Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Sorry for the downtime, I've been out of town for the past week or so. I haven't been substituting, and therefore haven't had new experiences to share. In the meantime, this is what teachers make.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Spoonful of Sugar

I recently did my first sub job at an alternative high school. It was an eye-opening experience as my jobs so far have been at pretty good schools with well adjusted kids.

My conclusion? The students at this school were not that much different than at other schools. Yes, class sizes were much smaller, voices were louder, and kids joking about drinking, drug use, and parties abounded. But, as economist extraordinaire Dan Ariely teaches us, everyone responds to incentives, and students at alternative high schools are no different.

The assignment was for students to answer questions about a textbook reading. Class was over 60 minutes long, and for these "alternative" kids, that kind of attention and concentration just wasn't really happening (needless to say, nor would it be for just about any classroom). So, I decided to discuss the reading instead. It was about Christopher Columbus, and what these students knew blew me away. They knew about the expedition, the spice trade, his dealings in slavery, the oppression of natives, and greed.

I was impressed, so I told them. "Man, you are some really smart kids. I'm totally impressed," and then went on with the discussion.

That was the spoonful of sugar. It was their incentive.

It wasn't intentional; it was just an honest example of giving praise when praise is due. For the rest of the hour students were attentive, respectful, and contributed wholly to the discussion. No more talk of parties, no more side discussions. just focused students sharing their thoughts about this country's shaky beginnings.

Q. What are your thoughts on using praise in the classroom?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Greatest Teachers

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

My personal answer is multifaceted, but I have to give a lot of credit to an excellent teacher I had. He taught me how to think past the text book, define and defend my position, and to love history for the dynamic and ever-changing story that it is.

Jeffrey Eugenides' best-selling, Pulitzer prize-winning, and masterful work Middlesex also describes and excellent teacher. The description makes me appreciate the impact that our greatest teachers can make. A real person, with strengths and weaknesses, that relates to and respects students despite the age gap. Educated but not a know-it-all. Verbose but also a listener.

Can't you just see yourself loving Mr. da Silva's class?
He was a great teacher, Mr. da Silva. He treated us with complete seriousness, as if we eighth graders, during fifth period, might settle something scholars had been arguing about for centuries. He listened to our chirping, his hairline pressing down on his eyes. When he spoke himself, it was in complete paragraphs. If you listened closely it was possible to hear the dashes and commas in his speech, even the colons and semicolons. Mr. da Silva had a relevant quotation for everything that happened to him and in this way evaded real life. Instead of eating his lunch. he told you what Oblonsky and Levin had for lunch in Anna Karenina. Or, describing a sunset from Daniel Deronda, he failed to notice the one that was presently falling over Michigan.
Q. What did you love most about your favorite teacher?

I invite you to contribute by sending in questions, personal stories, thoughts, and articles about substitute teaching. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Playing the Name Game

When you think about it, your name is kind of a big deal.

Yes, it identifies you. But more importantly, it identifies you apart from other people. While you may share the same name with another person, it is still truly yours.

In the original Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner (sorry to keep bringing them up) discuss how name choice effects the likes of personality, success, and impressions. As you may expect, there are a lot of correlation vs. causation issues that go on with this kind of research. However, while a name alone may not effect who one becomes as a person, a name can play a significant impact on the way one is viewed by others. Similarly, a less common name can be a big negative factor in job interviews. As in standard Freak fashion, the economists deconstruct the entire issue, exposing social structure and socio-economic issues to complicate the apparently simple concept of a name.

In the epic and fascinating work A History of God, Karen Armstrong describes the meaning of a name in a different way. In biblical times, knowing someone's name not only allowed you to identify them, but also provided a sense of power over them. In a sense, you held some ownership over that person, and could control them. There are many sources to confirm this idea, but the blaring example is the text from Genesis that identifies God's name as an unpronounceable word.

When you think about it, Armstrong's hypothesis still holds true today. If you don't know somebody's name, how can you request their attention, or ask them a favor, or even address them? It may not give you power over them in a literal sense of the word. However without the name, you are at a disadvantage (why do you think my name on this blog is "The Sub"? :-).

One of my biggest challenges substitute teaching this year is playing the name game. As subs, we find a variety of different tricks to address our students (unfortunately a very common one is "guys"). However, nothing is really as good as simply knowing somebody's name. When you have over 100 students come through the door through the course of the day, this becomes extremely difficult.

Here is what I have found that helps my process:
  • Simplify - I don't try and remember everyone's name. However, I do pick out a couple of students and work to make their name stick. By addressing 4 or 5 students by name, it can give off the impression that I may know a lot more names than I really do.
  • If you know it, use it - Some names and faces just stick. If there is a particular student I remember the name of, I address them by name as they enter, leave, and throughout class.
  • If you don't know it, don't use it - calling somebody by the wrong name is embarrassing for them and doesn't help my position. Same goes for pronouncing somebody's name incorrectly. I am very cautious of both of these. When I do make this mistake, I correct myself immediately and then make a point to use the name correctly within the class period.
  • Not spread too thin - so far I've only subbed at a couple schools and couple departments. This means I get a lot of the same students. Aside from the other major advantages this provides, remembering names is a big one.
I hope this helps some others playing the name game.

Q. What do you do to address students in a new class, school, etc., when you don't know names? Do you have techniques to learn names quickly and accurately?

I invite you to contribute by sending in questions, personal stories, thoughts, and articles about substitute teaching. Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Issue of Merit Pay

One of my daily stops, the Freakonomics blog, posted an intriguing article about the idea of teachers and merit pay.

From the article:
There’s just one problem: educators almost universally hate merit pay, and have been adamantly opposed to it from day one. Simply, teachers say merit pay won’t work. In the last year, there’s been some pretty damning evidence proving them right; research showing that merit pay, in a variety of shapes and sizes, fails to raise student performance. In the worst of cases, such as the scandal in Atlanta, it’s contributed to flat-out cheating on the part of teachers and administrators. So, are we surprised that educators don’t respond to monetary incentives? Is that even the right conclusion to draw?

The article is followed by insight from a variety of different specialists, demystifying the issue for the rest of us who have not yet become polarized. Definitely a good read, especially when more national teaching reform looms right around the corner.

I've personally never been a huge supporter or opponent of the idea. Charles Wheelan, an Illinois economist and politician, gives an excellent argument for merit pay in his book Naked Economics (and, surprisingly, he is quite liberal politically). Despite the gaps in his plan, I highly suggest reading it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

And That's Why You Always Leave a Note

Today's topic: job security.

Good teachers care about their students. When the teacher is gone, they want (and deserve) to know everything that happened within their classroom. Direct communication with the teacher is generally not part of a standard substitute teaching job, so it is imperative to do the next best thing: leave a note.

Within my first two weeks of teaching I have learned the power of a well-written sub report. I will go so far as to say it is the difference of being requested by the teacher again in the future or not.

In this post, we'll look at what you can do to ensure you are leaving with a good impression.

What would you want to know if you were the teacher? As you write your sub report, consider the following:
  • Detail. After each class period, write specifically what happened. A simple “no issues, all students worked on assignment” is not descriptive enough. Don't wait until the end of the day, you won't remember the details.
  • Feedback. Notice students in your class, get their names, and leave comments. Let your teacher know specifically about the kids who were exceptionally helpful.
  • Gratitude. Thank them for the opportunity to sub in the class.
  • Honesty. If there were problems, be up front about it. Its better they hear it from you than from other teachers or their students.
  • Praise. Comment on the most positive experiences. For example, I let one of my teacher's know about how much I appreciated the in-depth sub plans as well as the solid classroom structure.
  • Communication. Provide your contact information so they have the option to get a hold of you if needed.
Approach your written report as you would a cover letter. You want to be requested back in again, right? This is your opportunity to sell yourself.
  • Write cleanly, neatly, and well. If you screw up, grab another sheet of paper and do it over.
  • Use nice stationary. I print out letterhead that has my name and contact information. It looks good, appears professional, and provides an easy way to store contact info.
  • Leave notes about things you did to go out of the ordinary.
  • Thank them in the beginning, and thank them at the end. Come right out and say that you enjoyed subbing in their class and that you are available in the future to sub again.
  • Network with other faculty and staff. When your teacher comes back in they will probably ask questions about you, so make good impressions and you may just end up being requested by more than one teacher.
There is more to subbing than writing a good report. But leaving a lengthy, informative note never hurts, and will greatly heighten your chance of getting requested and recommended in the future.

Q. What do you make sure to include in your sub report?

(The title of this post comes from a hilariously clever episode of Arrested Development. For an entertaining "lesson" on leaving notes, you can watch the episode for free on Hulu).

I invite you to contribute by sending in questions, personal stories, thoughts, and articles about substitute teaching. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Classroom Organization is Classroom Management

I had an absolutely amazing substitute teaching experience on Thurdsay.

Like many teachers, I praise the book The First Days of School by Wong and Wong. If it's not the Bible of classroom management, then it's at least the Talmud of it. The authors neatly explain tried and true methods of organizing a classroom for student success. And as a convincing kick in the bum, they back it all up with loads of scientific research.

But to drive a method home, there's only one thing better than research – hands on experience.

Part 1: Classroom Organization

Thursday's classroom was a living and breathing example of concepts in The First Days of School. This teacher had the room organized to a T. Here are just some of the things I noticed:
  • Everyday, students go to the same place to pick up the day's agenda. Its a print out, including the day's plan, the assignments/directions, and rubrics for every assignment.
  • The agenda, assignments, papers, etc., are all hole punched so students can (and are required to) easily organize them.
  • All desks are numbered. Seats are assigned, but desks are arraigned in a way that facilitate collaborative learning while still keeping attention focused forward to the front of the class.
  • A template was created on the front whiteboard for the week's schedule. It never changes or moves, so students always know where to look for deadlines.
  • All written papers follow a strict guideline (name in a certain place, double spaced, written neatly in blue/black ink, etc) and is posted throughout the classroom as reminders.
  • Work is turned in by students at the same inbox everyday. Work is picked up by students at the same outbox every day.
And the list goes on.

But what's more impressive: it is only the second week of school and student's know exactly what to do. I attribute this to two things:
  1. the teacher must have explained it very well to students - but more importantly:
  2. it was implemented from day one
The result: there is less stress for everybody. Students don't have to worry about asking a multitide of questions just to complete an assignment correctly - they already know what is expected. The teacher doesn't have to make new guidelines for each assignment - they are already in place. Simply collecing a paper goes from a 3-5 minute production to a painless, ritualistic task of students setting them in to a box.

Genius - or common sense? You decide. The fact is it works!

Part 2: Classroom Management

It is my solid belief that organization and management are completey interrelated. The ying and the yang, the push and the pull, the the demand and the supply. Have one and implement it properly, and the second will follow.

Again, the experience is the proof. Across all class periods on Thursday, the progression of events at the beginning of class was amazingly similar:
  1. students walked in before the bell rang
  2. before sitting down, they went to the side table and picked up the day's agenda
  3. they went to their assigned desk
  4. before the bell rang, all students were in the class, seated, and working on their assignments
Does excellent teaching help class management? YES! However, I wasn't their teacher. Students were on top of the game and successful without their teacher there to motivate.

Compared to my first day subbing on the first day of school (read more about that debacle), this experience proves that organizing a classroom successfully on the first day of school, and implementing it thoroughly, works.

Q. Have you had a similar experience subbing? How did it compare?
Q. What do you intend to do to organize your future (or current) classroom?

I invite you to contribute by sending in questions, personal stories, thoughts, and articles about substitute teaching. Thanks for stopping by.