* Survival tip #7 : Never leave class without one

Without what?  A substitute teacher!

Ask any teacher and they will tell you about the multiple times they’ve worked while sick.  Shh.  You’re not supposed to be in school with a fever.  I think there’s some kind of guilt complex and performance thing that affects teachers as soon as they’re licensed.  But a special education teacher?  It’s much more complicated.  How many subs are standing in line to work in a self-contained classroom?  As a self-contained classroom teacher of kids with behavior and emotional disabilities, I was VERY unlikely to get a sub.  As in, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.  Fortunately, I had an amazing assistant who could carry on if I got really sick.  She and I always joked about what would happen if we were both sick at the same time.

You guessed it:  Both of us got strep throat at the same time and we were flat on our backs.  Neither of us knew the other was out, which was the only reason I stayed at home.  Of course, there was no one willing to sub in my class.  The brave assistant principal and an even braver resource teacher took turns with the class.  I heard through the grapevine that the assistant principal gave up, I think after being locked out of my room.  And the resource teacher got chased out of the room by the kids.  Neither one ever talked to me about that day.  The kids were silent when I asked how it had gone, so I knew it had been bad.  Troubled water under the bridge….

As a resource teacher, subs were usually available at least one time, but they had their work cut out for them.  The problem was that I had no way of finding out how things had gone unless there was actual damage in the room.  When my blinds were broken, I knew the day had not gone well.  Or when parents called the principal, saying they would not send their child to my room with a sub.  I always attempted to pry information out of the kids, but they were usually reticent, still a bad sign.  When the kids did talk, I knew it was serious.  One sub went through a massive bag of Skittles in two days, giving out handfuls of candy to induce cooperation.   Even with the bribes, kids were quick to tell me that she was mean.  On another occasion, the kids gave me odd looks when I asked the usual, “How did it go?”  One student said, “Maria got on the table and showed us her underwear,” so I figured that was not a great day either.  In case you are wondering why I needed subs, since I have certainly taught while sick, these absences were strictly professional leave.  (I can HEAR you!)

I do not understand why anyone would ever want to be a sub, as much as I have (sort of) appreciated them.  I had to sub for a classroom teacher who was the antithesis of me.  She had the “recess” voice, of course.  That’s the booming voice of authority that penetrates cinder block walls.  She also had a certain flair for sarcasm and a knee jerk response to any sign of insubordination.  Me?  I have a teacher “look” but I didn’t know the kids’ names, I had little idea what they were to do, and no one seemed to hear me speaking.  It did get better over time, but it wasn’t my finest hour (or three).   The turning point occurred when some students were picking on a special needs kid.  They saw the fire in my “look” and that seemed to clear the air.

My best info on substitutes came from my son when he was in middle and high school.  I was always pleased that the classes were well-behaved when a sub was there (of course he was telling me the truth).  It seemed that that by 6th grade, kids and subs had a clear working relationship:  the kids would be quiet if the sub didn’t ask them to do anything.  OK, I’m not sure that was the whole story.  But it does seem like one way to survive as a substitute teacher.

* Survival tip #6: Sing in the car

Spoiler alert: If you have a great singing voice, stop reading. Tone deaf? Keep going.

This happened many years ago, but the incident was so traumatic that it is forever etched in my memory.  I was teaching at a school for low-functioning students who had a variety of severe disabilities.  The small group and individual sessions with these students were exceptional.  There was only one glitch in the day: morning meeting.  Morning meeting was when the leader exchanged greetings with each kid (ha ha), taught a new song, and completed a calendar activity.  Teachers took turns leading this hallowed event.  That meant I could relax for one day before I started worrying about my turn to lead.  Worry turned into panic and eventually, terror.  Every other teacher, without exception, had a voice that carried through walls. They must have studied opera before entering special education. I am soft spoken and couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended upon it.  Hence the terror.

Now imagine the scene.  You are facing a group of about a dozen kids sitting on the floor, none of whom even notice that you exist.  Each one is absorbed in some kind of repetitious action, like hand-flapping or yelling “Stop! Stop that!”   Each child is accompanied by a teacher.  And each teacher is staring at you in anticipation, waiting to see how you will capture the group’s attention.  What song will you sing?  To add to the nightmare, that song was always a solo performance for me.  None of the kids were going to sing with me.  None of the teachers could follow the tuneless melodies that squeaked out of my mouth.  After my song, who could tell what day it was?  Who cared about the weather?  Fifteen minutes of purgatory.

Problem analysis: I am probably tuneless because I can’t remember melodies.  The music part of my brain is empty.  Smooth.  No neurons there.  All those neurons went to the verbal part of my brain, leaving a vast wasteland in the melody department.  I go up when everyone else goes down.  I don’t sing in the shower in case my husband hears me.  I only belt out woeful sounds in the car, all by myself.

The unforgettable incident:  For some stupid reason, I decided to sing a “new” song.  All songs seemed new to me, but I would try one that no one else had sung before.  I selected an Ella Jenkins tune: “There are many pretty trees all around the world (repeat 3 times)… and here’s a pretty one now.  It’s an oak tree (repeat 3 times), it’s an oak….”  You got it, right?  My greeting time had gone as expected.  Then it was song time.  I was so tense that I could barely speak, much less sing.  I had practiced that song for weeks, so a part of the melody was there, somewhere.  As I “sang,” the kids turned to look at me, one by one.  I was shocked.  Then they started laughing.  These kids couldn’t tell you their name.  These kids didn’t even know they were in school.  But they found my performance hilarious.  So did the other teachers.  When everyone finally stopped shrieking with laughter, someone remarked that they had never seen anything like that.  Me neither.  Which is why I only sing in the car.

* Survival tip #5: Hold your horses

The following events took place in a far off galaxy, many, many years ago.  In fact, there’s no proof that it ever happened.  Any videotapes have long since been trashed.  Our world has changed. Our laws have changed.  And anything I said or did may not be used against me.

There is much good to be said about working with kids who have behavior difficulties, especially those with ADHD.  They remind me of wild ponies: spunky, high spirited, and ready to run.  As a kid-whisperer, I have learned that opening the stable doors is a way to develop trust, both in me and in themselves.  They wonder, “You mean I can go there without a warden?”  “You trust me to step outside the barn and return?”  Yes, yes, it’s a gradual process, but once you give these delightful ponies their head, they are so willing to come safely home again.

My confidence in their return was what prompted me to release a pair of these spirited ones to look for worms.  Our animal collection was in its crayfish phase.  Almost daily, new arrivals of crayfish arrived in pockets and plastic bags.  Most of them survived but these roachy little specimens refused conventional fish food.  There was nothing for it but to send a team of ponies to hunt for worms.  All of them pawed with excitement, “Let me go!  I can find a million worms!”  So I sent one team out, flying high, to a secure hill outside our room.  Those ponies certainly had a sixth sense about being observed; they managed to find a corner of the hill that was a just out of sight.  There was no way of “escape” except running past our windows.  I knew these ponies well, so I gave them a moment to reappear.  Of course, the other ponies sensed an adventure, growing frenzied in their desire to bring the original pair back to a visible location.

I sent a second spirited team to nudge the first team into place.  When they also disappeared, I sent two more teams, one quickly after the other, to nudge the whole lot into place.  Now all my wild ones were dispatched and for a few seconds, I breathed in the silence of the room.  I was about to rethink my kid-whisperer judgment (a little late, perhaps), when the entire herd returned in a stampede.   Of course they had assumed I could still see them.  But most important was their serendipitous discovery of a patch of bricks on that hill.  They lifted each brick in no time at all, finding about a million worms.  We chatted about pony safety.  I reflected on my poor judgment.  Then we settled back into our morning routine, the ponies thoroughly delighted with their success.  The kid-whisperer was delighted with their success.

The next day the principal arrived at the classroom door.  She was one of the dearest administrators I’ve known, not the least because she understood ponies and kid-whisperers.  She spoke to me quietly in the hallway.  “The PTA came to me with complaints about the hill by your room.  It seems they had placed bricks there as a counter-erosion measure and every single brick has been upturned.  Do you know any thing about that?”  She had come to the right class, of course.  Within the hour, my energetic ponies had stamped every brick (mostly) back in place.  And those crayfish?  They didn’t touch a single worm.

* Survival Tip #2: snake handling

After my serious post on classroom set up, here’s a second reality check.  Stuff happens.

I had just made my early arrival at school, entering my self-contained classroom from the outside door.  I was startled to discover two people standing just inside the interior door, staring down at the carpet.  The custodian and a resource teacher were in the wrong place.  They continued to stare at the floor.  I also stared at the floor and saw a snake.  It was in the wrong place.  The science lab was two doors down the hall.  I recalled hearing that a snake had escaped, but that was ages ago.

“This snake has to go,” I said firmly, knowing that my special population of students, kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities,  did not need a snake slithering around their feet.  The custodian said equally firmly, “I’m not touching that thing!”  The teacher backed away and said, “Neither am I!”

An unspoken battle of wills between the four of us, but wouldn’t you know?  A snake- handling tip popped into my mind from nowhere: You must grab a snake by its neck.  Another tip surfaced: You get one shot.

“OK,” I said.  “I’ll get it.”  I knew it wasn’t poisonous, right?  And it hadn’t moved a millimeter since I had walked up.  I edged closer, made a furious grab, and had that little baby by the neck.  That baby came to life instantly, writhing exactly like a snake, and I held it at arm’s length and started toward the hallway.

And wouldn’t you know?  The custodian and teacher took off!  I yelled, “Hey! I need you to open the science lab!”  By that time, I was at the lab door.  The snake grew increasingly impatient with the custodian, who was jangling his keys somewhere behind me.   I didn’t know snakes could sweat, but this one got quite moist and irritated.  I think that snake must have counted to 100  before the custodian opened the door and backed off.  “Hey!” I yelled.  “Lift up the lid!”  The snake was barely able to wait as the custodian s-l-o-w-l-y lifted the lid to a cage and ran out.  I swear I could see the relief on that snake’s face when it was safely back home.

After that, wouldn’t you know?  If any creature, wild or domesticated, was loose at that school, I was called to retrieve it. I figured I was safe from any more desperate wildlife rescues when we finally reached the last teacher workday of the year.  But wouldn’t you know?  I was cleaning up when I heard an ear-piercing scream from the 3rd grade teacher next door.  And we had cinder block walls between us.  My son, a teaching orphan, tagged along as I ran into the class.  The teacher was still shrieking, something about a snake in the spelling books.  Apparently this one had been brought for show-and-tell, got lost, and was presumed to have found its way home.  Now it was extremely grouchy.  I had those two snake-handling tips in my mind, but this snake was a moving target, which made it hard to see where his neck started.  I sent my son back to my room for a pillow case (yes, I always have a spare pillow case), just in case this snake got too sweaty.

The teacher and my son gave me plenty of distance.  So did the snake.  It was moving fast in the wrong direction.  I made a frantic grab and my hand wrapped around it, not as close to its neck as I would have preferred.  It had an amazingly long neck.  For a snake that hadn’t eaten in a month, it was quite agile and strong.  I think it had anger issues because it was doing its best to sink those teeth into my wrist.  “Give me the pillowcase!” I screamed.  This snake had to count to 150 before the pillowcase was close enough for me to snatch, and believe me, this snake got sweatier than the first one.  Then it jumped  around in that pillowcase and counted to 200 while I screamed for someone to open the back door.  And wouldn’t you know?  When I released it in the woods next to the playground, it didn’t even say thank you.

* Survival Tip #3: Never make ice sculptures with balloons

This is a serious post.  Never do this.  Ever.  The idea seemed terrific at first.  I had seen a beautiful ice sculpture at a wedding reception and thought, “My kids would love to work with ice!”  And I had a perfect tie-in with reading: each student could create a  character from the book they were reading.  I wasn’t going to give them a chainsaw, obviously, so I needed a way for them to make ice shapes larger than cubes.  Then it came to me!  Balloons!  Like an ice snowman, a small balloon could freeze into the shape for a head, a medium one for the trunk, and long ones for arms.  My assistant had some doubts, but she saw the moving train and jumped on board. My next inspiration for this wonderfully creative project was the addition of color.  Who wanted a transparent book character when they could make a red or blue one?  Even as we started the process, the project began to derail.  First, there was the challenge of herding half a dozen frenzied kids with balloons and a hose.  For some reason, the project deteriorated into water balloons tosses for a period of time.  And once we all got serious about this enterprise, adding food coloring to the balloons led to a serious collision.  A collision between tiny balloon openings that squirted water and food coloring that also squirted and stained everyone’s faces, hands, and clothes.  I reassured the kids that all they needed was a bath for their skin color to return to normal, but we all looked tattooed for several days.  Still, it was going to be worth it, right?  Even as we worked away on math and writing with purplish fingers, our potential sculptures were firming up in the giant cafeteria freezer.  Back on track.

The exciting day finally arrived and my assistant returned to the room with our bin of balloons.  She shook her head as I snatched the balloons eagerly.  Each student had carefully written their names on the balloons, so it was easy to distribute them.  I do regret that we tried to complete this project indoors, even though students had trays as a work surface.  We all quickly noticed what my assistant had already detected: the ice was not completely frozen.  I was in a state of denial.  Three days in that freezer?  The wateriness in the balloons must surely be superficial.  I would have frozen solid in that freezer after three days.  With shouts of joy, the kids attempted to peel off the balloons so they could “melt” the body parts together.  It would take a physics instructor to explain what had happened to the balloons’ texture in that freezer; they were suddenly as thick and sturdy as leather.  No one could free their “ice.”  I grabbed a paper clip and made a deadly point.  The kids crowded around to have their balloons punctured.  As the clip pierced each balloon, a fierce spray of colored water burst forth from those tiny holes.  Who could have imagined?   Cold read and blue spray splattered over me, over every kid, over the room….  (In all fairness, I couldn’t puncture some balloons and not the others.  Besides, I was still convinced that they must be frozen!)  My kids all ran after me obediently, spraying wildly, as I raced outside.  The train derailed right there.  A few lumps of ice amidst soggy, leathery balloons and a crowd of brightly colored, laughing students.  My assistant was not amused.  I was somewhere in between.

* Survival Tip #2: Never cook during a formal observation

Same setting as the previous post.  Same wonderful kids.  Same patient principal.  I’ll start off with the two morals of this post: It takes me a while to learn from my mistakes and I care too much about appearances.  For this observation, since we were working on letter identification plus measurement in math, I decided to cook alphabet pancakes with the kids.  I was careful to have all the ingredients on hand, as well as duplicates in case egg shells got in the batter or milk was poured on the floor.  I had borrowed a brand new griddle from my newly-wed neighbors since my electric skillet was scummy and scorched, much too dingy for an observation.  The measuring went well, the batter was ready, and I was preheating the griddle.  One of my students raised his hand politely and said, “The pan’s on fire.”  I glanced at the griddle but focused on the principal, who didn’t seem to hear that ill-timed remark. “No, it’s not,” I said stupidly.  The student raised his hand again and repeated his declaration with greater alarm.  By that time, I was wafting away the smoke with a flushed face, scrambling for an activity while the plastic film over the never-used griddle slowly burned away.  Eventually we made alphabet pancakes (no smoke detector in that room!).  And I got a decent evaluation from the gracious principal.

* Survival Tip #1: Never paint fish during a formal observation

I learned this one the hard way.  To set the stage, I was teaching a self-contained class of kids with behavior and emotional disabilities.   We were in the middle of a fantastic unit on Japanese culture when it was time for the principal to complete one of several observations. The students had all created miniature gardens, a parent had shown us how to make everything origami, and we were even learning some Japanese.  It was a natural step for me to showcase our fish painting project when the principal scheduled the observation. I bought a large, whole fish and special rice paper. When the principal arrived, the kids were sitting at a table with their paper, black paint, and paintbrushes.  As the principal and my assistants looked on, the students took turns painting a side of the fish and pressing it down on the paper to create a unique print. The prints were truly lovely.  While the fish was being passed on, each child copied their name in Japanese characters. By the time the fish got to the last student, the fish was getting pretty slippery (something I had not anticipated). Also, the last student was distracted, so he didn’t notice that the fish was coming his way. He had good reflexes, so the fish itself didn’t land in his face or something.  But as he made a last minute grab, all the guts of the fish spewed into his lap.  I was as horrified as the rest of the class, having had no idea that the fish still had guts. Later, the gracious principal, who still gave me a decent evaluation,  asked if my assistants always laughed at me.  Want to guess my answer?

* Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

My first public post! I am excited about sharing my perspectives on special education, garnered over 40 years of experience.  Although “sort of” retired, I still teach privately and through the local school district.  For this post, I had intended to plunge into my interests related to teaching reading, but instead, here’s one of many unexpected teaching experiences from my lengthy career:  It was my first week in a new school, working in a self-contained classroom with students who had behavior and emotional disabilities.  We were in the midst of our morning meeting when I heard a strange gurgling sound coming from the bathroom.  No one was actually in the bathroom, so I ignored it and kept everyone focused on sharing.  Eventually, the noise was so loud that I had to check it out.  I opened the bathroom door to see a geyser of brown water spraying out of the toilet into the air.  I have never seen anything quite like it, except perhaps when fire hydrants are being flushed.  Within moments, the flood of sewage (which was combined with vegetation from the cafeteria next door) came gushing into the classroom and covered the floor with an inch of raw waste.  It was quite exciting for all of us. Kids who always wanted to wade at the beach now had their chance, while others explored classrooms down the hallway.  Fortunately, the room was so new that we had little furniture and no classroom clutter (yet), so the damage was minimal.  District crews pumped up the water and assured me that all was well as long as we never put any more white mice down the toilet.  We never did sit on the carpet again.

Survival tips:   Don’t rush to open a bathroom door.  Don’t say, “It wasn’t me!” when accused of putting white mice in the toilet because your assistant may helpfully add, “It wasn’t me! I’ve had a hysterectomy!”  If you plan to teach for the long haul, invest in a steam carpet cleaner.