Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Classroom management and discipline: Substitute teaching redux 1

I’m going through reviewing, one last (or penultimate, maybe) time, my situation as a substitute teacher and whether I would go ahead and pursue licensure. The following link points to the discussion I wrote about this during the winter of 2006-2007.

I did resume substitute teaching in late January 2007 in one school district in northern Virginia. In this and one subsequent posting, I want to review the issues that have occurred since 2004. I’ll keep the comments general and principled.

Today, I want to go into the issues of complaints about my performance in classroom management, and particularly in maintaining a posture as an authority figure who could discipline less intact students when necessary.

To review, remember that public school systems serve a huge variety of students, from pre-school to college level in high school, from special education to the most gifted. A teacher is likely to want to specialize in one of these areas. A reasonable question, still, is whether I could become a mathematics teacher in high school only, with only a regular or AP-like track.

The great demand for teachers, however, seems to be at lower grades and with special education. The latter is a loaded term, referring to the statutory requirement to provide the kid with an individualized education plan. Special education includes special classes for the severely disabled and retarded, who generally can use public school until age 21, and moderately learning impaired students who are often blended into regular, team-taught classes (one teacher for subject matter, one a special ed teacher). In many areas, the demand for special education teachers is so great that teachers have been brought from overseas. The concern over qualification of teachers should include both academic preparation (college hours and Praxis) and, for teachers who work with less mature kids, practical experience in working with less mature kids, which is often obtained by many people in the family.

A note about math: in elementary grades, there is a lot of drill, and the teaching of the skills is hard work indeed. In high school, many less successful students are intimidated by the abstract thinking in algebra and geometry. It’s help for there to be, not simply a lot of homework, but a lot of short, fairly easy quizzes for some students to build some agility with the abstraction skills. Once students learn to integrate mathematics into their sense of “enlightened self interest” they tend to do much better and learn much more quickly.

The practical problem for school districts, as noted in earlier blogs, is that substitutes are often needed in these areas, often more than in the standard and AP areas. So there is an issue that substitutes may not be trained for the challenges that they would face in dealing with disadvantaged students. School districts seem to be depending on family experience, which may, for many people, be insufficient.

I have noticed that the health and appearance of students (especially with respect to the media reported issue of obesity) improves markedly with income level and family stability of the parents. I have never taken a physical education assignment, although one could be asked at the last minute; see the legal note below on custodial care.

One idea to monitor the suitability of subs, as noted in earlier blogs, would be the limit the amount of time someone can substitute without committing to licensure. On the other hand, in areas of shortages, school districts should be able to offer scholarship and internship programs leading to licensure for “career switcher” people without their having to take the financial risk or burden of another major university program first.


My own issues fall into a few different areas. One of these occurred early in that I found myself in situations for which I was not prepared, especially special education. All substitutes could get calls for “public health training assistant” and I did not know what that was; in Arlington there was a special “school” that was severely disabled only, and I did not check it first. Also, I mixed up a couple of school names and inadvertently put down a couple of elementary school names.

In the PHTA situation, there was the possibility that I would have to give personal custodial care (as in the bathroom). That did not actually happen, but one teacher asked me if I would mind borrowing some swimming trunks and monitoring the deep end of the pool. I declined. I am not a swimmer, and as a 60 year old I did not want to be semi-nude in front of students. The “politically correct” message (about physical attractiveness and, as Dr. Phil calls it, “tissue death”) being sent with such an exhibition is not all right with me.

There’s another potential indirect legal pitfall with custodial care, “don’t ask don’t tell” as I discussed in December. Since I have announced homosexuality in a public space, the legal question arises whether my giving of custodial care would violate the “consensual” rights of the student (following the military policy as a precedent). But the same question could come up with nurses and doctors if you have a patient not competent to give consent.

I narrowed the assignments that I would take. I took instructional assistant assignments sometimes, and those actually only required a high school diploma (substitute “teachers” had to have 60 hours of college). In a number of these assignments there were one-on-one encounters with special education students who did need a lot of focused, constant attention. For example, in one case in a middle school, a student was to work some multiplication problems, and needed to have a grid drawn for him for the columns. When I criticized his “answer” as not “reasonable” the regular teacher pulled me aside and said she was “protective” of her students and that I was harsh. However, I wasn’t “attacking” the student, I was only questioning his work. That’s the way it is in the normal business work world. You never attack people, but you do criticize work itself.

On one occasion I found myself with a severely disabled male accompanying him to a home economics class, where I was supposed to “make him” respond to the class. I have no idea what this means. An untrained substitute should not be put in this position.

The other major problem occurred with “classroom management” in regular classes with some troublesome students. There were two middle school complaints (I love the school system's bureaucratic euphemism: "memorandum of complaint" -- not exactly the language of Oprah), and there would have been one high school complaint if I had not quit (Arlington) first.

In one case I had taken a nine-day absence for a music teacher in a middle school. Now, with my nine years of piano and knowledge of classical music, the high school chorus and orchestra class assignments had gone well, as they always had student conductors and could run themselves. Most high schools have a few very gifted musical students (such as one who sings commercials for companies, and another (in Maryland, not where I taught) is going to Julliard to study composition). When these students are present, the classes are a pleasure.

This teacher had three very self-sufficient classes, and two sixth grade classes that needed constant intervention. I was not prepared to “conduct” them in rehearsal, and it was obvious that for two weeks they could not be productive without a regular band teacher. The ethics of my taking the assignment (the “easy money” idea) might have sent a wrong message, and some sixth graders might have had no other way to react than misbehavior. One of the girls begged me to conduct anyway, and wrote up a note as to who was misbehaving. Two or three girls went to the office to complain that I could not handle a few of the students. After two days of this, my assignment there was cancelled, and eventually I was “blacklisted” from the school, although I was never notified of that.

There was, shortly thereafter, a three day science class in a middle school in a relatively affluent area. There were four classes, and 90% of the students did the classwork assignments well (in fact, half of the students were very good and capable of fast-tracking) and turned in all required work. However, on the second and third days, a guidance counselor and special ed teacher came in to assist with two or the four sections, indicating that there had been complaints about student conduct in the back of the room from one or two female students who needed to be “protected.” I was asked to complete the assignment but then blacklisted from the school by the same form letter complaining of “poor classroom management.” As with the other school, there was handwritten documentation (for placing me on the “ do not use” list for the school) complaining of unwillingness or inability to maintain classroom discipline. There are factual questions with this incident, but I believe that a few students complained that I was not paying attention to misbehavior or two or three boys in the classroom. The special ed teacher picked out certain students and disciplined them (making them stand up), something I would not do myself as a sub,

Later, there was a two-day high school assignment, of science for underperforming students, that failed on the second day, when some gang-type boys created a disturbance, refused to follow instructions, disturbed others trying to do the work, and resulted in calls to security. They seemed to resent the idea that someone like me, who has not “paid his dues” as a man, should be in charge of them. At that point, I resigned from that school district.

Generally, most assignments, however, with mainstream (or sometimes advanced) classes went very well. Many students appreciate being “left alone” by a laid back substitute who simply lets and facilitates their assignments. I could always help them in any subject, looking up questions in textbooks, on the Internet, sometimes work math problems (even prove trig identities). Here my education level (M.A. in Mathematics) and educational level works. I did take the Math Praxis II test in Virginia and passed with a margin.

However, in classes with much younger or less intact students, there are issues. For one thing, a short-term sub does not know the students well, although a quick glance at the beginning of a class often conveys a lot. Generally, if a sub that is not often at a particular school and is only there for a couple days, it does not seem pertinent to become overly involved in the mechanics of discipline. With the “80-20” rule a more laid-back approach does work with most students in practice. A school district that wants subs to maintain the same kind of discipline as regular teachers (especially special education teachers) should consider using on licensed subs, or limiting subs to a few schools so that students will recognize the sub and come to regard him or her as faculty and worthy of respect as an authority figure.

It is the expectation that I play an in loco parentis role “just for authority” that causes me other issues. As indicated in an earlier post (July 19), I did not learn the competitive male skills as a younger person that would make me a desirable husband and father in most people’s terms. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but it is the brutal truth. That makes it more problematic for me to be regarded that way. Part of it is, indeed, never having married and fathered children as my own – so I don’t want to put on an act with pseudo-fathering skills for kids who are unprepared for school by their home environments. Add to this, I am an only child, so I did not learn “family responsibility” skills of supervising younger siblings. So, in my circumstances, put all together, it is questionable whether it makes sense that, after 30 years of urban social exile as a gay man, I could play that role credibly in front of kids who need to be supervised by someone more like them—someone accustomed to the expectation of being able to “protect” people and find meaning in a social hierarchy. That’s not me; it just provokes my “autoimmunity.” I don’t think that this is as big an issue for younger teachers (male or female, who often, as we remember, were unmarried in past generations) as it is for someone of my generation. The one thing that could help me is full "political equality" as I have discussed on this and other blogs.

There is an older essay on this from early 2005 here.

Update: Feb. 2, 2008

Here is an AP story from Jan. 16, 2008, "Teacher absences are hurting learning
Vacuum in classroom linked to lower test scores, research shows," on MSNBC, for the Today Show, link here.

Picture (above): New Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA; I graduated from there in 1961.

Picture (below): substitute list removal letters from 2005

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