Posted by: chrisdavis | November 15, 2008

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.

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