My Substitute Teaching History — Part 2: when an non-parent has to maintain discipline

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I want to go over in some detail the breakdown of my substitute teaching experience in 2005.  This part of the history concerns mainly the problems I experienced with discipline of students, usually low-income or special education.

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I’ll start by throwing out a typical web reference for discipline tips for substitute teachers, here.  In fact, Arlington County had a handout that pretty much said this.  It specifically mentioned greeting students.  I am not one who likes to go out of the way to pamper people and throw gratuitous attention at them.

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There is a previous write-up, in detail, on Blogger dating back to July 2007, here.   I will go over this chronologically to give all the forensic details.

In this account I will give dates and names of schools, but not names of people.

My first sub assignment ever was on Friday, April 30, 2004 at Mt. Vernon High School in Fairfax County, off off Rt. 1, five miles south of Alexandria.  The official assignment was “special education”, which was not on my profile.  The first period actually was to fill in for another sub caught in traffic, Honors English.  Went fine.  The second period was special education, just a few students, and they watched the patronizing 1969 film “Charly”, where a retarded man is temporarily a genius after a science experiment.  A rather tasteless idea.   The third period was an emergency, Spanish (not on my profile, but any foreign language was OK).  The fourth period was true spec-ed, and rather unruly, with kids climbing onto computers and watching hip-hop.  The day was OK.

Saturday night, I happened to watch the Lifetime-Lionsgate film “Student Seduction” on cable.  I guess I didn’t go out.  That film will get talked about again.

Let me fastforward to Tuesday, May 18.  For the first couple of weeks, things went smoothly.  On that day, I accepted a PHTA (Public Health Training Assistant) at Centerville High School in Fairfax County, off Rt. 66.   It was not on my profile, but it seemed like anyone could get a call, so I took it for the day’s pay and out of curiosity,  This turned out to be a day with very severely disabled teens.  We went “on the road” (to quote writer Jack Kerouac) on a field trip to Gainesville, where the kids were to have an occupational therapy day.  There was a minor hygiene “accident” so we came back after a couple hours (on a school bus).  I really didn’t have to do anything at all (a regular attendant, himself an Iraq veteran, took care of everything).  I was startled by the degree of disability, which varied as to cause (Down’s, autism, various medical or neurological explanations).  The students’ desks had signs taped on telling them how they were expected to behave.   The atmosphere would have made them feel “wrong”.  The atmosphere was not intimate, and the staff, while dedicated to the work, had a two-faced attitude, able to keep a certain emotional detachment in the way they talked about the kids.

On Thursday, May 20, I took another chance, with an assignment with the “Stratford Program” in Arlington.  I had been a little lax in what I had allowed to go onto my Arlington profile, to see if I could pick up more assignments.  Again, this was another class of severely disabled students.  They were going to go on another gentle day trip.   I was suddenly switched to a different class, that had no sub.  This small class was supposed to go swimming.  (I had definitely not included PE in my profile.) The teacher suddenly asked if I could “help in the locker room and man the deep end of the swimming pool.  Well, I’m no Michael Phelps (I would see the shaving as humiliating) and in fact I never really learned to swim.  (Somehow I managed a C in it at GWU).  So I bailed out.  I got paid for the entire day. I did remove Stratford Program from my profile.

During this period, I did take some “Extended Day” babysitting assignments, which took care of the elementary or middle school kids until parents who worked picked them up (by 6:30 PM).  This went pretty well.  I didn’t do a lot.  I played a lot of chess games and won every single one of them.  (There were no chess prodigies on these assignments, but there are teen chess prodigies in Arlington now.)  One time we set up a whiffleball game outside, and I was on the winning side of an 11-1 3-inning victory.  I knew how to pitch a whiffleball and make it curve.

There was one more curious experience with extreme disability.  I took an “assistant instructor” 3-day assignment at Lake Braddock in December.  Some of it was pretty routine, but with a couple periods I was supposed to accompany a teen who was totally non-responsive.  I was supposed to “make him” do some work, whatever that could mean.  But over the three days he started calling me “Santa Claus” and behaving very unpredictably.

The next troubling assignment occurred on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2005.  This was at Science Focus Elementary, the only elementary school I had allowed on profile.  I had called after leaving the Virginia Hospital Center for a quick cat scan for a dental problem that had flared in the late fall.  I got an ESOL (English as a second language) assignment, and drove right over.  But I had thought that I got only assistant positions there because elementary was not on my profile as a subject to teach.  But anyone could get ESOL.  I backed out.  Curiously, the administration there did not know that subs did not have to be licensed.  So I removed the school myself.

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On Monday January 24, 2004, I had a spec-ed class at Kenmore, which was still in its old building. It went rather badly.  But afterword the teacher promised to have the kids write a letter of apology.  There was one person in seventh grade who obviously didn’t need to be there, and I told her.  There was also an incident where students ganged up on one kid, and I had to call security quickly.  The kids would be taken to another teacher’s room for a “time out”.

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That night, I got a call for a nine-day assignment at Kenmore in music, a band class.   That should have been up my alley.  In fact, the first period was wonderful, all good musicians and a student conductor.  The next two periods were “planning”.  The third and fourth periods were catastrophes.  The regular teacher had left the same instructions, but these classes were chaos.  There was no one designated as a “helpful student” or “conductor”, as had always been done in music before.  Special ed students who were mainstreamed in electives like were on their own. (In academic classes, when special education students were mainstreamed, the classes were usually team-taught, and there was usually another teacher in the room).  I have wondered ever since why I turned “lazy” about “stepping up” to the challenge and playing conductor (most of all, for that horrid “Prehistoric Suite”).  But a background in piano (nine years for me) does not address how people play together in the wind section of an orchestra, or how people work together.  One female sixth grader begged me to take over and “conduct” and wrote a notice to the office to as to which students were misbehaving! That is a wholly different ball game.  I was lost.  The last two periods went extremely well: one was jazz, and another was eighth grade, advanced, and they played an Offenbach overture for me. The administration canceled my assignment after two days and found a “real” band teacher somewhere.

I still got one more assignment there Monday Feb. 7, sixth grade English.  That seemed to go OK. But an administrator stepped in and scolded the class once.

On Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005, I got ESOL at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, which was extremely unruly. An administrator had to take over the class of largely immigrant Hispanic students.  But the school did not complain about me.

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The next kahuna occurred on Mon-Wed. April 4-6, 2005, at Williamsburg Middle School, in an affluent area of north Arlington.  This was a science class, and the kids are generally pretty good.  About 90% of them did the assigned classwork with no problems.  They seemed to be doing pretty well with the material.  But on Monday, there was an incident where a male student passed a paper note to a female suggesting religious intolerance.  Tuesday, an assistant principal appeared and indicated another teacher would accompany me for two of the classes to “protect” a couple of students who had apparently been bullied this way.  I felt like this was not my problem.  There was no way for a sub to know what was going on or to police arcane incidents like this.  (There were other silly things, like the teacher’s asking the sub’s to rate each class so that the best class could get a pizza party;  I don’t pamper people that way.)  I did complete the assignment.

On Saturday, April 16 I got a  form letter telling me I had be banned from Williamsburg.   The letter wording used the phrase “poor classroom management”.   I called the new administrator, whom I had worked with over at the Career Center, and she checked and found another form  “do not use” (or “do not send”) letter (same letter) from Kenmore dated Feb. 18, that I had never received.  I had all the middle schools canceled.

I had taught at another middle school, Gunston, in south Arlington, and four times in April, previously committed assignments were canceled in a short period.  But I was not banned there.  One class at Wakefield with the same teachers (music) took place.  I think, in retrospect, I was supposed to “get the message”.

Remember, the rule was you got fired if you got three “do not send’s”.  I did arrange a meeting with the Arlington substitute office, and found that Williamsburg had enclosed a note that said “The sub was unwilling and unable to implement any order or discipline. As a result there were multiple and very significant problems with conduct on behalf of the students.”  As that assistant principal had said, “middle school kids.”  But the clandestine paper note was the only specific problem that anyone complained about to me specifically (although one student climbed out the window into the courtyard on the first day).

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In May 2005, I had a particular assignment as an assistant at the Arlington Career Center.  That had always been an interesting place, with courses like photography, shop, IT, and even animal husbandry.  And one more little trap, child care.  Yes, they taught child care as a “career”.  Well, it is.  I bounced out of that one and got a different assignment there that day.  But is was another foul tip, that the catcher didn’t hold onto.  I stayed alive, not like John Travolta though.

I’ll skip to the last assignment in Arlington, Oct. 5-6, 2005 at Wakefield High School in Arlington, physics.  That should have been wonderful, but this teacher had the watered-down sections for poor students, usually low-income and minority.  Although high school usually went well, sometimes at Wakefield then (still in its old building) with low income students some teachers tried to enforce unreasonable rules, like no bathroom breaks.   I was asked to do that with an afternoon class, and the second day it totally broke down.  I saw a complaint written from a good student that she could not concentrate because I had allowed other students to become disruptive.  I presumed I would be banned, my strike three, so I resigned by email that night immediately.  I pulled the plug.

I would have been back at Wakefield for that teacher the following week had this breakdown not occurred, so that became part of the chain of coincidences that would set up “Internet-Gate” next week, which I will cover in a subsequent post soon.  Dr. Phil would love that one.

Here I was, expected to act like a parent, knowing how to manipulate the kids from other people’s marriages (or non-relationships – just random acts) without having any such experience with procreation myself.  That was how it struck me.

As it would happen, I would stop subbing after 2005, and do one more semester in the first half of 2007 (future post).  Since then, I’ve attended a couple of local churches in Arlington, with a tendency toward upper income, stability, and blue-state social values.  I’ve seen teens and college students with some pretty unbelievable talent in music, drama, and computer programming.  I’m sure that had I had any of them, they would have done super.  (Well, they would know me.)  Had I become a regular math teacher after all, they would have done super in my classes.  No question at all.

Likewise, there were plenty of super students in this 2004-2007 period.  There’s been enough time for a couple of them to have finished medical school last spring.  Maybe they’re paying their dues as interns on 36-hour shifts now.

(Published Wednesday Feb. 19, 2014 at 11:59 PM.)

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