Friday, January 29, 2010


“The illiteracy level of our children are appalling.”

- George W. Bush, Washington D.C., January 23, 2004

Yesterday morning, I received a call to sub for a Special Ed teacher at the high school. What did that mean? I could have my own class or I’d be support for other teachers or maybe there’s a third option I hadn’t even contemplated.

At least I knew that I’d be working in Learning Community R, which wound up not standing for “Riotous” as I had feared the first time I worked in that house*. Since then, I’ve determined that the R stands for “Reluctant”. As much as the Learning Community S students are dreamy, is as much as the Learning Community R students are muddy. S is full of people who want to learn. Although most R classes have been okay, they’re not as studious. I’m more likely to have a battle over cell phones with R.

The secretary handed me plans. Yes, I would have my own classroom, except that it would be in three different places, and I’d be co-teaching one block and have an assistant for the other blocks. I’d also be working straight through until last block.

I had one copy of each handout, but I didn’t know if any copies were made (Didn’t say). Unlike last time**, this classroom was really on the fifth-floor, with a silhouette of the Boston skyline out the window. The teacher inside said it was her room, but she wasn’t the co-teacher, and there weren’t any copies of the handout. I went to the next room I’d be in on the third floor, but it was locked. Of course, the next door was locked. If people would refrain from stealing, the doors wouldn’t be locked, and subs could get inside. Another teacher tried to unlock the door, but her key wouldn’t work. Apparently, this particular door is “tricky”.

Running back up to the room, I wished I hadn’t worn a sweater. Although I knew some of the rooms would be cold, I hadn’t anticipated running up and down the stairs. I read the plans, “Mr. ---- may or may not need your assistance. Please check with him.” The co-teacher asked if the absent teacher left plans (Excellent communication between them). Apparently, the teacher had only left plans for blocks B and C, but not A. Then he asked if teacher was going to be out “long term”. (What’s going on here?) I told him that I didn’t know. The co-teacher would need my assistance. The students were comparing the answers on the board with their homework, and I was told to go around and see if they needed help on any problems. Gulp.

“Are you a math teacher?” he asked.

“I’m certified in Social Studies.”

“Do you know how to do algebra?”

“I haven’t done it for a long time,” I admitted.

“Look in the textbook,” he said, turning to a page of examples, “to refresh your memory.”

Yeah, right. I sat at a desk, and sitting there staring at a sea of numbers, lines, and the dreaded letters, I had déjà vu of sitting in a high school classroom a million years ago being this lost.

3 | 4w – 1 | - 5 = 10

3 | 4w – 1 | = 15 Add 5 to each side

| 4w – 1 | = 5 Divide each side by 3

4w – 1 = 5 or 4w – 1 = -5 Rewrite as two equations

4w = 6 4w = -4

w = 3/2 or w = -1

I just read it over and over again. What?! If it weren’t for my husband’s tutoring, I wouldn’t have passed college Calculus. And that was a L O N G time ago. How could I help the students? Why did the Gatekeeper tell me I should just sign up to teach everything***?

Considering my considerable handicap, I did the best I could. Later, we went to the computer lab on the fourth floor, and they did problems on a site called “Enable Math”. Luckily (for me), the teenagers hardly cared about math, so they cared even less if I knew anything about math.

Then I ran down the stairs to homeroom on the first floor. A chef from whatever community it is that offers cooking classes (C for cooking?) was in charge, so I just sat while the students ate, hung around, and did homework. One gal did a crossword puzzle, while a guy next to her played guitar. As I was leaving, Chef joked, “Good luck. We’re counting on you.” I wanted to tell him, “Don’t count on me. I’m a math illiterate.”

It was time for the second block, and classroom still locked. I tried to get in from the next-door room, but that was locked too, so I went to the class next to that, and got through. Almost there. But when I got to the adjoining door to my room, there were locks on each side. I’d never come across that problem before. I gave up, and found someone who had a key. Great start.

Then I met the aide, who didn’t know much more math than I did. It was a talkative group, but they got the little work done that they were given, and some continued on with a larger assignment that was due on Monday. Here and there, I was able to help because they were doing easier problems, like square roots and exponents. One student was talking about when he was in “the projects”, some guys came up to him and his friends with guns (lovely), but nobody got shot. Then he returned to his “crib”. Later, another student thought it would be fun to say monkey “makak” in Haitian because it sounded dirty in English (Adorable).

Third block had only FOUR students. That should’ve made it easy, but we were back to algebra again. I was hopeless. If I had an answer key, I would’ve been able to puzzle it out. When I’d previously subbed math, I had enough basic knowledge and the students worked with one another to solve the problems. Our algebra skills were too low. The method for solving problems with absolute value eluded me. My solution was to plug in numbers until I found one that worked, to figure out the correct answer. But I could NOT solve them the proper way, and the students knew it. Pathetic.

I realized that instead of being qualified to be a Special Educator teacher for Math, I belonged in a Special Education class for Math.

“Rarely is the question asked, is … our children learning?”

- George W. Bush, 2001 Washington TV/Radio Correspondents Dinner

* The first time I subbed in Community R (Also when I used, One of Those Days quote):

** Here’s about me mistakenly going to the fifth-floor and other stupidity:

*** This is when I got cajoled into subbing high school Math:


  1. That's funny! I had fifth graders yesterday and special education today, too!

  2. I hope special education went well for you, Tiffany.

  3. Bless you. You are awesome to take on the subbing job you described. I also sub and still laugh about one job I did in second grade for a day really lasting a year. It actually seemed that long because the kids were so challenging. As a retired teacher who always left awesome sub plans, I am amazed at some of the jobs I encounter. Plus, I always left practice assignments or tests because I really didn't expect subs to be able to walk in and just start teaching. I guess it's all good with a sense of humor.:)

  4. Hi

    Oh I do feel for you here! Oh dear.

    Numbers (let alone algebra)and I are NOT friends! Maths is my worst ever subject, worst ever!

    I'm forever humbled by just how much improvisation and thinking very quickly on your feet that you do despite all the obstacles thrown at you (locked doors, R students..!). Another amazing piece to read.

    Take care

  5. Thanks, Betty. It's true - bad sub job days seem to last FOREVER! When I was an ETS, I had to be out a couple of times. I sent plans to at least two people, e-mailed a few teachers with some other details to help out the sub, and even called one of the assistants so the day would go as smoothly as possible. And that was with a 102 degree fever! Not everyone is as awesome as we are.

    Old Kitty, I guess math is both of our worst subjects! When my husband explained the above math problem last night, I was like, "Oh." ... I think. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. I need a calculator for everything.

  7. I prefer a calculator too, Sheila. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I can balance a checkbook.

  8. I feel for you! I had to do fractions with a class this week. Did I rememember how to do them? Of course not! The teacher had a SmartBoard lesson all set up for me, but it was all sample problems. I had to explain step by step through the process...ugh...fortunately for me, I ended up spending more time disciplining students than trying to teach the concept anyway...and to make it worse, the RSP teacher was sitting in on the lesson to help a student...I'm not counting on being asked back there anytime soon!

  9. The illiteracy rate is ridiculous. I have two 3rd graders who can hardly read basic sight words! Yikes!

  10. Vagabond Teacher, when things don't go as well as I'd like, I wonder what is said about me afterwards. The co-teacher and assistant knew I wasn't up on my algebra.

    Ginger, I agree. One year, I had a student on a second-grade reading level in fifth-grade, and she struggled.

  11. I'm so not a math person. My son started Kindergarten this year, and the school gave us a Math book for K-12 to help them with homework. Thank goodness for that!!!

  12. Molly, especially with the new way a lot of students are being taught in the younger grades, they have to give parents some help!

  13. secret: I'm an El Ed major. Never taught. Needed way more money to be happy with my superficial self.
    ps algebra is hard shit.

  14. MODG, my secret is that going into education hasn't kept me from being superficial. I'm glad all my commenters are as baffled about algebra as I am - it makes me feel better about myself.

  15. hello Miss Theresa

    one thing i noticed is that often times, teachers are expected to have a talent in literally everything. if you are a teacher, people think that you are a dancer, singer, poet, mathematician, etc. all rolled into one

    of course, i might be exagerrating things :)

  16. Thanks, Sterndal. Certainly as a substitute teacher, I'm expected to know these subjects. If I find myself in another math quandary, I'll take myself off the list.