Saturday, June 9, 2007

for your consideration

Strangely (I'm beginning to worry about a Carrie-like ending to my time on stage...), I was asked to speak at the banquet for graduating seniors where I've been teaching just the past two months. I'm excited, because I rarely have public speaking opportunities and am one of the few individuals who would not rather die than give a speech. But I'm also nervous, because it would be vain & stupid of me not to be a little bit - there will be at least 100 people there, most of them alternative school students who would rather be watching anything on YouTube than listening to me blab on. So I'm asking you, dear readers, to give me some candid feedback on my so-called words of wisdom. Go ahead, try to make me cry. (I won't include the amusing ad-libs I'll do here and there - and rest assured I will not read it verbatim but will use the note cards I demand my speech students to create). Oh, and I have to do this Tuesday. Please try to respond by then or it doesn't really matter what you think. In fact, any criticism after that will just make me angry. Thanks!


We substitutes are an often maligned group. I’m not just talking about substitute teachers but the back-up quarterbacks, drama understudies, assistant coaches, vice presidents, even poor stepmothers, who will unfortunately always be known as ‘wicked.’ Nobody is impressed much with the second choice, the less than, the alternative. But I am here to tell you – there is much to gain from this 'waiting in the wings' position. Here I give you some life tips from The Substitute.

The first one seems the easiest but can really be the hardest, depending on who you are. I am someone for whom it is the hardest thing. It seems logical to set my alarm and make myself get out of bed at 5:30 am. I even put my alarm in the bathroom, to make it more urgent that I get up and turn it off before it wakes the neighborhood, and it's still hard. But later in the day, when the sun is out and I've had my tea and oatmeal, maybe some chocolate, I can see that having gotten out of bed early was a great idea. Not only was I ready to take whatever job I was offered, I arrived there alert & ready to do my best teaching. And I didn't look like a bird had nested in my hair all night - that seriously lowers your credibility in the workplace. So train yourselves to get up & get ready early each day, because you want to be prepared to seize those opportunities that won't wait very long for you.

Next, always ask questions. And make sure they're the right questions. I was once called for a subbing job, early in the morning (before I had mastered my first tip, unfortunately) and the secretary said it was for science classes. If you know anything about me at all, you know science is not my strength; it might even be my downfall, frankly. But I was trying to be game and said "Sure" before I thought to ask "Is that the only subject I'll be covering?" Because as I was hanging up, she quickly said "Oh and there's a PE class. Thank you!" Click. Well, if there's anything I'm worse at than science, it's structured physical activity. Not asking questions means not getting all of the information you need to make smart decisions and be as in-control as possible. At the very least, you can have the illusion of being in control if you've gotten some key answers. At another job, there were no substitute notes to be found - I looked on & in every possible desk, drawer, shelf, mailbox, and garbage can. Not a single idea of how to run the day's classes. So I started asking questions - the first being, Is there anyplace I haven't looked for this teacher's instructions?? After that, I asked the students, What do you usually do in this class? Surprisingly (I was taking a gamble, I know), I got honest responses and we had a productive time. Asking questions, the right questions in the right way, doesn't make you look stupid - it makes you look interested and, in turn, will make you seem much wiser.

I'm calling my last tip "Love the ones you're with." Partly because I like the Crosby, Stills & Nash song, but also because it sounds more fun than "Don't judge a book by its cover," which is basically what I mean. I don't always get the jobs I want - I love coming here, for example, but you only have three teachers I can possibly sub for. But because I really like what I do, and because I enjoy a monthly paycheck of some kind, I have to show up wherever I am needed. The days when I visit a new school or sub for a different teacher, I feel a little nervous and also a bit down because it isn't what I'm used to and I'm not sure what to expect. I have to become familiar with different layouts, schedules, rules, and of course, all of the new people I'm working with. I realized very quickly after I started that this is the nature of substitute teaching and, really, it's a good way of looking at the world in general. Everyday we are faced with something new, if we're truly looking around us, and we should welcome this. Now, as much as I would love having my own classroom again, I like memorizing new students' names within the first few minutes of meeting them. I call it my 'party trick' and it always amazes. Some say it's a little creepy, but everyone asks how & why I do it, and my answer is simple: These people are important to me; I have limited time to help them learn stuff, and I need to know who they are to do that best. Plus, it's easier to write up those who are screwing around if I don't have to stop and ask their names again...But mainly, I am just ready to love the ones I'm with.

You have had brilliant, caring teachers and one amazing principal here, and now you have the wisdom of someone who has filled in for most of them. I don't feel 'second best' doing this; I feel fortunate to have met all of them, and all of you. I hope you go out of these doors proud of yourselves and your experiences. I hope that if you are faced with people who wonder how good you can be, coming from an alternative school - a so-called 'second choice' - you will know how much more prepared you really are for this world. And I hope you never have to substitute in a PE class.