26 February 2013

The Stand In: Round 2 (Part 2 of 2)

It was a day full of noisy chaos, bad food and acting out. Several times throughout the day my thoughts turned to "What is the problem here?" but repeatedly the scope and complexity of the problems overwhelmed me. In the midst of an activity, for example, a conflict would arise between two students. Addressing the conflict required an interruption of instruction for the majority of students in the room. The roots of the conflict -- attention deficits, emotional instability caused by problems at home, lack of prior instruction (at home or school) in anger management and conflict resolution, for example -- could not be fully addressed in the moment so the task was to devise a quick, improvised, partial "fix."

Meanwhile, what about the other students?

And what to do about the insanity of one person holding responsibility for 8 hours of supervision and instruction of twenty-seven 7-year-old children -- many of whom are in desperate need of individualized attention. I understand there's no money to hire teaching assistants but why is there no money? The answers to that question are also complex and broad-based.
I could not bring myself to eat anything the cafeteria served at breakfast or lunch. Even granting that the offering would be viewed as a God-sent smorgasbord for many people across the globe, there was nothing remotely appetizing about either the food or the way it was presented:  standing in queues of 40 or more, waiting to receive a plastic tray holding corn chips smothered in cheese product and ground gray meat on crumbling white-buns, to sit at long unwashed tables in a noisy, ill-lit, unadorned room. Again, I contemplated "What is the problem here?" and recognized the role of limited funding.

I could describe the overall experience of the day as herding cats in a dilapidated space on an empty stomach. 

At the end of the day, a few minutes after the students left, the permanent teacher showed up. We talked for awhile and I learned a few things. She had not left a formal lesson plan, she said, because substitute teachers are generally pulled from a pool of folks already in the school community; she specifically mentioned bus drivers. "They already know the kids," she said. In my mind, this raised more questions but I didn't explore them with her. I guessed she'd have no answers, either.

As I reported to her on the day's events, I learned that my one-time experience was similar to her every-day experience:  the same kids behaving in the same ways, the same conflicts arising, the same frustration with lack of resources. We were both painfully aware of the ravenous need for attention among the kids. Many of them were clearly acting out just to enjoy a few minutes in the spotlight.

What's going on? Why are so many little people so desperate for attention?  More complexity.

I also voiced no question or comment about the problems that seemed, to my unseasoned eye, easily fixed. Why, for example, so many errors in the worksheets? Does it take money or some other scant resource to proof worksheets before distributing?

For example:  The students were to match words in one column with their opposites in a second column. Some of the pairings made sense to me:  "near-far", "more-less" and "high-low", for example. But other pairs were not so clear-cut:  "make-destroy" and "child-adult" are examples. In one case -- "ask-told" -- although I felt awkward about the possibility of being perceived as undermining the authority of the permanent teacher, I chose to tell the kids that a better translation was "ask-tell".

In another section, students were to completed the sentences provided with words from a list at the top of the worksheet. The sentence "Max ____________ the bend in a hurry and bump into his sisters" needed "rounded" from the list to fill the blank but what about the mismatch of verb tenses? I did a little teaching about adding "-ed" but in a class that included two children who do not read at all, at least 7 others with serious attention deficit issues, and the remainder restless and ready for lunch, what was the point?

And I wondered about the advisability of overloading the walls with signs and lists and charts. With so many of the children hyper-activated already, the lack of empty spaces, places to rest the eye, seems counter-productive to me.

I returned to my car for the drive home and discovered I'd left my lights on. The battery was dead. I hailed a female teacher who appeared to be waiting for a ride. Polling other departing teachers around the parking lot, we found a set of jumper cables. Her husband arrived just minutes later eager to help. There are men for whom the open hood of an automobile, especially if the stranded party is a female, is an irresistible siren call. Electrical issues complicated and prolonged the process of charging the battery long enough to lure some of these men to my car. There were five men standing around the car by the time the engine finally turned over.

Two or three female teachers came over just to be part of the scene. It was Friday afternoon, after all, so maybe the scene looked a little like a party. Folks chatted and laughed. Pumped me for information:  where was I from, do I have "people" in Marshall County, why-in-the-world would I relocate to MS from CA. Overall, it was one of the most pleasant social engagements I've had since arriving in MS. Nice people. All of them ready to help a stranger and make jokes while doing it. I especially appreciated the absence of of any display of religious zealotry. 

The sun made its first appearance of the day while we were gathered around the car. I saw what looked like an eagle somewhere along 311. A paradoxical conundrum sat front and center in my mind as I drove -- how can a place be so messed up with such good people in residence? It was another big, complex question but it was the first one of the day I could consider without grinding my teeth.