I’ve done a fair amount of teaching around the world, but the last few weeks of substitute teaching have put me in American classrooms for the first time. I’ve especially loved teaching first grade. The kids are old enough to start thinking independently and start coming up with some funny and interesting ideas, and they’re young enough to listen during story hour with open mouths and excitement as Stinky, Pinky and Cap’n Bones run around doing piratey bad deeds. At the end of the day, even the kids I struggled with the most are wont to throw their arms around me and tell me they love me. It just warms the cockles of your heart right up.
While most of the classes go smoothly, I did have one first grade class that would have exasperated any other teacher to the point of despair if that teacher hadn’t been thinking the entire time, ‘This would make a great blog entry.’
When I arrived, the children settled their wiggly selves at their desks and got out their library books. Tom, Dick, Harry and Steve immediately established themselves as the troublemakers. The four of them were so disruptive in their own ways that it was impossible to do anything with the rest of the class. I knew ahead of time that Steve had a lot of family problems at home, so I tried to be more gracious with him, and it’s hard to be mad at the kid that brought Scooby Doo cupcakes for his birthday. The other three were sent to the office within the first hour for fighting with each other. They returned to class maybe an hour later after calling their mothers to explain why they were in trouble.
Spurred on by the rebels, the rest of the class took a long time to settle. Tom has a lot of behavior issues. Dick was sent to the office for the second time that day for using the f-word. His mother came to pick him up, and I got to experience my first parent-teacher conference. The parents of my students in China and Russia usually didn’t speak much English, so those conferences were more restricted to, “Student good,” or “Student not good.” Dick’s mom did most of the talking, and she made it very clear that that his behavior was not acceptable and that consequences would result from that behavior. I was so surprised that a first grader would even know that word. I didn’t know what a swear was until I was probably at least in 4th grade, and I remember not knowing that ‘piss’ was a bad word until 7th grade.
The last activity of the day was writing pen-pal letters to their 4th grade pals. I went around checking spelling and encouraging them to write more than ‘hello.’ Little Harry rushed up to me to announce that his letter was done, but that I wasn’t allowed to read it. I told him he needed to show it to me, and the last sentence, ‘I lik sex’ jumped out at me. Thinking it could just be a typo, and that he’d meant to write ‘I like six’ or ‘I like sax,’ I gave him the benefit of the doubt and asked him to read it out loud to me. He read everything but the last line, which he covered up and said he wasn’t allowed to say it. I gave him a new paper and told him to write a new letter, while I took the offending text to the office. The office was well acquainted with Harry. I’d been in earlier to ask if Harry was a boy or a girl, because his real name is ambiguous, he has an earring in each ear, and he sports longish hair. Harry was later called out, and I got to have my second parent-teacher conference of the day with his lip-ringed mother.
As a substitute, it’s hard to feel like a ‘real’ teacher. I know that my day or two with these kids is not going to make a large difference in the long run, not like those amazing teachers who coached me through years of education. I tell myself that my job is easier: if I mess up, they’ve only lost a day, and their real teacher will be able to get them back on track. In other ways it’s harder: I don’t get to stay and watch them grow and learn each day.
“By choosing to be a teacher, you have entered an emotionally dangerous profession.” ~ Unknown