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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Metaphyics of Substitute vs. ATR

“I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it. Everybody is a real one to me, everybody is like some one else too to me. No one of them that I know can want to know it and so I write for myself and strangers.” – Gertrude Stein

I am writing this blog so I can forget about what I have written and I won’t annoy my friends and family and countless members of the New York City Department of Education’s bureaucracies by talking at them about this stuff, or venting myself to them through emails, and simultaneously, by blogging, I won’t have to carry any of this to my grave. 

I am reminded of short, cute story by Mark Twain:  The narrator finds himself in the grip of the lyrics of a perfectly inane jingle, “Punch, brothers! punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”  The rhyme sticks to him, and obsesses him almost to the point of Poe-etic madness.  Finally he cures himself by sharing them with someone, and the curse is lifted, but transferred…

By writing, I am hoping to exorcise myself of the content, but also of the need to tell everyone I know through conversation.  I am not very good at conversation, especially when I am singularly monopolized by my own contribution to it.  “Do you realize you have to talk about your job (teaching/school/Department of Education) every five minutes?”

Students become very anxious when someone other than their teacher walks into the classroom, and those feelings only increase when the teacher isn’t there at all.  The more experienced and even jaded students spread the word, “Hey, it’s a sub! No work today!”  The class bully, or clown, or gang leader- every class has got one, occassioually more than one, so there might be a shouting match for the turf.  Maybe a very nice girl, one who usually sits in the first or second seat from the front, generally an asile or two from the side will pipe in, “Everybody be quiet.   He seems like a nice sub,”  Somehow kids know that to control an adult you need to have the “good cop” kids, and the trouble makers.  The trouble-makers divert attention while the nice kids can do what they want to do, which ranges from coloring and practicing spelling words, to applying nail polish or braiding hair.  The better boys, so as not to show how lonely they feel having been ostracized by the badder ones, hide themselves in their workbooks, or raise their hands to ask a question, which, as soon as they are called on, claim to have forgotten what they wanted to ask.  So you reassure them, and as soon as attention is given to another student, the kid with the question, and no group to call his own, raises the hand, (actually the entire arm, often supporting it at the elbow with his other hand) and frantically waves for your attention while simultaneously repeating, in a stage whisper, “I remembered what it was I wanted to ask,” and does the pee-pee dance with his knees under his desk, without ever moving his feet from that position of perfect obedience, flat on the floor.

I am telling you all this because I want to illustrate the great and terrible fear that students experience when their regular teacher isn’t there and someone they don’t know, or might only know from the rare occasions when their teacher is actually absent.  That terrible fear is the feeling that with the absence of the teacher, their identity has been taken too, and they must start the arduous task all over again, from the beginning, to create and sustain a personality and identity for the new teacher in charge.

Students see themselves as Mary or Sally or John or David because that is what their teacher has been calling them.  They know themselves, in the context of the classroom, by the way they are called and known by the teacher in charge.  The TIC, if we want to show we, as educators, are with the program.

So, aware as I am that they fear that their identity has somehow been kidnapped, and is in the possession of their regular teacher, I have ways to reassure them that they still exist, as a person, even if the regular person-validation machinery is slightly out of order, with a simple set of identity reinforcing techniques.

First, for the class bully, or the bossy ones who try to take control before you have even introduced yourself, I write something introductory on the board:

Unfortunately, Miss Crabtree cannot be with us for this class, though she may just be late. 
Mr. Hedges, from the Department of Education is here to observe the class.

Students have a choice of gradable activities:
            word search (science, language arts, foreign language, careers, vocabulary)
            Business and Career Vocabulary Builders
            Brain teasers:
       write 10 three letter words, each of which is a part of the human body
       write a sentence, phrase, or poem where the first word is one-letter long, the second is two letters, the third is three, and so on.  See how far you can get.
       write a story where the first word starts with the first letter of the alphabet and the second with B, third with C, up to Z

Business sense: You are organizing a party for your best friend.  How many guests will you invite?  How will you decorate the room?  What food and drinks will you provide?  What time will it start and end?  How will the food and drinks be served?  Who will take care of the clean up?

Make a list of the food, drink, decorations, other items you need for the party.
Estimate the costs.

The metaphysical conflicts that arise when an adult who isn’t the regular teacher shows up on his or her place, and then identifies himself or herself as a substitute for that teacher, are not insignificant in the socially constructed setting of the classroom.

Depending on how young the student is, associations and analogies from universal fairytales must encroach involuntarily.  The substitute teacher, also involuntarily, is blind to the weeks and maybe years of identity work and personality development that allows that student and the regular teacher to know and recognize one another.  We know who we are because we, and others acknowledge a degree of self-sameness in one another.  Remarks such as, “You seem angry today, you don’t seem to be your real self.  Did something happen on the playground,” flow perfectly naturally from the adult mouth to the child’s ear, but children are much less certain about who they are when adults see them, as compared to the way other children might.  The remark cite above that is intended to comfort the child might confuse and insult them. 

In the same way, an adult who is claiming to be a substitute for the child’s teacher might cause some confusion and anxiety and cause the child to question his own sanity, or the trustworthiness of the adult.

When I start the class, in the role of the substitute, I never use the “S” word.  First, I explain to the students that their regular teacher cannot be here with us today and that I am just here to observe or watch over them while they occupy themselves with certain specific activities, of which there is a choice.  I reassure them that I will not try to teach them, because they already have a very good teacher and it is confusing to students when they are taught by too many people, especially when they weren’t really expecting it.

Different classrooms are set up in different ways.  The graphic organizer I will use to demonstrate how to reassure a child that he or she is still in full possession of their identities, (that their identities have not been kidnapped by the missing teacher), is a simple grid.  It is not the exact pattern for every classroom, but the method I use of going from student to student varies only slightly.



I have numbered each of the boxes to show the path I take through the student section of the classroom.  I always begin at seat #1.  I present the seating chart for each student to understand and ask them if they can find their seat on the grid.
It is worth noting that many students are anxious about having their attendance taken and if you are a new Substitute, or ATR, they may want to help you, or do it for you, or just pass around a sign-in sheet.  While we are always grateful for student volunteers, I want to stress that this is not simply an attendance procedure but it is a way of allowing each student to feel connected to his or her identity, to share it, without giving it away or losing control over it.  It is therefore very important that I give each student a well calculated portion of my personal time and that I use the student’s name with him or her, in a private one-to-one conversation.  The is, as you can imagine, a real danger of what I call the “Class-Identity” to take over, and turn a group of individuals in to a crowd where collective behavior, rather than individual conscience, has control of the room.

First, I make it clear to the students who are worried about my taking proper care of their attendance, that as soon as everyone has begun sitting, I will begin to take their attendance. 

Usually, as students are entering the room I have already handed them an assignment paper.  Something familiar looking, like a word search, or an index card with a riddle on it.  I welcome them, and apologize to them, individually if necessary, that their regular teacher is away for the day.  When students accept the paper, (it could be a sheet of blank loose-leaf with verbal instructions to write their names, the date, a little story about a good day they had recently, and to include colors and weather and other details that can make it more interesting and real)

Soon most of the students are sitting at their desks, or have changed their seats for the day so they can sit nearer to their friends.  I do not discourage this.  I can generally tell if a student is not sitting in his or her assigned seats (assuming they have been assigned their seats).  If students are turning around to talk to the students behind them, I may delay the attendance procedure and ask them to move their desks into a group, that way they can keep their voices down and they can all work at producing something really good by the end of the class.

Beginning with Box #1 I say, “Hello.  I am Mr. David (I used to say Mr. Hedges, but I’d usually have to repeat it.  David is one of those “got it the first time” names, and it builds their confidence.  I recommend simple, familiar first names, like Ms. Theodore, or Mr. James, or Mr. Sandelowsky, but call me Mr. S.)

Teacher: Hello.  I am Mr. David.  This is a graphic organizer or seating chart of the whole classroom and you are going to be the first to write your name on it.  Notice you are sitting row closest to the wall, and all the way in the back.  Can you find your spot on the chart?”  [Sometimes kids need a little help, but mostly they want to try.]  Yes, that’s right.  Now, would you please print your first and last name in the box?  [I always ALWAYS hand the student my pen, even if they have their own.  I will write more about the kind of pen I use and why it is important at a later time.

After the student has written his or her name I pick up the clipboard and read it aloud.  Lazarus, I say, what a great name.  What a great sounding name.  The “S” at the end seems to just go on forever, like music, right?  Can you tell me something about your name?

And the student might tell me something of family history, or of its biblical meaning. 

All of this takes about a minute, rarely more. 

“Thank you, Lazarus,” I say and I move now to spot #2. 

“Hello.  You are Lazarus’s left-hand learning partner aren’t you.  See where Lazarus has printed his name?  Where do you think you will print your name?  Here, would you like to use my pen? [the pen is offered].  The same light conversation between student two and myself.

The I move up to the student who is sitting in front of student #2. 

“Hello,” I say.  You are sitting ahead of Ben, and just one up and one over from Lazarus.  Do you see where your name goes?  “Here, please use my pen.”

When I get to the top of the row I turn to the row I have just completed and using simple body language, such as a nod, or a smile, I get the entire two rows to realize what they have just done and that I am now going to walk to the back of the class and begin the same process with the next two rows.  They know what I must do, and they behave respectfully, cooperatively and I thank them for it when I get to the top of the second set of rows.  You can say things like, This row has been very busy working independently so I can hear everybody’s name and nobody is being left out.  Thank you.  You guys are awesome!

As time remains, you as the teacher will have identified which students would benefit with a little more attention, or with a little less.  You have identified who might be a good learning partner or buddy, and which students need to do their own thing and not to pay them any attention, until they do something helpful or productive.  For example, I had a student who wouldn’t sit down.  I called him the class’s social ambassador.  As he walked from group to group or student to student, I didn’t pay him any mind.  BUT, as soon as he took his seat, I looked over, from the other side of the room, and gave him the attention he had seen others getting.  I walked over, congratulated him and his group on having settled on a mini project that would make their regular teacher happy when she returns, tomorrow, and I took out a highlighter and drew a box around all the members of the group to show that they were now all included in that group and told them that when their teacher comes back, she would be proud to see how well they were working together that day. 

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