Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Double Trouble

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

- Henry Ford

I was hesitant to write Monday’s post. But this blog is about honesty and since I was rethinking choices in my past, paralyzed in my present, and fearing the future, it was futile to pretend I wasn’t facing a crisis.

Yesterday morning, still feel the weight of my predicament; I sat at the computer willing the telephone to remain silent. The phone rang at 6:16am. When I hung up, I actually said, “Sh*t.” While I’ve dreaded calls, I don’t think I’ve ever uttered anything before.

One, I wasn’t up to it.

Two, because it was so late, the chance of adequate plans were slim to none.

Three, it was for middle school Math.

The job was for a challenging middle school, sprinkled in with ISP (Intensive Studies Program) students. These are failing schools, and the ISP is supposed to make them more attractive to parents and raise test scores*.

When I arrived at the classroom, I got pulled aside by the other Math teacher, who told me that the seventh-graders were taking the MCAS (state test to evaluate No Child Left Behind), so I’d have to use empty classrooms to teach the eighth-graders in the morning. Then I’d have a seventh (burned out from testing, I’m sure) and eighth-graders in the afternoon. She handed me the plans, which were so paltry that I was tempted to go home.

I had to find the proper workbooks and make copies. When I reached the photocopy room, a teacher told me that I couldn’t copy there because students with accommodations would be testing. Then I remembered to run back to class to get blank copy paper. Each teacher is given their paper for the year, so the copiers are always empty. Then I had to find a copier before class began to make 70 six-page packets. The office one was in use, so I went to the library.

While I know the sixth and seventh-grade classes pretty well, I’ve hardly ever taught the eighth-graders, and if I’m being honest here, that’s about as challenging as it gets. The first class, already giddy from being in a different room, sniffed me like I was fresh blood – and I was too raw to hide it. Worse, the teacher whose classroom it was, stayed in the room most of the time, which threw me off. About five boys wouldn’t do work, and I actually sent one of them to the office – only my third time in a year of subbing and over 100 sub gigs. I berated myself – I’m better than this.

Anyone who has followed my blog for a couple of months knows that I’m mathematically challenged. This means that I need to concentrate if I’m going to be of any help to anyone. As if the discipline problems weren’t enough, some of the packet was beyond them since they hadn’t learned how to solve these types of algebraic equations. (Don’t even ask about the alleged answer key.) No wonder some of them were acting out – they didn’t understand most of the packet. And I wasn’t the right person to get up and do an impromptu lesson.

Another issue was that MCAS was being given the next room over, so I feared raising my voice to get attention and redirect the class. These students are used to teachers increasing their volume to getting everyone paying attention again. I was barely commanding a sinking ship.

Second period was in another corridor. As soon as I walked in, the Spanish teacher called and asked me to check on her class next door because she couldn’t get there yet, so I left the students (who gleefully just found out they had a sub). When I returned and wrote the assignment on the board, I was met with confusion. That’s because I gave them the ISP assignment, but they were a mainstream class. The teacher had given me the wrong information. I quickly remedied it.

This was a better (if noisy) group, so I spent a lot of time helping the boisterous boys – especially since I had a real answer key for two of the pages (Thank you cheating student). Eighth-grade boys are often gangly – growing before the meat can catch up to the length. And the tall ones tease the shorter ones, since they all want to play basketball.

“I’m already 5’9”. When I hit 5’11”, I’m going to be fierce on the court!”

One white boy was too funny. “I’m the worst athlete. Even if I lived alone, I’d be the worst athlete in my house – even the dog would be better than me.”

“You’re not an athlete.”

“Yes, I am. Being an athlete and being good at sports isn’t the same thing.”

Pause. “Yeah, you’re right. But you can’t play basketball.”

A student arrived late, and I thought he had snuck in since he’d been in the previous class. Some of the boys shouted his name, which rhymed with the brother, so I thought it was the same name. It turns out that it was his twin in the last class. These two eighth-grade classes have three sets of IDENTICAL TWINS! What are the odds?

The seventh graders are supposed to be model ISP students, but a few boys are so obnoxious that it’s draining. I had to count to ten just to get one kid into the hallway - using my mom voice and counting quickly. When he realized that I meant business, boy did he scramble out of the room before I got to “1”. These students also kept picking on one boy, who kept instigating them. I warned all of them about the recent bullying/suicide case and possible anti-bullying law to be enacted in Massachusetts.

The last group was the best of the day, but their volume kept going up and a few of them kept using their pencils as drums. Shortly before the period was over, I let them play for me. I have to admit, they were pretty good.

Throughout this daunting day, I checked my blog. The outpouring of empathy, encouragement, and advice (as well as follower count) was humbling and uplifting. While our blogs are about us, the best ones speak to all of us – our triumphs, insecurities, failures. If a blog is only about self-promotion, rather than our journey through life, it won’t resonate with readers. Thank you followers, readers, and commenters. I hope something about my posts keeps you coming back.

More about this school and the ISP program:


  1. Oh man, I'm bad at math as well.

    I thought of you the other day because my husband called in sick and had NO SUB PLAN. I had to drive to the school at 7:30 in the morning to drop it off.

    He always complains to me when there is testing because he can't have his normal music program going on, it's too loud.

    I'm glad your day ended on a high note!

  2. Love the music/high note! There are teachers who wake up sick and still get a decent plan together - and I understand that's not an easy thing to accomplish when one is feeling lousy. But this teacher is supposed to have canned lessons in her folder that weren't there and it wasn't fair that she wanted kids who test all morning to do a packet that looked like another test. The other teacher was asked to help me set up in the e-mail, but she didn't.

  3. What a time you have had. I hope you get a break soon and can spend a nice relaxing day at your computer. Fingers crossed!

  4. Wow, it sounds like you had a challenging day going on. Hopefully there's some wisdom or experience you can take from this, in some way, and bring it to the page when you're writing. Even if it's just the sense of frustration you must have felt at times yesterday, giving your words the honesty of experience!

  5. I'll say it again. Mad props to you for subbing. It's harsh and so often there isn't even a modicum of support from staff. And the kids can be brutal. I hope you get some time off soon to give yourself a break.

  6. I am with you about teaching Math. I am also I could say mathamatically challenged. I too cringe when I have to teach math. But, the only thing anyone can ask for is to do the best we can. Isn't that what we teach are kids?

  7. Hi

    Oh wow. Tough, tough day!

    Glad you have a "mom voice" to show them you mean business though! And still you come up with classic conversational quotes from the mouth of babes!

    Completely going off side - I am still in my depths of my writing course on "life-writing" and your blog piece fits in really well with this. I like the use of the present tense and the autobiographic detail of your experience. I like how a daily moment is captured and described.

    That's why I love your blog and am mesmerised by your adventures! I never appreciated how life-writing is such a skill (that you obviously have!) until these past few weeks when I'm dissecting and wading in the theory of it.


    take care

  8. Ann, I'm off today and got a good chunk of writing time accomplished.

    Joanne, hopefully it will make me a better teacher in the long run.

    Sarahjayne, I was so happy to get time to write this morning, and now I'm working on getting chores completed.

  9. Choices, when the assignment doesn't need much assistance, I'm fine with it, but when it's not, I think about taking myself off the list for Math.

    Old Kitty, I write these quotes down as soon as I can. I had a whole exchange with a student about braces, but there wasn't room to fit it.

    Thank you for complimenting my life-writing skills. I had no idea that I had any until you told me! Good luck with your next two writing assignments.

  10. Theresa, I don't know how you do it, I have to concentrate a lot on my daughter's maths homework to help her and that is one well-behaved child in my own kitchen,
    Loved the funny dialogue with the boys.

  11. Brigid, thanks for the compliment, but I struggle helping my children with homework too. You'd think being a teacher would help more than it actually does!

  12. I think people like your blog because it so real. You are authentic. I personally like that in a blog. Yes, blatant self-promotion is annoying. I hope I never come across that way.

  13. I just have to comment on the huge numbers of twins at that school! Wow! Is there actually a twin cluster in the district or something...? (there was one set of identical twins in my whole primary school, and that was confusing enough to the teachers :))

    Thanks for the good wishes yesterday, btw!

  14. you are amazing theresa. your posts always inspire my awe and admiration for your strength.


  15. I have a learning disability in mathematical comprehension. My mom told me once that God had to balance my huge right brain with a puny left one, HA!

    Thanks for posting about your day as a sub. It's really interesting. Keep it up!

  16. I suck at Maths, big time. REALLY big time, so I feel your pain. I hated when I had to cover Maths classes, and I usually just made stuff up! Not admirable, I know, but to admit defeat in front of these students would be disastrous. Sounds like you held it together well, though.

  17. :( Sorry the day was daunting.

    Now, I'm off to read the last post because I missed it!

  18. I just don't understand how your school system can be so lackadaisical about lesson plans. I have to submit my lesson plans to my Principal the week before. If they aren't adequate, I would hear about it. I had to do this in the public schools as well. I am sorry Theresa, but that does not speak well for the administrators in your district. To have a substitute come in and have to endure what you endured is ridiculous. I know I need to get off my high horse but any teacher who is that unprepared should not be teaching. There are too many good teachers like you out there who want a job. Whoever you subbed for wouldn't have lasted a week in my school.

  19. Good point about a blog being about the journey and not self promotion.

  20. Thanks for the blog compliment, Karen. I like your blog because you give good advice and you've been where we are. If you have a book (or three) to mention, all the better. It's not all about you!

    Hampshireflyer, I know we have a lot of fraternal twins because a lot of older mothers taking fertility drugs have children, but I don't think we have more of the identical variety - except at this school. One set is in the same class and the other two sets are split up. My son has two sets of fraternal twins in his class, while my daughter has one set of identical twins in her class.

    When I taught fifth-grade four years ago, I had a set of twins - one in each grade. I could NOT tell them apart, which is terrible!!! I used to pay attention to what they wore each day, so I could know which one was which.

    Tahereh - thank you for the comment. You find more humor in queries and agents than anyone I know. I can't wait to read your book someday.

  21. B. Miller, I have the same disability and brain problem!

    I'm glad you're finding my subbing interesting. Luckily, each day provides me with fresh material.

    Talli, I swear I feel like a deer in headlights when they ask some questions. I'm honest. "I'm a Social Studies teacher. It's been a long time since I've done this, but give me a minute to puzzle it out." I know - lame.

    Jackee, thanks for stopping by. I know you've had your own stuff going on.

  22. VKT, I think teachers are (in theory) are supposed to submit lesson plans. They're also supposed to have a sub folder ready to go, but I've seen very few that have more than the schedule and attendance sheets. One school actually has a folder that says how the subs do and has a building sub check on us. Ugh.

    Paul C, thanks. Unless it's a "How To" or a business blog, I think it's true. and even well-done "How To" blogs should connect with readers.

  23. Ick, I hate subbing for math. I'm terrible with any level math. I had to actually teach a 5th grade math class, and I struggled with that! And it was just multiplication! I told you, I'm really terrible.

    I'm glad we followers/commenters have helped you feel better. :) Your posts always keep me coming back, so no worries.

  24. Ugh, I feel your pain! There's nothing worse than scanty sub plans!

  25. Thanks, Shelley! Stay tuned for a gym post tomorrow. At least, I'm a gym sub tomorrow at a tough school, so I'm sure there will be something to report.

    I agree, Beth. At least for gym, the less plans there are, the easier my day will be.

  26. You must be so tired! That sounds like an exhausting day. But you handled it, like you alwasy do - that's something to feel very good about!

  27. Susan, I was exhausted after that. But yesterday I had a lot more energy.

  28. I don't know how you do it. I tried substitute teaching years ago, and it was so difficult. I didn't last very long. You must be so worn out. Kudos for hanging in there and maintaining a positive attitude.

  29. Carolina Valdez Miller, thanks for the comment. There are several subs in the district who have done it for years, and I don't know how they do it.