“Common Ground” column for May 5, 2013

I was nervous on my first day of substitute teaching work in an area high school classroom last winter.

Let’s face it, every school child looks forward to those couple of days when the teacher is out and the substitute steps in. I remember rejoicing with my other grade school classmates years ago after a clueless sub entered our classroom.

The tables have now turned, and I am the clueless sub.

Thankfully, teachers leave us with a nice road map consisting of a lesson plan for the day, a roll book and plenty of assignment sheets.

With those tools, I’m armed and maybe even just a little dangerous. No one’s going to step on this sub.

On my first day of sub work, I figured I could try looking serious and smile at a minimum.

During my break, I visited a veteran teacher across the hallway who advised me to stand firm and let students know what I expected from them in the beginning.

After introducing myself and passing out the day’s assignment, I walked from desk to desk, making sure I was visible, not invisible, another pointer the veteran teacher gave me. I felt my confidence grow while helping students work through their assignments.

A few days into my sub work, a teen told me he thought I looked mean, but my voice sounded too nice to be mean.

I wasn’t sure how to process that, but one thing you get in a classroom is a lot of honest feedback from students.

Classrooms also reveal the responsibility and weight involved in teaching. The work of a substitute is vital, if only to help keep the class running smoothly, though perhaps not as smoothly as the teachers themselves, nevertheless the mission is the same, to teach.

In the following weeks, I took on substitute assignments in elementary classrooms. During several days, the principal paired me up with veteran teachers who showed me the ropes. Teachers are pros handling classroom disruptions, consoling students and still they can manage paperwork, grading, testing and everything else in between.

My elementary school experience was a bit more challenging this year. I stood outside my assigned classroom door during my third or fourth day of sub work when a smiling third-grader grinned and turned to her classmates and they said, “Yeah! That’s that nice lady.”

It made me feel like a rock star for a brief minute, but as every sub knows, I’d probably broken substitute rule No. 1: Never let them think that you’re too nice.

Shall I start by offering the number of hall passes I handed out. On the next day the teacher told me I’d handed out more hall passes than she’d handed out during the entire first part of the school season.

OK, I don’t believe my tough persona was working with the elementary class. I mean, what do you do when a dozen children in one day are pleading to go to the bathroom because, “I really can’t wait.” Or another says, “My head hurts. Can I go to the nurse?”

Well, I guess the motherly part of me is compassionate and answers “yes.”

A couple of weeks ago, I sat beside three Baton Rouge women educators at a scholarship luncheon. I asked them for a bit of advice on managing a classroom.

“It took me from three to six weeks of walking up and down aisles to make sure my students were on task,” said Luverne Travis, a retired teacher of 32 years. “I would not let them get up and down and sharpen pencils during class time.”

I wished I’d had Travis beside me on another particular day when I allowed the whole class to sharpen pencils. It seemed each time I let one go, five or six more needed to go. The same trend occurred with the bathroom visits. If one or two needed to go, two or three also asked.

“Be firm,” Travis reminded me.

I’m getting better. Tuesday I allowed only a handful of students with emergency excuses to get water or to go to the bathroom. Many of the others had to wait until designated times during lunch or recess. Now, that’s what I called putting firmness to the test.

Though I’ve subbed for about five months now, I’m already feeling a sense of satisfaction in the classroom. Look for a few more classroom follies in the near future.

Chante Warren is a freelance writer for The Advocate. She can be reached at chantewriter@hotmail.com.