“Hi, I’m Ms. Stone,” I said. “You wanted to see me?”
The assistant principal motioned for me to sit down. He folded his hands and eyed me seriously. “How much do you know about our school?” He asked. “These boys have seen it all. They know how to work every angle. If you are weak, you’re done for. How confident are you in yourself?”
“Um, middling, I guess,” I replied, taken aback. “It’s my first day.”
After a months-long process involving mountains of paperwork, multiple sets of fingerprints and passing a basic skills test, I had finally been hired as a substitute teacher by my local school district. For my very first assignment, I had accepted a job at a continuation school.
My roommates, both teachers, prepped me on what to expect. A continuation school is an alternative to regular high school for youth that are considered at risk of not graduating. Students at continuation schools have usually had some rough circumstances, and my friends advised me to go into it with patience and compassion.
I showed up at 7:30, half an hour before the school day was to begin, pretty nervous but ready to take on whatever the day would bring. The kind office lady informed me that, not only did the students not arrive until 9:00, but that this was no ordinary continuation school. On this campus, there were actually two schools, and the school that I would be working with was made up of young men from the court-ordered residential facility down the street. Meaning that, on my first day ever as a substitute teacher, all of my students had criminal records. The irony was not lost on me that this was the only school of its kind in the entire district. Just my luck.
However, the school was willing to support me, and not just throw me to the wolves. For the first period, there would be a special ed teacher in the room, and they assigned a counselor to help me out as well for the rest of the day. I liked the special ed teacher right away. She seemed to really know what was going on, and explained to me how the class worked. We would begin with a 15 minute warm-up, where as a group we looked at an article together, followed by a short quiz. For the rest of the class period, the boys would have time to work on their coursework independently.
The counselor had been working for the district for 20 years, and I think this had given her a rather salty attitude. She grumbled a bit, wondering why they had bothered to hire a sub when they usually have her cover the classes anyway, but was happy to sit in the back for the day. By 8:30, I was starting to feel better about what was coming – which is when I got called to the vice principal’s office.
“I’ll give you two choices,” he continued. “If you want to have an enlightening learning day, I’ll keep you as the substitute, and the counselor that’s been assigned to you will back you up. But if your goal is just to get through the day, she will be the teacher, and you will support her. What will it be?”
I knew what I was supposed to say. I was supposed to take on the challenge and learn from it. But this “pep talk” had really freaked me out. Could I do this? I knew which choice I wanted.
“I just want to get through the day.”
“Good,” he said, picking up the phone. “I appreciate your honesty.”
Back in the classroom, I informed the counselor that she would be acting as the substitute teacher for the day.
“What??? But I’m not a teacher! I don’t want to teach!” She fumed. But she accepted it, and came up to the front of the room as the bell rang.
In hindsight, I could have totally done it, but there was no way I had known that at the beginning of the day. The class sizes were tiny. The rosters showed 7 or 8 students but only 4 or 5 actually showed up. The students were quiet and respectful, and most of them diligently worked for the entire class. I even led the warm-up for the last period of the day, after watching the counselor do it a few times, and once again felt the gratification of guiding young minds.
One boy in this final class refused to do his work, and watched Laker videos and listened to rap music instead, the beats leaking through his headphones. The counselor and I eyed each other. While the students here didn’t have cell phones, they were allowed to listen to music on their Chromebooks while they worked, but this particular boy’s music was a little too loud. I looked around the room. All the other kids were busy working, and didn’t seem to be distracted by his activity. We let it go. As a teacher, it’s important to remember to pick your battles.
My first day could have been so bad. There could have been physical altercations and verbal abuse, kids sent to the principal and security called. Instead, I read 80 pages of a book and only spent 4 of my 6 working hours with students. Since then, I’ve had a variety of other assignments, including a bunch of rude, noisy 8th grade boys; a group of cheerful and pleasant 6th graders; and a truly wonderful special ed class of children with high-functioning autism. I now can say that I have much more experience under my belt.
Next time that continuation school calls, I’ll take the assignment. I know I can do it now.
Safe and Happy Travels,