Monthly Archives: November 2008

From Wisconsin

Last Friday I was called to sub at a middle school near the house. After the previous Friday’s experience in a middle school I never wanted to see the inside of a middle school classroom again. But, I considered that, just maybe, not all middle schools were the same and the kids in this other middle school might be easier to deal with. Anyway, never being one to turn down a challenge, I decided to give it a try.

I was really glad I did. This second school was a very small middle school (about 500 students) and they were even better behaved than the kids at the high school. It was a joy to be with them. I told them they could call me “Mr. Chris” or “Mr. Davis”. They asked if they could call me “Mr. C.D.” which I said was OK by me. One student, seeing my Winnie the Pooh tie, asked if she could call me “Mr. Pooh.” I said, “I don’t care.”

I told them what I tell every new class: “I’ve been a teacher for 25 years but have never been in a school classroom.” Then I let them ask questions until they figure it out. I tell them, “I have a seating chart, but I really don’t care where you sit as long as you do your work.” They ask, “Can we sit on the floor?” and I say, “I don’t really care.” One girl in the front row asked, “Do you care about anything?” I told her, “You know, most things aren’t really worth caring about.” She agreed.

Sunday I left Crossville and drove the 14 hours to Wisconsin Dells where I am now staying with James. We awoke Monday morning to 3″ of snow and a beautiful, but really cold and windy day. We crunched around town in the snow (the town is a version of Gatlinburg) and he took me to where he works to show me the beautiful, new, state-of-the-art theater. It holds almost 800 and is a dinner theater. I will see his show on Wednesday afternoon.

James has been put up in one of the cottages of a 1930’s era motel. It is very sparse. The door from the outside opens into the tiny bedroom with a door leading to the tinier bathroom. A low table holds the smallest refrigerator I’ve ever seen on top of which is pearched a microwave that is too big to fit and hangs over the fridge.

Today, James and I are going to Madison with the cast to eat Mexican after he practices a dance routine with one of the girls in the show. As I write this James is sitting next to me on the bed (which is the only piece of furniture other than a chest of drawers). He is reading the book, “Twilight” and sighing with sarcasm and disgust. I bought the book because so many of the girls in the schools where I sub have asked me if I’d read it. “Mr. Chris, it is absolutely THE BEST book ever written. It’s better than the Harry Potter books!” Gag.

Tomorrow I see James’s show and, then, we have Thanksgiving with the cast here at the motel. Then, I will leave early Friday morning to return to Tennessee.

Charles: the long-johns were a real life-saver.

Benjamin Perry: I brought along the knitted footies you made me and am glad I did!

Misty: I haven’t forgotten you but we’ll have to take a raincheck until I get settled down.

Phil & Debbie: thanks for letting my stay in Crossville Saturday night.

I’ve received an email from Israel about possible employment there. Nothing concrete I can write about at this time.

See you again soon…

Riding a tiger

I think I’ve climbed on a tiger and I can’t get off.

You know the story: if you ride a tiger, you can’t jump off or you’ll be eaten.

By starting the story of my school teaching experience, people are writing and asking, “And, what about today?” So, I can’t stop writing or what I said yesterday will seem like the only thing that is happening to me.

Today I went to the high school and EVERYTHING was different. For starters, the teacher for whom I was subbing had left a totally detailed outline of every period and what was to be done. Second, the students were a delight: they liked each other and were only playful instead of rude. They liked me and I liked them. It didn’t hurt that they had to spend most of the period taking a test which kept them quiet and busy.

I began each class by saying that I had thoroughly enjoyed their high school play which I had seen last week. Several students in each class had been in the play. When I told them I had 2 sons who were actors and both would have liked the play, the students were impressed. Then I told them I had been a teacher for 25 years but had never been in a classroom. I let them figure out how that could be and, when they did, they were impressed. Since the subject was American History, I asked them to guess how I had taught American History to my sons. They were impressed.

After each class had taken the test, I divided them into groups and gave them the red hat/green hat riddle and most of them really worked to figure it out. At the end of the day’s final period, about 6 or 7 students were gathered around the marker board arguing about which hat they were wearing and who had the best explanation for having figured it out. They begged me to tell them the answer but I refused, saying that they were smart enough and would “figure it out before tomorrow”. Even after school let out, one of the girls dragged a boy into the class and explained the riddle to him so he could help her with the answer.

I don’t know where I will be tomorrow. But today was a really nice change. One of the students said to me, “Mr. Chris, you’re really cool.” I especially liked a shirt one of the students was wearing. It said, “If my music bothers you, you must be old.” I think Seth would say that about his Dad.

I know some of you have prayed for me because you’ve told me so. Many thanks.

I wake up each morning at 5:30, get ready and eat breakfast. Then I wait for a phone call from a school. I never know which one will call or if any one will call, but I have to be ready to go when, and if, someone calls. Tomorrow I hope the same high school calls be back.

Teaching in the Martix (part 2)

6th period: Before the students entered the room, the teacher from the class next door came in to introduce herself. “How are you doing?” she asked. “I’ve been her 6 weeks so far. I had my cry earlier this morning.” She left.

The students entered. “We hear that you are nice. We are not nice. We talk and yell and don’t pay attention.”

They talked and yelled and didn’t pay attention. I tried to group them in 3’s and have them do the “red had/green hat” riddle (after first eliciting from them a promise that they wouldn’t talk and yell and that they would pay attention). They talked and yelled and didn’t pay attention. But, out of respect for me they screamed at one another to SHUT UP! “YOU shut up!” “No YOU shut up!” “You are telling ME to shut up but YOU keep talking!” This went on the entire period.

Finally they began to plead with me to yell at them: “You have to yell and scream at us or we won’t do what you say.” I replied, “But I don’t scream at people.” They said, “What do you do to your own kids when they don’t do what you say? Don’t you yell at THEM?” I said, “Why should I yell at my own kids?” One of the students looked up at me in disbelief and said, “Will you be MY Daddy?” There was no gorilla in the room.

Finally, the teacher from next door came in and she did yell at them: “I can hear you through the walls!” No good. Didn’t work. As class time came to an end, I asked them what grade they thought they deserved. They admitted that a “2” was probably honest. Then, when the bell rang, a couple of them came to me and asked that I give a note to their teacher telling her that THEY had not been bad and didn’t want to get in trouble with the rest of the class. They were right. They had not been bad. I didn’t take their names to give to the teacher.

7th period: All I can say is that they were worse than 6th period.

Each period I stood in front of these kids and marveled. All the foolishness and pent-up energy of 12 and 13 year olds. All the desire to learn about things that really matter but that they weren’t going to get in this place. I knew that THEY knew this was an artificial environment (it is one of the most artificial environments any society could create). I knew that THEY felt incarcerated. I knew that THEY knew they were being made to learn things that would have little meaning for their futures. I knew that THEY knew there were things deep inside them that mattered immensely that were not going to be allowed to be expressed. They didn’t know these things cognitively, but they knew them intuitively.  It was as if their behavior was their only way to protest having had their young spirits imprisoned for years, being required to do everything OTHER than what had meaning to them.

Add to the mix that today’s parents no longer teach their children to respect anything: themselves, others, authority.

I thought, “If I were these kids and were made to sit in those seats and do what you are made to do, day after day, year after year, I would act just like you are acting.” I wanted to tell them that, but didn’t dare.

I also thought, “These aren’t ‘bad kids’. They are pretty GOOD kids. I am grieved that I have to participate in this charade. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes right before my eyes. When will enough people be willing to stand up and say, “HEY folks, the Emperor is naked!”

I said to one class, “I’d like to take you all outside where we could learn some things that are really worthwhile.” One boy responded, “But, it’s raining…”

Actually, it was raining INSIDE. I felt like joining the teacher next door for a good cry.

Monday, I go to the high school to substitute there.

Teaching in the Matrix

Friday was to be my first day as an official substitute teacher in Knoxville. I had no idea what to expect other than what I’d read online and what I’d been told in the substitute teacher orientation session two weeks earlier: “If you don’t immediately establish yourself as the gorilla in the room, you will be eaten alive.”

Feeling a little insecure about my first day on the job, I decided to visit the school a day early to get a “heads up” from the teacher whose class I would be teaching the next day.

I found the classroom just as the final bell rang at the end of the day Thursday. But, instead of seeing the regular teacher, I found another sub was cleaning up the room. The regular teacher had come to school and had to leave almost right away after learning that her child was sick. The sub told me things had gone “OK” but the kids were never very well behaved and he had to threaten them from time to time with whatever threat teachers use on students. He showed me what the teacher had left for me: some notes and instructions for the next day.

Friday: I arrived at the school early and went to the classroom. I had already seen the teacher’s notes and knew what she wanted her students to accomplish. Just then, the teacher from across the hall came into the room. I had seen him the day before and had learned that he was the “leader” of that section of the hall. In that position he managed the teachers in his section. He told me the school was short of teachers and they didn’t have enough subs to cover all the classes. He needed to move me to another room to cover a different class. I said that was OK with me. (What did I know?)

I was taken to Mrs. Asbury’s 7th grade classroom. There were some instructions on the board: “1st & 4th Period do green grammar worksheets. 5th, 6th, & 7th period draw a picture from the story you are reading and color it.” I thought, “Draw a picture and color it”??? For 12 and 13 year olds? And that would take an hour?

As I waited for 8:30 to arrive and the kids to show up, the teacher next door came in and said, “Oh, you are the substitute, huh? Ever substituted before?” (No). “Well, you have ‘English X’ 1st and 4th period. That’s the kids who can’t make it in a regular English class. If you can make it past English X class, you’ve got it easy the rest of the day. I subed in this class once and would never do it again! Have a good day.” And, she left me alone.

Finally, the kids began arriving. They looked like nice people: well dressed and decent. I thought this was my first period class so I began to take roll from the sheet left for me. As I read the names, some students told me their names weren’t what I was reading off. I apologized and kept taking roll.

Suddenly, the TV in one of the corners of the room came on all by itself. Channel One began to talk about homosexual marriages in California. As soon as the TV came on, the kids turned to one another and began talking loudly among themselves. After about 5 minutes, the TV magically switched off. I returned to my roll taking. I was almost through calling out the names when the TV came on again and the kids began talking loudly once more. This time it was the school’s own announcements read by school kids as if they were anchors in a news program.

“Are you the new sub? Are you nice or mean? I can tell you are nice. We are loud.” (duh).

I said, “I am supposed to give each class a grade from 1 to 5, 5 being ‘This class was a substitute’s dream’, and, well, it sort of goes down hill from there. Then I told them that I have only one rule: we respect one another. That means no name calling or making fun. AND no one talks when I am talking.”

Then, as if someone had given a secret signal which I didn’t hear, they all stood up and headed for the door. “Where are you going?” I asked. They said, “To first period.” “But, I thought THIS was first period.” “No,” said one girl, “This was homeroom. I have you for 5th period. I think you might be nice. See you later.”

First period. English X. As soon as the students got settled I introduced myself: “Some students call me ‘Mr. Chris’ and some call me ‘Mr. Davis’. I really don’t care which one you call me. I am probably a different kind of teacher than you have ever had. I have been teaching for 25 years but I’ve never been in a classroon before.”

“Huh?” “How does THAT work?” “Explain THAT to us!” So, I made them guess until they figured out that I was a homeschooling dad. They were intrigued.

The door opened and the “hall leader-teacher” entered. He strode to the front of the class and glared at the students. Then he spent the next 5 minutes breathing fire upon their heads in the form of multiple threats: “We have 17 teachers out today and are short of subs. God help any of you who gets out of line. I can make your lives MISERABLE and I will DO it! If I hear ANY of you doing ANYTHING wrong today I will take away EVERY privilege you have. You will NOT go on ANY field trips the rest of the year! LOOK AT ME! Does anyone NOT understand what I am saying?” And, on and on he went, sounding angrier with each sentence. I looked at the kids. Their eyes were as big as saucers. MY eyes were as big as saucers. I had never heard anything like it except in the movies.

I handed out the worksheets which some of them did while others talked. The worksheets took up most of the rest of the period.

2nd & 3rd period everyone went to “Alternative Arts” (band, art, etc.). This gave me about 1-1/2 hours to do nothing at all while I waited for the students to return. I wandered the building and got acquainted with the hallways and offices. All the restroom doors were locked so I had to go to the office and use the Teacher’s Lounge. I don’t know how the students used the bathroom.

4th period my class returned. I was given a stack of things to hand out if they finished early and I the stuff was so lame I just couldn’t make them do it. Instead, I told them I would go over the green grammer sheets and give them the answers. I had looked at some of their work while they were in Alternative Arts and realized many didn’t understand the concept of subjects & predicates. (We all KNOW how crucial this knowledge is and I couldn’t let them go away without knowing about subject and predicates). I tried to go over the sheets but they wouldn’t pay attention and wouldn’t stop talking. I gave up and let them talk the last 10 minutes.

5th period: I introduced myself and we went through the “I’ve been a teacher/not in a classroom” riddle with them. They caught on more quickly than English X. 5 minutes after class began it was lunch period and I had to walk them to the cafeteria. Single file with no talking. That didn’t work and I didn’t care. 25 minutes later I was supposed to find them in the lunchroom and walk them back to class. But, they were spread out all over the lunchroom and I didn’t know who they were. But, Mr. Hall Leader-teacher saw me and told me he would send everyone to class for me. I went back to class and waited.

15 minutes later, everyone straggled into the room. They looked like a bunch of sharp kids and I decided I couldn’t do the “draw and color a picture” thing to them. I had them divide into groups of 3 and gave them the red hat/green hat riddle. They got really loud but seemed to enjoy it. One girl even got close to getting the answer. Then the bell rang and they pleaded with me to tell them the answer. I said, “I’ll tell you the next time I sub for your class. Or, I may one day be walking down the hall and you will run up to me and tell me you’ve figured it out.” They didn’t like me not giving them the answer. But, I told them, “You’re smart. You can figure this thing out.”

By 6th period, the word had been passed around the school about the new sub. He was different. Maybe even nice. A homeschool dad. Never taught in a school before. As 6th period began, I was about to find out what my new reputation meant.