"You look sick. Or are you in a bad mood?"
The first kid has walked into fourth period, Thomas, a tough, tall kid on the basketball team. He's usually loud, singing some rap song, obnoxious, barely pays attention to a word I say, but today he sees I'm leaning over my podium instead of standing at the door and shows a little compassion.
"I'm OK," I respond, my voice a lot scratchier than it feels. "Just a cold." It's winter, so it's time for my annual aches and pains. You'd think I'd be immune to most viruses by now, but the kids keep on bringing more germs from all corners of the planet. And so I go through the annual cycle of sickness: The First-Week-of-School Flu, the Parent-Teacher-Conference Cold, the Winter Whooping Cough, Spring Fever, Senioritis. That last one, I think, I've been suffering for the past 15 years of my life. There's no cure.
"If you're not feeling well, we should watch a movie!" Thomas announces. "Doesn't even have to be educational. Just pop something on and relax."
"Thanks for your concern," I say.
"Yeah, I'm concerned," he says. "I'm so concerned, maybe you should just take the day off tomorrow. You know, stay in bed, have some soup, relax, get better."
"I don't know," I say. "When I'm sick, I like to come share my unhappiness with you guys. Misery loves company, you know."
When I'm sick, I go to work. Usually. And when the bell rings, classes start, I usually feel less cranky and tired. The students wake me up, energize me, make me think less about my suffering. Plus, I want to save up my sick days for when I have something better to do, like go on vacation. I love the idea of calling in sick while rushing to catch a flight. But there's another reason I hate calling in: I don't want the substitute teacher to learn how bad of a teacher I am.
If I leave work, and the kids don't do it, or if they're wildly out of control, the sub will know that these kids don't really respect me, don't take my class seriously. And that's what I'm afraid of. I used to be a sub, so I know this is true: When I walked into a room, handed out an assignment, and the kids actually did it, that was a good teacher's classroom. It only happened two or three times, but still, I want to be one of those teachers.
So far this year, I've been out three times: twice for conferences and once because I strained my back and could barely walk. Each time I was so worried about what was going on in my classroom that I could barely enjoy myself. But each time when I returned, I realized the world did not end in my absence. The first time I was out, in fact, I got an interesting note from the sub the next day.
I had warned all my classes that I'd be out. I explained what they'd have to do. I begged them to behave, told them there would be consequences if I returned to the scene of a disaster. Then I left a note for the sub, detailing what each class was supposed to be doing, and telling her what to expect from my classes. "Most of my classes are well-mannered and you shouldn't have too many problems," I wrote. "However, fourth period is my rowdiest class, and I apologize in advance for their actions."
When I returned, the note was quite opposite from my expectations: All my classes, apparently, were loud and disrespectful except for fourth period. At the start of class, I read from the substitute's note: "Students were out of their seats, listening to i-Pods, and talking back." I looked up. The fourth period kids were incredulous.
"What!? We were good!" one girl yelled.
"Oh yeah, that's for third period," I said. "Let's see what she wrote about you guys: 'Class was surprisingly good. Students worked quietly together to finish assignment.'" I looked up. Big smiles from around the room. They were proud. Happy to be acknowledged. And all those years of hearing how students want and need positive reinforcement finally proved to be true. If you focus on the good ... and you reward positive behavior instead of punishing negative behavior ... they will behave. When kids act out, supposedly, they just want attention.
"We should get extra credit for that," Thomas announced, speaking louder than the other dozen voices wanting something in return. "Show us a movie!"
"A movie for doing what you were supposed to be doing? I don't think so," I said. "But I will remember this."
Two days later, things were back to normal. At the start of class, a couple of boys were tormenting a girl, who hurled curses back at them. Some kids were restless, barely able to sit still. Others had heads down. A couple of the good kids were bored, waiting to learn something. And I was frustrated and, as I was ready to blow, to forget the focus-on-the-positives bullshit and start kicking kids out, Thomas came to the rescue. "Don't get mad. We're your best class, remember?" he said. "Maybe you could show us a movie!"