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From the Frontlines: What is school really about?

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The life of a substitute teacher is never predictable. Every day brings either a pre-booked assignment or a call from the automated voice of Subcentral around 5.15am, offering the latest absent teacher’s class for the day.

Some classes are so straightforward, everything goes like clockwork. But recently, a 3rd grade class that started out so promisingly unraveled very fast.

The teacher was actually there, but going to a workshop, so she had prepared, not exactly a lesson plan, but a script of her exact words for every procedure. In so doing, she may have undermined her intention, because she had left out as much as she included. So when coming to the meeting area, there were precise, numbered instructions for standing up, pushing in chairs, and walking to their rug spot. But it turned out there were little carpet squares as well, that needed to be set up in a certain way along the outer edge of the rug. Without the precise directions, this turned into an absolute melee. Finally, that was done, but all through the procedure, one child was determined to explain and script me with every iota of the routine, and kept handing me a little bell saying “Ring it, ring it, they are not behaving!”, meanwhile interrupting the fact that the children were almost settled! He was very panicky over any misstep, and tried to fix all the other children too, which wasn't welcomed!

But another little fellow expressed his anxiety in a different way. He began to rage around the room making inarticulate cries, seizing chairs and bookbags and throwing them to the ground, crashing into other children and making the classic threatening motion, arms pinned back, chest flung out, in your face, just you try it! I called the counseling office, and eventually the guidance counselor came up and took him outside for a conversation, after which, he was tense but very, very controlled.

I walked them through the meeting, started the math lesson with a demonstration on the overhead projector on the brand new smart board, and sent them off to complete the worksheet at their desks. We made it to lunchtime when the teacher blessedly returned and I went off to another class!

Back at the same school, I ran into the teacher in the copy room and we went upstairs together. She explained that the boy who had the tantrum was never like that, everyone was so surprised, but that it had come out that there was a feud about loyalties, which she wasn't aware of before. Three boys have been together in the school since Kindergarten. They were best friends, spending a lot of time together, but this year somehow the allegiances have broken down, one or other of the boys feels abandoned by the others at any given time, and the whole thing boiled over that day. Perhaps this is why nations fear the fall of a strong leader – everyone breaks down into factions and infighting!

Nevertheless, the teacher touched me with her understanding of what they were going through – “It’s all about community”, she said – “Now I have to spend time every day working to build community, address their feelings.” Then as she flew down the hallway, she called back –“It’s so sad. There is no time…..” Added to which, we know this is only the tip of the iceberg. A child has to be fragile/vulnerable on so many levels if he can't contain himself without all of his security support for just a few hours...

It bothers me that the very first time they had a substitute, they were thrown into such insecurity, without the rigid structure of their day. I understand why the teacher approaches her task in this way, because she has a job to do, for which she is also rigidly accountable. I applaud her for the compassion with which she sees her children, and I hope to direct some light on the reality of just a few of these people collectively representing NY City schools.

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