Wednesday, November 20, 2013

My New Life (as a substitute teacher)



The last time I was in an American high school was back in 1977.  There was a pencil sharpener to the right of the blackboard up front in every classroom.  Blackboards were blackboards and we used chalk to write on them.  Texas Instrument calculators were the rage, as were four color pens.  Telephones were found on the secretary’s desk, the principal’s desk, the assistant principal’s desk and the football coach’s desk.  And nowhere else.  We wrote out our homework by hand with a no. 2 pencil on a piece of paper and handed it in, and got the same papers handed back with our mistakes duly noted in red ink.  Everybody spoke English.  And everybody was either white or black.


I started my new part-time career today as a substitute teacher.  I was informed that a job was available when a computer called me and offered me a job, which I accepted by pressing #1 on my hand-held mobile device.  I was able to go online and find out which class it was, what notes the teacher left me, and what assignments the students would be doing under my aegis.  And after a decidedly 1970s breakfast of GrapeNuts (with Almond milk), I drove to the big city high school to meet my fate.


The staff have been wonderful – they made me feel like I was actually making a difference.  The other teachers I’ve met have been out of the way helpful, perhaps because I have that deer-in-the-middle-of-the-road look about me.  And the students – except for the ipads, the iphones, the screens in the back on which are broadcast the announcements and daily school news delivered by student anchors, the powerpoint projector and projection camera placed so that the teacher can simply write notes and it is immediately broadcast on the screen, not to mention the copier/scanner just behind me - the students are just like students everywhere.  Sort of.  


Continuing my spot check inventory: no blackboards anywhere. But there are whiteboards on two walls.  There is an old fashioned clock just above the door, and an old fashioned pencil sharpener somewhere in the back of the classroom.  And big school windows that let in lots of light.  But as I scanned my new environment I had the decided impression that some things had changed since last I frequented one of these halls of learning.


Back to the students.  I was subbing for an ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages).  In my several classrooms today I had students from eastern Congo, Afghanistan, Columbia, Mexico, Honduras, Dominican Republic, China, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand.  Most had arrived in the past couple of years.  Two had come yesterday.  Having been an ASOL (Amharic for Speakers of Other Languages) student myself, I immediately understood what these kids were up against.  It is hard enough just being a teenager.  But to do it immersed in a completely new culture and language is not a happy set of circumstances.  Learning the language and culture of one’s new adopted home makes one feel like a four year old.  That’s bad enough when one is 41 with a PhD.  It’s OMG worse when one is a teenager.


So that was my job today.  Shepherding some new Americans through a couple of assignments.  They all looked like this having a substitute thing was just normal and so I attempted to project the same aura.  I can tell I’m going to be learning a lot about education in the coming days though.  In the past four decades of doing whatever it is I’ve been doing, I seem to have missed quite a bit.