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On February 14th, I subbed for a third grade class in an industrial, lower income neighborhood. Trash drifted in the gutters and across the brown lawn of the aging school. I arrived a half hour before classes started and got the key from the secretary and hurried to the room. I looked on the teacher’s desk. No lesson plans. I walked around the room, searching for any paper with a list of instructions on how to run the day. After glancing at every counter top and bookshelf, I still found nothing, so I called the office.

“Hi. This is Carla Martin subbing for Mrs. Platypus (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent). I cannot find her lesson plans. Do you think she will be calling one in?”

“Yes,” replied the secretary. “She just called and said her computer’s not loading up. As soon as it does, she will send them in.”

“Whew!” I thought. Nothing is more unnerving to a sub than having to face a classroom with no plan of how to run the day. I have several fail-proof lessons that I can do in a pinch—but nothing is more appreciated than a note from the teacher, stating what to do and when to do it. A teacher knows what material her class can do and be successful at better than a sub who has just appeared. Also appreciated is a heads-up on any students with behavioral problems—or just a note saying, “Make sure Juan doesn’t get near Joey!” I am stepping into a foreign environment, and the more I know about the situation I am about to encounter, the better job I can do.

So I quickly made a seating chart of the class. I make them as an insurance policy. I fill in the students’ names while I take roll first thing. Then I let the students know I will be putting stars next to their names if they are on-task and working quietly, and frown faces if they are out of their seats or disruptive. Then I tell them I will leave this chart for the teacher to see first thing when she returns.

“This is a map so your teacher can look at it and see how you did today,” I announce. Usually, as the day progresses, if kids start getting unruly, all it takes is for me to mention, “I think I am going to have to put some frown faces on the chart!” and kids immediately quiet down. Conversely, it is always nice to be able to say, “Wow, I’m putting stars next to your names for working quietly!”

Then I looked around the room to get an idea of what this class would be like. I saw some crudely cut-out rocket ships with students’ names on them and what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were several police men, one vet, several teachers (a good sign) and a football player. There were many misspellings. The work looked pretty low for a third grade class.

There were many inspirational quotes written on a white board. I like it when a teacher is trying to uplift her students. A bookshelf held a large assortment of dirty stuffed animals. I thought they were unusual to have in a third grade class, but I understand that kids love them all the way up to sixth grade sometimes. I wondered how this teacher incorporated them into her classroom procedures. Perhaps they got to hold one if they did their homework?

Time was ticking by. I glanced at my watch. 8:00 am. Still no lesson plans. As there was only 5 minutes left til I had to get the students, I dashed to the office.

“Any word from Mrs. Platypus?” I asked.

“No. You’ll have to go get your students and we will bring the lesson plans to your class.”

“Gulp,” I thought. And I marched to the playground to meet my class, frantically planning what activity I would lead them in if nothing transpired from the teacher.

As I approached their line in the playground, the students looked at me with a mixture of joy and disappointment. It was Valentine’s Day, after all, and kids like to have a little celebration with their teacher around—not a stranger. I have also found that the tougher the students—the more they have disruption and discord in their own homes, the more they find the absence of their teacher extremely upsetting. It is almost like abandonment.

“Good morning. My name is Ms. Martin and I get to be your substitute today. Line up and we’ll go inside and I’ll tell you what we’re going to do today.”

“Are we going to give out Valentine’s cards?” asked a girl, anxiously.

“You bet,” I said. “Right after lunch.” We only had an hour of class after lunch. Just enough time to pass out cards and treats and do an activity before going home.

I led the class down the hall to their classroom. They entered boisterously. I started to input my substitute teacher code into the computer so I could take roll.

“Have a seat,” I announced loudly. “Antonio, are you here? Raise your hand so I can see where you sit.”

Then I explained the seating chart to them and took roll. Suddenly the class got real quiet. I looked up from the computer screen (which was placed so I had to have my back to the kids –not a good idea!) and I saw another adult, obviously someone with authority, standing by my desk.

“Here are your lesson plans,” she said, and handed me a paper with type on it. “Do you have access to Google Classroom?”

“I’m not sure what that is,” I said, glancing at the computer. Was it something I had to find on the teacher’s screen?

The person faced the class and asked “OK–do you guys have Google Classroom on your laptops?”

“Yeah we do!” came the answer from several students.

“Good. Then you’re set,” said the person. She turned around and left the room.

I looked at the lesson plans. Along the left margin was the times for Reading, Math, Recess, ELD and Lunch. Good—now I knew how the day was structured. Then I read further. Next to Reading were the instructions: “Students go on Google Classroom.” That was it. I glanced down the paper. For Math, the instructions read: “Students go on Google Classroom.” For ELD is said, “Read from “Earthquakes” for twenty minutes and discuss the events of the day. Then after lunch it said, “Independent work. Students go on Google Classroom.”

I couldn’t believe it. This teacher wanted her students to spend the entire day, except for twenty minutes reading about earthquakes, on their computers. Have you ever tried to keep a class of twenty six third grade students focused on a screen for the entire day? Did the principal know and condone this kind of lesson plan?

There were no instructions about classroom procedures, students to watch out for, who to help. I was going to be nothing more than a glorified babysitter. I understand that many teachers are worn out and tired to the bone. They need a day off just to keep their sanity. Yet, to me it seemed the teacher was just throwing her students away for the day. Usually an instructor varies activities—some on the computer, some on paper, some individual work, some group work. But to expect students to work on their laptops all day? This seemed like a recipe for disaster.

But I am supposed to follow a teacher’s directions. So I did. We got through the day. Students quickly finished their assignments on Google Classroom, which turns out to be a site where teachers can post work—like dittos–for students to complete. Then the teacher can peruse their work later on line. Perfectly legitimate. Saves paper. Then I allowed the students to get on other educational web sites like Prodigy. They spent a lot of time on these games. Kids are adaptable. They confessed to me that this was the routine they always did when the teacher was absent. Then after lunch we passed out Valentine’s Day cards and treats, sang some songs with my guitar, and cleaned up the room and went home.

But was anything learned?

What do you think?