Thursday, December 5, 2013

What I learned from substitute teaching, soccer, and parents

I graduated before I was able to figure out what I wanted to do as a career. That probably had something to do with the fact that the student adviser assigned to me during my freshman year was on sabbatical, and instead of finding another one I just went at it alone. I don't know if he could have helped much; I went in to school thinking I was pre-law and came out of it with a vastly different outlook on the world. I only knew that I wanted to do something "international" but had no clue how to go about doing whatever that was. I took a post-graduate program in Europe and did an internship at a peace center in Ireland, but I didn't know what was open to me career-wise. That's how I ended up in the Army - I wanted to be stationed abroad and learn a new language.

While I was trying to decide my next move after graduation, I was the junior varsity soccer coach for my high school and a substitute teacher for the schools in the county. I had been the goalkeeper coach during the summers while I was in college; it was a no-brainer for our coach to hire me as the JV coach. The JV team had never won more than a game a season up to that point; we finished 7-7 with me as coach. I feel like I knew what I was doing then. I had silly rules like no cussing unless you used foreign language words - I even taught the girls the ones I knew. Merde was a common one. No one was ever carded that year for cussing, as was the rule in Ohio.

There are two days that stand out as life lessons during that period - one as a soccer coach and one as a long-term sub for an 8th grade English teacher. The soccer one had to do with a girl on my team who had been caught drinking. She was suspended from sports as was the rule, but if a student underwent alcohol counseling, she could come back from the suspension earlier. This girl chose the counseling option and was in uniform for a game that was very important to me, not only because it would show the league that we were becoming a good team, but also because it was the school district where I had gone to elementary and junior high and where my mother's family had gone. I had been, prior to our move to Sidney, penciled in as the starting catcher for the softball team of that district as well as a goalkeeper for the soccer team. They were the soccer powerhouse - I wanted to do well. In the past we had been handily defeated by double digit scores in the varsity games. It had been a crowning achievement in my own career as goalkeeper to have kept them scoreless for a half during my senior year.

The girl who had been suspended was a dreadful player, and she knew it and laughed about it. My game plan that day was to keep our best players in for as long as possible, spelling them for a few minutes at a time and getting them back on the field as soon as they caught their breaths. I also used a new defense - if you have the ball on the back third of the field, just kick it out of bounds!

The strategy worked well. While we lost the game, it had been by a razor-thin margin, and we showed everyone that we'd be competing in the league for a long time to come. But it meant the girl hardly got any playing time. After the game, her father yelled at me for not playing her, claiming he had spent the money on the counseling so she could play. My family had always had issues with certain families who thought their children were better soccer players than they were. They were jealous because my sisters and I always started and accused the coach of favoritism. Now I was standing in the spot where coach had stood for eight years. Instead of looking at the counseling as a benefit for his daughter that taught the perils of teenage drinking, he saw it as a waste of money since she didn't play much. Too much partying was causing her grades to slip, which was the important issue, but he was concerned about her playing time in a junior varsity soccer game. This kind of thinking allows the continuation of the bad behavior. Parents should set an example, not cause problems. But I wonder if maybe he were having financial issues and I were just the recipient of projective behavior.

The second standout day was the last day of my stint as a long-term sub for the 8th grade English teacher. I had been happy to be assigned to the long-term position, as it meant a guaranteed wage for three months. Only I didn't make it three months. I made it maybe six weeks.

I was 22 years old, fresh out of college with all the naive idealism that age brings. I had lived in Europe, so I thought I could teach those kids about the world. I was no longer a babysitter in a classroom - I actually had to teach and make lesson plans and grade papers. The honors class I had was a breeze.

The remedial class gave me a profound sense of disillusionment from which I've never truly recovered. One of the kids was seventeen years old, just biding his time until he could legally drop out. He never did any homework, and he was absent at least one day a week, usually more. You could tell he came from a broken home and that he'd be in and out of jail for much of his adult life, as he'd already been arrested several times and jail was on occasion an excuse for his absences. But he was gifted. When he actually did the work, he knew how to express himself in ways most people don't ever grasp. That was what was so frustrating about him. I could have ignored him if he were of a lesser mind, because there was no way I'd be able to change his habits in three months. But he had such potential. What a waste.

He was just one frustration of many in those classes. I couldn't believe the number of students who never turned in their assignments. All of those people who rail against "teachers unions" and "bad teachers" have no clue what teaching in an American public school is like. Teachers are supposed to work miracles. Are they supposed to go home with the students to make sure they do their homework? This particular frustration led to my last day as a sub there. One of the students with behavioral problems refused to even get out a piece of paper and write something down to turn in after I gave him a second chance to do the assignment. I lost it. I told him I had given him extra opportunities and he just didn't care. I told him that I gave up on him. That's when he came up to the desk and acted like he was going to hit me.

I was reassigned on that day and left for Ireland a few weeks later where I'd learn facilitation skills that would have come in handy in that English class. Oddly enough, working with kids who had grown up in a conflict area was easier than what I dealt with in those English classes. Some of their issues were the same - the broken homes, the poverty, the lack of opportunities for decent employment. Those who grew up in the lower classes were the ones who clung to conflict. When Ireland's economy started to improve thanks to years of EU structural funds, conflict mitigation became more successful. The two are not at all unrelated.

The only way we're ever going to fix our school systems is to eliminate or at least alleviate the economic conditions that allow for a lack of focus and discipline and the behavioral problems that come with it. No amount of standardized testing or common core curricula are going to feed a hungry student or ease the pain of a kid who's abused. Until we fix these problems, ALL students will continue to be affected regardless of social class.

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