Sunday, November 1, 2009

Finding My Voice

“Cry baby cry

Make your mother sigh.

She’s old enough to know better

So cry baby cry”

-The Beatles, Song “Cry Baby Cry” by Paul McCartney and John Lennon

I have a confession to make. At times, as a substitute teacher, I’ve made children cry. That sounds terrible, and believe me, I do feel terrible. In my defense, it’s not completely my fault, but rather, an unfortunate combination of circumstance and cadence.

These are not the instances when students make one another cry by being mean through words or deeds. Nor are they the instances when children cry because the other teacher has reprimanded them (Often because of those words or deeds). In all fairness, the smaller children are, the greater frequency they seem to cry for a variety of reasons, from the trivial to the critical.

When I was an assistant, I caused a fifth-grade boy to cry because he hadn’t done his homework, losing a privilege, which he already knew was the consequence in advance. But because he had nearly always been a diligent student, and I felt guilty, I let it pass. Another time, a fifth-grade student, already on warning (by the administrators), cursed just before we left for a field trip, so I told him he couldn’t go. He began with a cry on the way to the assistant principal’s office. When the boy was alone in the office, it degenerated into sobbing and running away, making his way into the empty classroom and vandalizing it. Since I hadn’t made the rule (and he’d been misbehaving), I didn’t feel bad about his hysteria. But I was annoyed that he’d broken the easel I used for Word Study. The assistant principal didn’t mind the tears, since it was his goal to make students cry when they’d misbehaved (That’s a whole other story).

At the end of the previously school year, I gleefully subbed my former fifth-grade class. During a game of matball (which is dodgeball with mats), two children were running to the same mat, and one fell over the other. One fallen child began sobbing and clutching her knee, and had to go to the nurse, and then the hospital. Luckily, it only turned out to be a sprain, which I didn't find out until the next day. I felt terrible because the week before that same student had gotten hit in the eye with a ball. The nurse, who'd recently had a steady stream of injured children (only two from me), reprimanded me and wanted to get mat ball banned (Although they had gotten hurt during more than just matball). The other gym teacher tried to console my by saying, "It's Phys. Ed. - kids are going to get hurt."

Since subbing, I've witnessed my share of wee-ones sobbing. I recall one child crying in a Pre-K program because another child painted on her painting. I explained to the other child that she couldn't do that. I gave the weeping one a new piece of paper, and walked away, soon to be called back by more tears. Her painting had been painted on again. The paint vandal was unrepentant. I rolled my eyes, telling them to find something else to do, glad that at least they didn't hurt one another in retaliation, which is usually how these things go down. Then there are the small, rambunctious ones I've seen sternly spoken to by another teacher, but they are unfazed - probably because they were desensitized due to screaming at home. Those children may only dissolve into tears if they lose a privilege.

All of the sobbing babes I've caused have occurred during stints at Montessori, which (if you’ve read my earlier post on it, you already know) is rough on three-year-olds, but I didn’t know that the first time I worked there. A couple of hours into class, I found a small one in the back of the class, where the finger paintings were drying, instead of “working”. I didn’t meant to, but when I said in a soft, but disapproving voice, “You need to be doing your work,” I startled her, and she broke down in tears. At that moment, several children came over to investigate while I tried to calm the distressed girl and get the other students to return to their tasks before the teacher returned to the room.

The other time I caused tears was during naptime at Montessori. Most of the children didn’t stay on their mats and only one slept (because she had been so sick, that her nose dripped big gobs of yellow snot all day). I stayed nearby and constantly reminded the students to remain quiet and still, while the other teacher took her lunch. When naptime was over, I was supposed to let the best-behaved children clean up their mats, blankets, books, and stuffed animals before the others. One girl wasn’t sitting still, but wanted to get up. I reminded her in my disapproving, but kind voice, that she had to wait because she hadn’t been quiet. She began to cry. The teacher returned, to find the girl on my lap, sniffling. Unfazed, the teacher said, “She gets cranky in the afternoon.” Okay, maybe that time it wasn’t me.

During disagreements, my husband has told me that I don’t hear my own tone. I find that hard to believe because when I’ve listened to recordings of myself, I sound like a thirteen-year-old girl (Or a ten-year-old boy). But those recordings don’t capture my tone when I’m angry or even annoyed. As a 5’3” thin female, I’ve certainly worked hard to cultivate a look and voice to show I mean business with students, but while it may work great with fifth-graders (and less so with seventh-graders), it may be overboard for preschoolers.

When I work in early elementary classrooms, most of the teachers sound like Snow White from the Disney movie. That’s not me. But as long as I’m a Substitute Teacher, I’m going to have to be meticulous about making my demeanor and intonation match my audience.


  1. So how is your Snow white impression coming along?

  2. @ Alesa, ha! That Disney Snow White speaking and singing voice annoyed me when I was a child. That was one high pitch.