Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Joys of Subbing, but Sometimes the Headaches

It's been a while since I've posted anything here, due to a combination of having a bit of writer's block and being fairly busy with working as a substitute teacher. If I'm ever going to get that full-time contract, I really have to figure out how to come home and not be completely brain dead.

But the other day I found myself lamenting to my wife that I have all these teaching stories and not enough time to share them with friends. So many times I've found myself in situations that I could only laugh about afterwords, and I'd love to be able to let people into the secret behind-the-scenes world of being a teacher. However, I've now been subbing for almost a year, which has left me with far too many stories to simply tell. I'd get bored before I finished them, let alone the person listening. It might be more efficient, therefore, if I wrote my stories down for anyone to read who may want to. I may write about more fun teaching times in the future, but for this omnibus, I think I'm going to stick to the most consistently mind-numbing and regularly hilarious, Kindergarten.

Kindergarten is, nicely put, not my forte. I just don't seem to have those nurturing and patient attributes that make the great kindergarten teachers who they are. I think I'm too full of sarcasm and puns. 5-year-old's don't get puns. I've tried. Yet for some reason, I've gotten into the good books of a couple kindergarten teachers around the city. Maybe it's because I'm better at making sure the kids are having fun than actually teaching them, so they all end the day happy and tell their teacher about their new teacher and how much fun he was. Or I'm just more available than the good teachers. Whatever the case, I'll almost always take the job, since I like getting paid and I'm a glutton for punishment.

Another reason I find kindergarten so difficult is that every single kindergarten teacher organizes and teaches their classroom completely different than any other teacher. I've been to several now and no two rooms are the same, nor is the program. So it's always an adventure in figuring out how everything runs. Luckily, most kindergartners are more than happy to tell you when you're doing something wrong. There's not many feelings similar to being chastised by a 6-year-old. But enough backstory. It's time for the front of the story.

My first subbing job ever was an afternoon in a kindergarten classroom. It was in a brand new school and the foyer was designed as a huge atrium, letting in loads of sunlight. There was even a balcony on the second floor, so you could look at who was going in each room. The initial view was breath-taking. But I wasn't needed over there. I was in the kindergarten room, which was right by the front doors. When I entered, I found a room with a few tables and the rest of the space filled with experiential objects, from play sets to jars of  rocks to shelves full of books and paper and colours. On the desk, I found the brief lesson plan for the afternoon, written on a large post-it:

Thanks for coming in! It read (or something close to it), For this afternoon, the class has exploration time. Let me know how it went!. There may have been more, even a reason why she was away, but the gist was that: exploration time.

What the heck is exploration time?

I flipped through a few books and piles of paper on her very cluttered desk - if kindergarten teachers have one thing in common, it is that their desks are almost always completely covered in piles and piles of paper - until I found some semblance of an explanation. And it was exactly as I feared. Exploration time was a time for the kids to explore the toys and materials around the room. And that was all they had to do for the remaining 3 hours in the day.

As the kids returned from lunch, I introduced myself and let them know what the plan was. Of course, this was nothing new to them; it was May and they had been doing the same routine since the very beginning. I watched as they got out thing after thing until everyone was playing in a different pile of materials. This continued for about thirty minutes, at which point I became incredibly bored. I had come to realize that my being here was simply for supervision. In an effort to entertain myself, and potentially to entertain a few of the kids, I began to make origami flapping birds. Instantly, three kids were fascinated and wanted birds of their own. Then three more wanted birds. Then five more. Then six more after that. I started by trying to teach the kids some of the folds, getting them to make their own, but I soon became a drive-through window, where kindergartner's would place their orders, then go back to playing with whatever they were using before. As the recess bell rang and everyone went outside to play, I sat in a too-small chair, folding bird after bird after bird as fast as I could, so that everyone could have one. I really had overlooked the herd-mentality of six-year-olds.

Finally, the end of the day was near. 15 minutes before the bell, I called everyone's attention and said that it was time to clean up. The moment I finished speaking, the home bell rang, reminding me that since today was Thursday, it was early dismissal. 15 minutes early. I hurriedly tried to get the kids to put some stuff away, but a few began to panic about missing their buses and eventually I just shooed them out the door, leaving me in alone in the middle of Hurricane Kinder. I spent an extra 30 minutes picking up paper, markers, rocks, streamers, costumes and plastic food and throwing them wherever looked like they would fit because I had no idea where any of it was supposed to go. Then I wrote a quick note to the teacher, thanked her, and got outta dodge.

I learned a lot from that first paid teaching gig. Like, don't do origami with anyone under the age of 10, or that Thursdays mean the bell goes 15 minutes early (but I'd forget it frequently), or that doing origami for children is a way to make your head nearly explode.

Seriously, don't do origami with little kids.

From time to time since then, I've found myself back in kindergarten rooms, and each time was an adventure. Once a girl peed her pants. Another time, a girl puked her guts out it the calmest manner I've ever seen. Another little girl began to bawl when the toy phone was taken from her because, as she said, "I was talking to my MOM!" Come to think of it, I've been around a lot of screaming, sometimes with multiple offenders. But I have never wanted to curl up into the fetal position more than when I was teaching one particular child about numbers.

Recently I found myself teaching three days in a row in a kindergarten class. How the school division has decided to organize kindergarten is, where there are lots of kids, have alternating classes. So on Monday and Wednesday, the teacher would have one group, and on Tuesday and Thursday, she would have another. Fridays would then alternate between the two groups, so every other week, a group would go two days in a row. Simple, right? Anyways, I found myself teaching a group on Thursday who would be back again the Friday. Excellent, I thought, I'll actually be able to remember most of their names.

It also gave me a familiarity with the routines of the classroom, and one of the days' activities had half the class work on little games that would test their colour matching, number recognition and shape identification. A teacher or EA would then go around and check their work, giving them a sticker when they finished or corrected their errors with some guidance. Over the three days, I began to roll my eyes when a student grabbed a number word game, since most of the kids still couldn't read. One kid in particular seemed very attracted to these games, yet was potentially the weakest reader in the class. When I went over to check his finished work, it was pretty clear that he had just randomly guessed pairing the dotted clouds to the number rainbows. So I removed his errors, encouraged him to count the dots, then left to check a few more student who were finished.

When I returned, he had rearranged all of them, yet there wasn't a correct pairing in the group. I sat down beside him and decided to help him through his counting and word recognition. And by that, I mean trying to count along with him and getting him to stop on the right number. For example, I'd say, "Let's find the one with eight dots." He'd then pick one at random, and we'd count together to check if it was right. I would then say, "Does this have eight dots?" to which he would nod, yet not five seconds earlier, we had just counted 4. I'd then patiently remind him what we counted and that we should find another. We only did this little exchange eight or nine times before the EA passed by and whispered, "Most of the class can't read yet. Just pull a few words and have him find the dots." That sounded like a much easier task, so I pulled the three easiest ones: four, two and zero. And I started with the trickiest, four. I laid out all the dotted clouds, pushed away the other rainbows, and asked the child, "Alright, can you show me which cloud has four dots on it?"

He then proceeded to flip over every cloud to see if there was the answer on the other side. Which there wasn't. All that was there was the number 35, which was the number of the game he was playing. I had set all the cards right side up, dots showing. I'm not that terrible of a teacher. But after flipping so many, he'd show me the 35 and ask if this was it. "No," I responded patiently, "we don't need to flip over the cards. The dots are all on the front." I then figured I'd help him out a bit. I pointed to the four-dot cloud. "How many dots does this have?"

"1...2...3...5!" He announced proudly.

", that's not quite right," I replied slightly less patiently. "You know what comes after 3. What comes after 3?"


"Right! So how many dots are here?"


"Oh, remember to count the dots. Let's see, 1, 2, 3..."

"...4, 5, 6..."

"No, no, there's not any extra dots there."

I was running out of ideas at this point at how to guide the kid to the number four, so I changed my strategy and went for the easiest number I could think of - zero.

"Alright, can you find me the cloud with zero dots on it? The one with no dots?"

He began to flip over every cloud and show me the number 35 again.

"No, we don't need the back side of the clouds," I said slightly more impatiently. Another classmate sitting on the other side even started trying to help, repeating what I said, but quite a bit more patiently (because he just joined the party). "Just find the cloud without any dots on it. No dots. Zero."

He again tries to flip them over. I cringe inwardly.

Then he tries counting some of the dots. I try to dissuade him, repeating, "Find the one with zero dots. The cloud that doesn't have any dots on it. No dots." This ploy fails, and he continues counting, somehow getting up to 9 on one that only has 4.

I try a few more times to guide him to zero without pointing to it, but it's no use. Even if I showed him which one, he still wouldn't get it. The background knowledge either isn't there or isn't being accessed. I...I just can't anymore. So I sit and watch him count and flip the cards, suppressing the urge to just hold my head in my hands and weep softly.

Suddenly, the lunch bell rings. I stand up and announce that it is now lunch, so all the games have to be put away. He looks up at me with disappointed eyes and says, "But we didn't get to finish."

I shrug. "Well, I guess we just ran out of time. We have to clean up now so you can go out for lunch." But inwardly, I cheered. No more numbers. No more counting. No more flipping those bloody little clouds.

So that's some of what I've experienced in kindergarten. It's always entertaining to get called for a kindergarten class. Mind-numbing, teeth-gritting, headache-inducing and eye-rolling, but also entertaining.

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