Tag Archives: Teacher Professionalism

Dear Teacher, In Your Absence…..

Substitute teacher, the unsung hero of education.

My mother has been very sick as of late. It has necessitated me taking many days and periods off. In times of stress like this, I find temporary respite in reflecting on some of the more trivial things in life, like absentee lesson plans.

It is the policy of most schools in which I have worked for teachers to hand in three days’ worth of emergency lesson plans for the main office’s file. I suppose that, from an administrative standpoint, it helps in the smooth functioning of the school day.

While I do not like taking days off, it is something that I have lately found unavoidable. It is has given me cause to reflect upon my entire absentee lesson philosophy.

From my days as a student in New York City’s public schools, as well as a teacher who has both covered classes and had classes covered for me, I have a pretty good idea of the mood of a class when the teacher is absent. In high school, students walk into a room where the teacher is absent and reflexively think “free period”. They will sit next to their friends, usually well far away from their regularly assigned seats, and set up shop for a bull session, a card game or a freestyle cipher.

To be honest, I used to leave busy work behind when I was absent in the first years of my career. I would provide a history crossword puzzle or graphic organizer because I felt the students were more likely to do them. But then the teacher who covered my classes complained to me that the students were done too quickly and had enough free time to play around and cause trouble.

That is when I decided to go to the other extreme and provide dense readings with tons of questions. It would be the type of work that took way more than one class period to complete. I figured it would keep the students more than occupied and I can grade them on the amount of effort they put in rather whether or not they completed the entire assignment.

Then, one day, one of the school’s favorite substitutes complained to me that the students found the work “boring”. He was having trouble motivating them he said, so he scrapped my handout and did a lesson with them on the fly about the topic. His tone could be described as gloating, as if he had one-upped the regular classroom teacher, which was me. I did not have the heart to tell him how little I cared.

At the same time, I have also covered my fair share of classes. The first thing I do when I get a coverage is look over the attendance roster for names of students I might know. It usually gives me an idea of the type of class with which I will be dealing. Once I and the students are in the room, I look on the teacher’s desk for any assigned work for the period. I do not really care what type of work it is, since it is not my class and I assume the teacher knows best what their students can handle. At the start of the period, I introduce myself, ask for their indulgence while I take attendance and lay down some modest ground rules. Then I ask them the topic they are studying, hand out the assignment and let them know that I would be happy to help them complete it on their own. They will be collected by the end of the period.

There are those circumstances when the work is easy or there is no work at all. Far be it from me to let the class off light with a free period. I usually take the opportunity to test myself and pull a lesson out of thin air. If I do not know the topic, which is most likely the case with any subject that is not history, I rely on the most vocal students to guide the class through explanations. Sometimes I refer to the textbook and struggle through the topic out loud so the class can see the thought process in action, and maybe get a few laughs at my expense.

I do not recall there ever being a time when I had a nightmare coverage. For many years I was a dean, which meant I had the pleasure of getting the toughest classes to cover. For my entire life I have been a big, tall loudmouth, which means I still get the pleasure of the toughest classes to cover. Never once did I think of leaving a negative report for the regular teacher, even if the class was not the most angelic. I know that, for my part, I do not like the feeling of being told that my classes or lessons suck by another teacher. This goes double time if I am returning to work after dealing with an emotionally draining personal problem.

My view is that I am a professional and that any class will be safe while I am in charge. The regular classroom teacher should be free to recover from their illness or deal with their personal life without the fear that they will get reports about paper airplanes being thrown and “kick me” signs being taped to the substitute’s back.

I have never understood the tension that exists between the substitute and the regular classroom teacher. Substitutes always seem to find a reason to bemoan the work the classroom teacher leaves behind, or lack thereof. Classroom teachers always seem to find a reason to bemoan how the class was handled in their absence, or how their lesson plan was not followed.

Teachers have enough guilt and worry calling out as it is. No matter what work is left behind or not left behind, take your day, deal with what needs to be dealt with and come back to work when you feel you are ready to face the day. Your colleague will be there to pick you up because, at some point, we will all need to take a day for ourselves.

The days that I have had to call out lately have solidified my policy for leaving behind absentee work. My number one bottom line rule is that the work must be relevant to the unit we are currently studying. At the start of each unit, I hand out a sheet that has all of the homework assignments that go with it. If I am able to anticipate calling out ahead of time, I make copies of the exact lesson plan that I would have delivered if I had been there that day. Their assignment is to do the homework that goes with that lesson. Their motivation is that they will not have any homework for the class when they go home that evening. It is not perfect, but I find that it works most of the time.

On those days when I cannot make copies ahead of time, or when the class has just taken a test (meaning they did not yet receive the new homework sheet), I call in an essay prompt over the phone about the last lesson we studied. Sometimes, I will offer extra credit on the previous or next exam for those students who do a good job. It is a hard assignment to cheat on. As a matter of fact, students will try to work in groups and compare information. They will think in their minds that they are cheating. In my mind, they are doing exactly what I want them to do. They are working  collaboratively to write the strongest essay possible. Not only can it be an actual learning experience, but it co-opts the natural urge to socialize when the teacher is absent, marshaling that urge in the name of education. It feels good to return to work and get a stack of 30 essays packed with historical information (it feels good until I have to grade them, that is). Even the students who usually do not do homework or write essays hand in the assignment. And, in the end, if they really think they have gotten away with cheating, who does it hurt? Let them have their fiction.

So, if you ever cover my class, I apologize ahead of time if you consider the work I leave too boring or too easy or both. I am doing the best I can. We all have our days when we need to handle life outside of school. If, for whatever reason, you think you have a better way to handle my class for the day, go for it. You are the one that has to deal with them then and there, not me. I respect your judgment as a professional, even if you do not respect mine.

And when the day comes that you might need me to cover your class, I will do it dutifully and ensure that your darlings are engaged. You will not receive a bad report about your class from me. I have your back.

How to Uphold Teacher Professionalism (Rule #1: Stop Snitching)

Having spent some of my childhood in the streets, I have a strong aversion to snitching. It was one of the absolute lowest things one could do, the fast track to becoming persona non grata.

Part of the reason for this was the dire consequences that could befall the “snitchee”. If one were to face consequences for something they do, then fine, but those consequences were not ours to give. The snitch takes upon them an omnipotent role, one not worthy of respect because it is so cheaply had.

Now I am a grown up and have been out of the streets for many years. I understand that, as a teacher, there are times when I might have a legal or moral obligation to play the snitch role. A few years ago, a female student came to me saying that a male teacher had propositioned her. I went straight to the administration. The student could not understand why I was making a big deal about it. I explained that I am a mandated reporter with the legal obligation to report any child abuse. Not only was it the legally right thing to do, but the morally right course as well.

Aside from that time, I never saw a reason to march into an administrator’s office to inform on a colleague. Whether I liked a colleague or not, if they were not doing anything physically or sexually abusive to a child, then there was really no reason to inform on them for anything. Just like in the streets, doing so could carry serious consequences. It is not my place to play God with people’s careers.

There is also the added reason that teachers are members of the same profession and union. No matter our personal feelings towards a colleague, a sense of solidarity should supersede everything else. As professionals, there is no reason why personal disagreements could not be ironed out face to face. It does honor to the profession to rise above personal animus and find common ground with someone you otherwise do not like. As members of the same union, nothing is more corrosive to workplace solidarity than a schoolhouse snitch.

The first year teaching at a new school is always challenging. You have to get used to the students, the culture, the expectations of the administrators and your colleagues. Usually, it requires revamping all of your lessons. There is a learning curve that, by the end of the school year, leaves you exhausted.

I once transferred from a school where I was the history department to a place where I was one among many. Instead of making my own curriculum, like I did in my previous school, I had to follow a department-wide curriculum. For the first few weeks, I went through an adjustment phase where, at most, I was off in the calendar of lessons by about a week.

My door is always open when I teach. My voice usually resonates across the entire floor, the acoustics of your average school hallway carrying it far and wide. A teacher on the floor, one who taught generally the same courses as me, came into the classroom one day during an off period to tell me I should be an announcer. I had a “nice voice”. I was also “cute”. This was not flirtation at all, just friendly banter.

At the end of the first month, it was time for our first department meeting. The assistant principal was not pleased. Apparently, not everyone was following the curriculum. He looked right at me and asked me where I was in the curriculum. I told him an answer he did not want to hear, at which point I was duly reamed. Seeing as how I was never “reamed” before, it was not a pleasant experience. It certainly took me down a notch in front of my new coworkers.

A day later, one of my colleagues came to me and said that the “nice voice” and “cute” lady was the one who ratted me out. I did not think much of it, because I was used to colleagues trying to poison my mind against others with whom they did not get along. I thanked her for the information, but quietly suspended my judgment.

It did not seem as if she was the type to rat. She was generally personable and had a decent sense of humor. She was also a common malcontent in the teacher’s lounge, deriding the AP as an “idiot” and generally berating everything the administration did.

Then, the next school year, I was charged with creating the uniform midterm and final exams for one of the grade levels, the same grade level for which I had been reamed for not following. I wrote up the exams and then emailed them to my colleagues to get their input. No input was ever given, so they were administered to the students as-is.

One day, the “nice voice” and “cute” lady told me the AP had reamed her for not handing back the final exams. She said she told him she did not hand back the exams because I used all old Regents questions, many had been recycled from previous midterms and finals. She did not want the answers to the two or three repeated questions floating around for public consumption.

I did not realize it until later, but she had pretty much admitted to me that she had, once again, ratted me out.

The AP had a “talk” with me about why I recycled the same questions. This time, I did not hold my tongue. I told him that all teachers received a copy of the exams two weeks ahead of time. They had plenty of opportunity to advise me on what they wanted changed. Furthermore, I had submitted each and every exam to him for approval before making copies. Why had he approved exams that had two or three recycled questions if it was unacceptable?

I really did not get to say what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was that quibbling with a teacher over two or three questions was waste of a six-figure salary. It is unlikely that the students themselves would even notice the recycled questions. Even if they did, so what? I made it a point to recycle questions that had been recycled on the Regents exams themselves. You want high pass rates for the Regents, do you not? And, while we are at it, were you this harassing to the teacher who did not hand back these exams to her students? You know, the teacher that could have easily told me to change the offending questions, thereby obviating her need to withhold the results of the exam results from her students?

I was taking the fall for something that, in the grand scheme in the educational universe, meant absolutely nothing. On top of that, I was taking the fall for the actions and decisions of other people, especially the person that made the choice to not return those exams.

What happened next was the first and only time the street came out of me to a colleague. Shortly after this incident, everyone in the department was in the same room grading Regents exams. The snitch was hovering over me asking what I was doing. I looked up at her and, in so many words, told her not to worry about what I was doing and to go off and find something to do herself. Peppered in those directions were some choice words that the likes of Rahm Emmanuel would usually say, only said with a Brooklyn accent.

From that day on, she was a victim. I had spoken to her just terribly and she did not know why. Why not go tell an administrator after you cry in a corner?

After a whole school year of not speaking to me, she solidified her position in my mind as one of the most odious people I have ever had the misfortune of working with. One day, another colleague and a good friend had been “rubber roomed”. The accusations were frivolous, a result of a personal vendetta by the administration.

The snitch did not get along with this teacher. Once she was rubber roomed, not only did she say that the teacher deserved it, but deserved to be terminated as well. To be sure, what this teacher was accused of should not have been anything more than a letter to the file. If I did not know before, I knew now that this woman had no regard for the careers and livelihoods of her coworkers.

Towards the end of my time at the school, the snitch would find reasons to hover right outside my room when I was teaching with my door open. She would make an inordinate amount of trips to the water fountain and seemed to have a very hard time getting the key to the bookroom to work, the bookroom that was right next to my class. She certainly got an earful of history and, who knows, maybe the administrators received daily reports of what was happening in my class.

If I was a schoolhouse snitch, I would have had no shortage of ammunition myself. Every single day, this teacher would berate her classes. When we would be teaching the same period, my class would overhear her telling her kids to “shut up”. If it was not that, she would berate individual students for the smallest infractions. She would yell at individual students for calling out, spending more time yelling at the student than the student took in committing the infraction in the first place. In fact, every little thing seemed to set her off. She was always yelling. My students would overhear her and laugh.

Every school in which I have worked has had their schoolhouse snitch, usually more than one. Sometimes the snitch is the union leader. Invariably, the snitches are not the most exemplary teachers in the school. They are the ones mired in mediocrity, the chronic yellers and burnouts, the ones who do not give back exams, for example. It is not hard to see why: snitching is the most valuable role they play.

It is the teachers who cannot let their work speak for themselves who serve as the snitches. People who are secure in their profession, the ones who take pride in what they do, who have no time or interest in snitching.

Now, while the snitch deserves some blame for making the decision to be a snitch, administrators are the ones who create the environment that allow snitches to thrive. It is a common scene in most schools to see the resident snitch sitting in the administrator’s office, speaking in hush tones. It was the AP who decided to ream me out after the snitch had gotten a hold of him. This behavior encourages more snitching in the future.

We hear in the media that it is the union who protects bad or incompetent teachers. After 12 years of working in unionized public schools, I have a different explanation for why (the few) incompetent teachers remain in the system: so very many of them are doing petty favors for the administration. There are those few people who have little to offer in the realm of teaching, so they make up for it by undermining union solidarity.

Back in the middle ages, it was a cardinal sin for artisans to reveal the secrets of the guild. They knew their livelihood depended on an iron-clad vow of secrecy, lest they open themselves up to competition and get driven out of business. What they produced was craftsmanship that stood the test of time. Masons would adorn the face of each building stone, even the ones that would not be seen by the public, with finely-etched images. After all, God’s eyes were watching.

If only teachers would live by that same credo. If only we treated each other like professionals, no matter what our personal issues were. Unfortunately, it only takes one snitch to demoralize an entire staff; one snitch and the administrators that protect them.