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A plea to parents from a substitute teacher

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Dear Parents,

I realize that I am the substitute teacher, and that I only see some of your children 2-3 times each week. I realize that some of the assignments left for them may not be challenging or require additional instruction. Lastly, I realize that when students see a substitute teacher it can be considered a day of mayhem and chaos. Well, I am not your average substitute. I actually select to substitute so that I can utilize my over 15 years of experience as a full-time classroom teacher. I come into these classes as an educator and a observer. And this is what I notice when I cover classes in the suburbs versus Philadelphia public/charter schools.

You can always tell when a classroom has a strong and effective classroom teacher. The students are not well behaved for only me; they want to make sure that I leave a good report for their regular teacher. But, then something different occurs when you walk into a building that is attempting to develop a culture of achievement and accountability.

The level of manners exhibited in these classrooms for any and all adults is limited and at times non-existent. Now there are always exceptions to this rule. You know the students who do work for their regular teacher and for me in spite of the percolating pandemonium. These are the same students who have little to no demerits on their cards, and who respond with a calm and measured demeanor at all times. I am talking about the students who despite my best efforts refuse to complete the simplest of assignments and when allowed to talk to their peers, do so in the loudest of tones. If, I call for assistance with an unruly student that student later calls me everything but a child of God. This is when I am vividly reminded as we face more budget cuts and more privatization that manners and accountability are free and are usually taught by someone in the household. No one comes from the womb knowing what they are. And more importantly, schools alone cannot bear the full burden of that effort.

Now you may be ready to say, “Hey, my child is awesome when their teacher is there.” I say right back, that they should be awesome for all teachers. It is a reflection on their ability to understand accountability, self-control, and consequences when they can or cannot demonstrate appropriate behavior. This makes me shudder because I know that the real world does not take kindly to giving some children lots of chances or opportunities to prove themselves. In fact, many of them only get one. And if they decide to make a poor decision it is not always guaranteed that they will survive it.

One student actually stated, "Christmas does not mean that much to me because I usually get everything I ask for." Yet, she had stacks of incomplete assignments and homework requests from teachers that were untouched. And yes, she did not complete the quiz left by her teacher.

This is why I am writing this plea. Please teach all of your children (even those in your community who are not biologically yours) that things like employment, careers, and a nice quality of life are at times given to those who speak with kind words and can back those words up with a consistent work ethic. And this is not impossible because when I travel to the suburbs even those with pockets of poverty, there is a noticeable difference in the behavior exhibited towards substitute teachers. I never waned to believe this until I observed it for myself. And it saddened me to my core to witness it as a parent and an educator.

And parents please do not place all of your faith and trust into all educational reform models that turnaround failing schools. Charter schools are not the panacea to basic manners, self-control, positive self-esteem, and a clear understanding of consequences. And some traditional comprehensive schools have little to no consequences whatsoever. Some Renaissance charter models have 5-6 lines on demerit cards. This means that a student is given 5-6 chances before a consequence is levied. This is unrealistic! I sign them and use them for leverage when I am covering a class, but in my soul I know that no system outside of these walls affords such leeway. Ask anyone in the prison system today and they will confirm my theories because they are still waiting for their invisible second chance.

I am speaking to all parents when I say please take a moment to teach your children the value of manners, kindness, and consequences. My mother and grandmother always told me that I had one chance to give it my best efforts, and if I purposely decided to not try my best or to treat someone as if I had no home training or lost my mind, there were consequences waiting for me. You know why? Because everything I did was a reflection on them and they did not like to be disappointed. This is not an old school notion, this is a survival notion. If we want all of our children to survive the best and the worst that life has to offer than we have to make sure that we (the parents) shoulder our burden of this responsibility too.

If not, then we cannot keep pointing fingers at failing schools and failing communities because each time there is several pointing right back at us. And we have the power to be the catalyst of change for our children.


Your local substitute teacher



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