Friday, November 8, 2013

"Good Morning, I'm Mr. S."

"The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher." (Elbert Hubbard)

"Good morning, I'm Mr. Schnorenberg.  You can call me "Mr. S."

So begins each day of my new vocation - life as a substitute teacher, instead of working full-time in my own classroom.  Since I last wrote, I have been as busy as I want to be: working 2-3 days a week as a substitute in Medford schools, teaching all kinds of classes.  I've taught Science, Math, English, PE, Health, but ironically, not much of what I'm most experienced at:  Social Studies.  Nor have I worked a lot at my former school, South Medford High School.  I've worked more often at one of the local junior highs - a truly karmic coincedence.  Thirty years ago, I began my career by student teaching at a junior high, but then spent the rest of my life as a teacher in the "grown up" world of high school.  It seems I've come full circle, back around to the beginning.  The perfect balance of life positively proven.

It has been an interesting experience; one in which I've learned to appreciate some new things about this noble, yet challenging profession of being a teacher.  What's been most surprising is that I swore 30 years ago that "I would never be a substitute teacher!".  Didn't like the idea.  Didn't want to do it.  Never even considered it.  Case closed.  Door shut.  Big safe pushed in front of that door.  Elephant sitting on top of the safe.  No way, Jose.

And if that had remained the case, I never would've learned some valuable things.  So what have I learned?  I thought I'd call these the "Plums and Prunes" of substitute teaching (not sure why that popped into my head!).  The "Plums":  the sweet, unexpected things that make the job fun.  The "Prunes:  the tougher challenges that have proven good for me.

The "Prunes"

  • Walking into classes "cold":  The biggest challenge for me is not knowing what I'm doing that day for a teacher before walking into their classroom.  "Teacher Jon" worked hard to always be prepared, always organized, always "in control" - if not in fact, then at least in appearance! (Like the proverbial duck:  Calm on the surface, but paddling like crazy underneath!).  Last week I showed up at a school I'd never been to.  I had only 15 minutes to find 3 different classrooms I was in that day, and learn two different lesson plans for classes I'd never taught before.  Whew!  I've had to learn to to let go of the illusion that Jon must always be "in control.  Just do the best I can and leave it at that.

  • Being completely dependent on someone else:  Kind of related to the above.  For every job, I'm completely dependent on how good of a lesson plan the absent teacher left me:  How clear are they?  How well did they estimate the time it would take students to do what needs to be done?  How well have they taught their students to work independently?  You can learn a lot about how good a teacher is, even if you never meet them, from the lesson plans they write.  Most teachers do a good job - mostly because they have low expectations of what subs can do for them.  So most of my days have been easy.  But my biggest complaint?  Teachers not being clear about how to run the technology in their room.  I'm pretty knowledgeable and experienced, but every classroom is different.  And a lot of time can be wasted just trying to figure out where to plug in a DVD and how to turn up the volume, all while 35 teens wait impatiently!  So, I've had to learn humility and how to ask for help - two things I didn't always do when I was Mr. Teacher :-)
  • Getting to know the kids quickly:  So hard, yet so important to learn names quickly and to quickly assess who are the leaders in a class, who needs help, who is bringing positive or negative energy into the room, and how to channel all of that so that we all have a good day.  Patience and persistence is the key.  And ultimately the knowledge that almost all students appreciate a sense of order and calmness and want you to establish that.

"In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn." (Phil Collins)

The "Plums"
  • Don't have to do the "hard stuff":  No lesson to plan, no tests to grade, no staff, PLC, Core team meetings to anxiously sit through, no retakes to organize, no phone calls to return, no grades to update, etc., etc.  It's amazing to be able to step out of all of that and wonder:  How in the world did I do all of that?  For 30 years!  Wow!  
  • I work whenever I want:  2-3 days a week is perfect:  Just enough to earn extra money (Never had that experience in my working career!  EXTRA money! Cool!)  And best of all?  On the days I don't work, I don't have to get anything ready for anyone else to take my place :-)
  • I get to learn new stuff all the time:  I love this!  I've had so many opportunities to learn and relearn things as a substitute - it's like being a student every day.  Learned Chemistry; Algebra; Personal health; read novels I've never read; coached weight lifting; and even dabbled in Physics.  It's fun remembering how to be a student, and never feeling like I have to fill the role of "Expert" anymore.
  • You're Thanked:  I can't tell you how many times I've been thanked for what I do as a sub:  by teachers I help, by their colleagues, by the secretaries and principals I meet.  All appreciate subs who do a good job for them.  But sadly, I thought:  When I was a full time teacher, I could go an entire year and never once be thanked.  Too bad.
  • But the biggest "Plum" of all has been, surprisingly, the chance to simply relate to kids.  To smile as often as I can.  To encourage them.  To laugh with them.  You'd think it was full time teachers who would do this the most, and there's no doubt, they have many more chances to do so.  But it's so easy to get caught up in all of the "busy-ness" of teaching (like all the Proficiency Grading nonsense my ex colleagues at South are struggling with this year!), and forget the importance of just being Present with kids.  No matter the age, they are always sponges that absorb lessons from the adults around them.  I've appreciated the chance to remember that, and to try to practice that, every time I visit a new class.
"Kids don't remember what you try to teach them.  They remember what you are." (Jim Henson)

So, a toast to all the good substitute teachers I've known and who made my life a little easier each time I was gone the last 30 years... "Mr. S." is happy to join your ranks.

And to all of the good teachers I've worked with anywhere, a salute for all you do, in spite of any and all obstacles.  And two simple words that I know are true Pearls.

Thank you.

I pray you'll hear that again sometime very soon.  Hopefully today.

You deserve it.


  1. Mr. S you're the man! Very thankful to have had you as a teacher in Economics and glad to hear you're doing well!

  2. Thanks, Christian! I consider myself lucky to have had you as a student. I miss your positive attitude and spirit. Life is very good for me right now - Just "living the dream" :-) Hope all is well for you at school! Mr. S.