Friday, December 18, 2009

Surprise and Appreciation

“We could fly so high,

Let our spirits never die…

Create a world with no fear,

Together we’ll cry happy tears….”

-Song “Heal the World” Michael Jackson, lyrics inside a school winter concert booklet

It was my second day subbing Science, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Before I left yesterday, the Social Studies teacher asked how the class went. I told her about the problems with too few textbooks, so she offered to get the extras from the sixth-grade homerooms while I ran the seventh-grade homeroom. Today, she came back with a pile, and I thanked her, more hopeful that things would go well later. I had a plan.

I knew this morning was going to be a choral performance, and I probably wouldn’t have first period. I also knew that I’d be ending my day with the two most difficult groups on a Friday afternoon, the last Friday before Christmas, and they probably wouldn’t have recess because it was nine degrees in the morning - potentially a legal combination.

Attending the concert was strange since I knew I’d probably be missing my daughter’s performance next week. But being a substitute has given me opportunities to see some unique assemblies, all three at this school. Last year, I happened to be there when the illustrator and excellent speaker, E.B Lewis gave a presentation to the third and fourth-graders. Another time, they had an anti-bullying assembly, but I had doubts as to its effectiveness (As middle schoolers pushed one another on the way out of the auditorium). And today was the concert, which had a smattering of middle school students, plus the third and fourth-graders performing. I’d seen and participated in plenty of concerts, so I thought I knew what to expect (Boredom).

The concert was called “Walking in the Air” because the students were asked to consider what it would be like to fly across the world to carry a message of hope and celebration. Each song began with a reading. There were singer soloists, but also a young pianist, a clarinetist, and even a self-taught drummer. The songs were all unusual, and surprisingly moving.

The third and fourth-grade songs were: “Walking on Air” by Howard Blake, interesting arrangements of five American folk songs, Do Di Li – An Israeli Folk Song translated by Joyce Merman, Thula Klizeo – A Zulu Chant by Joseoph Shabalala, and Thankful by David Foster.

No “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Drummer Boy” or “Frosty the Snowman” or “Dreidel, Dreidel” or “Oh Hanukkah” or even a Kwanzaa song.

As impressive as the elementary students were, it was the middle school students who blew me away. Participation in the middle school chorus was voluntary, so it wasn’t the entire sixth to eighth-grades. The soloists were excellent, but I was even more surprised by the song choices. Remember the songs you sang in chorus when you were young? I recall doing Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Rolling on a River” as the most modern song, especially in comparison with “Danny Boy” or “Fifty Nifty United States”.

These students started with “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” By M. Ure and B. Geldof. It brought me back to a time, when I was their age, and the song was brand new. Bob Geldof wanted to raise money for starving children in Ethiopia. Do you recall our concerns of the 1980s? Nuclear war and starvation in Africa. This was a year or two before most Americans became aware of the Aids crisis, which was soon to be an epidemic.

I remember that this Christmas song was a hit, with some of my favorite artists of the time singing lines: Bono, Sting, and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. This project led to Live Aid that summer – a giant concert to raise more money for Ethiopia. That led to Farm Aid and Hands Across America, and then I think the whole phenomenon petered out. From the list of singers from that original recording, I was sure that most of the students still knew about Bono from U2. I didn’t know if that made me feel old or young.

The next song the students performed was “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson. With Michael Jackson’s recent death, his songs have gained new relevance for a new generation.When they finished, the students received a long standing-ovation because the audience appreciated their effort and their performance exceeded expectations.

After the concert, I had a long break, and went into the photocopy room since the Social Studies teacher was teaching in my classroom. A Special Education instructor was taping papers that had math problems onto card stock for a math game. Since I had time, I offered to help him.We chatted about various things, including my challenging group from yesterday. When he had a meeting, I kept working, which he appreciated.

While we were talking, the Spanish teacher (who had tried to get me to apply for an extended term sub Spanish position) came in. She told me that the Spanish teacher at the other school wanted to know if I was subbing for those three days (How did they both know that they knew me? Do they talk about subs?). I told her what I told the other Spanish teacher, I’m available but only if that’s where they send me.

My next class was great – working on their posters with little problems other than some slacking. Last period, I was ready to read them the riot act when the Special Ed. teacher came in. “I came to help,” he said. As the students sat down, I gave them my spiel about my disappointment regarding their behavior the previous day, and my expectations for today. I also advised them that we had enough textbooks and they would work independently. Throughout the class, the other teacher went around, dealing with some potential discipline problems while I dealt with other ones. “It’s a tough class,” he said to me at one point.

I appreciated having all this support from the teachers in this middle school. They work as a cohesive unit; helping me because a member of their team was out because of a death in the family. They made sure I had plans, supplies, and even extra help. Perhaps that teacher came in last period just because I helped him and happened to mention the kids had been difficult. Who wouldn’t want a full-time job working with teachers like them?

The teacher left a little early, but the class remained focused, and soon the students left for the day. As I tidied the room, the Social Studies teacher came in. She asked if I’d be there again on Monday. “I don’t know. It depends on what the Sub Caller decides.” Apparently, I’m in demand. What are the chances I won't receive a job on Monday? Wouldn’t surprise me.

To see the original video of "Do they Know It's Christmas" (Bonus: There are A LOT of mullets):


  1. I know what it's like to work with a team that cares about each other. I was fortunate enough to have a group to work with that was just like that. Then people got transferred and it all changed. I started working with people who had no work ethic and even less team spirit. That's why I retired.

  2. The best thing about substitute teaching is that, should a full-time job arise at one of these schools, I have a good sense of what it will be like with students and staff.