Friday, April 23, 2010

Substitute Teaching 3rd Grade


Deadpan delivery seems to amuse third graders the most. The less animated I am when I talk to them, the harder they laugh. It's kind of fun when they're not being annoying. Even though appreciation of deadpan humor makes them more advanced in the comedic world than kindergarteners, they're still kids, they haven't grown up with the same pop cultural references that I have. Which is why I can sneak little one-liners into my teaching rhetoric, as a little treat just for me, like this morning when I adapted a Christopher Walken quote from the movie The Prophecy and said, "Study your math, kids. It's the key to the universe." Chuckle for me, confusing moment for them, and we go on with the lesson.



Whenever I have spare time, usually when waiting for them to finish their work and trying to make sure they're not cheating, punching each other, or playing with junk in their desks, I amuse myself by trying to picture each kid as an adult, wondering what their jobs will be, etc. In the short time I'm with them, most of them just seem like your basic kids, but a few have already developed distinct personality traits that are readily apparent to the casual observer. In this class I noticed one girl is already something of an anal-retentive over-achiever. Okay, you're right, she's just a kid. To be fair, I'll say she is organized and motivated. While other kids bounce excitedly in line, waiting to be dismissed for recess, she tenses her lips and stares ahead, eyes ablaze, fists clenched straight out in front of her, and does a series of perfect high jumps, kicking herself in the bottom with both feet, and I could swear she's maintaining a steady 4/4 rhythm the whole time. She sees me watching her, perplexed, stops immediately and says, "I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just..." I nod knowingly and nothing more is said.

I've always been intrigued by the naturally organized, as I am chronically disorganized, and staying on top of my tasks and appointments, even remembering the date on any given day, takes effort. So when Little Miss Organized asked me what title she was to give her completed warm-up worksheet in her Science binder's table of contents, I of course had no idea what she was talking about. Our exchange went something like this:

L.M.O. - "Miss K, should I title this paper, 'Math Decoder' in my table of contents?
Me - What?
L.M.O. - What title should I give this paper in my table of contents?
Me - Oh. Um... I don't know, why don't you just stick it in your binder somewhere until Monday and ask your teacher then?
(She pauses for a full beat and looks at me like I have just handed her a packet of matches and a can of lighter fluid and asked her to burn down the school.)
L.M.O. - So, can I call it 'Math Decoder'?
Me - Sure. Call it 'Math Decoder'.

You develop habits to keep yourself sane and somewhat in control when you're in charge of a group of unruly children for a whole day. One of mine is to identify the ones who think you can't tell they're hell-bent on mischief, and treat almost every request they have as an attempt on their part to get out of doing work. Kids know when they're doing something wrong. If they're playing with silly putty in their desks, all you have to do is hold out your hand without saying a word and they'll turn it over. Only the boldest hellions will carry on their charade past the point of verbal confrontation. In other words, they rarely call your bluff. However, I've also learned that it's good to find a reliable goody two-shoes to substantiate the mischief maker's claim if it happens to be valid. For example, one kid a teacher referred to as "troubled" told me he needed to take a behavior report around to all of his teachers to have them sign it, and if he got a good report he got to go play with a guidance counselor. This sounded like complete b.s. to me, and I assumed he just wanted to wander around in the halls until dismissal. So I said something to the effect of, "So you're trying to get out of doing language arts," then immediately glanced at a nearby goody two-shoes, who said, "No actually, that one's true." Then I was able to send him merrily on his way and maintain some semblance of order. Is it the most compassionate tactic? I don't really care. I've had to learn it the hard way.

Then there are the tattlers. The only thing that makes them less annoying than the future criminals is the fact that their malice is directed at someone other than myself. I had them lined up for recess, having just witnessed the aforementioned jumping routine, when suddenly I'm surrounded by about five kids of mixed genders, pointing wildly at the two primary class trouble makers and screeching about how their teacher said they had to miss recess today because of some transgression or another. Now, from the looks on the faces of the accused, this was true. However, I wanted those kids in particular to have recess so they could run around as much as possible and get their energy out so they wouldn't be a couple of pains in my ass for the rest of the afternoon. I looked at the gathering throng of students and realized I'd need to find the one who can't stop themselves from mentally keeping track of the other kids' disciplinary issues, so I said, "All right, which one of you knows everybody else's business?" Without even a nanosecond's hesitation, the girl standing directly in front of me shot her hand in the air and declared with complete certainty, "I do." Pure comedy gold, people. You can't script this stuff.

Another thing about kids in school, which I remember being true of myself back in the elementary school years, is that they all think that a teacher (or substitute) cannot hear a word spoken about them, no matter how close in proximity they may be to the speaker. As a result, they talk about you when you're standing right there and are shocked when you give a sign that you've heard them. As we were waiting for the morning announcements to come over the loudspeakers, I heard a boy to my left say to his neighbor, "I think she's five feet tall. Yeah, that's what I'd say. Or maybe five two." I turned to look at him and saw that he had been eyeing me in an attempt to guess my height. He continued discussing his estimate, so I slowly walked up behind him, then leaned over til my face was right beside his and said, "Actually I'm five feet eight. And a half." His neighbors laughed, he was clearly embarassed and then he said, "Oh. Well I was close!" I told him six inches off is nowhere near close, and then left him to the mockery of his classmates as I proceeded to take attendance.

One thing I've noticed kids today is that they talk back so much more than I remember any of the members of my generation doing. Only the worst behaved kids who were rumored to have already been to "juvy" or actual prison talked back to the level these kids do, and most of them have actually been to jail or gone missing by this stage of life. But since I started subbing a couple of years ago, I've found the level of back-talk to be appalling. How will any of them hold down jobs when they grow up? To me, it's one thing if they're being falsley accused and talk back briefly in self-defense, although when I was growing up even that wasn't allowed. But  after I've told them that I saw them do XYZ, and to sit down and continue with whatever it is they're supposed to be doing, they continue muttering, whining, even outright shouting back at me. Even one "Don't talk back" doesn't do it. By 8:55 a.m. I had written one boy a pass to the principal for what the layperson would call "being a shit," and he refused to go! They slam their books around, knock over chairs, shout. It's appalling. On the few occasions a teacher actually raised their voice to me when I was their age the only thing I was fighting back was the urge to cry. And I wasn't a crier, not at school, anyway. So needless to say, most of the time when I leave a subbing assignment it is with a growing sense of dread at the future of America. I've seen it, I've heard it, I've taught it past participles. Trust me folks, it isn't pretty. Discipline your kids. Or they'll be refusing to change our bedding and tipping over our IV drips in retaliation when we're old and in nursing homes.

But anyway, they were a rowdy bunch, it was Friday and a beautifully sunny Spring day. I was fighting a losing battle from the beginning but I made it through somehow, and so did the kids. In fact, one of the other third grade teachers and I actually slapped each other on the shoulders and shouted, "We survived!" as we passed each other in the hall at the end of the day. There were fun moments, but I'm increasingly glad I decided not to become a teacher after all. At least as a nurse I'll get to stick rude people with needles.

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