At the corner stand marking the entryway to the Farmer’s Market, I see the principal of the school where I finished my school year last June. I hesitate and then walk by, a leisurely stroll with dog and husband, until I hear my name. She has stepped from behind the lemonade stand to greet me. I turn with a smile and a sincere hug, saying her name, introducing her to my husband.
“Is this the principal of your last school?” my husband asks.
And she responds,”You’ve heard a bit about us, huh?”
We all chuckle, but in that quip lies the reality of 17 days spent out of my depth, over my head, dependent upon the kindness of professional strangers. She, this smiley-faced vibrant principal, the principal one.
My sister-in-law urged me to write about my substitute experience, particularly THIS one, because she watched me debate whether or not I should accept the assignment. Then she returned to New Jersey. That was the end of May, and it has taken until today for me to find the writing space to explore a bit about what I learned, my educational take-aways, from my stint in second grade.
“These kids aren’t like the kids you’ve taught before,” the district administrator cautions me at the intake interview for substitute teachers. “They’re great, don’t get me wrong. But so many have their share of problems. You’re aware of the poverty here, right? It’s a tribute to resilience that some of them arrive at school at all.” I hear the words but reassure myself. “How hard can it be? I’ve been at this for 36 years. Aren’t all kids basically the same?”
I acknowledge, however, that throughout my career, with the exception of my tenure as an adjunct at a two-year college, I have primarily worked with students who are privileged. That does not mean they’ve been perfectly compliant or that I haven’t had days, or even years, where I questioned my effectiveness, where I pulled out all the stops to reach them. But I take her words to heart, aware of the inherent limitations of my position. I complete the online training covering homelessness, poverty, and the range of problems that occur where we are in earnest.
Then the call comes from the school secretary asking, ultimately pleading, with me to return to this class of second graders. I had been with them for three days a week earlier before I had to leave to fulfill a job I’d previously scheduled. They were challenging. I’d had to call the front office a couple of times for back-up. In my former life as a classroom teacher, that had never happened. It was humbling for someone with my experience, but the other substitute teachers who had answered the call said they wouldn’t return. Wouldn’t return!
I am galvanized by a challenge, and I understood what these kids were going through. Their teacher—the “real” one— had had to leave suddenly mid-day because of complications with her pregnancy, a scare both for her and for these youngsters who loved her and had come to depend on her anchoring role in their lives. To complicate matters, it was the end of the school year! Remember how you felt as the school year ended? And these kids went from scared to resentful to “Hey, I’m almost done here anyway!”
I did everything I could to turn them around, to get us all on the same team. I’d taught second grade for a number of years before moving to middle school and work as an adjunct professor. Every morning, despite the outbreaks of what I can only describe as chaos the day before, I’d enter the classroom with optimism. Today would be different, better. I researched strategies, engaging activities, programs addressing this level, this demographic; I went in with tools, with commitment.
One day as we sat in a closing circle, I asked the customary question, “Let’s share one thing.” The Teaching Channel had introduced me to the “Appreciation, Apology, Aha” strategy, and I loved the idea. As we went around, the squiggles began to dominate and the effort deteriorated. I focused on my last shot, a little girl who exemplified the student ideal, and she chirped, “Ms. Emerson, you didn’t have to call the office once today!” AHA!
So the 17 days passed, one-by-one. I got sick—it seemed like everyone was suffering from a wicked summer cold— but made it through with lots of tea and the phenomenal, empathetic support of colleagues who came to my rescue. No matter what I asked, several people were there to provide suggestions, moral support, and smiles. My across-the-hall fellow second grade teacher remained calm, no matter what. Her face consistently registered concern and caring and blossomed with smiles over the smallest accomplishments. She brought sunshine to some of those Oregon gray days.
Then there we were at the last short-but-endless finale, a “graduation” as these youngsters moved on to the building for third-through-fifth graders. This emotional departure rattled a couple of the kids, and I had to make yet another call to the front office. Help arrived—as ever—and we moved forward. I walked the final departing group to the bus, and, I’ll admit, relief dominated!
Back in the classroom, chairs stacked, supplies put away, boards cleaned, floors swept, several watercolor paintings announced: “Happy Summer, Ms. Emerson.” It felt like every other end-of-the-year, the disappointments softening, the sweet moments surfacing. I felt lucky, yes, to have survived but more to have learned:
ASK FOR HELP
PEOPLE ARE GOOD
LET THE LESS-THAN-GOOD GO
LAUGH WHENEVER IT’S POSSIBLE (and it’s usually possible, if not easy)
CELEBRATE SMALL TRIUMPHS
WHEN IN DOUBT, PLAY “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar” (It involves tapping and a whole lot of fun!)
SING…even if everyone doesn’t join in
READ ALOUD OFTEN!
An envelop rested on one round table beside a tiny plant. I opened it and read, “Dear Ms. Emerson, Thank you for teaching our naughty but good class. Love,________” Out of the mouth of babes…