Help Me Help You

Teachers! You are fantastic. I appreciate you. I value you. I deeply respect you.
I would love to buy you a drink (or several).
I also could use your help.

See, I love subbing for you. I want to be as good sub as possible – following your plans and leaving the classroom in great shape so when you return, you don’t have to waste time backtracking or re-teaching or wishing you’d dragged yourself into school despite the positive Strep culture because omg what a disaster.

But here’s the thing: subbing is, by its very nature, unpredictable. Since no two assignments are alike, I try to be prepared for anything. No matter how prepared I am, though, there are still some things that would make subbing easier.

Here’s where you come in.
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In the immortal words of Jerry Maguire: “Help me help you!”

Having been a classroom teacher for nearly ten years, I know how difficult it can be to plan for a sub. There were many times when I decided it wasn’t worth it to be absent, no matter how crummy I felt or what I’d miss with my family, because leaving thorough plans and trusting someone to actually follow them was more trouble than it was worth. Planning for a sub is a pain in the rear. I get it. I know. Truly.

With that said, a little help from teachers and schools can make the subbing experience go more smoothly – which makes returning to the classroom that much easier on your end! Best of all? Most of these can be done well in advance so you’re not frantically cramming even more into your sub plans. Woo-hoo!

Still with me??
Here are 10 things you can do that would help make subbing go extra super duper well.

1. Have a sub folder in an obvious place, with the obvious information — fire drill procedure, your schedule, etc. — clearly stated. A set of emergency plans is also fantastic for those mornings when your three year-old vomits all over her sheets ten minutes before you’re due to leave for work.

2. Tell me where the bathroom is – preferably the teachers’ bathroom, although any set of working toilets would do in a pinch. Nothing says “I’m new here!” like wandering the halls of an unfamiliar school when you desperately need to take a leak during the three minutes you’ve got between classes.

2. Make sure I’ve got a class roster. A seating chart is also super helpful; I’ll either look like a fool or a jerk when kids insist that this is where they’re supposed to sit and I have no idea if they’re pulling my leg or being honest. Even if name tags are attached to desks, a class list and a chart are pretty rad – when I’m trying to determine if everyone actually turned in their reading log or am asking for volunteers from across the room, having something to reference makes things much easier.

3. If a kid’s name is difficult to pronounce or is pronounced in a non-standard way, write the phonetic spelling beside it. Yeah, when I take attendance, I can self-deprecatingly explain that, since I’m new, I may make mistakes, and I’ll ask the kiddos for clarification, but it automatically sets me back when I pronounce Carolina like the state and everyone admonishes, “It’s Car-oh-LEEna! HAHA!!” Likewise if Marco goes by his middle name or Jacob only responds to his nickname, “Mooch” (true story). Help a sister out so I look like I know what I’m talking about, at least a little.
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4. What’s your bathroom/drinking fountain/nurse procedure? Do kids sign out? Is there a pass? How many students can go at one time? Is it okay to leave during silent reading or should they wait until snack? This is true for specials teachers, too… When kiddos come to you room, they seem to arrive with their bladders bursting. Do you allow them to make a mad dash for the loo? Only in emergencies? I can invent a response on the spot, but when I say, “Please wait until the quiz is over” and I’m met with an indignant, “Mr. So-and-so ALWAYS lets us go whenever we want!”, it creates tension – not to mention I have no idea if the kid is telling me the truth or punking me.

5. Tell me your magical attention-getting cue. Do you use a special clap? Ring a bell? Turn the lights on and off? Use a call-and-response phrase? (My daughters had an awesome art teacher who utilized popular commercial jingles to get her classes’ attention. They’d be art-making and the teacher would say/sing, “We! Are! Farmers!” and the whole class would say/sing back, “Bum, ba dum bum bum bum bum!”) If I know what it is, I’ll put it to good use. If not, I’m stuck whispering, “If you can hear me, touch your nose!”, using the Teacher Classic, “I’m waiting…”, or thrusting my hand in the air and announcing, “Give me five!” while they look at me quizzically. I can raise my voice with the best of ’em, but I’d rather just do whatever you do.

6. Do you have a reward/behavior system? If so, how does it work? I can do my own thing, but if you’ve got something going, I’d love to continue it. Kids dig the consistency. If there are prizes to be earned and the appropriate benchmarks are achieved, may I dole out the loot? If so, where do you keep your stash? Either way is fine, but letting me know is way helpful because I feel like a schmuck explaining to little Miss that even though she read her tenth book, I have no idea whether or not she’s allowed to visit the prize box.

7. Let me know what happens during transition times. Is there a bell? Does it ring at the end of class? The beginning? Both? Is there an end-of-day bell or signal? Do I simply let the kids out of the room whenever the clock reaches a particular time? Also, for littler ones, let me know what my role is in their transitions. Your plans say: “10:15 – 10:45, Library.” Do I drop them off? Remain with them? Will they come back on their own or should I pick them up? After recess, will someone get them or should I go to the playground? Inquiring minds want to know!

8. Fill me in on some of the peculiarities of your classroom. Do you regularly allow kids to take their work into the hall? Is food permissible? Do they often spread books on the floor to have more room to work? How strict are you about tardies? Is partner work cool or should this assignment be done solo? Is chewing gum perfectly acceptable or grounds for staying after class? These may seem almost inconsequential to you, but I promise you that as soon as I stray from your routine, the kids notice.

9. If you can, keep some extra supplies handy. I’m not talking anything extravagant, but a spare dry erase marker or two, some tissues, a few band-aids, and a bottle of hand sanitizer that contains more than fumes can be tremendously useful.

10. Tell me something about your students. If someone’s really into the guitar, let me know; we can talk Fenders. If another kid just got the cast off her arm, I’d love to hear it; I’ll be sure she can sit out during recess, if she’d like. While I don’t want to hear a whole string of negatives – I can form my own unique opinions without you trying to convince me of yours – a bit of background can be really helpful. If you’ve got one kiddo who has trouble keeping hands to herself, tell me; I’ll try to redirect her before she bugs a classmate. If someone is easily distracted, fill me in; I can give him some extra one-on-one time to help him focus on his work. More than once, I’ve had teachers pick their classes up from music, ask how things went and – upon hearing that the kids were a little rowdy – say, with a laugh, “Yeah, they get out of control easily!” Had that information been relayed before we started, I might’ve held off on handing out the maracas and tambourines until we’d established a good rhythm (HAHA). I promise not to pigeonhole anyone; I just want this experience to be successful all the way around, and a little bit of background can make a world of difference.
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An apple for the teacher: not just a myth.

~~~

I realize that not all of these apply to every teacher, and obviously no one can be expected to relay every single nuance of their classroom… but if you can at least hit on the highlights so I’m not flying completely blind, I would be ever so grateful.

If things go well, maybe you’ll call me back again – which would be awesome, because Mooch was nearly finished with his All About Dolphins poster and I’m dying to see the final masterpiece.

Do what you need to do. I got this.

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It Is Time

(An earlier version of this post was published last year. For a variety of reasons, I’ve updated it and am putting it out there again… because here we are again. If you’re looking for the text for the original post, you’ll find it here [scroll to the end].)

Plain and simple, I believe that the current standardized tests in ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, given annually from grades 3-8, are poorly designed and age-inappropriate and, ultimately, should be entirely revamped. I’ll go one step more: I think that a lot of families have no idea what’s happening.

Lemme break it down.

1. Testing isn’t going anywhere
Tests have been around since the dawn of schooling (and probably before that; you know that cave people were totally devising hunting “challenges” for one another). Standardized testing in the United States has been around since at least WWI. Pretty much anyone who’s lived in the USA over the last 40-50 years has heard about our “failing” education system, how we don’t “measure up” to other nations, etc. – so, clearly, something had to be done. Hence, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed which, in 2002, turned into No Child Left Behind where – I’m simplifying here – in order to receive federal funds, schools needed to prove that their students were showing academic improvement. That act was met with such vitriol, this past December, the Obama administration rejiggered it into the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Whether or not American schools are, indeed, “failing” is up for intense debate, but the fact remains that standardized tests have been around forever. They offer one small snapshot into one moment of a student’s academic year. Taken alongside the numerous other evaluations that are performed throughout any given school year, they can contribute a few brushstrokes to a child’s academic progress canvas. If these tests are well-written, developmentally appropriate, and accurate, they can also provide some sort of (small) basis with which to compare schools and teachers.

I’m down with standardized testing, as a general concept. I think most parents, teachers, and families are.

2. Common Core confusion
States adopted the Core standards with a very specific goal in mind: money. Not education reform, not improving student learning, not evaluating teaching practices or helping teachers to better their approaches, but cold, hard cash. See, there was this thing called Race To The Top (RTTT) that was rolled out in 2009-2010 that essentially said (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly): Hey, governing people! Want to earn more FUNDING for your states for education? THEN COME COMPETE FOR IT!! All you have to do is prove that you’re evaluating teachers more stringently, identify and turn around failing schools, promise you won’t prohibit the formation of more charter schools, adopt some common standards, and create some nifty data systems! The faster and better you do that, the faster you can earn MORE MONEY!!! It’s like a carnival up in here!

In theory, a set of shared standards isn’t such a bad idea. I like the Common Core benchmarks, broadly speaking. I like the idea of everyone in the US learning some basic, shared content. I like the thought that, if your kids changed schools or districts or moved across the country, you could count on them not being too far behind (or ahead) because everyone’s learning the same stuff at the same time, from poverty-stricken inner cities to wealthy suburbs.

In practice, because of the whole SHOW ME THE MONEY thing, the standards were written in a bit of a hurry – and, many people assert, they were written without any educator input. No, for real: according to many experts, not one single K-12 educator or child development expert was included in the creation of these standards. So they’re a bit off-base in terms of what’s developmentally appropriate for each grade level, by which I mean that they’re asking kids to know a heckuva lot more, and to use an awful lot of more complex thinking, than they’ve done before.

Which, in itself, might not be so bad — maybe even inspiring and hopeful — if the standards had been adopted at a reasonable pace with teachers being given adequate support and training to properly teach the new material.

But because there was money on the line, and because states had to act super fast if they wanted their share, they adopted Common Core with lightning speed. There was no gradual roll-out. No trying-and-seeing to determine if this set of standards was reasonable, achievable, or appropriate. No oversight by anyone in the field of education. Buckle up!

3. Many of the tests are poorly written
Even so – even with way more complex standards written by non-education people that were put into practice before anyone had a chance to review them – things might have been okay had the accompanying tests that were meant to measure performance been good, strong, accurate evaluations. But many of them are not.

For one thing, they – like the standards – are written by non-educators. (I understand that in New York state, the tests before the Common Core-based evaluations were also written by non-educators, so this is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their authorship, the tests have been found to be riddled with errors. The test questions themselves, especially on the ELA portion of the exam, are often written at reading levels two to nine grades ahead (asking, say, third graders to read and evaluate passages that are actually appropriate for 5th- 12th graders).
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These are taken from the PARCC ELA test…

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 5.43.48 PMYes. Our eight year-olds are probably familiar with the idea of “luring” someone into “a false sense of security.”

Many of the test questions are vague or even deliberately misleading, which makes choosing the answer more of a guessing game than a true demonstration of understanding.

4. The results don’t mean anything
Given that the tests are badly written, error-filled, and are developmentally inappropriate, it seems safe to say that their results don’t really mean much. Additionally, since student results aren’t provided until the end of summer (or even into the start of the next school year), the child’s teacher can’t use the scores to adjust his or her instruction to better serve those kiddos.

Sure, in theory, a teacher could look at the results from last year’s class, see a deficiency in a particular area, and think, “Oh, I guess I didn’t do a good job teaching Main Idea. I’d better work on that with this year’s batch of students.” In fact, I would bet that the vast majority of teachers try to do exactly that. But the information that teachers are given – at least in New York – is rather limited.

Teachers aren’t allowed to see the actual questions from the test, nor to know ones were answered incorrectly – they only receive a broad overview of concepts and standards and whole-class percentages rather than individual student breakdowns. Did last year’s students really not understand Main Idea, or were the Main Idea questions vague? Were they deliberately misleading? Were they “sample” questions that are thrown out there each year just to see how kids do on them? Were they just plain incorrect or filled with typos?

Even if the data was reliable – there’s one final catch: the passing score changes from year to year and is determined… AFTER THE TESTS HAVE BEEN SCORED. I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but I’m not. Movable passing scores!!

5. Teachers are more than just a (faulty) number
Here’s where things get really personal for me. Let’s just backtrack for a moment and pretend that the current tests are awesome. Let’s pretend that they are appropriate, accurate, and superbly written. Even if this were the case, I think we can all agree, still, that they represent merely one moment in a child’s education, several hours out of their lives. They don’t actually demonstrate all that children have learned – not even the best tests in the entire world – because most of what we call “learning” cannot be shown in a two-dimensional standardized test.

What standardized test results really show us is how well individual children tested on a particular day. And yet many states have decided that test scores do accurately demonstrate how well teachers are teaching, often counting the scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.

And let’s not forget about the rest of the teachers. Tests are given at only at certain grade levels in certain subjects – meaning that that the majority of teachers do not teach these subjects/grades. K-2 teachers? 9-12 non-Regents class teachers? Gym, music, art? Science (students are tested in science but not in every grade), social studies/history, foreign language, library, computer, home ec, graphics…? 

And yet 50% of their evaluations are also based on test results. Based on the performance of students they may never have laid eyes on IN SUBJECTS AND GRADE LEVELS THAT THEY DO NOT TEACH.

This is fair, appropriate, or okay because… why?

6. Greed is a powerful motivator
For decades now, politicians have been talking about how American education is failing. Thus, politicians find it pretty easy to gain financial backers for education reform. After all, once a school is determined to not pass muster, something must be done — new curricula, new textbooks, new resources.

One of the largest supporters of Common Core is Bill Gates – yes, that Bill Gates – who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its adoption. While I believe that Bill Gates genuinely wants to help, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Microsoft and Pearson – one of the largest producers of Common Core materials – have banded together to get additional Microsoft resources into schools.

Many people have taken issue with the fact that companies such as Pearson [which authored a) the Common Core standards, b) the great majority of the current Common Core tests, c) the “modules” of instructional materials that are sold to schools to prepare students for said tests, d) and – as of 2015 – the teacher certification examinations in eighteen states] is a business company, not a company run by education or child development professionals. (I acknowledge that pre-Common Core, tests were still written by contracted, outside companies; that still doesn’t make it right.)

That would be galling enough, but even more maddening is that Pearson is positively rolling in the money it is making off of its materials. Since Common Core was adopted so quickly, school districts had to act fast to provide their teachers with adequate curricula resources. Who better to provide that than the author of the Common Core standards? Enter the Pearson instruction modules! Need additional support materials? Pearson’s got those, too!

7. Teacher demoralization
I’m just going to put it bluntly: because of all of this Common Core testing and the hoopla surrounding it, many of our teachers* feel like crap. They have been told, in no uncertain terms, that the jobs they were doing weren’t good enough. No matter how well-liked they were, how many kids graduated from their classes, how many years they’d been teaching, how many children they taught to read or how to multiply, how many hours they stayed after school, how many hungry children they fed, how many concerts they attended… it wasn’t enough. They have to change, fast. And if they don’t? Their very jobs are at stake.

All of the teachers I know – the ones for whom I sub, the ones with whom I sub, the ones with whom I went to college, the ones with whom I used to teach, the ones who teach my own children, or the ones I’ve met along the way by happenstance – have said, unequivocally, how much they love teaching. They love their students. They are fiercely proud to be educators. But it is getting hard – really hard – for many of them to continue. You hear talk of those who are seriously considering leaving the classroom because they can no longer teach; now, they have to teach these modules, teach to the test, jump through hoop after hoop. It’s exhausting and maddening.

Losing our teachers would, obviously, be a tremendous problem; that problem is compounded by the fact that there has been a steep decline in the number of new teachers being certified in recent years. Even those who do decide to enter the profession don’t stick around for long.

To be sure, teachers have often felt under-appreciated, misunderstood, and underpaid, but rarely has their ability to do their job been so strongly questioned. Never have they been so micromanaged. We are losing some of our best teachers. We aren’t getting enough new ones. This is happening right now, all across the country, and it is terrifying.

(*Obviously, I realize that I’m speaking in very broad terms here. I have not interviewed every teacher in the nation. But I am certain that the teachers with whom I have spoken – and this is a helluva lot of teachers – have expressed their dejection, sadness, and frustration.)

8. How do we get an objective measure?
Many people who acknowledge the shortcomings of these particular tests maintain that we need them because we need some objective measure of how our kids are doing in school. We need some way to compare teachers, schools, and performance, from rural West Virginia to suburban Idaho to inner-city Houston. We need to be able to determine teacher growth and student success. Kids from the most poverty-riddled communities deserve access to the same quality education as their most affluent peers.

I hear that. I absolutely believe that all children deserve a quality education; the disparity is, indeed, unfair. I also think it would be great to, say, move across the country and be able to glean, at a glance, how a school or district compares to another.

But here’s the thing: I think we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist – not because we haven’t figured out how to do it, but because it’s just not possible. Maybe education and learning aren’t things that can be measured any more than a musical performance can be measured. Maybe teacher growth and student success aren’t confined to numbers. Maybe a one-size-fits-all assessment works nicely for obtaining a driver’s license but not so well for determining whether or not fifth graders can identify subplot or if their teachers are doing their jobs. Test scores do not indicate success or failure; they are merely numbers.

9. Quite whining! How about some solutions or ideas?!
I’m not saying that we should give up. I’m saying I think we need to – dramatically – change our approach to how we evaluate education, students, and teachers. In my Magic Wand World, I’d take a (lot of) page(s) out of Finland’s book (it is well-acknowledged that Finnish students perform among best in the world at international exams) and our teachers would be as well-respected as as well paid as our doctors.

Since it’s unlikely that we’re going to adopt too many of Finland’s ideas, I suggest that we work with what we already have to reconfigure our view of success.

  • We should de-couple the current standardized tests from teacher evaluations, period.
  • We can keep the Common Core – as I said, I like those standards – but only as a portion of what each child should learn; we need to leave the rest up to individual states, districts, schools, and teachers.
  • We should give teachers several years to become familiar with the Core standards so that they can rework their lesson plans, see where there may be deficiencies, and take it from there.
  • Standardized tests aren’t going anywhere (in the USA), but we should have new, fair, developmentally appropriate tests that have been written by educators from across the K-12 spectrum.
  • Those tests’ scores should come back before the school year is over so that the students’ current teachers can use the data to inform their instruction.
  • And then those numbers should be just one of many other things that combine together to form our opinions of teacher success and student learning. Let’s factor attendance into the equation. Graduation rates. The percentage of high school graduates who go onto college. Post-graduate success. AP exams – how many are given? What are the scores? Teacher-student ratio. Teacher retention; how many are still teaching there after three years? Five? Ten? Extra-curricular activities. Class sizes. Poverty levels. Parent involvement. Principal and superintendent evaluations. Student portfolios. Additional test scores.

Education “success” cannot be measured by any one, single thing. I will happily sing you the praises of my daughters’ elementary school, which I adore, but none of those praises – from small class sizes to close relationships with other families to the devotion of the teachers to their annual Halloween parade – has anything to do with test scores.

10. Become informed… and then do something
I’m not really the “take a stand” type. More typically, I talk and think a lot. I write letters, I sign petitions, I discuss with family and friends. With this, it was different. I’d been talking, for years. I’d been signing petitions. I’d been writing letters, dozens of them, from the governor to my locally elected officials.

Finally, last year, it became clear to me: talking, thinking, letter- writing, and petition-signing weren’t working. Our legislators weren’t listening. And in the meantime, our children and teachers were suffering.

Enough was enough. And so, after much research and consideration (and after having participated the year before), our 4th grader opted out of the tests. She was extremely nervous about taking them – and we were extremely upset that her teachers were being evaluated based on student scores on poorly-designed tests – so it seemed like an appropriate solution. Turns out, many, many parents and children in New York state came to the same conclusion. As I wrote last year:

To paraphrase the incomparable Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better. Parents and teachers are speaking up. We are knowing better. I hope, as our voices swell – whether our children take the tests or refuse them – that our politicians will hear us and that, some day, they will do better, too.

You know what? Our New York legislators heard us. BY GOSH, THEY HEARD US! Our voices swelled and our message was clear: This situation needs to change. And so the change has begun. Test scores are no longer being used to evaluate New York teachers (CAN I GET AN AMEN!). Students may now take as much time as they need to complete the exams. As of next year, Pearson will no longer be writing the tests or curricular materials. NEW YORK IS TRYING TO DO BETTER.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Because of the changes that have been made, my husband and I did not feel as strongly about refusing the testing this year, instead leaving the decision to our daughters (after sharing the above information with them, to the degree that they can understand it). Our oldest, again, has opted out; her younger sister is taking them. We feel very comfortable being a house divided.

No, the tests aren’t perfect (then again, what is?). With the exception of tying them to teacher evaluations, everything else remains (essentially) the same, so there remains (much) work to be done. (While I appreciate the removal of the time limit, it seems that some students are taking up to 6 hours per day to finish their tests… which is not exactly “doing better”…) Still, I acknowledge and greatly appreciate that changes are being made. It’s a step in the right direction.

Some analysts and educators argue that high-stakes tests should be banned, period. Others claim that the tests are successful. Although they’re reaching different conclusions, they’re doing so after having thoroughly done their homework (a pun!).

And that is what I encourage everyone to do: learn more, then go from there. Find out who writes the tests in your state and how teachers are asked to teach the material. Read up on others’ opinions about how valid and appropriate the tests are. Discover when the test results are returned, what information the teachers and schools receive, and how they apply that information. Learn whether or not your child’s educators are evaluated based on test scores. Inquire about what your options are.

Then, if you feel that the tests are not measuring up, ask for better. If you feel like they’re cutting muster, speak up! Maybe that looks like writing letters. Maybe it’s signing petitions. Maybe it’s attending town hall meetings. Maybe it’s talking with neighbors and teachers and administrators. Maybe it’s opting out. Maybe it’s opting in. Maybe it’s a little of everything and a lot of other things, too.

No matter how you feel about Common Core and the state tests, I think we can all agree that our nation’s children deserve awesome. Let’s work together to be thoughtful, committed citizens. Let’s help our children receive the awesome they deserve. Heck – let’s change the world.

 

Just subbing again this year? Nope.

“Are you looking for a full-time job, or are you just subbing again?”

It’s a reasonable question, and one that I get asked quite frequently. Friends and family – even acquaintances or parents of the girls’ friends – know that I used to be a teacher and that I began subbing a year ago. They also know that I had looked for months for a music teaching position but that none had been available, so I applied as a substitute. I was thrilled to be back in the classroom, but remained somewhat disheartened that I was “only” subbing instead of teaching my own group of students. Hence, last year, the answer to the question was some version of, “Yep, still looking – but for now, just subbing.”

This year, my answer has changed only ever-so-slightly, but the meaning behind it has shifted dramatically. “Yep, still looking – but actually, I’m very happily subbing!”

The exclamation point is important, ’cause I’m gonna tell you a secret that not many people recognize: subbing is awesome.

With all due respect to the hilarious Dave Barry, I swear I am not making this up.

First, some caveats. If my family was relying on my income to make ends meet, substitute teaching would not be the best way to put a roof over our heads because it is inherently unreliable. You are not guaranteed work, instead waiting for other people to become ill or be absent, so – short of poisoning the water of local teachers’ homes – your salary (and I use that term loosely) is really inconsistent.

Second, if my family’s schedule did not allow for any variability – if it had to be set in stone and not budge – subbing would be a really poor fit. Barring a long-term gig like I had last spring, subbing means that no two weeks are alike, so your “schedule” (such as it were) is bound to be constantly changing, oftentimes not materializing until that morning.

Thankfully, my family does not need to rely on my income to pay the bills, and I am fortunate enough to have supportive and flexible folks in my life who can help put all of the pieces into place, even at six a.m.

But wait, there’s more!

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All ready to go this morning…

Substitute teaching isn’t just about avoiding the negatives; it has its own set of really stupendous positives, many of which I didn’t even realize before I began subbing last fall. Sure, on the one hand, each day and school are different. Your hours aren’t the same, you might be five minutes from home or twenty, you have to learn the ins and outs of each school where you teach. But on the other hand? The hours aren’t the same! No up at 6:00, out of the house by 7:00, home by 4:30 if you’re lucky drudgery. No mind-numblingly similar commute every single day. Because each school operates differently than the last and each school’s culture is uniquely its own, you have the privilege of getting to know all of them. Plus, each time you sub, you’re doing something new, so it’s virtually impossible to get bored. How cool is that??

Subbing is like being a grandparent: all of the fun but almost none of the stress. You know that ridiculous amount of extra teaching stuff that makes it so exhausting? Doesn’t happen when you’re a sub! I arrive when I’m told to and depart when I’m done teaching. Lesson plans and grading? Nope. I just follow the plans in front of me and leave the rest when I go. There are no faculty meetings to attend, no field trips to proctor, no parent-teacher conferences to prepare for. But working with kids, watching them get those ah-ha moments, introducing a new concept, trying to reach the one student who seems unreachable? Absolutely!
And then I go home.

When you’re a “regular” teacher, you work with the same kids day in and day out. Even as a music teacher, although I had well over a hundred – sometimes well over three hundred – students on my roster, I still saw the same faces each week. This is great, of course, for building relationships and establishing continuity, and you do really get to know a particular age group quite intimately, but it does mean that you’re only working with one cross-section of kiddos. Subbing, I get to work with everyone – kindergarteners to seniors, individual saxophone lessons to entire orchestras, a sixth grade homeroom to third grade reading, students classified as gifted and those with special needs. Absolutely everyone is included, every age and class size and ability and race and socioeconomic status, and that is exciting as heck.

It’s also challenging, but in the best way, that Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about it like that before way where your brain almost hurts afterward – but it’s a good kind of pain. Teaching twenty-five first graders how to add doubles calls on way different skills and resources than teaching fifty tenth graders how to play that symphonic section adagio or teaching six ELA middle schoolers how to decode a sentence — and you guys, there is something so freakin’ exhilarating about having to use different parts of my brain, having to think outside the box, and having to do it on a dime. Growing up, I was one of those dorks people who adored learning, especially if it was a fast-paced lesson, and that’s what subbing is like every single day.

Learning? you say; I thought you were teaching. Well, yes, of course, but as everyone knows (they do, right?), one of the best ways to be a good teacher is to be a good learner, and I am learning so damned much in these classrooms – in a different way than I did as a “regular” teacher. Then, I learned the ins and outs of middle school music and it was wonderful – truly – but now I’m learning about teaching, period. I had never conducted a high school band before I subbed, but let me tell you, when you have a hundred impatient teenagers staring at you as they await instruction that will help them prepare for next month’s concert, you figure it out fast. I’ve been shown games to help beginning readers, seen classroom management techniques that had never crossed my mind, and heard songs from across the globe that I’d never known existed. Yes, I’m teaching… but I’m also getting the best education of my life.

And that whole unpredictable, no-set-schedule thing? Amazeballs. Subbing is ridiculously flexible. Because I am fortunate enough to not have to work every day in order to support my family, I get to pick and choose. One week, maybe I’m available Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; the week after that, perhaps Monday and Thursday only. If I only want to work a half-day, that can be arranged. If I need to leave a little early for an appointment, no worries; they’re grateful to have me anyway. Until I actually accept a job, I’m never locked in – if my schedule has changed but I still receive a call, I simply say, “Sorry – I’m no longer available that day!” and no one thinks a thing of it. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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Today’s job began late enough that I could still take my morning walk with the dogs… and the girls. ‘Tis the mark of a good situation, my friends.

Best of all, I’m teaching. I’m back in the classroom, back with kids, back to what I feel called to do. From the moment I walk in those doors to the moment I turn in my ID badge, I come alive and give it everything I have. Sometimes, all I’m asked to do is clerical work – making copies, cutting out decorations, sorting papers – which is not exactly teaching, nor why I applied for this job, but you know what? I totally don’t mind. For one thing, I’m no dummy; if I can get paid to hang bulletin boards, sign me up! But beyond that, I know that I’m helping teachers do their jobs better. For each stack of homework that I file into take-home folders, a teacher is gaining extra time with her students, for his grading, for their professional development. Sign me up for that, too!

When I am in the classroom working with those kiddos, there’s nothing better (professionally, I mean; I do love hanging out with my own kiddos and seeing a movie with my husband and a mean Sauvingon Blanc and a Salted Caramel Mocha… sorry, where was I?). It used to be that I was irked at my subbing status, embarrassed even. It was only what I was doing temporarily, what I felt forced to do because what I wanted – my own classroom – wasn’t available. Each of those early times that I subbed, I felt compelled to explain myself to other teachers, to let them know I’d spent years in the classroom and why I decided to sub, to prove that I wasn’t just some wannabe who couldn’t get herself a “real” job. I wasn’t ashamed, but I was definitely defensive.

Now, a year in, I’m completely content with my decision and my position as a substitute teacher. I don’t need to prove myself – I just need to continue doing the best that I can and let my teaching speak for itself. At the end of the day, I leave the classroom feeling solid about myself and the job I’ve done.

We – all of us, society as a whole – need good substitute teachers. We need our children to receive excellent educations and to be taught by excellent teachers, but those teachers simply cannot be in their classrooms every minute of every day. When they’re gone, it does little good to hire people who cannot be counted on to take their places effectively. Subs play a critical role in education; good subs are even more important. Not to toot my own horn (HONK), but… I’m a good sub.

I’m no longer on the defensive; in fact, I’m proud of what I do. Don’t get me wrong – if a “regular” music position opened up, I’d still go for it. But right now, I’m thrilled with being a sub. It keeps me on my toes, it makes me think, it teaches me more than I thought possible. I’m out there, back in the classroom with kids, making a difference while still being able to make the difference that I want to in my own daughters’ lives. And let’s face it – the hours can’t be beat.

So, no. I’m not just subbing again. I’m subbing again because it is exactly where I want to be.
And I love it.

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Sun coming up over the hills. Which I still get to see, because I get to pick and choose my own schedule, because subbing is the bomb.

 

 

 

Who needs sleep?

So, I think I’ve mentioned, oh, once or twice before that, while I adore my long-term sub position, I’m really, really tired. I just can’t seem to manage do everything that needs doing while adding twenty-five hours of work into each week (go figure), and sleep gets sacrificed the most. A lot of the time, this isn’t too big of an issue… but other times, it becomes a small problem.

I’ve had a stuffed dog since I was ten (when I went to sleep-away camp and needed a pal), a once uber-soft, now rather leathery, caramel-colored dog.

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I thought my scrapbook contained a photo of that first summer with Caramel – and, indeed, it does – but, rather inexplicably, the photo is of only my cabin-mates and not me. (I guess I took the photo and Caramel was their mascot?) So, rather than post a picture of completely random ten year-olds, I’m posting a blurry picture of a once-fuzzy dog. Artistic excellence right there.

Although I don’t really sleep with her anymore, I keep her by our bed and occasionally plop her unceremoniously over my head if I’m trying to drown out Nick or the dog’s snoring. She’s not as plush as she once was, but she’s special, and so she stays.

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Caramel is a bit bedraggled these days, but, in the words of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” she’s real. So she’s pretty much perfect.

Langston has also had a penchant for stuffed animals. Ever since he was a tiny pup, he’s loved chewing on one, especially his white bear.9.17 on the bed!
It was as big as he was!

lang loves his bear
Quite possessive, he is…

langston hugs his bear
When I say that he “sleeps with it,” I am not exaggerating.

Lang managed to keep that bear perfectly intact – gnawing on it only just barely – for the entire 18 months that he was with us before Jambi got here, but within a few months of her arrival, the bear began to lose its stuffing. Jambi doesn’t do it to be mean, per se, but she just prefers to rip things to shreds rather than nibble daintily on them. She’s sweet like that.

Now that the white bear is basically a shell – sort of like a Davy Crockett coonskin cap except, you know, white – it doesn’t hold as much appeal for Lang, and he’s taken to gnawing on a tan dog. Again, he doesn’t tear it apart, as many hounds do, but just gums it up, as though he’s teething on it. As a result, the tan stuffed dog has a rather “crusty” coating on it. It also smells delicious.

teaching tired2
Admittedly, it’s missing a leg, but that’s from Jambi, not Lang. We now try to keep it away from her so that she doesn’t completely destroy it.
Sorry about the stench. 

One night a few weeks ago, as per usual, I stumbled upstairs, bleary-eyed, at an hour that should be illegal, and proceeded to get ready for bed. Clothes changed, new clothes laid out for the morning, teeth and face and all that jazz, right? When I was finally, mercifully, ready to actually crawl under the covers, I noticed Caramel lying beside the bed in a discarded beige heap, and decided to take her with me. As I curled her into my chest, I did notice that she was a bit… crunchy… but I didn’t really think anything of it until I pulled her closer toward my face and was nearly knocked unconscious by the smell.

Yep. In my exhaustion-fueled haze, I’d accidentally grabbed Langston’s matted-up, filthy, saliva-soaked, gag-inducing dog and had brought it as close to me as humanly possible in an attempt to cuddle it at two o’clock in the morning.

teaching tired3 teaching tired2
A reasonable mistake, no??

It was then (after I’d finished gagging and dousing myself in Lysol) that I realized just HOW tired I am (as if the passing out at 8:30 wasn’t already an indication), and I resolved that, once this long-term subbing gig was done, I would well and truly make a conscious effort to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and that I would treat myself better. I’ve adored this job, but it has not been without side effects, and while I was sad to leave, I was eager to try to get back on track.

Today marks the end of my original eleven week stint, and that was what this post was supposed to be about: finishing up my job and trying to get a little shut-eye. It was going to be a bittersweet, reflective, hopeful post (with stinky stuffed animals thrown in for good measure).

But life doesn’t always work in tidy, eleven-week boxes, does it?

At two o’clock yesterday, just after I’d I come home from teaching, I received an email from the school secretary explaining that the teacher for whom I’m subbing has to extend her medical leave, and would I be able to stick around for a few more weeks? There were a couple of appointments I needed to shuffle around and reschedule, but I was able to do those fairly quickly and reply in the affirmative.

And so, when I entered my classroom today and was greeted by this…
teaching tired

… I was able to tell them, “Well, I hope you meant that, because guess what? WISH GRANTED!”

It’s spring break next week, and tomorrow, we are going on vacation to visit my dad and stepmom in South Carolina. It will be fantastic. Somewhere deep inside, I am crazy excited for this, but it’s been so busy, I haven’t even thought about snoozing, much less packing. I’d probably better get on that. Maybe I can even catch some zzz’s while I’m there.

As for the rest of my (non-vacation) life, I guess I’ll have to start sleeping again sometime in May. But that’s okay. When you find messages like that on your white board, it makes it all worthwhile.

Except the sleeping-with-the-wrong-dog part. Pretty much nothing makes that acceptable.

 

 

 

Lightweight

I love my job – today, the periods were shortened to thirty minutes each (from the usual forty) because of the talent show, and when I reminded my seventh graders of this, one kiddo burst out, “Why is it that the best classes are shortened??” – and it’s been going really well. The logistics have been tricky, and I’m behind in basically every other area of my life, but it’s all been good and worth it.

With that said… great googly moogly, I am SO FREAKIN’ TIRED. There’s just too much to squeeze into each day, and, in order to actually spend a few moments with my children that don’t include screaming over hair-brushing or standing at the thresholds of their bedrooms and uttering some form of, “How is it possible to create such a huge mess in so little time?”,  I wind up doing the majority of the “extra” stuff after the girls go to bed. Which means that I, myself, routinely don’t manage to turn my own light off until at least 1:30 a.m.

I’m usually a morning person, but when that alarm goes off before 7:00 and it’s my fourth consecutive day getting only five hours of sleep, I’m do not have a wonderful feeling that everything is going my way, let me tell you.

I don’t nap. I don’t know why, but I just don’t. I realize that this is a foreign concept for many people (especially my husband), but, as appealing as the couch seems and as cozily as I nestle my head, napping simply doesn’t happen for me unless I’m coming down with some major illness. Or a man cold. Likewise, sleeping in a car or on a plane are out of reach for me, too, no matter how much green eggs and ham you throw in. And falling asleep while watching TV or reading a book? Fuggedaboudit. I am broken when it comes to sleeping anyplace other than my bed, or any time other than when I climb in for the night.

A few weeks ago, Nick asked if I’d like a glass of wine with dinner. I agreed, and then decided to throw caution to the wind and have a second with dessert. (I know, crazytown – but it was Friday night, so you’ll forgive me for really letting loose.) At bedtime, we decided to split up reading with the girls; Nick went to Ella’s room and I settled next to Annie as she opened up her latest Princess Posey tome. She began to read to me (thank God she now pronounces the heroine’s name correctly; she used to call her “Princess Pussy”), and I think I heard the first few words… but I’m not quite sure, because the next thing I remember, I was wiping drool off Annie’s pillow and trying to making up an excuse about how I’d been listening, I was just doing it with my eyes closed. When she finished the chapter and turned off the light, I kissed her goodnight as always… but then asked if she would mind if I just stayed put for awhile. I mean, I was already cozy and warm, and it’s been such a chilly winter…

I awoke around 9:30 p.m. and peeled myself out from underneath her covers. Instead of migrating to the living room to pull out my laptop, however (with hopes of editing some photos, or maybe laying out yearbook pages, or researching lessons, or writing plans, or answering emails, or any of the other myriad items on my To Do list), for the first time in… well, I honestly can’t remember, so it must have been forever… I trudged up to my own bedroom. Nick was already lounging on the bed – technically on my side – but, being so tired that I quite literally couldn’t keep my eyes open, I merely grunted a greeting his way and crawled into bed on his side, sound asleep the instant my head hit the pillow.

Good grief, two glasses of wine and I had passed out faster than free samples at Sam’s Club!

I awoke with a start – comically, like you see in the movies, practically sitting bolt upright from a dead sleep – when Nick (who had also nodded off) got up to use the bathroom, and it somehow registered inside that, Holy crap, I actually went to bed before midnight... and I accomplished NONE of what I needed to that night. Slightly panicked, I glanced at the clock – 1:30 a.m. (great balls of fire!, I’d been asleep for four hours?!) – as I realized that the dogs had not yet been let out for the night. In fact, if Nick and I both had dozed off (or, in my case, passed out cold), the dogs hadn’t been let out since… oh… 6 p.m. or so, and asking them to “hold it” until 9 a.m. was probably a bad idea.

It was then that it dawned on me that I was… damp...?… absolutely everywhere. Because, in my complete and utter exhaustion, I had gotten into bed wearing all of my clothes — including my thick socks, jeans, long-sleeved shirt, and a sweatshirt — and, after lying beneath the sheet, duvet, and comforter for four hours, I had basically sweated myself into oblivion. I managed to shake myself awake enough to remove my (damp) clothing, clean up a bit, and get into some pajamas, and then went downstairs to let the dogs out to do their business.

I did what I always do – open the sliding glass door in our playroom (which is otherwise closed all of the time) to let them romp straight into our backyard – and began to wake up slightly as the chilly night air snuck in. Joey came in almost immediately, as usual, and gobbled his treat as I tucked him into the kennel. Jambi returned shortly thereafter and wandered upstairs, but Langston… Sweet Jesus, y’all, that dog can pee. We are talking, I kid you not, three or four minutes straight and the stream still continues. It’s truly like nothing I’ve ever seen – where does he store all of this liquid? Is he a magician? A sorcerer? – and, quite frankly, sometimes I get bored and check back in with him later.

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Joey was all, Why the hell are you putting my in my kennel in the middle of the day? For a photograph?? Are you nuts? 

As Lang continued to pee… and pee… and pee... I remembered that the dishwasher needed to be run, so I went up to the kitchen and turned it on. While there, I was greeted by the many other things that I’d intended to do that night – tidying up the kitchen, going through the girls’ school folders, making juice for the morning – so I figured, hell, as long as I’m up, I might as well take care of this stuff, too!

Who knew that a four-hour nap can be so energizing?!

After about ten minutes, I heard Langston nosing around in the garage, so I let him in through the kitchen; he and Jambi went back upstairs to the bedroom to wait for me (and their treats). At last, my burst of energy faded, and – feeling satisfied that I’d finally checked off several To Dos – I settled into bed for good around 2:30 a.m. and slept straight through until the girls woke us at 8:30 the following morning.

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They don’t usually share a bed, but they’re cuter that way, no?

TEN, ladies and gentlemen. I got over TEN hours of sleep(!), which is almost double what I normally get, and, good grief, I felt like a new person. There was a spring in my step as I showered and got ready, then made my way downstairs around 9:00 to help the girls with breakfast.

Nick had already beat me down to let the dogs out, however, and was engaged in a lively… discussion… with Ella about some infraction that she, supposedly, had committed.

“Why would you have opened that door? You know you’re not supposed to use that door!”

“I didn’t open it, Daddy!”

“But it’s wide open! It’s freezing down here!”

“I didn’t open it, really. It must have been open when I came downstairs to play.”

“How on earth did it get open? Do you think Joey got out of his kennel and opened it?”

“No, that’s crazy. But I didn’t open it. I promise.”

“Well, if you didn’t open it, why didn’t you at least close it?”

“Because I didn’t know it was open.”

“You didn’t know it was open?? It’s ten degrees outside! This playroom is like ice! How did you think it got so cold down here?”

“I don’t know! I knew it was cold, but it’s always colder in the playroom because it’s near the basement, so I just thought it was regular cold.”

“IT’S TEN DEGREES OUTSIDE!! IT’S ABSOLUTELY FREEZING IN HERE!”

“I just thought it was normal!!”

And that is how I made a horrifying realization: my daughter’s sense of temperature is clearly warped.
And also… in my flurry of “accomplishments” the night before, while waiting for Langston to finish his epic pee, I had inadvertently left the sliding glass door open. All night. When it was ten degrees out.

Whoops.
On the bright side, at least no bugs got in!

I immediately ‘fessed up to my mistake, thereby clearing Ella of any wrongdoing (although, seriously, I don’t know why she didn’t think anything was amiss – it was cold!). I then apologized to Nick, both for leaving the door open (but I did take credit for extracting myself from our nice, warm OMG IT WAS SO WARM AND HOT AND WARM LIKE A DAMN SAUNA AND I NEARLY SWEATED TO DEATH bed in order to let the dogs out, thank you very much) and for drinking enough to knock myself out cold.
That finally got him chuckling.

“Uh, Em. You can’t be serious.”

What do you mean?

“You had two not-at-all-big glasses of wine last night. You drank them an hour apart AND you ate a full dinner and had dessert in between.”

Yes, and…

“And I know you’re the cheapest date in the world, but even you cannot get so drunk on one-and-a-half glasses of wine that you black out at 9 p.m.”

Well, it doesn’t really take a lot to…

“How do you feel this morning?”

What?

“How do you feel right now? Are you hung over?”

WHAT?! No. I’ve been hungover exactly once.* I feel just fine.

* true story. I’m sort of proud and sort of mortified by this at the same time.

“So, yeah. No. You did become even remotely drunk last night. You don’t need to apologize for passing out, are you crazy??”

But then how…?

“I believe it’s called tired. As in, you’ve been staying up SO DAMN LATE recently, your body absolutely couldn’t handle anymore. Sure, the wine may have mellowed things out a bit, but this wasn’t you drinking too much. This was you realizing, somewhere in the back of your mind, that you could let things slide for just one night, and your body finally giving out because you’re exhausted. Actually, I think it was one of the best things that could have happened to you.”

Oh. That might explain why I feel so good this morning after getting so much sleep.

“It might.”

And it might explain why I fell asleep in Annie’s bed. And why I fell asleep on your side of the bed with my clothes on. (GREAT SCOTT, THAT WAS DUMB.) And why I slept for FOREVER.

“Yeah.”

Which would also explain why I forgot to close the sliding glass door, which essentially lets me off the hook entirely…

“Not even remotely.”

Fair enough.

I’d like to say that, since my Friday night snoozefest, I’ve treated myself better and have gotten to sleep at a better hour each night. I’d like to, but that would be lying, so I won’t. I have made it to bed before 1:30 (several times), however, and I have proudly fallen asleep before 9:00 on more than one Friday night since then. DO I KNOW HOW TO HAVE A ROCKIN’ GOOD TIME ON A WEEKEND OR WHAT!

Maybe, someday, I’ll learn how to better balance all of this stuff and I’ll finally figure out how to get more sleep, but until then, at least I’m happy. Happy at my job, happy that the girls are happy, happy that my kids let us sleep in on Saturdays, happy that my husband knows I’m not a lush, happy for wine, and happy that no wild animals snuck into the house and made nests in the heating vents.

Silver lining, people. There’s always a silver lining.

 

It’s like living in my very own Stephen King novel

We all knew there would be an adjustment period when I began this long-term subbing job. It’s been forever since I had a regular, weekday position (the girls’ entire memory, in fact), so it was a pretty good bet that there would be some bumps in the road.

If I’m being totally honest, Ella and Annie aren’t too fond of me teaching. It’s not the end of the world, but they liked it better when I didn’t have to rush off each morning before they head to school, when I didn’t have to rush them in order for me to get off to work, and when I could be available to come into their classrooms more often. Still, they seem to appreciate how much this means to me – and, again, it’s not like their lives have been impacted all that much – so, overall, they’ve weathered the change really well. For his part, Nick has fallen into the swing of morning-dog-feeding and kids-off-to-school ushering and Math-Fact-Helper-ing quite nicely; or, at least, if he’s had a complaint, he’s been wise nice enough not to mention it to me.

For my part, I love my job. I mean… LOVE it. I love using my brain in ways that I haven’t for years. I love the material that I’m teaching. I love how supportive and funny and helpful my new colleagues have been. I love how involved and hardworking and genuinely kind my students have been (which, as anyone who’s ever taught middle school knows – or, hell, as anyone who’s ever survived middle school – knows, is not in any way a guarantee). I love watching my students’ faces light up as they successfully navigate a scale on the keyboards, or their fits of giggles as they rehearse a rhythm-versus-beat skit based on Harry Potter puppets, or their surprised appreciation as they hear how Holst’s The Planets actually sounds pretty damn rad. I. Love. It.

Admittedly, I am a little tired. Actually, I’m freakin’ exhausted. I mean, it wasn’t exactly like my life before subbing was un-full, where the time I now spend teaching and planning and grading and staff-meeting was spent getting manicures and sipping Starbucks, you know? No, even then, my schedule was pretty close to maximum capacity, and “squeezing in” twenty-five hours of teaching (and that doesn’t include lesson plans or grading or researching or any of the other gazillions of tasks that teaching requires) has meant that I am up very, very late accomplishing everything. So, yeah, I’m really damn tired.

But I’m really damn happy. And that makes it all so totally worthwhile.

There is, however, one member of our family who has not taken kindly to my new position, and that would be… Langston.

20140304-134037.jpgAre they still “puppy dog eyes” if he’s not technically a puppy anymore?

Yes, the Gooch, our big ol’ baby of a boy who, a year ago, lasted only eleven days at CCI’s Advanced Training before becoming so anxious, he – in the trainers’ words – “snapped,” bit a dog and a trainer (good times!), and was promptly returned to our eagerly waiting arms.

In short, he missed us so much, he couldn’t handle being away. Which might have been a clue that perhaps he wouldn’t appreciate my being gone every single weekday morning (and often well into the afternoon).

At first, we didn’t know what was up; all we knew was that I’d arrive home to discover an enormous mess in our kitchen (where Langston is gated when we’re not around). Chewed-through school papers, food stolen from the counter, cords gnarled to an indistinguishable mess. We tried giving him peanut butter-filled Kongs or additional toys to hold his attention, but each day I would come home and find myself gathering up tiny pieces of shredded something off of the floor. Do you think Annie’s teacher can give us another copy of her spelling list? How many jelly beans were left in that bag? Dude, were you trying to create confetti??

lang oops2This time, he tore through the plastic baggie holding our Box Tops (’cause you never know what tidbit of taco seasoning might have been be left behind) and also devoured an entire box of crayons. AN ENTIRE BOX OF CRAYONS. Let’s just say that, despite the abundance of snow, our backyard is not exclusively white anymore.

We were all, WTF, Langston? Why on earth are you suddenly behaving like a toddler throwing a tantrum?? And then, a few days later, it dawned on us: He was having a tantrum, because he is pissed as hell that I’m gone. He misses me, and instead of explaining this in a reasonable fashion – like, say, with a Hallmark card and putting old photos of us up on his Facebook wall – he decided to destroy the kitchen. How darling.

Although we (finally) understood his frustration (after all, I am pretty rockin’ – who wouldn’t miss me?), it was simply unacceptable for him to be going Mr. Destructo all the time. Short of stripping the kitchen of every single stray item, there was only one choice: to put him in the kennel with Jambi whenever we’re not home.

He was thrilled.

lang oops
“Are you sure this is necessary? Maybe if you were home more often, this wouldn’t be a problem, no?”

A couple of weeks ago, Nick and I had just settled into the living room couches after the girls had gone to bed, with Langston and Jambi following us and hanging around by the coffee table. Lang approached the spot where I was seated and sidled up ever-so-close, slyly slipping one paw onto the cushions. “What, me? Nope, that’s not my paw. I’m not trying to sneak up next to you… La la la…” I then invited him to join me, assuming that – as usual – he would hop up and seat himself at the foot of the couch while I curled up at the head… but no. He not only cuddled in next to me – he crawled right on top of me, laying his torso entirely across my lap.

Miss me much, Gooch?

Seeing that Lang was getting some good lovin’, Jambi wiggled herself over to us, hoping for some of the same, but – y’all – I could not reach her. Not because my arms aren’t long enough, but because Langston was physically body blocking her so she couldn’t get close to me. Every time she attempted to reposition herself so I could pat her head, Lang shifted himself and shoulder-checked her out of the way.

Despite ourselves, Nick and I couldn’t help but laugh, because his intentions could not have been more clear. “Back up, bitch. She is MINE.” Aw, my number one fan. It’s like living with Kathy Bates.

I have six weeks left to go in this long-term gig. When it’s over, I am definitely going to miss it (although I will certainly appreciate the opportunity to get more than 5.5 hours of sleep a night).

Langston, on the other hand, will not complain.
But you can bet I’ll be keeping extra close track of my painkillers until then.

lang oops3

I’m a lover, and I’m a sinner…

I heard her in the hall as she shuffled quietly, calmly, demonstrating no concern over what was about to happen. “Mama?” Her voice was even, sweet. “My tummy hurts. I think I need to throw up.”

It was 1:30 a.m. – I should have been asleep – but even in my exhausted stupor, I knew that standing around chatting about vomiting was probably a bad idea, so I ushered Annie to the bathroom just in time for her to empty her dinner into the toilet.

After getting cleaned up, she seemed no worse for wear, so off to bed she went, tucked in with wishes of sweet dreams and hope your tummy feels better, before I returned to my own bed and stage-whispered to Nick, “Shit! What are we going to do??”

This was completely new for us –  not the sick kid, not the puking in the middle of the night – but what to do the following morning. Since Annie’s birth, I have always been the one to stay home with the girls when they’re not feeling well. (Given that I don’t have to take a sick or vacation day to do so, nor do I have to shuffle my schedule to work from home, it just makes sense that I’d be the nursemaid.)

We can’t call on help, either; with no family close by who can watch a kiddo with a low-grade fever or a tummy ache (save for my fabulous grandma – who, at 93, I’m not willing to expose unnecessarily to kid-germs), it falls to Nick or me (in this case… me) to cancel appointments or rejigger things in order to sit by a sick one’s side. Thankfully, my piano students’ families have been tremendously understanding of my occasional need to cancel lessons for an ailing daughter. Part of that may have to do with them not wanting me to sit right next to their offspring for thirty minutes with plague germs emanating from my sweater, but still. They’re really good about it.

These days, though, taking care of sick children isn’t quite that easy. Last Tuesday, I started an 11-week, long-term subbing job as a middle school General Music teacher (oh yes, I did. HOLLA!), and so for the first time in seven years, I felt an unfamiliar terror grip me as I slid back into bed: OMG, will I have to miss work? Who would cover for me? Who do I even call in order to get a sub? Wait… is that funny? A sub for the sub? I haven’t even been there long enough to leave a set of emergency lesson plans behind…

Nick would normally have immediately offered to watch Annie, but – Murphy’s law – one of the “big bosses” was in town and there was a very important lunch meeting that he absolutely could not miss. We entertained several possibilities other than my just staying home all day… Perhaps I could go in for the first few periods and then ask someone to cover for me so I could cover for Nick? Perhaps a neighbor could watch her for a short while? Each seemed less appealing than the last.

And so I did the only thing I thought made sense: I crossed my fingers and prayed fervently that Annie would be fine in the morning. Annnnd, thusly, I committed Cardinal School Parent Sin #1: Contemplating the possibility of sending your child to school within twenty-four hours of vomiting, despite the very clear school rule prohibiting such activity.

But… you see… I had excuses. Or, perhaps better, I had explanations. After dinner, I had discovered that the brand new shredded mozzarella I’d included in that night’s baked pasta was covered with mold. A quick 10 p.m. Google search confirmed that it was entirely possible for moldy mozzarella to make people sick to their stomachs… So, perhaps that was what was wrong with Annie.

Translation: she wasn’t contagious, so there was no reason not to send her to school, despite vomiting.

Translation #2: I freaked out about missing work on only my third day, so I was willing to do almost anything to avoid such a possibility.

Because I am awesome like that.

I was still slogging through my thoughts, nearly incoherent, when Annie appeared – silently – at our bedroom door a little after three a.m. “Mama? I just threw up in my bed.”

Much like Uh oh! or It’s even bigger than I thought! or Promise you won’t be mad!, the words I just threw up in my bed will startle even the heartiest, been-there-done-that of parents. Prying my stinging eyes open, I immediately sprang to action (after waking Nick for some help), changing sheets, offering a toothbrush and a glass of water, and once more tucking Annie back into her bed.

You might think that this second bout would cause me to rethink my earlier stance on possibly sending her to school, but no. She had puked up the rest of the pasta, which clearly indicated that it – the moldy mozzarella – was the source of her trouble. Smart little tummy for getting rid of the offending junk! She had no fever. She said she felt fine. Surely, she could go to school.

Cardinal School Parent Sin #2: Continuing to consider sending your child to school after she has vomited not once but twice.

Come the morning, Annie, indeed, felt fine. Her temperature was normal. Her appetite was solid. She was energetic, despite the lack of sleep. Plus, earlier in the year, Ella had been sent home early from school (on her birthday, no less!) because she’d vomited once in class, which subsequently caused her to miss all of the next day of school… and, turned out, that one little blip was her only hint of illness; she was completely fine otherwise. Although I understand – and agree with – the school’s policy, I was bummed that Ella had had to stay home from school, completely healthy… and so I reasoned that Annie would be equally okay.

Cardinal School Parent Sin #3: Actually sending your child to school after she has vomited twice because you think she’s okay, even though you know the policy prohibits such behavior.

One of the best things about my new (temporary) job is that my schedule is an 0.6, meaning I teach three classes and a study hall and I have to be at school from 8:48 – 11:40 a.m.. Three hours! That’s it! And then the afternoon is mine! Most days, I stay after school for a quite a while because teaching is not exactly a punch-your-time-card kind of job, but that Thursday, there was a class at the Y I wanted to attend. I’d carefully chosen my outfit that morning – black yoga pants, black tank top, cute (long) sweater and scarf – so that it would look professional with black boots… but then I could pull a Superman, throw on some sneakers, whip off the sweater, and be ready to work out.

I am so clever like that.

I left school immediately following teaching and arrived at the Y with a few minutes to spare. Even though I was running on, oh, about three hours of sleep, I managed to feel like an exceptional badass. I am so on top of things. I can change my clothes on the fly. I can work out AND teach. I. am. AWESOME.

It wasn’t until I accidentally touched the screen of my iPhone (yes, I keep it nearby when I work out; I’m addicted weird) that I discovered I had a voicemail, left fifteen minutes ago. From the school. Or, more specifically, from the school nurse… Who was calling to tell me that Annie was really not feeling well, and would I please come get her.

Cardinal School Parent Sin #4: Having to admit your asshattery and pick up your sick child.

In the blink of an eye, Nick and I had become those parents: the ones who put their own agendas before the school’s. The ones who decide that they are better arbiters of school rules than the school officials. The ones who are struggling with everything in them to figure out how to honor their own job commitments while simultaneously doing right by their children and their children’s classmates.

In short: we become the parents we have long criticized, the ones we bitch about on Facebook or over coffee. And, man, was that a slap in the face.

But it was a weird kind of slap – like a fake stage one, maybe – because, although it stung, both sides of the argument suddenly became crystal clear. Do the rules exist for a reason? Sure. Did we push it by sending Annie? Yes. Should we have kept her home? In hindsight, yes. But, in a nearly identical situation, Ella absolutely did not – medically – need to remain home that second day… And so the doubt, understandably, crept in.

Although the rules do exist for a reason – a good one, at that – they can also be difficult to follow. It’s awfully easy to complain about a parent who sends their feverish kid to school so that she can go to work; after all, it’s “just” work. Our children always come first, right? What about their classmates’ well-being? Since when are your wants and needs more important than everyone else’s? Just keep them home, damn it.

And yet… It wasn’t that easy. It just wasn’t. I knew my students – my brand new students – had no lesson plans awaiting them, and I had no idea what would be done with them that day, especially at the last minute. It’s just one day, you’ll argue, and I agree… but this one day, this early on, was one I wanted to be there for. I had just started my job; I wanted to make a good impression on my superiors. I wanted to be a team player. I wanted to continue to establish a good relationship with my students. I also knew that Nick was going to be out of town all this week… and so, if one of the girls became sick or there was an emergency, there would be no choice but for me to stay home. Doing so on my third day of work just seemed… not okay.

Nick and I also, of course, wanted to do the right thing by Annie. In that moment, the right thing seemed to be sending her to school. Yeah, so we made the wrong choice; but it was not a choice that was made quickly, callously, or without a lot of consideration.

I’ll be honest: Do I feel bad about sending Annie to school? Yes. She wound up feeling icky (although she felt otherwise that morning), and I’m sad for her that she was at school feeling gross. I also feel guilty about breaking the school rule, given what transpired. Ahhh… but that’s the rub, isn’t it… Given what transpired. Because, faced with a similar situation – a kid who’d been briefly ill but rallied and did not seem remotely contagious –  I’d do it again.

Yep. I said it. Would I keep her home when she was obviously sick? Feverish? Sore tummy? Vomiting or diarrhea? Absolutely. But if she felt great and exhibited no current signs of illness and I had a super-pressing reason for going to work? I would. I’d send her to school.

It’s only been eight days since I started my new job, but that has been the hardest part: the balance. Some of it is logistical balance – prepping for things the night before, finding time to do my lesson plans, getting the girls off to school in the morning before I head my way, navigating the ins and outs of our schedules with Nick – but the bulk of it is mental and emotional. How much time can I spend researching beat versus rhythm lesson ideas before the girls start to feel that I’m ignoring them? Can I still fix their hair and make it to school with enough time to run copies and organize my classroom? Should these “free” thirty minutes be spent watching my kids put on a Frozen medley (for the 835th time) or making sure I’ve graded the assessments for my other kids?

Which explains why I was still awake at 1:30 a.m. last Wednesday. (Okay, I guess it was technically Thursday. But it felt a lot like Wednesday.)

Don’t get me wrong… I’m loving this. The job is absolutely perfect for me, and I truly don’t think I could have found a more supportive school, district, and staff. The students are hard-working, respectful, and genuinely kind – even though, at age thirteen, this should practically be an oxymoron. I’m being challenged mentally in a way I haven’t in… well… seven years, and it’s fantastic. I’ve even learned how to use a SMART board (mostly).

And when this little ditty arrived in my school mailbox, I did a not-so-little happy dance. It’s OFFICIAL!!

teacher ID badge2I realize that loving this so much makes me a dork. I’m good with that.

Part of why I’d been so excited for this position was that it would still allow me to continue to teach piano and do most of the mom/wife/volunteer/me stuff that is so important to me. I know myself well enough as a teacher to know that I wouldn’t do it half-assed; I’m going to give my students everything I’ve got, and then some. This amazing job enables me to give them that, while still being able to help out at Ella’s third grade Valentine’s Day party or walk Annie home from school.

Having spent these past seven years with the girls, I imagined that it would be difficult being away from them when I returned to work, and that they would always be prioritized above anything teacher-related. It came as more than a little bit of a surprise, then, when I found myself concerned about missing school when Annie got sick – when, in that particular instance, I prioritized work above being by her side.

Not above her well-being, no. If she’d been more obviously sick, I wouldn’t have hesitated to call in a sub for the sub, however it needed to be done. If she or Ella gets sick again, and Nick isn’t able to take off of work (as he did last Friday, when Annie was still home with an ailing tummy; maybe that mozzarella wasn’t the culprit…), I will be home with them, no questions asked. But, given that she seemed okay, the immediate priority became my students and their well-being… and suddenly, the thought of committing Cardinal School Parent Sins went from shameful to possible to definite.

I’m sure there are parents out there who are abusing the system, who routinely send their kids in when they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they’re too sick to be in school. I’m sure that some of them do it callously and without consideration for their child’s classmates or teachers. And those parents piss me off.

I’m equally sure, however, that for every parent who doesn’t care, there are three more who hem and haw about sending their maybe-sick child to school, who weigh the possibility of rescheduling meetings or finding childcare or taking their last paid sick day or falling behind on their lessons against the possibility that their kiddo might simply have a headache through math, but otherwise, feel fine. Some days, the decision turns out to be good for everyone involved. Other times… it doesn’t go the way you’d hoped.

Turns out, most of those parents are simply us, doing the very best we can with what we have. We deeply admire their teachers. We respect the school rules. We love our kids to pieces. And, occasionally, we commit Cardinal School Parent Sins – because we are frazzled and stretched thin and we make mistakes because we are human.

Lesson learned: enough with the judging. You just never know what’s going on in another person’s life.
And also: make emergency sub plans the first day you accept a teaching job. They might come in handy… immediately.