Never Turn Your Back On Eighth Grade

mrs-krabappel-drunk.pngWeek three into my ten-week gig in eighth grade English. I know all the kids’ names by now, even the quiet ones. This eliminates one of the toughest hurdles confronting a substitute teacher. Most classroom teachers request that subs enforce order through having miscreants write their names on the board. The limits of that method are obvious if the little dears can forge other students’ monikers or simply make something up, to the delight of their sniggering classmates.

Most classroom teachers, however, haven’t worked as substitutes, but since they typically have workloads that would stagger a pack mule, it’s understandable if they don’t have time to engineer a sub-proof discipline plan for their sick days.

When I had my own classroom, back in the antediluvian 90’s, kids trooped into class with backpacks stuffed with books and binders, not laptops and chargers. Technology in the classroom is as much a double-edged sword as it is in the rest of modern life. It’s a constant battle to suppress the students’ fixation on the cell phones that, while strictly forbidden during class time, peek from their pockets. Meanwhile, with their school-issued laptops they have at their fingertips access to a bewildering avalanche of information — and disinformation — from all over the globe.

Shepherding them through the vast online arena as they learn to separate the credible from the bogus, the trustworthy from the salacious, and the worthwhile from the inappropriate is an ongoing adventure for educators. Like all adventures, it contains excitement, danger, and a certain amount of discomfort.

I have a working familiarity with the software the district uses: the attendance and grading program, the school website and my teacher’s page with its weekly agenda and daily lesson plan displayed for all students and their parents to see (which you might think would eliminate protests of “I didn’t know that was due today,” but think again). From my desktop I can monitor what they’re looking at on their networked ‘puters, kicking them off any site they shouldn’t be on with the click of a key and sending them a message to get back to work (so very cool).images

When the kids are on task, they can do things we didn’t know to dream of even as adults, back in the day. They can produce color-coded mind maps with links to sources and videos; they can share and peer-edit documents on the fly; they can whip out slide presentations and screencasts and Prezis that make the old Powerpoints I used to toil over in my corporate days look sadly primitive. They can find out something about almost anything without ever getting up from their chairs. And they can do it fast. Faster than you, almost certainly.

What hasn’t changed is bewildering reality of being thirteen. Maybe it’s gotten even harder in the past twenty years. But for a teacher, especially a “guest teacher”, the polite name for a sub, the basic rules still apply. Should you ever wish to tiptoe into this world, know the following:
• For many kids this age, it’s all about power and testing their limits. It’s normal and it’s necessary, and your role is to provide firm, fair boundaries.
• Don’t start soft.
• If you need them to like you, you’re toast.
• Do not, under any circumstances, let them see you lose it. Any disapproval you display has to come from a position of strength.
• With the above firmly in mind, be as kind as you can be. Some of your students have lives that are far harder than yours.
• Appreciate their humor whenever possible. Their burgeoning self-awareness spawns wry wit. Don’t miss that part.