Monday, January 10, 2011

Point of No Return

“And I thought what I felt was simple

And I thought that I don't belong

And now that I am leaving

Now I know that I did something wrong 'cause I missed you

Yeah yeah, I missed you”

- Song, “Stay” Lisa Loeb

A couple of days before break, they held a holiday lunch for the teachers. The woman I’m subbing for visited with her baby. I was tempted to ask her when she was returning, if she was returning, at least for this year, next year.

But I didn’t ask.

Some of the students must've seen her because they asked me questions after lunch. While I was in the middle of explaining the Byzantine Empire, one 8th-grade girl said, “It will be weird if Ms. (Redacted) returns. We’re used to you.” A few others murmured in agreement.

I replied with my standard, “She’s supposed to come back the end of February or beginning of March. Sometimes people who go out on maternity leave decide to stay out the rest of the year. As soon as I know, you’ll know. I’m sure I won’t have any more information before February.”

Even though this speech has been given several times over the last couple of months, there are always a few who exclaim, “She may not come back?” Though I’ve noticed this chorus has died down.

In my 7th-grade class, the students were working on packets about the Islamic Empire while I visited each table. When I reached one group of girls, one said, “I don’t want Ms. (Redacted) to come back. I want you to stay here.”

I once again gave my standard speech.

The girls all protested. “No, we like you. You’re nice.”

“I’m too nice. I’m a pushover.”

“No, no. We like doing work for you.”

I smirked and raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. The truth is the other teacher is harsher, but she probably has quieter students. But I believe my classes have become interesting with students responsible for much of their learning under my direction. It took me some time to leave her routine of textbook read alouds because it was easier, but I’m glad I’ve been putting in the extra prep time to do more projects.

Last week, I had one 7th-grade class create their own countries. They are designing posters with a country name, government system economy/resources, ethnic/religious issues, and creating a map. Some have also designed flags. One group made up an anthem. Two groups have decided to start a war against one another. Another group has made a utopia. They’re really into it.

Two boys came up to me and said, “I really like this project,” and, “Thanks for letting us do this project.”

Yeah, that’s kinda cool.

When I first taught, I thought I’d be a tougher disciplinarian. But in truth, I don’t mind a little noise if they’re working. I do mind if they’re talking when I’m talking so that’s non-negotiable.

The last day of school before break, a student gave me a thank you/holiday card. In it he wrote, “You’re the best sub I’ve ever had. I like your relaxed teaching style.”


Last year, I was subbing an AP Biology class, and overheard several students discussing the absent teacher.

One boy said, “When she asked us to do that assignment, I made a joke, ‘I’m not going to do work today.’ She didn’t think it was funny. She looked so disappointed.”

“I hate when she’s disappointed,” a girl agreed.

That conversation stuck with me. To have a group respect and know their teacher cares so much they loathe to disappoint her… that’s better than teaching by fear or being a pushover.

I’m not there, but I’m working on it.

At the end of the holiday lunch day, I was about to leave the school. One 8th-grade girl waited for her mother by the door.

“I hope you stay.”

“We’ll see.”

“If you don’t stay, what will you DO?”

Wipe the concern off your face. I won’t be panhandling. Probably.

“I’ll look for another long-term sub job for the spring. If I don’t get one, I’ll be a daily sub again.”

“Why don’t you just get a full-time job?”

Why didn’t I think of that?

“I’m trying, honey. The economy isn’t great, so there aren’t that many jobs.”

“Oh.” She hesitated. “The days you don’t work, what do you DO?”

What does she think? I eat cookies and watch Oprah? As if.

“I clean my house and do laundry. I like cooking, so I cook nicer meals. And I’m a writer, so I spend a lot of time writing.”

She looked relieved. “Oh.”

It’s nice to feel wanted. But this age it’s all about predictability. I’ve become their new routine. If/when the other teacher returns, they’ll readjust in no time, I’m sure. And having this experience on my resume should help me with a full-time job in the future.


When I first got the job, I was overwhelmed. For the first month I felt like a person in one of those 12-step programs. If I thought past, “One day at a time,” I wouldn’t have been able to handle it.

And then it got easier.

Now I’ll admit, I like teaching. Even though it’s not American History and I’ve had to master the material and they’re in the awkward ages of 12-15 and one class is uber-challenging…

They’ve grown on me.

That day with all the compliments, I realized I’m going to miss them. Before I was living from field trip to field trip, weekend to weekend, break to break. The next break in five weeks may be near the end of my job.

I miss my free time. I miss my cooking time. I miss time with my kids. I miss time with my husband. I miss writing time.

But when it’s time to leave these students, my heart will break a little.

I’ll have to channel this woe into writing...


  1. Oh Theresa you love teaching so much! I hope she doesn't come back so you can stay. But if she does, then you will for sure find something even better!

  2. I used that same activity with the year 7 class I had (design their own, country, flag, rules etc). It's a good one when the kids are engaged.

    It sounds like they've gotten under your skin. Fingers crossed for something more permanent but if not ... you've always got Oprah and cookies ;)

  3. Good teachers are a treasure - good SUBS are amazing! My kids always let me know which they've had - and it makes a HUGE difference.

    What a great experience for you - and it will enhance your writing I'm sure. Good luck!

  4. Maybe you'll get to the end of the year, that would be nice.
    If not, let me know if you find a 'panhandling' job, I could do with one too.

  5. How much do you think your teaching style is affected by the fact you're subbing? Do you think you would be *tougher* knowing your students were yours for the whole year?

    It sounds like you're winning them over! :)

  6. I think my heart broke a little FOR you...I can't imagine spending that much time for the kids and then leaving. Very cool that you're winning them over though, what a GREAT feeling!

  7. I hope you get to stay. It sounds like you are a great teacher.
    Good luck and I hope it all works out!

  8. This is so great that you have a bond with your students! I hope you get to keep teaching them.

  9. That build-a-country project sounds like a LOT of fun! Stock in trade for story tellers.
    Few are those who have the empathy and intelligence to appreciate a situation from someone else's perspective. Luke warm concern, while pointless, at least comes from a good sentiment; which is at least preferable to, if no more useful than, all too common casual hostility. Shrug.
    You seem to be well liked over all by most of the students entrusted to you, be it for a few hours, or a few months. Surely that is due to more than just their getting used to you.

    Give yourself a compliment once in a while. ; j

    I can't say if you're a good teacher or not, but from reading your blog it seems you are at least a teacher well-liked by her pupils, and one who cares for them on several levels. Both very important parts of being an excellent educator. Right?
    One thing ends, and another starts... may the next step be at least as rewarding if not more.

    If you didn't care, it wouldn't hurt- nor would it be worth your while.
    Congratulations for doing something you care about! ; j

  10. very interesting, thanks

  11. it's much more than predictability. Older kids respond very much to respect and being treated as adults. It sounds like you've found the perfect balance between keeping them on task and allowing them the freedom they need to feel independent.

    great work! :o) <3

  12. *grinning* I want you to draw a circle on the chalk board and put your nose in it. Why? Because you keep selling yourself short. I clearly remember my teachers in school. I adored the ones who challenged us (me) and helped me help myself.

    And remember, they're at that awkward age. Yeah, kids of all ages (and many adults) love (need) routine. But, they expressed themselves, opened themselves up, made themselves vulnerable emotionally. You really care about them and they realize it. You're one of those teachers who makes a difference and will be more than fondly recalled years later.

    I love the whole poster/country/war bit. A prime example of a gifted teacher opening a child's mind and showing them new possibilities...and finding that they like it.

    Whatever your future holds, always know that you're remarkably gifted as a teacher.

  13. I'm sure your students' hearts will break a little as well! I'm sorry you have to move on :( But you have a lot to look forward to, with all that cooking time and family time and writing time ahead!

  14. Just from your words here, Theresa, I can tell you are a fantastic teacher. And one the kids will miss when you leave. Even if they never tell you. They've all learned something from you and you from them. It's a beautiful thing.

    And don't sweat the small stuff. If the teacher does come back I'm sure you'll get picked up pretty quick for something else.

  15. I hope she doesn't come back either -- it sounds like you've really connected with the kids now; I knew you would!

  16. How nice to have all those compliments. Remember them for the lean times.

  17. This post screams out what a wonderful teacher you are, Theresa. Isn't it wonderful how even the tough ones eventually "grow" on you?!

  18. Your class projects sound interesting. I wish I'd had a teacher like you when I was your age. I liked my teachers, but for some reason we always studied the same time periods over and over again, and we only got up to WWII. I never actually studied the Korean War or the Vietnam War or anything like that.

  19. Awwww beautiful and wonderful Theresa Milstein!! My heart is breaking now just reading this! I want to shout out very loudly to the powers that be there to "LET MS MILSTEIN STAY IN THIS SCHOOL, SHE'S FAB FOR THE KIDS!"


    You've done so much and your love of teaching is so obvious!!! I really hope, I do hope you stay!

    Take care

  20. I hope it all works out. And I love that song. Great... now I'll be singing it all day! :)

  21. It sounds like such a great class! And I would have loved making my own country at that age--what a great idea for a project! No wonder they like you.

  22. It sounds like you have really nice kids in a really nice school. I know it's a tough time for new teachers to get hired. I have many young friends who are doing long term sub jobs for that very reason. MOre of the old teachers need to hang it up and let the newer ones come in. The district where I taught for 21 years offered a very sweet deal this year to get more teachers to retire. Only wish they would have done that last year when I knew it was time to go. 8-/

  23. @ Karen, thank you. I hope you're right!

    @ Ellembee, it is a fun project. My students in one class began presenting today, while my students in the other class just began the project today.

    Ha! Yes, I have my Oprah and cookies. Good thing she's got her own network now!

    @ Sheila, thanks for the comment. There are some bad subs out there so we have to treasure the good ones.

    @ Brigid, it would be nice to stay until the end of the year. But I'm trying to mentally prepare myself for leaving sooner.

    Hopefully neither of us has to resort to panhandling!

    @ Vicki, getting thrown in was definitely a disadvantage discipline-wise. Beginning from the beginning of the year would make it easier to create a classroom environment and set expectations.

    @ Kristi, when I left my 5th-grade asst. job to begin subbing I was depressed for months because I missed them so. Plus, I wasn't getting much sub work at first so I felt like I left for nothing. I hope this time isn't as hard.

    @ Christine, thanks for the nice words.

  24. @ Angela, thank you. I hope so too.

    @ Alesa, I was mostly teasing about the student. She really did seem concerned for me. And my teaching style is much different from the other teacher, so I'm sure some would prefer not to go back to her style. But some may miss it. Hard to know.

    It is rewarding to do something I care about, even if there's much that's hard about it. Not everyone gets to do that. Most people actually.

    It's also nice not to feel like I'm flying by the seat of my pants. I'm a better teacher to them than I was a month ago.

    @ Anonymous, thanks.

    @ LTM, I hope so. Since I remember all too well what is was like to be that age, I try to work with who they are.

    @ The Words Crafter, I've never heard of THAT punishment! You made me laugh!

    I think many do genuinely like me. But I also know I let them get away with a little more than the other teacher. I told a group of students I'd tell the middle school teachers to request me as a daily sub if the other teacher came back, and they were happy about that.

    @ Julie, thanks. If I leave, it will definitely be bittersweet.

    @ Anne, thanks for the kind words. I hope you're right!

  25. Hi Theresa,

    Reading through your post I feel you're a teacher every student turned adult would be feeling proud to have. And love and respect.

    You sound as a perfect teacher. Every parent should give thanks to teachers like you.

    I salute you!

  26. Aww. I hope you get to stay with them. It sounds like they've loved having you teach them. :)

  27. @ Talli, thanks for cheering me on all along.

    @ Judy, good advice. I will remember the compliments for the lean times. There always seem to be many! Lean times, that is.

    @ Shannon, it's true. Even troubled kids are generally good people. It becomes my project to connect with them. I can at least try.

    @ Neurotic Workaholic, it's true. In MA and NY I've notice a stress on certain periods and a drought of others.

    @ Old Kitty, you're so sweet. I hope a few of these students have said something similar. It's going to be sad when it ends.

    @ Meredith, I think this project has gotten me more fans. Now I need to think of something equally exciting for the 8th-graders. Any ideas for the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation?

    @ Dkzody, it's so true the older ones are putting off retirement. I'm sorry you didn't get a good package offer.

    As of this week, I'm looking for ETS jobs for the spring.

  28. @ Nas, what a lovely compliment. Thank you!

    @ Lindsay, I hope so too. We'll see.

  29. No offense to the woman on leave, but I hope you're able to finish out the year with the kids. And then are offered a perm position! =)

    Keep doing what you're doing, because you're doing great!

  30. Oh Theresa.. it sounds like you`ve really connected with these kids! I hope you get to stay too - everything happens for a reason, and it will all work out. I understand you missing your `you`time too though... :)

    Do you know what is so strange... I was just listening to that Lisa Loeb song this past weekend... I don`t think I`ve heard it since I was maybe 11 or 12, but it just popped into my head for some reason. I was bored and researching songs for my book :D.

  31. LOLOLOL. I can so relate. I subbed in two districts last year before my baby came. (most kids thought I was another student.)

    BTW I love that song by Lisa Loeb. It's probably my favorite on that CD.

  32. if they know what is good for them they better keep you on. You are an asset to those kids lives.

  33. @ Kimberly, I skipped you before. Sorry! And sorry the song is in your head. On the upside, there are worse songs to be stuck in one's head. Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi for instance. Oh no.

    @ Shannon, that's sweet. Hopefully she isn't reading this blog. Nor the school.

    @ Writing Nut, thanks.

    I've always liked the song. I think it's her one big hit.

    @ Tamara, how nice to be thought of as another student!

    @ Joanna, aww, thanks.

  34. This is an awesome post! I hope that no matter what happens, you'll be happy and fulfilled. *hugs*

  35. @ Elana, thanks. That's a nice way to look at it.

  36. There is something very special about kids. They certainly grow on you and I think it will be difficult all round when you leave.

  37. Aww, they love you! I remember getting SO excited when we had that one cool substitute teacher in school. All of the kids would breathe a sigh of relief when this sub would walk in because we knew the day would be great. You must be making all of their days :)

  38. @ Lynda, I think it will be strange for most of us. For now I've e-mailed the teacher so I should know soon.

    @ Saumya, you're so sweet. I hope they feel that way.

  39. You are such a great teacher. You know, those kids will remember you forever, the way I remember every one of my grade school teachers, even if your are subbing. Maybe more because of your unique position!

  40. Hi Theresa .. these memories will stay with you forever .. they're recorded on the net and reside in the blogosphere .. nay fear!!

    What will be - will be .. I've come to learn ..

    So pleased it's turning out so satisfyingly .. good for you .. you're enjoying your time so much ..

    Cheers Hilary

  41. @ Lydia, I hope so. I know I won't forget them!

    @ Hilary, thanks. I love being able to put my thoughts down on the blog and know they're there to re-experience.

  42. First of all, you don't give yourself enough credit. Those kids appreciate you because you are doing a great job. You are giving them extra effort and you respect them. I love that country assignment.

  43. @ Missed Periods, that is sweet of you. It is hard to be the replacement, and have to win them over. It's nice to have things in a good place, even if it might be ending soon.

  44. What a treat for those students to have such a devoted interested teacher. Teaching, true teaching is a calling and you have it.