravity, and that pretty much was a success; most students were engaged, and no one tried to test the law of gravity on themselves or anyone else.

I passed out homework, collected a variety of assignments that I piled together, and urged quiet as they packed up their belongings and waited for buses.

There was some agitation and distraction, but their self-control seemed to be holding out.

As the buses were being called, one girl decided it was the perfect time to clean out of her desk, and dumped everything on the floor, convinced that she could get it all back before her bus arrived. Fortunately, she did.

They got the last chair up and the last one departed and I am left to sort out all the assignments I collected and write my note. There was some loss of decorum near the end, but it certainly was no Nightmare in Second Grade.

I'm not ready to call myself a teacher yet, but things were looking up.

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