Friday, February 15, 2008

Substitute teachers as "authority figures"


When I started substitute teaching in 2004, I noticed an interesting instruction in the Arlington, VA school system manual for subs. It read something like “Greet your students as they come into the classroom.” One particular middle school put that on the instructions for subs and underlined it. That kind of gratuitous manipulation was seen as part of "classroom management."

I've noticed, when leaving certain theaters (AMC) that porters will sometimes greet me. It seems superfluous, and management has probably told them to do it. Churches have greeters all the time. It's interesting that many people have a sense of social bearing that requires verbal acknowledgment, even when there is little content. Schools see this as a tool for establishing that one is in command of the students.

I took this with the proverbial grain of salt. Some middle schools had only three minutes passing time between classes, so there was no time for this. Subs need bathroom breaks, too. I thought it was mostly for elementary school (which I wouldn’t do), until I saw the instruction repeated at the middle school.

After having some serious discipline problems at a couple of middle school assignments (and at one high school where the particular class comprised all low income, low performing students) I got the feedback that I did not quickly establish myself as an “authority figure” whose orders were to be respected. “Middle school kids …” the guidance counselor would say, just naturally take advantage of things.

Of course, at the high end, with AP and Honors, it works the other way around. Students in those classes like to be left alone, prefer to be free of gratuitous attention, and love to have a quiet period to catch up on the work, if they don’t have a test instead.

I have wondered about the whole concept of “authority.” Many school systems hire unlicensed short term subs who fill in at a school for one day at a time. “Oh, he’s just a sub,” the kids say. Yes, they do. Nevertheless, school systems are counting on a responsible “adult” to be trusted to make potentially life-and-death decisions (should there be an unexpected emergency). I certainly understand that they want the “responsible adult” to instantiate himself as the person to give orders, to act like a drill sergeant if necessary. It’s a bit of a con game.

As I’ve noted before, I thinks school systems need to hire subs more carefully, and bring them on with the intention of becoming permanent licensed teachers. An “authority” figure needs to have experience with kids, possibly as a parent, perhaps as an older sibling, perhaps in some other structured situation (often faith-based). Many adults who have lived outside of the normal family structure in urban settings and then try teaching at “early retirement” may be shocked at the level of socialization expected.

The most convincing authority figures for minority students may be young adults from the same minorities. Young adult African American males are needed in teaching ,desperately. That’s a practical reality. (I have to say this about Barack Obama: he looks young, and he acts like a role model.)

As for GLBT people, especially older men, the government itself has created a problem. Unofficially, school systems seem to have a gentle “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, but kids pick up on things, asking “are you married? Do you have kids.” The official “don’t ask don’t tell” policy (as codified into Federal law in 1993 and then misinterpreted by commanders), which is supposed to apply only to the Armed Forces, says to some youth (and perhaps their parents), that gay men need not be respected as authority figures (especially older, non-contemporaneous men). What can one expect?

I do remember, back in my boyhood, resenting the idea of my father or adults doing things "just for authority." I spent most of my working life in information technology, a culture where the social concept is somewhat unwelcome culturally. Yet, since then, I've found the rest of the world a bit different. Even at an interview for a collection job in 2003, I was asked about when I had ever wielded authority. I didn't get that job, but got another one with a different agency right afterwards. The real world is much more about social hierarchy than I had ever expected. I led a sheltered adult life.

Note: The Feb. 25 issue of Time has an article by Claudia Wallis on p. 28, "How to Make Great Teachers," link here. On p 31, the article says "It takes at least two years to master the basics of classroom management and six to seven years to become a thoroughly proficient teacher."

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