Adventures in Babysitting

I’m a bit excited and a bit nervous!

Last week, I went for my orientation to substitute teach in the St. Petersburg Public School system. I was pleased and surprisingly excited. It’s never been my intention to leave the classroom. Only to transition between what I’ve been doing and whatever comes next! As much as I love the flexibility of my days, I am really looking forward to having more of a schedule!

First, I was incredibly impressed with how PROFESSIONAL I was treated. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with how sub training works, in most systems the minimum requirement of a sub is two years of college (60 hours). Other subs might have a college degree, but no classroom experience. I was trained with a group of licensed teachers who were there for a variety of reasons. Some, like me, are new to the area and not ready for a full-time classroom while they are trying to figure out how to adjust to the area. It’s Florida after all! A lot of people move here in search of the “beach life” and milder winters. (Tom and I are in the “life’s too short to always wish we were at the beach” category). Then, there were the “retired teachers” who were looking to supplement their pension. I actually was sitting with a lady who retired from MNPS in May and had moved here with her spouse. Small world… The last group was of young teachers who had moved here and not yet secured a job in the system for various reasons. So, there we were: all of us interested in staying in the field of teaching, but not committed to one classroom!

Teachers are, across the country and in my experience in Nashville, too often talked down to and treated as less-than experts in their field. Our district administrators bring in outside experts for trainings that many of us could lead ourselves; our school administrators micro-manage our lives and classrooms as to what we “should” be doing; parents attempt to control our classroom environments as if their child is the first (and only) one we’ve taught; communities seem to think we are all burned out and out to “get” the black/Hispanic/immigrant/smart/disabled/rich/poor/gay/trans/etc. student. While my experience in this system is limited, I didn’t get that feeling in this training. However, out in the schools it may tell a different story.

First, this was unlike any “training” I had received before! We were told that we were professionals, and how much the staff and the district appreciated us being there. Every bit of the training was planned out and organized, but never trivialized or minimized. Meaning, I was never read to or treated like anyone less than what my college degree dictated. I felt respected and my time was respected. In fact, it was understood that the biggest reason we were there was procedural and to learn the substitute website! Honestly, I never take a pass on software training!

The biggest eye-opener and learning curve came about 30 minutes into our day. A school-resource officer gave us a great training on what to do in an active-assailant situation. I’ve had several of these over the years. With every scary school shooting situation, another round of training came to our staff. It’s the most horrific situation that a teacher could find themselves in, yet they return to the schools and classrooms each day despite what the media continues to glamorize. Stoneman Douglas is located southeast of here, and Orlando is only down the road to the east. The police and the people here have first-hand knowledge of what works and how to prepare teachers and staff members to be aware without distracting them from educating and putting students first. Again, it was organized and informative without being alarmist or treating us as less than professional. Unfortunately, I have sat through many trainings with different “experts” and each one has given us different information and expectations. While I feel fortunate that I don’t have a first-hand account of this situation, the best people to learn from would be those who have. I would highly recommend the school safety departments from other districts to visit here and talk about the procedures that they have in place. I’ll address some of these ideas and concepts in a later post.

The rest of the day consisted of procedures and what we could expect as a substitute teacher in this school system. We did take a quick 30 minute lunch break. There was a cafeteria that had a grill cook and many in-house made salads, snacks, sandwiches, and baked goods for a very reasonable price. The day wrapped up with a demonstration of how the district’s sub system operates and the nuances we can use to tailor it to our own needs.

The day was scheduled to end at 3, and we completed our tasks a little after 1. So, instead of giving us filler material to keep us there to fill a time commitment on their part, they respected our time and let us go home. Not something I have experienced in many other trainings.

As far as trainings go, it was straightforward. The presenter (and head of the department) spent many years as a teacher and school leader. She was well prepared, well spoken, funny at times, and could answer all of the questions with confidence. I felt at ease and well prepared for what comes next, and I knew who to contact with my questions. Mostly, I felt respected for my knowledge, my experience in the classroom, and for the years I spent learning my profession earning the two degrees that I hold licenses for in Tennessee, and soon in the state of Florida.

I walked away and couldn’t help but compare the day to what I had experienced in my previous school system. I even questioned whether it was because I was completely new and in a new environment, but I carefully went through what had transpired over the previous hours. As objectively as I could, I looked at the materials I received, each interaction with a person from “central office,” and each email where information about the training had been shared. Of course, this is all first-impression and I’m not a teacher in a day to day situation, but it does pique my interest. I’ll be interested in speaking with other teachers in the district to learn about how this all translates to them.

I am still undecided about returning to the classroom full time. I just read a list of the worst states to teach in across the country. Tennessee was listed amongst them; Florida was not. Most of the states that were listed are in what Alabama’s governor labeled a “teacher-shortage crisis.” While I do believe there is a shortage of teachers nationwide, there are things that school systems can do to RETAIN the teachers that already are in the classroom. By first giving their trust and respect back their classroom professionals (the teachers), I think that these states could move off of that “worst” list beginning by treating their teachers as college-educated professionals worthy of praise and support instead of with empty promises and apologies.


We Are Family…I got all my students with me!?

My teacher buddies….my classroom “ride or die”!

Can you hear the Pointer Sisters singing? When that song would come on years ago, my friends and I would put our arms around each other on the dance floor and sing it at the top of our lungs, “We are family! I got all my sisters with me!” We were all close friends, spending our lives at each other’s houses and celebrating each other’s successes and helping support each other at our lowest points. It’s easy to understand why we felt like sisters…like FAMILY.

Schools and their faculty, staff, and students spend 180 days together. That’s half of a year. They celebrate successes and support each other through the challenges. Just like a family. In fact, for some students, it’s the only place where they find structure, discipline, and sometimes love. It’s feasible to think of your school as your family, especially these days when we recognize that families come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Should we tell teachers and students that we’re a family?

It’s a huge conundrum for teachers. Where do we draw the line between home and school? Are we really a FAMILY?

Let’s walk through this like an algebra problem. Where does SCHOOL fit into this equation? When I was hired, I was given a salary and benefits to do a job. Of course when you’re working with the same people day-after-day, you get to know one another. You even become friends. It’s how it is when you’re in the “trenches” together. You get to be close. However, as teachers, we still need to realize that this is a JOB and this is what you are getting PAID to do. It’s definitely a blurred line and it’s what I refer to as “The Family Problem.”

Outside of work, I stay in touch with my FAMILY. Even if I don’t always see them, I try to check in because I love them. They are my “home.” We gather to eat a great meal at birthdays. We get together to help move and celebrate and mourn. I don’t have to explain “family.” Everyone knows that feeling for the people who have been there your whole life. I don’t know about you, but there are lots of things I do for my family, and most of it is enjoyable! If my brother and sister-in-law need me to hang out with my niece on a Saturday afternoon, sign me up! When my daughter wants me to come over to help her clean out her closet, no problem! My mom needs me to help her get her Christmas tree out of the storage room, of course I can help! There’s an obligation that I feel when I think about my family.

I bought into the whole notion of school being “family” for a long time. I see where there are definitely parallels that we draw between teachers and parents. I know kids who have come to school and referred to their teachers as “mama” and thought, “It’s wonderful that this kid feels so comfortable and safe at school that they call Ms. Smith ‘mama’.” I spent many hours investing in my school family and its children, usually to the detriment of my own. When I was with my own, I was thinking about my school children, buying supplies and making plans, or grading papers. Then I heard a podcast a couple of years ago that really called this whole idea into question. What is the role of the school and the teacher versus the role of home? Is it really the schools responsibility to raise the child? Should a school be providing food, clothing, and shelter, as well as emotional support for a child? Who decided that schools and teachers are responsible for the WHOLE child? Should the 7 hours and 180 days that students are in school carry more weight than the other 17 hours and 185 days that they’re not?

At the end of this post is a link to the “Cult of Pedagogy” article and podcast with Angela Watson who created “The 40-Hour Teacher Workweek” program and hosts the “Truth for Teachers” podcast. The podcast discusses why we shouldn’t refer to our school communities as a “family.” “When we hear that being said to us,” Angela says, “particularly by someone who is in a position of authority above us, we need to stop and ask, What’s the intent? What’s the impact? Is this being said to make me feel loved and supported like a family? Or is it being used to exploit me for unpaid labor? I think the school family analogy can be used to manipulate you into doing all kinds of unpaid extra duties, so it can be code for ‘You’re expected to spend all your free time going above and beyond with no compensation.”

I don’t believe that our administrators are plotting how to get us to do more, but as schools are asked to do more and more with less, they have to tap in to the workforce that is available to them. Also keep in mind that most administrators are making 25% more in salary than a teacher. While it might be something they want to do and will reflect positively on the school, the average teacher already has a 2nd job, whether that’s a paid position, or just taking care of their own family. The school family line gets blurry when you’re constantly told you’re a “family” and constantly asked to volunteer your time. If my mom or daughter ask for me to do something, I do it out of obligation and love. Should I feel that same way when the administrator at my school asks me to run a booth at the Fall Festival? At our core, teachers are giving individuals who got into this business because of their desire to educate and help students. They want to say “yes” because that’s how they’re wired. Who is going to say NO to the kids? The problem is that teachers are finding less and less time to devote to their own needs and to their own families and obligations. Do we really wonder why teachers are disgruntled and leaving for other jobs? No other job will ask you to give as much as teaching. Some people will argue that the reward is greater, I disagree.

I will admit though, I spent many years building a strong classroom , hallway, and school COMMUNITY. I believe that strong communities support great learning. In fact, I discuss this in a previous blog. (See )

I attended college and set up my room each year, but it was never my intent to adopt 80 children. I wanted to teach! I wanted to build the relationship of teacher-student and guide them in learning the wonderful things that I had to share for 180 days! I wanted us to learn and laugh and share. I wanted to build a relationship based on respect and caring. I wanted to be a confidante when a kid was struggling, and a cheerleader when they “got it.” A teacher…not a mama/aunt/grandmother/cousin/sister. There’s a big difference!

Let’s talk about the school COMMUNITY for a minute. One of the greatest communities in a school are your peers! Teachers need other teachers! We need them to bounce ideas with, to share “good cop/bad cop” duties, to make your copies when you’re running late, to vent with, and to laugh with no matter how rough it gets! If you’re lucky, your teacher buddies are with you year after year like mine have been, but you also get a new crop of recruits each year to bring into the fold. As frustrated as you get with each other at times, that person (or people) is your emotional support and “ride or die” at school!

Laura and I taught next to each other for 16 years! We’ve been through every family and personal event you could ever think of and then-some! We’ve shared kids for so many years and have so many one-liners, that you would think we were inseparable! There are kids whose names we bring up and launch into fits of laughter! We have seen it all! Here’s the truth though, as much as Laura and I are friends at work, we lead very independent lives outside of school. We get together for dinner and ABs (adult beverages), but our families don’t intertwine.When summer comes along, we hug and celebrate, but we don’t really plan to see each other again until the end of July. It’s how we roll! I’m planning fun things with my family and so is she. In fact, we rarely even text or talk until then as well! I know teachers who are super close at work and at home. Their lives totally intertwine, and that’s wonderful! I think the place where we spend so much of our time should be full of people you have commonalities with; that’s how we make friends! The most difficult part of leaving my classroom has been leaving my teacher friends. We text and grab drinks, but it’s not the same as the day-in and day-out. I miss them a lot!

“You’re irreplaceable to your family,” Angela continues, “but your school can hire someone else to take your place within a week. So I encourage teachers to question this internally when you hear it. And when you’re choosing which words to use yourself, consider finding a term that’s a little bit less loaded. I like the phrase ‘school community.’ In a community you have a responsibility to work together and be cohesive, but you don’t have all that baggage and implied guilt trip of letting your family down.”

I think Angela Watson is on to something. The extra fundraisers, the extra activities, the extra collections are exactly that, EXTRA. If we want our time and our jobs respected, then we have to be very selective about what we CHOOSE to give our time to and not be manipulated into feeling that sense of obligation. All of those extras that make a school look good, can’t happen without the volunteer hours. Those extra hours you’re putting in are exactly what’s burning YOU out. No one should make you feel GUILTY for wanting to walk away from an event, task, or fundraiser.

I wish I’d known this years ago. As I look back, I feel there were many times when I put my job ahead of my own family. The problem is I never saw teaching as a job. I always viewed it as my purpose and passion. I believed that the more hours I put in, the more I was giving to my students and that my happiness depended on theirs, and my worth as a teacher depended on me giving 110%, and giving them the support they were missing at home. I, like many of my colleagues, took on the responsibility of making sure these kids knew I was at every game, every event, every concert, and play, just like a parent, grandparent, or aunt. Beyond that, I also made sure they were clothed, fed, and emotionally cared for as well. No wonder kids are calling their teachers “mama”! This love and responsibility walks a thin line though. By trying to be our students’ “biggest fan,” we are burning ourselves out and jeopardizing our own families. I’ll close by throwing it back to the Pointer Sisters. The song says “We are family, I’ve got all my sisters with me!” That’s a far cry from, “…I got all my students with me!” The dance floor would just be way too crowded!

Some of the many friends I’ve made in my teaching community!

Check out the Cult of Pedagogy website!

Angela Watson’s Website