Back in the Saddle

Monday, September 21, 2015

My summer break officially came to a close when my dear old friend Janet called me this morning. How could I turn down a chance to revisit where I student taught?

May was a long time ago.

Janet has hit the jackpot with this year’s crop of kids; they were a little bit on the quiet side, but for the most part the juniors and seniors were self-sufficient, and for the few others, at least they didn’t cause any ruckus. I wish I had a wand that I could use to inspire and motivate.

My ship of a day was clear sailing. Calm waters. And then a favor was asked. Could I take over a pre-Algebra class? Uh. I hadn’t eaten. I was out of coffee. Sure, I said. Why not? Not helping a school in dire need is not a wise professional choice.

I don’t know why I was needed at the last minute, but there I was. Small class. You would probably think that this is a good sign, but that’s not been my experience for the most part, and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing at attention.

Luckily through my many years of substitute teaching, most of the time lesson plans guide me through the class, but this time there was nothing. I asked the students, and my hunch was that most, if not all, were freshmen. So early into the school year, middle school cells are still residing in their brains. Middle School has always been my Albatross.

I knew that chances were slim that anyone was going to tell me what they were studying. Predictable answers like nothing, it’s a study hall, and he lets us go early. I finally got one to say that they had been coloring in circles like pies. Ah, Fractions.

I’m an English teacher, but for a year at the Willamette Leadership Academy I pretended that I was highly endorsed in Mathematics. I did a lot of pretending at that school, but that’s a different blog altogether.

What do you know about fractions I asked. Words popped into my head. Denominator and numerator. Common Denominator. LCD. Lowest Common Denominator.

I got their immediate attention when I broke a pencil in half. Okay, I used to have a whole pencil, but now I have two pieces. One over one is one. I had a couple of boys break those pieces in half. Too bad they couldn’t get credit for that feat, but they rose to the challenge. Of course, I did run the risk of other pencils being broken, but I do want math to be fun, and since I didn’t see any manipulatives, creating some was the next best thing.

Around and around we went. The waters got choppy. I think I was getting a tad bit seasick. I had one kid who knew this stuff and was probably ready to actually study pre-Algebra, not pre pre. It took a lot to get him to not shout out answers. I needed to find out where the other students were. I was trying to find a place that was comfortable, but challenging. I was trying hard to avoid the frustration level, hence avoid misbehavior.

Every so often, I’d get a light bulb to flicker, but there was a group of boys that had different goals and spent most of the class entertaining each other with off the wall answers to my questions. Fractions were beyond their grasp; they needed remedial math with addition and subtraction.

Because behavior and frustration go hand in hand, I’d recommend that the group of boys be separated since they play off of each other. I know from experience all too well. When I was in junior high, there were many who thought that my friend Leslie was a bad influence and that we should be given separate schedules. They were probably correct, but it’s hard to say.

My first day of school tuckered me out and needed a two hour nap to recharge the batteries.

In beginning my eleventh teaching season, I think about specific goals that I can have, and the one that jumped to the front of the line is the teeter-totter. I’ve got one student who could care less about the class. They’ve never been able to grasp many math skills and have given up. On the other side, the one way up in the air, is the student who wants to understand the lesson. Of course I want all of the students to understand, and even with extending the class to an hour and a half long, more time isn’t the solution. Without constant attention, misbehavior increases. I felt like I was playing whack a mole rather than teaching.

I wish I could focus my attention on those who want to learn and not get so tripped up over the ones who just want to yank my chain. The hardest part about being a substitute teacher is that I don’t know these kids, I don’t know their stories. I have no idea of what their proficiencies are. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who I’m writing about, I may never see some of these kids again.

Well, I just might get a call at six or seven in the morning, so I better hit the sack.



  1. It’s “they couldn’t care less…. not “they could care less.” One of my pet peeves! If they could care less, that means they DO care. But if they could NOT CARE LESS, that means they really don’t care at all… I don’t know why that phrase has evolved so much… I read it all the time, but being an grammar fanatic like I am, I respond!

    This was a good blog… not too long… and I really felt your emotions being back at it after several months of summer.

    what I don’t get is why are there students of different levels all in one class? Reminds me of the old one-room-schoolhouse with all the grades in one room, and the teaching have to teach different levels to the various groups. Now that must have been a challenge?

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