Friday, May 31, 2013

Substitute Teaching Moments

I have had some interesting experiences since I began substitute teaching a couple of months ago. There have been times when I felt like I was going to explode and just wanted to walk out of the class and the building, never to return. There have been other times when I just considered myself blessed by being amongst children with whom I have interacted.

The worst day so far was when I subbed for a junior high biology teacher at a school in a not-so-great area. There were over 40 students in most of my classes ... It just wasn't pretty. I remember texting Mark mid-way through the day saying, "I'm in hell." It certainly felt like it. He texted back expressing compassion, then wrote, "Try to find the Buddha in each one of them." Um, wrong thing to say. I texted back, "I'm more worried about find MY Buddha." I have not returned to that school.

Interestingly, however, I substituted at a high school in that same area and the kids were respectful and well-behaved. Perhaps because it was a Resource class, i.e., an English class for kids who are learning-challenged. The regular teacher had left a quote of the day on the blackboard to be discussed, something Judy Garland said:

"Always be a first-rate version of yourself rather than a second-rate version of someone else."

We had some interesting discussions about that quote. I asked each class if they knew who Judy Garland was. Blank stares. "How many of you have seen the original Wizard of Oz movie?" I asked. Recognition. I explained that Garland acted in a number of movies, but her real fame came later, as a singer. One of the kids said, "What kind of music did she sing? R&B?" How could I explain what kind of singer Judy Garland was to a group of kids who were born a whole generation after she died? I didn't try.

Speaking of Judy Garland, I found another quote of hers that I liked:

"For it was not into my ear that you whispered, but into my heart. 
It was not my lips you kissed, but my soul."

More recently, I had an opportunity to substitute in another junior high in a poorer area of Salt Lake. In fact, when I met the teacher for whom I would be subbing before school, he told me that this school's area was the poorest in the state. Nevertheless, the classes were, for the most part, reasonably well-behaved. (Ooooo ... Did I just reveal a prejudice?)

One of my classes at this school was composed of a dozen or so ESL (English as a second language) kids. Some of them, the teacher had told me, were refugees. After I took roll, I asked them to tell me where they were from and how long they had been here. Three of them were from Nepal. Another girl was from Iraq, another from Egypt, another from Indonesia. A couple of boys were from "Africa," they apparently choosing not to say which country. Others were from Mexico. I told them that I used to be a lawyer and had lived in Utah for 17 years. (Is that possible?)

One of the things that touched me about this class was how they helped each other read and pronounce words, sometimes translating in their native language to another child. Another rewarding moment came when one of the students said I'd be a really good teacher if I decided to do that (i.e., if I become certified). I was surprised and asked why. Several of them immediately said, "Because you're so nice. Kids like that. Most substitutes are mean and they just yell at you." Now that was heartwarming.

Another poignant moment came in another class as I was teaching about the Great Depression. I asked the kids why it is important to learn about the Great Depression and about what it was like back then. Some of them commented that we study history so that we won't make the same mistakes. I then talked about the financial collapse in the fall of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed in its wake. One of the students proceeded to describe how his family used to live in Sandy, a relatively affluent suburb of Salt Lake; but his dad had lost his job and their house was foreclosed and they had to declare bankruptcy and move to the area served by the school. He was very matter-of-fact about it. Considering my own current financial situation, I was touched by his candor and equanimity. I was grateful that I was in that classroom that day. 

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