Thursday, February 21, 2008

Things substitutes do

Maybe one day I can compile a list of crazy things substitute teachers say and do. For now, one example should do.

Upon my return from a sick day recently, I saw the words "Wall of SHAME" written in large letters on my board. Uh-oh, I thought, my students must have really been acting up yesterday. So I asked them about it. From every class, the response was the same:

Any student arriving late had to stand at the "Wall of SHAME" for two minutes. Everyone else was instructed to point at the latecomer and laugh.

"Are you serious?" I asked each of my classes.

"Yeah, he was crazy!" everyone responded.

"What if the late person refused to stand at the board?" I asked.

"He would kick them out of class."

"So, did you guys laugh?"

"Yeah." "He told us to." "We had to!"

In a way, I have to say I admire the guy. I wish I could get the students to do what I wanted. I mean, all I ever really ask is that they do their best. But maybe that's asking too much ...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Turn that smile upside down

Every year, there are a few students that really stand out. Might not necessarily be the best or brightest, but there's a personality, or fire, somewhere inside that make those kids memorable. One of those kids this year was someone with the nickname Smiley.

Smiley was a positive, inquisitive girl in my fifth period class. Plus, when you saw her smile, you knew where the name came from.

It's the start of the second semester, and I'm talking about Smiley in the past tense. That's because she's gone. Quit. Hasn't been to school in weeks, and doesn't intend to come back.

In late December, just before winter break, she had been absent for a couple of days, and one of her friends asked me to call her at home. "I called her, and she was crying, saying that school was pointless," the friend said. I asked the friend for the phone number--sure, we have all of our students' personal information, but often it's wrong, so I needed a number that would be answered.

I called. Smiley's mom picked up. "Oh, she's got a cold," mom said. "She'll be back tomorrow."

And she was. After class the next day, I asked her to stick around. "I talked to your mom yesterday," I said. "She said you had a cold." She nodded. "Is that all that was wrong? Or is something bothering you?"

She stood there for a bit, contemplating.

"It's just that I don't see the point in coming to school," she said. "I mean, I have two classes that matter, with teachers that care and make me think. The rest of the day I just sit there." She gave me a rundown of her schedule, talking about the incompetent, bored, unprofessional teachers she has this year, her junior year, the year that'll determine her college choices and chances.

And what could I say? There are a lot of shitty teachers in Chicago. Protected by a shitty union. Sure, our school also has many, many dedicated teachers, working hard, pushing the students, expecting much. But ... sometimes a student gets an unlucky schedule.

So, my advice went something like this: "You're right. Some of your teachers aren't the greatest. But here's the thing. You have dreams of going to college. You want to be someone. If you quit because of your schedule, you lose. Those teachers stay. Here's what you should do: In those classes where nothing's happening, where the teacher has no control over the students, or doesn't care what you do, you should sit away from the disturbances and read something. Study on your own. And then in the classes with good teachers, really work hard. Every day, look for that one moment where you really learn something. One moment can change your entire life, and you don't know when that moment will happen, so you have to come to school every day and look for it."

I ramble like that a lot. I spend hours each week encouraging students to just stick around, trying to convince them that it's all worth it in the end. I should go into sales. Every once in a while it works.

In January, Smiley was back, looking invigorated and eager. "Hey, it's great to see you," I told her.

"I decided to take your advice," she beamed. "And you're right. Every day, I can learn at least one new thing."

That was about a month ago now. She hasn't been in class in the past three weeks. No one's answering the phone.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Northern Illinois University

It was the place where I studied to be the teacher I am today. Actually, that's sort of a lie: I did major in English with an emphasis in education, but I never was much of a student, spending way too much time at the student-run newspaper and student radio station. Whatever. They were a pretty good four years at a wannabe university. Today, it finally made national headlines as the latest location of a school shooting.

Several of my former students are there right now, some because of my recommendation. Hopefully they're OK ...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

This must be what jail is really like

"Long time no see."

A familiar head popped in the door the other day. A really cool kid I hadn't seen in months. "Hey," I said. "What have you been up to?"

"Well," he said, "I was locked up. But I'm back. And I'm trying to get back in school here."

"Hey, that's great. Is everything, um, OK?"

"Yeah. I mean, I'm on parole now. But all that stuff's behind me now."

"Good. It's good to see you. Hopefully everything will work out. But I hope you hurry it up. The semester's already two weeks old, so you're already behind."

And so we chit-chatted for a bit. About things we're doing in class. About who's still here, who's gone. Of course there was a big question I wanted to ask but didn't. What had he been arrested for? I didn't ask, and he didn't offer up the information. Instead, he produced a report card.

"I got an A in British Literature," he said, pretty proud.

I looked at the grades: A in English and three B's. "Not bad," I said. "So, you took classes in jail?"

"Yeah. And the teachers there were really good. Good enough to be, you know, real teachers. They could work at a regular high school. It wasn't just worksheets and that kind of stuff. We read from textbooks and did, you know, work."

"That's really great. Tell me more about it. Like, how many guys were in your classes?"

"Classes weren't too big, maybe 12 or 13 people."

"And the teachers were good?"


"And were there guards?"

"Oh yeah."

"In the room with you? In the back, just ready to kick some ass?"

"Well, not in the room. But the teachers had a button on their desk. And if there was trouble, they'd press that and the guards would come on in."

"Did that ever happen?"

"No ... you know, school was a chance to get out of your cell. Get out of the daily routine. Nobody wanted to mess that up."

"And so everyone was there to learn?"

"Yeah. Nobody messed around."

"Huh," I said, thinking, how the hell could I show my everyday students that school is, you know, an opportunity? A chance to get out of the cell of life that so many of them are stuck in, a chance to get out of the routine.

"Anyway, I'm gonna get going," he said. "I hope to be back in your class soon."

"Thanks. I hope you get back, too."

And if I get him back, I hope to write about it. And about whatever else happens.