Saturday, December 26, 2009


“Behavior is a mirror in which every one displays his own image.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Little Montessori students must touch my arm to get attention, which is my favorite Montessori rule, and I’ve even gotten my daughter to do it, rather than interrupting every time I’m having a conversation. So, four, five, six, and seven-year-olds have placed their chubby little hands on my arm for these three days I subbed Spanish this week. Sometimes it was because they wanted to get a drink, but more often it because they want to tell on someone.

“She said, ‘poop’.”

“She laughed at my picture.”

“He’s not sitting where he’s supposed to.”

“He keeps grabbing the crayon container.”

One child told me, “He said a potty word.”

“What word did he say?”

“He said, ‘Santa sponge.’” As I mentioned in a previous post, these children rarely identify a proper potty word. I wanted to point that out, along with the fact that those were actually two words.

“Are you Santa’s representative?” I asked.


“Unless you’re Santa’s rep, I wouldn’t be worried about that. I’m sure Santa isn’t offended.”

That settled that.

All in all, the three days were pretty relaxed. The middle school students watched a documentary, while the upper-elementary students viewed a Spanish cartoon. This cartoon concerned me since the children’s level of Spanish didn’t match the movie dialogue, but the visuals were humorous.

The youngest children required more work on my part. I had to read them a book in English, then the accompanying book in Spanish, each of which came with a CD to play along. I put on my preschool teacher personality, which meant doing voices for the animals in the book, along with my very best animal sounds and hand moves (Crocodile “snap” by clapping my hands vertically). After the readings and songs, I played the CD one more time to let the children dance, reminding them not to spin to minimize crashing. The last thing I wanted was to send a child to the nurse’s office from Spanish class*.

After they listened to books and music, I handed out the controversial “Feliz Navidad” packets. Except for the class with Miss Christmas, all of the other groups colored without incident. The biggest problem was crayon container hogging and the fact that there were no pink crayons. After the first child complained, I became proactive with each group, telling them to use the red crayons light in order to make “pink”. No pink with a classroom full of little girls?

In each class (just as in almost all classes) there were always one or two boys that needed more attention and reminding to stay on task. I don’t know why, but little boys are more likely to wander, touch items they’re not supposed to, name-call, and hog crayon containers. Over three days, three boys (and one girl) needed to be told to go into the “Take a Break” chair. After a minute I’d remind them of the behavior I expected and all would be well. The classes were easy enough that I could periodically check my e-mail and look for those two illusive blue folders that were supposed to have all of these packets for the students when they completed the “Feliz Navidad” packet. Instead, I just gave them blank paper. As they happily colored away, I walked around and had fun talking with them.

When the teachers arrived, I let them know how their classes behaved.

I always said, “They were a good class,” because they were.

Really?” was the response I got from more than one teacher. “The Spanish teacher always tells me how bad they are.”

That reaction always surprised me. “Really? They were fine for me.”

As a teacher, I can't expect a group of children to be statues. The younger they are, the shorter their attention span and the older they are, the more likely they’ll try to test me. This school is a stone’s throw from three giant low-income housing buildings. Virtually every religion and ethnicity is represented in these classes, yet even the middle school is one of the best for behavior. Although teaching preschool is not my ideal way to spend the day, for four and five-year-olds, they were fine.

I remember when I was a teaching assistant I hated picking up the kids from specialists, only to have those teachers complain to me for every little transgression. One group was difficult for everyone, everywhere, and those teachers never failed to report the problem kids. The music teacher started off trying to be a cool friend, and when that didn't work, he went so far as to ask the lead teacher and me to punish the students for him. He wanted the regular teacher to lose her lunch break by keeping the badly behaved students during lunch and recess. She told him (and I told him when I was the extended term sub at the end of the year), “I can punish the students, but if you want them to respect you, then you need to provide the consequences.” The music teacher lasted about two years.

The handwriting was on the wall when he busted his knee, needing surgery, and he stayed out of school for weeks. This was in contrast to one of the other teachers who broke her pelvis around the same time, but didn’t miss a day. The music teacher returned a week before school ended, and when I picked up the students he was screaming, “I don’t have to be here, you know!” (Yeah, that works). The extended term sub was still in the room, looking on with surprise. It was another contrast because the students had loved and behaved for the sub. In September, there was a new music teacher because the old one left teaching.

I believe classroom teachers deserve feedback, and if someone has hurt another child or has been excessively problematic, I’ll report it. But my feeling is that when they’re in my room, even if it’s only for a day, they’re my responsibility.

One year, when I was an assistant I worked for a teacher who butted heads with a particular student who was as good as gold for me. When I’d arrive for the second half of the day, the lead teacher would tell on the student. I felt like a husband coming home from work to hear how terrible one of my children had behaved in my absence.

I’d say, “Did you give Ms. ***** a hard time?”

She’d bow her head with the slightest smirk, “Yes.”

“I expect better behavior from you,” I’d admonish.

“Yes, Ms. Milstein.”

As teachers, sometimes our classroom can feel out of control, and we’d appreciate a rescue, but I find it a sign of personal weakness to send students to the principal’s office. As a sub since March, I’ve sent one student for biting another child during gym, and two middle school students for misbehaving one too many times, when I felt that removing them would change the tenor of the class for the better. But each time makes me feel like a failure, and I wrack my brain to avoid needing to resort to passing the buck in the future.

*I should mention that one girl got a paper cut, so I did send her to the nurse’s office for a bandage. Should substitute teachers also carry a first aid kit?


  1. It may sound silly, but sometimes reading about your subbing adventures reminds me of hoity toity waiting on tables. We always carried a mini first aid kit, a pack of matches, and paper hankies- and rich snobby customers behave like spoilt children. ; j

    I dig the hand on the arm system, sounds nice and quiet. It reminds me of a German High-school I went to during an exchange program: instead of raising their hands, they clicked their fingers. It may sound annoying, but it was actually rather unobtrusive.

  2. Huh, I guess I'm in full on Proust mode. O_o

  3. @ Alesa, did you raise your hands in the air to snap? How did the teacher know who to call on?

    Sometimes during presentations, if teachers think students will be too loud during presentations, we have them snap instead of clap. Definitely less obtrusive.

    Subbing and waiting on tables - apt comparison. Sadly, the Woody Allen film, he asked a woman why she became a prostitute. She replied something like, "Beats waiting on tables."

    He responded (not word for word), "Waitressing must be the worst job on the planet."

    What does that say about subbing?

  4. I don't remember clearly, I think they half raised their hands... Not sure. I'll have to check with some of my German friends.

    What does that say about subbing? That subs should get tips? ; j