Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Mile In Her Shoes: My Year as a Substitute Teacher, Part 2

Photos by: An elementary school student
Although my year as a substitute teacher was challenging in many ways (see part one here: ), it was overall a good experience.  The reason I chose substitute teaching for this year of my life is that it is flexible.  I could set my own days and hours and take off days when I needed to.  (When my kids innevitably got sick.)  There is no contract, so if you want to stop, you can, and you have the summer off to care for your children.  There was a long application process, but there was no interview to get nervous about, and only a half-day orientation to schedule.  I also found that most schools don't require their teachers to dress up very much at all.  I was expecting to wear dresses or dress pants every day, but many schools were very casual. 

The staffs at pretty much all of the schools I worked in were very nice and eager to help.  The front desk staffs in our county are all extremely nice and made the days go smoothly.  They welcomed me with a smile and often some humor.  The principals were also very nice, although I generally didn't have too much interaction with them unless I had a very challenging student.  I found the sweetest people to be the Special Education teachers.  They left very detailed plans and those I saw in person were very clued-in to how I was feeling and what I needed for the day.  They have some of the toughest jobs in the county, and they do them very well. 

There were also a few random things that made me smile.  Schools welcomed substitute teachers in, and when it was teacher appreciation week or holiday time, we had free food for lunch.  (Much better than the cafeteria food, I must say!) I also received artwork from students, many of whom I had just met.  They were willing to share what they had made and even made me personalized portraits. (So cute!)  Elementary school students were quick to accept a new person.  They would often run up to me, hug me, and say "I love you," after I had only been in their class for a short time.  The world can learn a lot from young children about acceptance of new people. 

I learned a lot about the educational system this year.  It was something I really didn't know that much about, except for my own experiences growing up and hearing about it from my youth ministry students.  It was very interesting to observe and be a part of the education of students at all grade levels, including Special Education classes.  It gave me a better idea of how schools and individual classrooms work.  I also learned a lot about discipline and managing a class.  Some from simply trying things and a lot from asking teachers and other subs what works for them.  I feel like I improved a lot in this area and I've been able to use this knowledge with my own kids.  For example, many of our schools use a clip chart for discipline.  They start in the middle of the chart and move their paper clip up or down depending on their actions.  Up leads to a reward at the top, down leads to a disciplinary action at the bottom.  This has really helped with my own kids and I found it invaluable in the classroom as well. 

I learned once again that I love to teach!  On the occasions where I was able to teach a lesson (vs. watching the class while they did a computer assignment or packet), I really enjoyed it.  I had several favorite days of teaching this year.  One was the day I got to sub for middle school English.  We read an interesting story together, discussed it, and then they were to create their own ending.  With my love of English and experience from various writing retreats, I jumped in and asked some leading questions.  I loved seeing their answers and their creativity with the new endings. 

My other favorite lesson this year was the time I got to teach the Bible in public school.  "How?" you might ask... I was teaching middle school social studies and we had a lesson that day on Old Testament history and Moses.  I just could not believe it when I read through the lesson plan. I was very excited.  I have a graduate degree in Biblical studies, so I felt it such a privilege to share this lesson with the students and to use my knowledge to inspire them to learn this part of Christian history.  I knew that God had chosen me that day for that lesson.  Just another reason I love looking back at his plans unfolding in my life. 

Another lesson I enjoyed that ended up really helping a student was one on communication and conflict management.  This was a health class lesson for middle schoolers.  I presented the material and added my own nuggets of wisdom.  I was fascinated by their responses and how much they felt that violent reactions were the best way to deal with conflict.  I learned just as much from my students that day as they learned from me.  I also loved to throw in a life lesson or two each day so that I was adding my own nugget to the day's lesson. 

After this health lesson, a girl came up to me and told me that she was being bullied by a group of girls at the school in a particular situation.  I listened, took her very seriously, and helped to connect her with the school counselor.  I was honored that she trusted me enough to share this situation with me.  If I subbed the whole year just to help this one person, then it was all worth it.  Teachers are invaluable as mentors for students. Listening, caring and pointing students in the right direction is what can make the difference in a life. 

The students I remember most will be the ones who remembered me from week to week and shouted, "Hey, Mrs. Laska!"  or said "You were the best substitute ever!"  I also loved it when students simply said "Have a nice day" when they left the classroom.  These polite responses showed me their character and their parent's good teaching at home.  I would encourage all parents and friends of students to teach them to respect their substitute teachers through politeness, kindness and following the rules when a sub is present.  Ironically, I had to teach this lesson to my own son this year.  He thrives on routine, so the few days he did misbehave at school were on days he had a substitute teacher.  This really upset me, but I took it as an opportunity to teach him about respect for new teachers.

Although being a sub was often challenging, there were many positive things about it, and I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time teaching and learning from my students. 

In the last part of this series, I will write about a lesson I did not expect to teach--active shooter training.  Coming soon...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Mile In Her Shoes: My Year As A Substitute Teacher, Part 1

Photo by Luke Stackpoole
Imagine that you had to look for and begin a new job every day.  You have to figure out how to get there, decide which of the five parking lots to park in, and get buzzed in at the entrance.  You have to find your supervisor, the employee lunch room, and the room where you will work that day.  This will be harder than it seems, because each place of employment will be set up like a maze, and you will rarely receive a map.  You'll meet your new colleagues and those you will supervise minutes before you actually have to do the work.  If you get there early, you'll have a little time to look over the plans for the day before jumping in head-on.

You'll also be doing a different job each day.  A different age, grade, and subject.  You may even have to teach something you know absolutely nothing about, like high school French, or something you've completely brain-dumped, like middle school Algebra.

You'll also have to deal with rude, obnoxious, and whiny people all day long who think they have a free day because you took the job.  You may even find out you are working that day an hour beforehand, so you'll need to race to get that shower in.

Sound like a fun job?  I hear they are hiring...

A day in the life of a substitute teacher includes all of these things, although not quite so extreme every day.  I had a half-day of training and was thrown into the world of teaching.  Granted, I have worked with middle and high school students for years, but not in the school setting.  I never expected that 1st and 2nd graders would bring me to the end of my rope!  Substitute teaching was quite the experience, so I wanted to share a bit about it on my blog.  For the first part, I'll focus more on the negatives, but in Part 2, I'll point out that there really were a lot of positives.  I enjoyed spending time with students in a classroom setting and learning so much about the educational system.

Besides the things mentioned above, one source of frustration is the low pay for subs, especially if you aren't a certified teacher.  I added it up, and if I had worked every day of the week, and had summers off, as most teachers do, I would only have made $18,900.  Fortunately, I only worked part-time, so I wasn't expecting to make tons of money, but compared to the "regular" teachers, who make $40,000-$100,000, according to our county's website, this is a lot less.  I do understand this to some degree, as teachers do all of the planning, grading and guiding that we aren't able to do.  They work extremely hard, and deserve every penny they make!

Another very challenging aspect of substitute teaching is the lack of training and the challenge of discipline in the classroom.  As I mentioned, I only had a half-day of training.  I realize that those studying to be a teacher would already have a four-year degree in this and basically know what they were doing.  Youth Ministry, my previous profession, takes a different approach to students than teaching in a school setting does.  Teaching involves a lot of discipline, rule-setting and enforcing, and basically not having the students like you, because you need to "lay down the law."  Youth Ministry revolves around the concept of building relationships in which we share the love of Christ.  Not that there is no discipline involved, but we approach things from a different angle.  This was hard for me.  I wanted to go in and talk to the students about their day-to-day struggles, but I was too busy getting them to sit down and be quiet.  I can tell that the regular teachers do have a good relationship with the students and can help them when needed, but it takes time.

It's challenging to discipline when you come in and don't know the particular system in that classroom and you don't know any of the student's names.  Usually, when I asked a student what their name was, it was to clip them down for bad behavior.  Behaviors really ran the gamut this year.  I wouldn't say that every class was terrible.  In fact, many classes were very good.  But, I did get to know who the "trouble-makers" would be when they walked in and got really excited that there was a sub that day.  My most challenging experience was the time that I asked a girl who was talking, singing, dancing around and texting on top of her desk to sit down and quietly do her Math. She replied, "I'm going to get you fired."  Respect is often lacking, and it's hard to build it in a short amount of time.

Seven and a half hours feels like a very long day.  I had to get special shoes, which I call my "teacher shoes,"  because they aren't very attractive, but they keep my feet from hurting quite so much after walking around on them all day.  The foot pain is real!  You also can't go to the bathroom very often, so you have to be very careful not to drink too much water and to time your bathroom breaks well.  Another job hazard with subbing in different buildings with different students each day is the gigantic amount of germs you are exposed to!  I am a bit of a germophobe anyway, so I used many bottles of hand sanitizer this year.  I got sick more than I usually do.  In February, I came down with bad laryngitis.  It was pretty hard to discipline that week!  The worst was the day that I got pink eye.  The day before, I had picked up the germs at a middle school somehow.  By Friday night, my eye was incredibly red and itching.  My doctor's office was closed, so I had to spend more money than I made that day to go to the Urgent Care center.  (I am still bitter about that one!)

One thing that made me sad about substituting was that I really didn't get to teach that much.  By teach, I mean standing in front of the class, explaining a concept in a way that will teach and inspire the class to learn.  I realize education has changed, but the times I was able to do this, I really enjoyed it.  Elementary classrooms do allow subs to teach, but middle and high schools often ask students to do their computer work the whole time or to fill out a packet.  Some of those days were very boring and felt like babysitting.

I have learned to respect teachers so much this year.  They are stressed and exhausted from a challenging job.  They have many pressures put on them and they have to deal with many challenges.  I would encourage you to take every chance you get to encourage teachers and appreciate all that they do for their students.  Coming up next time, I'll share some of the positives about teaching and some of the good things that happened during my time on the job.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How I Lost 20 Pounds While Eating Pizza

Photo by Jez Timms
I announced last week on Facebook that I have lost twenty pounds since January.  I was excited to share the news, since it was a very challenging accomplishment.  Since many people have asked, I thought I would share how I did it in case it is helpful to others on the same journey.

I've carried around an extra twenty to thirty pounds since my son was born seven years ago.  I've tried running, as well as various exercise videos and classes.  Exercise alone has not seemed to work.  So here is my "secret":  Calories in/Calories out.  I can eat mostly anything I'd like to as long as I take in less calories than I burn that day.  Sounds simple right?  It is and it isn't.  I realized that I am not the type of person who can give up bread forever, eat no sugar for a month, or eat only salad.  I'm just not.  I have excellent willpower with many things, but food is not one of them.  (Food seems to be an acceptable sin in the church.  I mean, have you been to a Methodist church dinner in the South?  Everything tastes so good because it's either fried or cooked with bacon.)  I knew I had to do something that would be sustainable in the long-term.  (AKA still allow me to eat my favorite foods--ice cream and pizza.)

I began to track my calories. (There are several free apps that are great for this!)  I learned that a good calorie range for women seeking to lose weight is 1250-1400 per day.  At first, this seemed like an incredibly small amount.  I was pretty hungry for a couple of weeks, and very tired.  Although I wanted to quit, I kept going.  My stomach eventually shrank and my body got used to the smaller amount of calories per meal.  I was amazed to learn just how many calories I had been eating and how much fat certain foods contained.  I began to swap things out.  Almond milk instead of regular.  Mini oranges instead of orange juice.  Wraps instead of bread.  I still allow myself to eat things like pizza (which I can't live without!) but I try to eat less of them.  Two small slices instead of three or four.  One scoop of ice cream instead of a bowl.  A quarter of a large cupcake instead of a whole one.  This felt more sustainable than completely cutting these things out.

I also increased my exercise.  I aim for 3-4 times a week.  The more the better! I've also heard thirty minutes a day is a good goal.  I enjoy cardio-strength classes (Shout out to Body and Soul Fitness!), exercise videos, yoga and dance.  It's all about finding something you like to do and will want to do.  I have been weighing myself each day, which has been a fascinating study in how the body processes food.  It is recommended to only do it once a week, but it has helped me to see when I have gone in the wrong direction that week.

I haven't lost as much weight per week as I had hoped.  My goal was two pounds, and I've been landing around one.  Two major challenges for me have been stress-eating and dish-to-pass/celebration meals.  Stress-eating has been my go-to for a long time.  I wish I could say that I just pray away the stress, but I usually go for a bowl of ice cream after a long day at work or a draining day with the kids.  This has been a hard habit to break, and I can't say that I've completely broken it yet.  However, I've tried to replace the need to treat myself with food with something positive like a movie, reading or yoga.

I also have trouble with eating at celebrations and restaurants.  Due to my childhood, I learned to eat as much as I wanted at these occasions.  If I have a stressful day or week, it is especially hard to eat healthy at a restaurant or a mom's group gathering.  (Note to moms:  If you have to go to McDonalds, choose the Happy Meal, it is not really that bad calorie-wise compared to other menu items.)

In a way, the "life change" I am experiencing has felt a bit like my experiences with fasting.  It has involved a lot of disciplining my mind and body and not always saying yes to cravings.  I really like food.  I wish that I didn't.  (I'm convinced that skinny people must just not like food that much.)  I don't think that will change, but my choices can.  I learned that I really can say no to that cup of hot chocolate or that third piece of pizza.  That has felt freeing.  A really cool thing that I didn't expect was that the less food I ate, the more it tasted better.  If I only eat dessert occasionally, it tastes so much sweeter than it ever did.  Waiting to eat certain things helps them taste better.  My body has also started to reject very salty foods (I made the mistake of eating Burger King fries recently, wow!)  and I feel sick if I eat a really fatty meal.  Our body really knows what it needs and doesn't need.

I'm not finished with my lifestyle change yet, and I know that I will continue to struggle with food.  However, I am excited to see change happening in my mind and body and feel blessed to share this journey with you.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Hit Refresh

Photo by Tim Marshall
I need to hit refresh a lot. 

Our dryer has a setting where you can turn the dial to the refresh section and choose 30, 40 or 50 minutes to "refresh" the load.  What this means to me is that I've left the laundry in the dryer overnight...or let's be honest, sometimes for a few days at a time.  I am turning this dial, because the laundry has been sitting there wrinkling for hours and there's no way I will get to it anytime soon. 

The definition that fits this best is:  "To freshen in appearance, color, etc., as by a restorative."  Let's hope that load of laundry stays fresh until I get home tonight.  Or, maybe I'll get to it in the morning...

Sometimes I also need a refresh button for life.  Mornings like today, I have been running non-stop since the alarm rang.  I exercised, refreshed the laundry, took a shower, checked our schedule and email, made my son and I breakfast, tied his shoes and shooed him out the door just in time to make the bus.  My daughter woke up late, so I quickly gave her food, got her dressed at breakneck speed and put more laundry in the dryer.  It was pouring outside, which required her special dinosaur raincoat and ice cream umbrella.  We were running late.  She would no doubt miss the fine motor skills time at preschool and be scarred for life. 

I need a refresh button for today.

The other definitions for "refresh" that struck home with me are: 
"To provide new vigor and energy by rest, food, etc." and "To make fresh again; reinvigorate or cheer." 

After the middle-of the night diaper change and the early morning alarm, I sure could use some of that energy and rest right now.  Instead, I'll settle for some coffee and a few minutes to watch the rain. 

Looking up a verse for this concept, I found this one for the first time:  "The Lord replied, 'I will go with you.  And I will give you rest.' "  (Exodus 33:14)  How cool is that?  I'm sure I am totally taking it out of context, and I know my seminary professors would kill me for this, but I am going to mention it here, because what a message!  God will go with us, and he will give us rest. 

If, like me, you need a "refresh" button for life, think about this verse today.  Dwell on it. Walk in it. God will go with you.  He will give you rest. 

Thank you, God, for the refreshment that comes from you just when we need it. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Gym Class

This year, I've had a wide range of experiences with substitute teaching.  Look for a series on this next month as I finish up the year.  Yesterday, I taught gym class.  Right up there on the list with subjects I never thought that I would ever teach, including Algebra.   It's the end of the year, and there aren't as many assignments available, so I thought, "Why not?"

As I looked through the plans for the day that the teacher had typed up, I came across a worksheet on the male reproductive system.  "No!"  I thought quickly.  "No, no, no, no, no! They do not seriously expect a substitute teacher to teach this, do they?"  I quickly looked through the plans and discovered that it was a personal learning day in health class, so they had to read about it on their computers and fill out the worksheets on their own.  "Ok, I can do this," I thought to myself. As long as they don't ask any questions...

The ironic thing was that I had to break up two couples from making out during the class where they were supposed to learn about the reproductive system.  Insert faceplant emoji here...

I went on to teach aerobics and stretching and toning class, both of which involved a worksheet.  As the regular teachers like to say, "You just have to keep them from killing each other."  Ok, I can do that...

The whole experience brought back so many memories of my own gym class days.  Just walking out onto the gym floor was like  Déjà vu.  All of the repressed memories came flying back.  The awkwardness of 7th grade, in which we had to change our clothes and take showers and learn to put on deodorant.  The 3rd grade square dancing, during which we had to touch boys' hands and risk being infected by cooties.  The Maypole dances with streaming colored ribbons.  The roller skating around and around the gym.

So. Many. Memories.  For me, a shy, overweight, non-athletic female, most of my school years were spent dreading gym class.  I did like the roller skating, the occasional volleyball game, and the tennis matches.  I had a hate-hate relationship with the pull up bar and I despised having to hit the ball and run the bases during softball.  I couldn't run the mile for the presidential fitness test and push ups only eluded me.

Many of the other students loved gym class.  A chance to get away from academics and let loose while playing their favorite sport.  I think of one girl in particular every time I think of gym class.  She was the most athletic person in our school, and she was good at every sport.  She played hard, she played rough and she enjoyed every minute of it.  I was the polar opposite.  I was counting the minutes until gym class was over.  I was the academic type, and prayed constantly that gym class wouldn't bring my grade point average down in my run for class valedictorian.  The semester on track seriously questioned this as I could not run to save my life and I couldn't jump more than a foot.  Thankfully shot put helped me out a bit with my grade.

My funniest memory to look back on was during our badminton section.  My nemesis (later turned good friend) Nate was playing next to me and as he went to swing the racquet to hit the shuttlecock, the racquet got stuck in my very long hair. I screamed and probably punched him in the arm.  "My hair!"  It took the rest of class to untangle my hair and my pride from his racquet.

My best memory of gym class happened during the last semester of my senior year.  I have very bad recollections of the male gym teacher at our school.  He was harsh and demanding and favored the athletic students in the class.  I always tried to stay away from him as much as possible.  Senior year, we were playing soccer (a sport I actually liked), and as we approached the goal, I made an assist to the gym teacher and he scored a goal!  Afterwards, he came up to me and said, "Nice assist!"  I will never forget those words, as they were the only positive ones I'd heard from him in four years.

It's amazing how a thing like teaching gym class will bring back a flood of memories.  What do you remember about gym class?

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Photo by Antonina Bukowska
"Spring passes and one remembers one's innocence.  Summer passes and one remembers one's exuberance.  Autumn passes and one remembers one's reverence.  Winter passes and one remembers one's perseverance."  

~Yoko Ono

How To Enjoy Your Life

Photo by:  Veri Ivanova
Last week, I attended a dance performance and met a few of the audience members sitting near me.  One of them was 91 years old.  She, too, loved dance.  She said that some of her favorite times in life were spent volunteering at the Kennedy Center and watching many of their shows.  Her most memorable moment was meeting Soviet-American dancer and choreographer, Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Now, she loves watching Dancing With the Stars.  (I so want to be her when I grow up!)

She grabbed me by the arm and asked, "How old are you, twenties?"  (I immediately loved her even more!)  I corrected her, and she replied that I am still young.  She went on to remind me: "Enjoy your life.  I am 91 years old, and I am near the end, but I've enjoyed my life.  Enjoy yours."  She is now battling cancer, but she continues to attend as many dance performances as she can.

There is so much wisdom in talking to friends in their nineties.  They have seen in all, experiencing so much in 90 years.  If we listen closely, maybe we won't make quite as many mistakes in our own lives.  I loved her admonition to "Enjoy your life."  So many days, we forget to do that.  As they say, "The days are long, but the years are short."  Some days, I am definitely not enjoying my life.  Last week, I spent two sleepless nights getting up constantly as my sick two-year-old woke up and needed me to comfort her.  I got frustrated and extremely tired.  I wasn't enjoying myself.  But there was a moment.  During the 3:00 am wake-up, I laid her against my chest and rocked her in her chair.  I gently sang and prayed over her.  A beautiful moment as I remembered her infant days and enjoyed the closeness of our relationship.

I don't believe we are put on this earth to be happy.  I believe there is more to strive for than a happy and safe life.  I believe that I was put on this earth to love and serve the Lord and to encourage others with his love.  This has not always put me in my happy place.  I have been stretched out of my comfort zone, led to do things that weren't part of my personality type, and have been deeply hurt at times by other Christians.  Serving God involves suffering, but it is incredibly fulfilling.

We may not be put on earth to be happy, but I do believe that God wants us to enjoy our time here.  If he didn't, he would have made everything black and white, with cafeteria food and boring days.  Instead, he created color.  He made sets of trees to bloom in a different color each week.  This year, I have enjoyed the pinks, the purples and the whites.  He paints with glorious color.  He directs a beautiful symphony of music.  He created the majesty of animals in the wild and he paints us a glorious picture each morning and every evening as the sun rises and sets.

Part of enjoying our life is to remember this in any circumstance.  A friend reminded me of that as she spoke about living in a hut in Africa in her twenties and being happier with people who were so content with their lives than she had ever been in the United States.  I experienced this as well.  On my first international mission trip to the Dominican Republic, I had one of the most profound moments of my life.  As we arrived and walked up the side of a hill, we passed homes made of sticks and cracking mud, walked by babies covered in dirt and mothers cooking meager plates of food.  We came to the clearing and heard the villagers singing to welcome us.  They weren't running up to us and asking us to help or needing us to give them money.  They welcomed us with joy and singing.  I remember tears running down my cheeks as I realized this was real.  Extreme poverty was real, just a plane ride away, and yet it came hand in hand with great joy.  This was a defining moment in my life.

Remember to enjoy it.  You only get one.  You won't be happy every day.  You may not be happy most days, but if you persevere, you will find deep joy and enjoy life as you fulfill your purpose.