Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Lesson for Today

Even though I seldom mention this --other than when I'm rambling on about retirement pensions-- I'm a substitute teacher.  I just finished my second year at the district one town over, where I "teach" English and history at the middle and high school level. I've had a sub license in DuPage County since 2008, after a brief dalliance I didn't really depend upon teaching until after losing my job at Salem two-plus years ago.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a sub is the lack of training. Unless you have a full teaching degree, you're not necessarily prepared for dealing with a classroom of disaffected teenagers.  I went into teaching fully knowing I was going to be challenged, so in a lot of ways I'm learning on the job. Unfortunately, I had an experience several weeks ago that exposed my lack of attestation, and potentially hurt my credibility.

It was the last Friday of the 2011-12 school year.  In this district the seniors neither take finals nor prep for them, so they get to sit out the last week before graduation.  Even though the high school was only three-quarters full, the staff and faculty still ran on all cylinders. At 6:05 that morning the district dispatcher called, asked me if I could fill in for a social studies teacher, and I accepted.  I arrived right at 8 o'clock, only to discover that for the first two periods I was an aide and my presence wasn't needed. Third period was Mr. F's planning hour, so my first part of the day was suprisingly easy. Little did I know what 4th period would deliver.

My first real class of the day was civics, and Mr. F assigned his remaining students a video with an accompanying worksheet, worth 40 points and due at the end of the period.  Of the 13 students that showed up, a group of five or six (mixed gender) sat in a cluster on the front right side of the room. Judging from their build, I could tell at least one of them played football.  They were chatting away loudly as I handed them the worksheets and gave instructions.  One of the athletic extroverts even helped me with the overheaded projector.

From that point, things soured.  As I dimmed the lights, I heard a crash; I turn around to see a desk on the front left side had been knocked over. I asked who did that, no one answered, and I nonchalantly turned the desk right side up.  Upon playing the DVD, I noticed that the cluster was still talking amongst themselves.  I raised the volume to drown them out, but it didn't work.  From about twelve feet away, I could tell that the one helpful student had music blasting from the buds of his iPod.

As the other half of the class worked away, I walked over to the group and asked to be quiet and work on their assignment. Than, I asked the boy to put away his iPod. After refusing, I asked him again. Still declining my orders, I looked him straight in the eye and said "are you deaf?" The boy scowled, his friends fell silent.  Feeling like I had toed a line somehow, I gave up and walked back to my chair. The clique resumed their conversation.

Shortly after sitting down, I heard another crash. Just beyond my peripheral, I saw another desk toppled over, this time on top of another desk.  One leg left a dent the size of a quarter in the wall.  The girls in the group giggled.  It was pretty evident that the largest member of the group tried to throw the chair at me, but missed me by about four feet. At my wit's end and in no position to retaliate, I called the front office, explained what had happened and requested the dean (I didn't know his extension).

A minute or so later a tall, muscular gentleman tapped on the door.  He was the dean, and upon walking in he correctly assumed who hucked the desk at me.  At his orders, two of the boys were sent to his office; the rest of the group was broken up and sent to opposite ends of the classroom.  Before the end of the period, they regrouped and resumed their conversation; however, I was too fed up to just keep calling them out.  Finally the bell rang, and the rest of the day went by without incident.

Over that weekend, the incident kept circing around in my head.  I learned later in the day that the two students had a history of being problematic; I can only assume they were suspended through finals, or at the very least sent to their umpteenth detention.  I chronically wondered if I properly handled the situation; I had dealt with unruly students before, but I usually kept my cool.  Attacked or not, I felt like I failed myself somehow.

I had all but forgotten about the incident until last weekend.  I was volunteering for the WDCB table at the Naperville Jazz Festival when I struck a conversation with a lady visiting from San Jose.  She was a 6th grade teacher in her early 50s, and we were comparing slashed retirement benefits in her school district to budget cuts in mine.  As she shared, she mentioned how there were fewer distractions and gadgets 10-15 years ago. As I nodded, she offered a tip of sorts: if a student is playing music in class, ask politely to put away the device, or confiscate it. Don't order, just do. On one hand, the lady was merely giving fortuitous advice. On the other hand, she all but confirmed my anxiety. My instinct might've been wrong after all.

As I look back on my moment of weakness, I brace myself for the coming school year. What happens if that student has a long memory, and exacts some type of revenge? Can I keep my professionalism in check? I would ponder cutting bait and looking for work elsewhere, but I can't take the risk.  All actions have consequences, and now I must spend the summer  worrying about an unwanted cliffhanger, a lapse in judgment that I can't erase.

Next Week: the year in music, 2007.

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