Second Thought: Wednesday, August 27, 2003
Substitute for Learning

Kids’ lack of motivation leaves this teacher uninspired.


Up and at ’em! It’s a school day and not just for my son and daughter — I’ve got to get ready for school myself.

I phoned in last night and accepted the Fort Worth school district’s request to fill an opening to teach English today. Just one day, while the class’ regular teacher is home sick or maybe off finding out about new strategies to help kids learn.

I like substitute teaching — every class is different. If you really want to spin your head around, try teaching high school seniors and elementary kids in the same week. Kind of like going from Mary Poppins to Bride of Frankenstein without intermission.

One of the best things about subbing is that I get to choose what days I work, and I usually have a big range of choices on schools. If only I had a way to choose the classes where the kids actually cared about learning. Teaching the elementary school kids is fun: Their attention spans are short, but learning still fascinates them. By about the sixth grade, getting the kids to care becomes a real battle. Sixth-graders don’t cut you much slack: You learn to walk into the classroom and take control, or the kids will. Any teacher who has sat next to a noisy room full of out-of-control kids being “taught” by a sub can tell you that. Here’s a tip for smart-asses: Don’t be the one who comes into my classroom, sees me, and says, “Oh boy, it’s a sub.” I’ll look up at you and smile, but you’re on my radar for that day.

The regular teachers want the subs who handle their classes to really teach, not just do babysitting and crowd control. They provide lesson plans and the information to keep the kids on track.

Once I dreamed about how great it would be to be a teacher, to pass on my knowledge and skills to the next generation. I wanted all my students to be motivated, to be striving for A’s. Every kid in my class was going to pass the TAAS exam, as it was then called, even if I had to spend 60 hours a week grading papers and preparing lesson plans. I like to be challenged, and I wanted to challenge them.

Well, as a sub, I am challenged, regularly. I am challenged to keep caring. I ask students to write a whole page in their journals, and often as not they write a sentence. We spend a week learning new vocabulary words, but God forbid that the students should actually use them — or write a complex sentence using words with more than one syllable. Anybody who does try is ridiculed. “You don’t want to be a geek, do you?” they say.

So often the good students, the ones who want the grades and want to do the work, are ignored. I try rewarding those who participate — I’ll toss mints or candy to kids who volunteer to read aloud or answer questions. Another teacher said he’s given up on those kinds of rewards, because they always go to the same handful of students. Instead, he just punishes the kids who are bothering the people sitting around them.

I was dreaming. I taught ninth-grade English at Carter-Riverside High School for part of the fall semester last year and I failed. Failed to teach the kids , whether they wanted to learn anything or not. It seems to me that a good teacher should be able to make the kids work — I couldn’t.

I didn’t realize how ninth-graders look at school. They don’t see the light of graduation at the end of the tunnel. One kid announced the first day of class that he wasn’t planning to do any work because all he had to do was pass the GRE exam. He was wrong, of course, but he went ahead and dropped out of school.

There are too many kids like that one, who refuse even to try. My class included students who had flunked English three times. When I read Patrick Welsh’s words recently in USA Today, they sounded familiar. Welsh, an English teacher in Alexandria, Va., said he found “so many lazy middle-class kids feeling they’re entitled to pass and [an] anti-achievement ethics that infects low-income students.”

My ideals as a teacher have been broken. I still like working with the kids. But I’m no longer idealistic. I’m just a sub.

J.G. Domke is an Arlington teacher and writer.

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