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Teaching is a lesson in itself

Published Sep. 15, 2005

(ran SP NP CI HT PT editions)

About 10 years ago, I decided to become a substitute teacher. I was filled with enthusiasm as I drove to my first assignment in middle school. At last I would stand at the head of a classroom full of bright, alert students, eager to learn every word of the lesson plan their teacher had left for me.

Well, the kids were alert all right. At the first glimpse of a new sub, they decided it was party time.

As I wrote my name on the blackboard, the students were anxious to tell me their teacher had changed all their seats the day before, and it was now time to switch. I had my doubts, but didn't want to start the day off by accusing anyone of telling tall tales.

"Okay," I said, and the classroom went into immediate chaos. Arguments broke out over who wanted to sit next to whom, desks and chairs were whirling around the floor, and I stood there completely aghast at how I had managed to arrive at disaster with a simple, "Okay."

I shouted above the din, and longed for the old nailed-down desks we had when I was a kid. I finally managed to get some semblance of order, and began learning. I learned and learned, and by the time I stopped working as a sub, about four years later, I knew how to stymie just about every scheme the kids could dream up to torture a sub, and scramble the lesson plan.

One day I made the mistake of relaxing my vigilance. After all, it was a very unusual day. Most of the class was on a field trip, and only four boys came into the art class that period. In art, students sat on stools placed around four or five long, wide tables instead of desks.

The boys set to work on their drawings, and it was so quiet in the room, I took time out to do some reading. I checked from time to time, and the boys were busy with their art. Once, when I looked up, two students were down on all fours under the tables. They said they were looking for pencils they dropped, and went back to their drawing. Peace reigned.

The bell rang; the next class arrived, about 30 students in all. They bounced their books on the tables, ready for art, and all the tables crashed to the floor. The peaceful angels in the previous class had managed somehow to loosen all the bolts on the supporting legs of the tables.

Once again, chaos ensued, much to the delight of the kids. The caretaker was called, the principal arrived, and after school, the culprits and I appeared before the principal for intensive cross-questioning. The kids were sent to in-school suspension for a few days, and I asked myself if I was really in my right mind to be subbing in my senior years.

I learned to never ask a class where their teacher kept supplies, or how she did anything at all, for that matter. At least 20 students would be waving their hands, eager to give me information as to how things were done, and it was anyone's guess as to who was telling the truth. I learned to search out some quiet little girl, call her up to my desk, turn my back to the class so they had no idea what I was asking, and have my question answered.

You could quiet a noisy class by writing on the blackboard when they came into the classroom. They were instantly curious, and wondering what they needed to correct in the lesson plan.

I learned not to lose my temper when I was subbing. One time I sent all the upstarts to the back of the classroom, and while they were lined up against the wall, one kid leaned against the classroom door and fell out into the hallway. The class was helpless with laughter and I wondered what the principal would think if he passed by and saw kids falling out the classroom door. I couldn't help laughing myself, which delighted the kids, and made my temper disappear. I went home in a better frame of mind.

Even with all the ups and downs, I met some truly wonderful children during those years _ children who inspired me with their ideas _ talented children, and children who were already wounded by problems at home. I wanted to hug them when I saw them sad, and was told by other teachers, we weren't allowed to hug children anymore, lest we be accused of child molesting. I was appalled by that warning, and wondered how kids would survive in this strange society.

After four years of working as a sub and writing part time, I decided to leave the classroom behind and concentrate on writing. The money I earned as a sub was the hardest dollar I ever earned, but I wouldn't trade those years for the world. I developed a tremendous admiration for teachers, and learned a great deal about children. If those who fume over pay raises for teachers were asked to take over their job for a while, I'm certain it wouldn't be long before they changed their hearts and minds.