A fourth grade class touted as "a great class" lived up to its reputation, even for an inexperienced sub. Classroom helpers made the day go more smoothly, and I experienced some of the satisfaction that comes from teaching. Included: Some strategies for substituting.
Five wonderful, welcome, and encouraging words greeted me shortly after I walked into an elementary school for my monthly substitute assignment:
"This is a great class."
I could feel a small cheer erupting inside me as a staff member who uttered those words walked me to my fourth-grade classroom. The past few assignments had been rough, not only testing but draining my paltry reserve of classroom management skills. On two of those days, I'd been greeted with warnings such as "There are two or three who could give you trouble," or "There are a couple in here who are hard-headed," which for a sub can be just as disquieting as a corporate executive hearing, "There's a 60 Minutes news team waiting in your office."
I was running a little late on this particular day, and when I arrived in the room, I found most of the students lined up against the wall near the door, holding recorders and folders, waiting to go to music class.
I called the two students assigned to help with the lunch count and attendance to the front of the room (one was absent, so the other designee, Andrea, covered for him), got that done, and apologized for being late. ("That's okay," one student said understandingly.) I told the line leader I trusted he could show me to the music room. "Sure," he said.
As we marched downstairs, the line leader explained the route to me: ("We're going down the stairs") so I could find my way back. I thanked him and left the class with the music teacher.
Back at the room, I had about 45 minutes to get acclimated and read the lesson plans. In the teacher's note, Mr. F wrote: "This is a great class, but if there are any problems, please let me know. Positive rewards work best with this class. Give a lot of points!"
I decided it was my day to buy lottery tickets.
While mapping out my plan of action for the morning, a paraprofessional came in and said she usually was assigned to the class in the morning to work with a particular student -- the boy who was absent. She said she would check with the office to see if she should stay anyway, then added those wonderful words:
"But this is such a good class, I don't think you'll need me."
She returned later and told me she was assigned to me for the morning anyway.
Seventeen kids and a paraprofessional! I could hear the Hallelujah Chorus breaking out in my head.
Before I picked up the students, I made sure I knew the answer to the math problem of the day and filled in the answers for the language arts worksheets.
I got to the music room a little early and listened to the lesson. The students were learning American folk songs and singing "If I Had A Hammer."
Back upstairs we went for the morning assignments. Two official paper-passers appeared at my desk, and math and language arts worksheets were distributed as the other kids worked on the problem of the day. Another girl, Michelle, went online and quietly looked up the weather report, which she noted on the board and later announced to the class.
Within 15 minutes of the hour-plus-long morning work time, one girl had finished all of the worksheets (actually, she later realized she had not completed one side of the math worksheet) and quietly began reading. Before long, I noticed that many of the students had silently segued to reading once their work was done.
A few comments from me such as, "I like how Andrea, Fred, Michelle are working quietly," sent any wandering eyes back to their papers.
The principal came in for a visit and noted that the class was showing good behavior and told me what extension number to call should any problems arise.
No doubt she set the tone for the school. This principal recently had been named a National Distinguished Principal of the Year. Two local television crews, in fact, were filming at the school that day.
Later in the morning we were joined by a parent volunteer, who helped with questions and collecting materials.
A paraprofessional and a parent! Pinch me!
All this good behavior certainly didn't mean the class was filled with little robots. There were plenty of individuals. Andrea, who was the first to help me in the morning, could be overly helpful. She was using the authority void to give directions to the kids and I, and I started to think she would pull off a bloodless coup given the chance.
Mario had a dramatic flair, and would walk up to me, look me earnestly in the eye, and issue pronouncements: "He needs to move," Mario said, meaning the boy behind him. "He's talking. There should not be talking."
When a water bottle began seeping during snack time, Mario began collecting paper towels. "Leakage, we have leakage," he sighed, shaking his head.
Math was another matter. I saw on the lesson plans I needed to review area and perimeter, and I could have used a few weeks warning to do that. It had been a long time since I calculated either, and that was under duress. The teacher also noted that this was "very important" so I should continue after lunch if I didn't finish in the morning. Since this was a review, I decided to let the students take the lead, and asked for a definition of area.
The one I got sounded familiar, until Tom, a studious boy who also made fast work of the morning worksheets, asked, "But isn't that the perimeter?"
What had I been thinking? Oh, I had lost my head. Of course that was the definition of perimeter. The other definition referred to area.
Scanning the notes in the teacher's edition revived enough brain cells for me to answer most students' questions. (As Andrea pointed out helpfully, "You know, the answers are in there.") A few students asked questions, but with a familiar paraprofessional and parent in the room, I was not the first choice, although the other adults' recollection of math facts was about on par with mine.
I had returned to the classroom before the end of lunch, and Andrea came in to tell me I was supposed to pick up the class at the top of the stairs.
I was on my own for the afternoon, but all went smoothly, with a little improvising. A parent came in and said she usually helped out when we to the computer room in the afternoon, but since that was not in the plans for the day, I said I would stay in the room, so she went home.
To keep on the routine, I read them two chapters from a book after lunch, then continued the math review, which drew a few groans, but no signs of revolt.
We took a break to visit the school's social studies fair in the gym, and I allowed the class to break out of line and wander on their own. ("We're in fourth grade. We're responsible," one girl said to me in seeking the privilege.) The exhibits included tracing a family tree, a display on community helpers, and more traditional projects looking at historical figures, events, or countries.
Several students from my class had projects, such as a look at Italy, a report on the Titanic, a study of area Native American tribes, and an exploration of his father's career as a local police officer.
Back in the room, a news story on fuel held the kids' attention while they took turns reading, but when it came to answering questions about the story many complained that the questions were too difficult or unclear, and I had to agree in some cases, so we brainstormed some ideas for answers. I allowed myself some satisfaction when some students said, "Oh!" and went to scribble an answer after I talked them through some questions.
Dismissal, never my best activity, actually went pretty well, thanks to some student helpers.
I did not do well assigning points, which I regretted. Students were assigned to teams, but the team members were not necessarily near each other, so I found it difficult to assess the behavior of different groups, and wound up giving all the teams the same number of points.
I packed up at the end of my best day subbing yet and wondered how many lottery tickets to buy.
(Editor's Note: All students' names have been changed)