A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.
“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”
I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.
It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.
Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.
I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.
Middle school subbing
My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.
I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…
My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.
To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.
I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.
Individualized Learning Plans
I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.
The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.
The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.
Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.
By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.
Speed it up
The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.
Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”
“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.
Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?
The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.
We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.
Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.
The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.
Black History month
I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.
That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.
I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.
That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.