Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Substitute Teaching: Practical & Effective Teacher Training

Substitute Teaching: Practical & Effective Teacher Training

What constitute effective teacher training and retraining?  More classwork?  Seminars?  In-services?  I was trained and certified to be a middle school and high school math and biological science teacher many years ago.  Cuts in education at the time I graduated meant very few openings.  I substituted for a semester but found a full time research position through a friend.  Consequently, I have never had "my own class".

STEM 2009 The Red Bin Brigade 
Fast forward 20 years and I am back in the schools substitute teaching.  This time I did it by choice.  Being a mother was still my first priority and subbing in the same district where they attended school allowed me the opportunity to learn more about the district.  I wanted to be close to the boys and have a flexible schedule.

At first, I hated being in the elementary classrooms.  I was trained for middle school and high school.  First graders scared me.  The first time I was in a first grade classroom, I wanted to never be in an elementary class again.  It was Mrs. Zeller's class and it was predominantly girls that year.  It was also early in the year so they were really just "glorified Kindergartners" .  I didn't know how to handle all the drama and the switching from topic to topic. Phonic about killed me.  Recess duty, I was terrified someone would get hurt.

Nothing in my teacher training prepared me for this experience.  My experiences at the high school and middle school were better but I was still a less than stellar teacher.  I knew all the textbook knowledge.  Math, biology, genetics, anthropology, history, literature.  You name it and I have had an interest in it at one time or another and studied it, either in school or on my own.  All my factual knowledge and teacher training didn't really prepare me for the realities of being in a classroom.

Eventually, I decided that I wanted to continue substitute teaching and become a better teacher.  I watched the other teachers.  I learned from each classroom as I subbed.  I tried to take the best of each teacher I observed and use it.  Miss Barnes, 3rd grade, has students raise their pencils so she knows they are ready for another spelling word during a test.  South School teachers use a "quiet coyote" sign to quiet the class.   Mrs. Naugle, special education, taught me more than I can summarize in one sentence or even ten.


Substitute teaching changes the perspective of the teacher. 
Change your Perspective. 
Change your Attitude.  
Change the Outcome. 


Students often comment that I can explain things better than the regular teacher.  Sometimes it is just because they stopped listening to the regular teacher.  Other times, I think, the regular teachers teach the same thing so many times that they forget what it is like to not know the material inside and out.  I am usually not as well versed in the topics and can relate to the students.  I am not suggesting that the teacher should be less knowledgeable.  Rather, being placed in a classroom where I don't have all the answers reminds me what it is like to be the learner.

Districts should use substitute teaching as a prerequisite to a full time position.  Student teaching is good training but it does not compare with being thrown into a classroom at a moments notice and having to "wing-it" through material and discipline students you may or may not know.  It is hard work and it hones the skills of the teacher.  With student teaching, the ultimate responsibility of the classroom still rest with the regular teacher.  When I am subbing, the students' safety and education for that day are my sole responsibility.

This would be effective retraining also.  Instead of boring and expensive teacher in-services, have teachers switch classes.  To be effective, all teachers would not switch on the same day.  Too much confusion would result.  I also would recommend high school teachers substitute in elementary classes and elementary teachers work in high schools for a day.  Doing this would expand the teachers' understanding of students in ways a lecturer never can.  High school teachers think elementary school teachers have it easy and elementary school teachers think the opposite.  Walking a day in another teacher's shoes would help understand the other teacher's job and importance.

Solutions and ways to improve can be very simple and inexpensive.  This is one idea that would not cost the district a dime.  It would not mean a day away from the classroom.  It would not mean an early release for students so teachers can train.  It would be more interesting and engaging than a seminar.

Would teachers like this idea?  Probably not.  In fact, they would probably hate it and fight it tooth and nail.  It would, however, greatly benefit the teachers, the students and the districts.

Substitute teaching as a training tool would be very effective and  simple!


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Homework Wars: Time for a Ceasefire

Homework Wars: Time for a Ceasefire

In the last two days I have read two blogs about homework. I will talk about the second blog at another time. The first was 


The Homework Debate: An Open Letter to Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Kathleen McCartney  From Roy J. Watson, Jr., Co-Chair, Bedford, Massachusetts SEPAC 


In this blog, Mr Watson discusses the problems his child faces doing the assigned homework.  Often the student is failing classes despite exemplary test scores.  He addresses his letter to Harvard School of Education and wants to know what courses in their curriculum address homework.  What is a proper assignment?  How much should is weigh into the final grade?  Should it be graded?  Are strict homework policies appropriate?  I could easily have written this except for the fact that I had not thought to look at college pedagogy curriculum.  
My son wrestling.  I think he has the black shoes.

I am not against homework when it is used as a tool.  Math needs to be practiced until the process is understood whether that is five problems or 100 problems.  The same is true for all the subjects.  It takes time and work to master the knowledge.  Homework, for many, has little impact on actual learning.  It is busy work.  It is a grade in the computer.

When Gabe was in kindergarten and first grade, I often strapped him into the high chair or physically held him in place to work on his homework.  The assignments that took typical kids 15 minutes took us an hour or more.  For me, the purpose of this exercise was to practice and master being able to sit still and work.  His actual comprehension of the material was secondary.  

Before people start thinking that this was a battle of wills, let me explain.  Gabe was not trying to run away or refusing to do his work.  He was interested in learning, I think.  He was just easily distracted and he had issues that caused him to literally fall out of his chair.  What caused it?  I have no idea but we needed to learn to overcome it.  It took time and practice. The homework was needed.

Fast-forward to 4th grade and 5th grade.  Gabe is, for the first time, using the regular curriculum math and reading.  On the typical day:


  • Gabe got off the school bus at 3:30 pm. 
  • Got a quick snack. 
  • Went to his room and started his home work.  
  • After dinner and went back to his room until his homework was done or I told him "Enough or run around outside". 
Gabe needed to spend hours doing his homework because he was catching up on all the years of instruction he had basically missed because his brain wasn't ready for it.  His drive pushed him to complete everything.  What was done incorrectly was later fixed with his resource room teacher, Mrs. Naugle, or his regular education teachers.  Homework was a tool to measure his learning and fill in the gaps in his knowledge.  It worked and by 6th grade (middle school in our district) Gabe was doing the regular curriculum without modifications in the regular education setting.

This is an example of homework serving its purpose.  Without it, Gabe's progress would have slowed to a crawl.  His speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists all gave us exercises to do at home.  These exercises were also part of his "homework" and his progress was assessed during the weekly sessions.  Proper homework is necessary.

So what is my complaint?  Too many teachers use homework as a grade and a "filler activity".  As a substitute teacher, I have seen into the working of many classrooms.  I will never forget my shock when I realized that teachers do not always require or provide corrections to homework, classwork and tests.  A student needed help studying for a test.  It might have been a final exam because he had lots of papers that we looked through.  I was not an expert in the subject and asked him questions from his papers.  Many of the papers were full of red marks but the corrections were not there.  I had no way of helping him learn the correct information because the work had not been corrected.  It had just been graded as failing and pushed aside to make room for the new material.  

I have seen this more times than I care to remember.  Homework marked wrong, the grade recorded, but no corrections or reteaching attempted.  If the student was not able to do the work the first time, what makes the teacher think he/she can understand it with just a red mark on it?  It takes time to figure out why a mistake is made.  But unless the student and teacher try, it will never be corrected.  


2012-2013 Upper Sandusky Wrestling Team
So why do I have these pictures of wrestling throughout this article?  I am extremely proud of our high school wrestlers.  Two of them are my sons and many others are very close to my heart.  They work together.  The team qualified for the State Team Duals Tournament.  These boys had wrestlers in 6 of the 12 weight classes qualify to go to State Individual Tournament this year.  One of the qualifiers was a senior who started wrestling as a freshman.

None of this would have been possible without hard work.  The boys worked practiced.  Paid attention to Coach Rodriquez and learned to correct mistakes.  No matter how a match ended, they discussed what should have been done differently.  They were constantly looking to improve.

Shouldn't homework have the same goal?  It shouldn't end with the grade in the computer grading program.  It should only end when the student has mastered the information it intended to reinforce.  Without effective feedback from the teacher (or coach) improvement will not happen.  If feedback will not be provided, what is the point of the homework?  

Homework needs to be appropriate to the student's needs, learning style and level of knowledge.  Mr. Watson is correct that there needs to be more attention to teaching prospective teachers how to assign, grade and re-enforce homework.  I have come to believe that worksheets are overused and do not help most kids as much as the teachers think they do.  

"Fill-ins", "Matching", "Wordsearchs" and Crossword puzzle worksheets are common and provided by textbook companies.  There are programs were teachers can generate all sorts of these types of worksheets.  Why do I oppose them?  The worksheets aim to make the learning "easier" by providing some of the information and guide the student.  Instead, the students become more passive in the learning.  He focuses on the words instead of the meaning or context.  He finds snippets of information instead of understanding the whole passage.    

Sometimes the worksheets just don't make sense to the student.  I, for instance, hate crossword puzzles and have a horrible time completing them even on topics I know thoroughly. I can not come up with the proper word for a clue any more than I can come up with the proper category for a company in the yellow pages.  Before the advent of Google and Bing, I spent more time than I care to remember trying to figure out how the rest of the world would describe a business.  My brain works differently. 

There are no shortcuts in learning to wrestle and there are no shortcuts in learning to master information.  It takes work.  I am amazed that students are not told to read a chapter or page and pull out the information they think is important.  That is not a passive activity the way worksheets are.  Will it be more time consuming? Yes but the student will know the information.  

I have digressed into another topic.

Too much help hinders.  Homework is needed but it needs to be appropriate and used as a means to an end.  It should never end with the student completing it.  It should end with the student understanding it. 

Amazon.com: Striving for Independence: Ways to Help Children with Disabilities Learn to Function More Indepedently eBook: Kristan Payne: Kindle Store

Monday, March 4, 2013

Innocence Lost: Zenan & Elliot taught us much in their short lives.

JV Football Early in the 2012 Season
This picture was taken sometime in August or September of 2012.  Our junior varsity football team is warming up before a game.  The weather was beautiful and the season and school year was full of promise.  It started like all other school years with football, homework, tests and the county fair.  The kids' biggest issues involved who to take to the homecoming dance.  It was a wonderfully normal autumn.

After Homecoming, Facebook was flooded with pictures of the kids all dressed up, happy and still innocent.  I have worked as a substitute teacher in the schools for seven years and knew most of the kids since they were in the 3rd or 4th grade.  Watching the students grow and mature is one of the greatest joys of subbing.  I didn't see them every day like a regular teacher but I spent time with them sporadically  every year.  The future looked so bright.  The school year was off to a wonderful start.

The Wednesday after Homecoming changed everything.  Elliot died.  Tuesday, he was feeling fine most of the day.  After school, he started feeling sick.  By noon the next day, he was gone.  No car accident or risky behavior is to blame.  The infection overwhelmed his already weakened system.

We are a small community.  Everyone in town knew Elliot, knew of him or knew his family.  He had an easy and infectious smile.  I knew he had extreme difficulties hearing.  His aunt was his sign language interpreter.  What I didn't know, nor did most people, was the fact that Elliot's life was a miracle.  He was born with some birth defects and has organ transplant surgery as a baby.  Doctors didn't think he would live more than a few years at best.  He proved them wrong.

Elliot was one of the special people in our school.  People who have no enemies and no rumors surround them.  People who always bring a smile to faces even when just talking about them.  It was not Elliot's disability that made him special.  It was his spirit and joy for life.  We lost another extraordinary person not long after the new year began.

That morning I saw posts on Facebook that I prayed were vicious rumors.  I prayed people were wrong.  Very early that morning a fire broke out in an old general store in a tiny town at the southern edge of the county.  By 6 a.m. word had spread of the fire.  One student posted pictures taken from his house of the blaze.  He commented that he hoped the family that lived in the upstairs' apartment got out safely.  They had. But, three people living in the other apartment didn't.

All three were recent graduates of the local high school.  All three had been good students, athletes and role models.  As a substitute teacher, I knew each of them.  Two of them I didn't know very well.  The other one was like Elliot.  Everyone knew him or knew of him.  Zenan.  He was easy to remember.  Even as a middle school student he towered over me.  I am not sure how tall he got but it was probably at least 6'6" or 6'7".  In his football gear, he was a menacing sight.  In reality, there wasn't a menacing bone in his body.

Zenan was one of the kids that I was very interested to watch grow and see where life took them.  After the fire I heard stories from kids about his kindness and how he didn't freshman get harassed on the football team.  In recent years I didn't sub much at the high school.  So, most of my memories are from middle school and seeing him play football.  He was bigger than life and I still can't grasp the fact that he, Lauren and James are gone.

All four of the deaths struck hard in this county.  A high school teacher comforted his students by explaining why Elliot's death hit so hard.  It was so sudden but it was not because of a mistake.  Car accidents happen. Stupid behavior causes kids' deaths.  There is no one and nothing to blame for Elliot's death.  His body just wasn't strong enough to keep fighting off the infections.  He did for ten years longer than predicted but couldn't anymore.

The fire is still under investigation.  The initial findings didn't indicate anything suspicious. The family got out because the son heard a smoke alarm go off.  Two people in the other apartment made it out.  Both groups called 911 within minutes of the other.  From the rumors, Zenan sent his brother out through the window first but didn't make it out himself.  Even with a broken leg from the fall, his brother tried to go back for Zee when he realized Zee hadn't followed.  I can easily believe that this happened.  I pray James and Lauren never awoke and never knew a moments fear.

How can we go on from this?  Some days I still can't believe Zenan is gone.  I expect to see him picking up his younger sister after school.  How do we help the kids cope with the loss?  I never had to deal with anything like this growing up.  The deaths that occurred around the time I was in high school were due to car accidents, suicide or gun accidents.  It was easier to process those types of deaths.  If the kids hadn't been drinking to celebrate graduation, the accident wouldn't have happened.  If someone had noticed his depression, maybe his suicide could have been prevented.  If they had checked the gun more carefully, he would not have shot his best friend.

What did Elliot, Zenan, James and Lauren do wrong?  Nothing.  Did their parents fail them?  Absolutely not. No one didn't anything wrong.  Death still happens. Elliot always knew his time with us was a gift.  He shared the joy of having been given that gift.  The other three...nothing prepared anyone for their deaths.  I felt like I had been punched in the stomach for days.  I can't even imagine what their families feel.

I have been trying to write this blog since the beginning of February.  I have not done justice to their spirits yet.  In the beginning of October, 2012, this community, especially our students, were innocent of the tragedies of life.  The football players took the field only thinking about the game or there dates to Homecoming.  Next year when football starts, people will remember Big Zee and his absence among the fans as he cheers his alma mater.  As Homecoming approaches, we will all remember Elliot. He had a great time at Homecoming 2012 but died four days later.

Life will go on...but we will never be the same. Even if we "do everything right", death happens.  We need to remember the best of each person we have lost and celebrate the time we were given with them.  It is a gift we take for granted.