Monday, September 24, 2007

Substitute Teacher resignation: a work experience filled with rewards and ironies


Today, I have a personal “press release” which I somewhat regret. I have stopped substitute teaching and asked that my name be removed from the Fairfax County Public Schools lists.

One immediate reason is logistics. With only FCPS (not Arlington – more below), it is getting more difficult for me to guarantee that I can arrive on time to the assignments that I can take, and they are farther away. Practical concerns and circumstances (an old car, global warming, gas prices) have become more important than they were even a few months ago. I had resumed subbing for FCPS only, after a year’s hiatus, which I had discussed particularly on July 27.

I had discussed some of the issues with substitute teaching on this and other blogs (back in late July, and previously in December). I want to wrap this up today and move on. But I know from experience that people (students, including graduated students who know me and who now may be in college, teachers, and administrators) find these blogs and I do want to share some more worldviews. I came into this as a “retired” person from the real world, someone pursuing some other somewhat visible interests that eventually came into conflict with teaching. I believed that my “real world” experience would be of value to students and schools, and to some extent they actually were. I’d like my three elapsed years with school systems (and over 250 school days in extremely varied environments) to be of benefit.

I have said on my blogs and websites that substitute teachers should not work forever without seeking licensure. That gets into my second reason for leaving. It is simply not realistic, at my age (64) and with some other circumstances to commit to a licensure course (I have looked at a number of programs) and make the financial investment, given the record of certain kinds of problems, which I detailed in the blogs in July. Curiously, some school administrators did not seem to realize that short-term subs (in Virginia) need not be licensed.

However, if this is so, it speaks to the question of the current teacher shortage, and the best strategy for recruiting new teachers. Virginia has a program called “Career Switcher” which I have looked at. A number of local universities (Old Dominion, George Mason, UVA, and George Washington) offer programs of widely varying cost and schedules. GWU, for example, requires more course hours to offer licensure in all three neighboring jurisdictions (including DC and MD as well as VA).

I have no statistics on how well these programs work. Some schools are more selective than others, requiring recommendations from employers specifically about working with children, and essays about one’s incentive to become a teacher. Today, The Washington Times, on p B1, has a Metropolitan headline “Teaching: Intern program a hiring pipeline: Student educators, graduates begin classes with trepidation” by Jen Waters. Generally, a period of internship (sometimes paid with a small stipend or by some tuition reimbursement) must be served before one can be hired permanently. Interns or student teachers do have complete authority to make lesson plans and evaluate and grade students. To alleviate the teacher shortage in certain areas, school districts should consider more financial assistance and more compensation to those "career switchers" in the licensure process, although they should select candidates very carefully.

One of the issues is the nature of the teaching jobs to be filled. Yes, my background is mathematics, and everyone talks about math as a shortage area. Shoe-in. Right? Not necessarily. I have the impression that the biggest need is in the lower grades, and with low-income students, and particularly with special education. News media have reported that school districts hire people from overseas as special education teachers because some many people will not deal with this.

There has been some talk in the Bush administration of hiring teachers specifically for accelerated math and science (such as at Thomas Jefferson High School) but that does not seem to have gotten anywhere. The real need seems to be for teachers who welcome the intimacy of teaching much younger and less intact children. The issue is not so much about delivering the academic content (which I obviously have; I have an MA in Math and a 159 on the 2005 Math Praxis, which is a good score). It is more about nurturing the next generation as a high personal priority.

There is a dichotomy here. As I have noted, the “real world” is much more subtle and inclusive than the world that is presented to students in approved curricula. (That’s even more the case in other subjects; mathematics ought to be less subject to controversy.) More advanced students, as AP and Honors, tend to appreciate teachers who stress the material itself and give them the freedom to work. Someone like the geeky Nick “Carroway” Fallon in “Days of our Lives” who gets a job as a science teacher may be fine with these kind of students, but that limits the story. Less mature students need and demand continuous interpersonal attention in order to learn. The kind of person who makes an effective AP teacher, from what I observed, may be quite different from an effective special ed, ESOL or elementary teacher, or even team teacher in more regular track.

In most cases, teaching is more than a job (although the “job” part – the math --could have been just fine) – is it a life. (Look at the movie “Chalk” or read Rafe Esquith ‘s book “Teach Until Your Hair’s On Fire.”) It requires some nebulous qualities like empathy and connectivity. Not everyone who has worked in the “real world” until “retirement” has enough of these qualities. Many careers don’t require it (in fact maybe are better done by focused individualists with less empathy). Our technological culture for the past thirty years has encouraged certain people (myself included) to isolate themselves into specialized communities, and not relate to people through more patterns of familial intimacy. Some people might not fit the demands of the teaching career switch.

That brings me back to the whole substituting experience. Although subs make out profiles of subjects and schools, in general temporary subs encounter an extreme range of situations. To be fair to everyone, they should be able to handle the difficult or intimate situations as well as the “easier” ones. (School districts could well consider limiting the distance a sub may live from a profiled school and require that they can handle all grades in a smaller area.) In Arlington, I did develop a reputation for allowing discipline problems with certain kinds (usually low-income or otherwise troubled) of students who did not respect me. (Yup, they were the kind who might “Ask”: “Do you have kids? … Why not?” So they didn’t feel I deserved to be there. I was no male role model that they could recognize; I had never developed fathering skills; these kids really needed loco parentis.) There are always some students who intentionally challenge (or "take advantage of") the "pseudo-authority" of a sub (someone who is not a "real teacher" unless he or she really was a regular teacher), and school districts might reasonably expect subs to be expert in administering manipulative, situational discipline, which I am not. (Oh, they say, "all kids do!", but, No, they don't.) This raises some moral and ethical questions (I call them “paying your dues”) that go beyond the scope of this entry; I have taken them up elsewhere and will do so again soon. I covered these in detail in the July 25 blog entry. I also feel that this sort of problem is particularly relevant to older males. If I were much younger, preferably still in college, and made up my mind to become a teacher before my life crystallized in other directions, this “reconciliation” (Clive Barker’s term (Imajica) for people from totally different worlds or mindsets or cultures coming into contact over a time-warp) would be much less of an issue. That is how I lost Arlington (above) and wound up in a logistically difficult position.

Furthermore, some kids may pick up on my "nature" and they know that I do not have full legal equality in some areas. If the federal government (and Commonwealth of Virginia) define me as legally as a "second class citizen," how can I expect underprivileged kids to respect my "authority" in the classroom? As Spock would have said, it doesn't "compute."

There was indeed a repeatable pattern, in several schools (more middle than high). Certain kinds of students needed to have an "authority figure" to interact with and I refused to act that way; I just quietly wrote them up. Even other students complained a few times that I would not take enough direct action in class (although I did throw a few people out of class and did call security a couple times). When this feedback occurs several times over many months (maybe 5 out of 200 assignments), it indicates a problem. However, I maintain that this problem is inherent in using unlicensed subs, who will not know how much action they should take. Schools may assume that parenting experience might be enough as a guide to discipline, but I do not have that. I can help only a student who wants to be there, and that follows the pattern of the "real world" that I come from (I guess the "real world" is not the same as "real life").

There were some wonderful experiences, particularly with FCPS. Honors and AP students actually become more productive if a sub simply trusts them (with "enlightened self-interest", Ayn Rand style) and lets them work. One English class had honors students writing fairy tales (“Once upon a time there lived a… “) A couple of the stories were good enough for commercial publication. I had one honors chemistry class for seven days (over two assignments) and, with just undergraduate memories of chemistry, they did fine on classwork, with an overhead projector and search engines looking up topics like electronegativity. (I remember their tests: multiple choice where they had to explain the answer to get full credit.) An AP section actually made a movie about how to teach chemistry (with the students playing characters named after Periodic Table elements, some of them fictitious). Later I would learn from the regular teacher that the students had done very well on both the SOL’s and finals after seven days of me. That particular class got to watch the film “Copenhagen”, based on the play by Michael Frayn, about a speculated 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, with the moral point being that one has to be very careful about “publishing” one’s own scientific discoveries, even when one “owns” them. I remember saying that to the class, and then I got bit.

At that same school, someone would find some of my Internet writings, an issue that I have discussed before. I detailed the incident on this blog July 27 (involving actually a fictitious screenplay, somewhat patterned after the Lifetime film “Student Seduction” which I had watched the weekend after my first sub assignment!). But there is an important “scientific” (psychological) point to add. When someone reaches advanced age without some kind of emotional empathy and connection to others partially based on the others’ needs – and in today’s culture one may actually have been able to live quite productively that way – one can be at increased risk of “temptation” and of becoming a mark. (In my own personality, I see "disconnection" as related to unwillingness to wield direct authority for its own sake.) Certain people were “offended” by the idea that I would “admit” that, given what they think they can infer from it. Temptation itself is OK – after all, it occurs in the New Testament to Christ himself, but only in one episode; Christ outgrows it. For a normal human to outgrow it is another thing. Andy Warhol wrote once “I need some responsibility hormones and some reproduction hormones.” One needs something like that. But this, still, is about fantasy and admitting that temptation can still happen. (Actually, in the aforementioned commercial film, the “mark” is a normally married female teacher; she is still falsely accused. Constant sensationalized media attention to these issues have made school administrators very skittish about Internet writings by students and especially teachers. Remember, after John Mark Karr’s false “confession” the media started talking about substitute teachers with some derision. I suppose now bloggers like me just throw gasoline on the fire.)

Actually, earlier, I had gotten to talk (during the “planning period”) to social studies teachers at another FCPS high school about COPA (the Child Online Protection Act), pointing out the court papers linked from my own websites (risky to bring up), and mentioning that I had heard the Supreme Court oral arguments. The reaction was mixed, with some teachers fascinated, and others unaware of the scope of the controversy surrounding Internet censorship (it is about implicit content as well as “pornography”). That general situation I found consistently in workroom lunches. The teacher had their sheltered world, and I was the outlier, the outsider. I had to “prove myself” maybe, but only because they had carved out a separate “dominion” and had to “dececoncile” it. I think of teaching as manipulation, not content, and not artistic; yet teachers sometimes are authors or auteurs otherwise -- but usually within the confines of their culture, as with the Washington Times article today on the book trilogy "The Door Within" (by Wayne Batson and his middle school students in Maryland), or the film "Freedom Writers."

But then my outspokenness (the incident above) arose when I mentioned my domain to a teacher in connection with newspaper editorials over bloggers and federal campaign finance reform –- a legitimate subject in high school -- exploded, as I said. It brings up the question: when someone writes something on the Internet and self-publishes it with no supervision and no monetary gain, what is most important: the message in the content itself (the screenplay had plenty of genuine political speech), or what might be inferred about the author for having posted it? That is somewhat the heart of the debate over “reputation defense” that high school and college kids surely need to know about. What is even more shocking is the parallel to the convoluted legal reasoning justifying the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military: that a voluntary statement suggesting a “propensity” to do something undesirable is justification for removal, even if the statement is protected speech. Perhaps that's because the "admission" suggests bad faith and therefore causes the rest of one's online speech to be viewed as "conversation" rather than as "literature," where hypothetical speculation may be appropriate. I would, in my own way, become a casualty of DADT, or of the presumptive social thinking that creates it. This story (a bit cryptic here) almost makes a movie. Don’t forget, as I found out on one assignment, the Lions Gate is a real place in Greece.

Summary: Many of the more mature students did learn from me, because I came from the individualistic outside "real world" and could share with them what it expects (particularly in the "real" workplace). These students seem to appreciate an educational viewpoint that would not leave out unpleasant but truthful things to "protect" them. (I recall kids in one honors English class complaining to me, "She treats us like babies" and applauding when I returned.) Yet, my world had been so individualized, so self-focused, that it did not seem credible to kids who needed social contact, constant interaction, supervision -- to be part of the lives of all adults around them. I don't know if, after thirty years of such a "different life" in urban exile, a switch to teaching and the emotional demands it makes was realistic.

(See also 9/1r posting here: "The best teacher I ever had.")

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