Her sub plans were clear and the class a sea of smiling 12 year old faces. Crazy Sock Day, part of spirit week, had them in a particularly good mood, and it was a class I’d visited just the week before. It’s a fact that not everyone knows that if a substitute teacher is late, as today’s was (the result of a fender bender on the way to school), the principal or assistant principal takes the class. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does I take the opportunity to dive in and participate in the most important job in education: teaching.
In my time as an administrator I’ve stepped in to teach everything from PE to Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’ve covered a high school dance class and a 7th grade science lab. Sometimes, like today, the absent teacher has left a beautiful lesson plan. Sometimes …we dance.
The exhilaration is the same, standing in front of a room of students. They’re there to learn and I have a front row seat.
Math today provided a good example of the critical thinking our kids are capable of. After a short warm up activity, students moved into established groups, shifting desks to face each other and resettling in an astounding 25 seconds, ready to go.
We spent a few minutes reviewing their homework assignment, as armed with with the correct answers I traveled from group to group, checking in and asking questions. At almost every cluster of desks I witnessed discussion, either of what the answer might be or why it might be what they agreed it was. When students were stumped I asked clarifying questions and in every case this reframing was all they needed to figure out an accurate answer.
Wrong answers came next; the teacher had cleverly left photocopies of a sample test filled out with incorrect solutions to a dozen or so questions. Challenging students to work together to determine which answers were wrong, and even more challenging: why? this exercise in critical thinking and collaboration reminded me of the real work adults do every day.
Subbing for a class that contained no lecture or ticking off answers to problems the students did the night before reminded me of the importance of challenging students academically, even as we support them with patience, carefully chosen questions, and a lot of heart.
Just as I’d seen in English, science, and history classes, the students in my math class (well, mine for the day, anyway) were living that line from Einstein: “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
And with a focus on igniting curiosity and nurturing the conditions in which students can learn, the lesson left for me today illustrated the truth that good teachers know: the best teachers don’t teach math, English, science, and history; the best teachers teach kids math, English, science, and history (and coding, and drama, and music, and art, and PE, and all keep the focus on kids).
For me, the opportunity to move around the room, look in the kids’ eyes, and engage with them in learning was profound. I love high fives and conversations about baseball at lunch, but being able to spend time sharing the experience of learning was a poignant reminder of why I became a teacher a couple of decades ago.
I finished my sub assignment thinking that every administrator ought to spend time teaching every year. By the end of the day I even convinced my English department to let me teach some Sherlock Holmes to our kids next month. The thrill of starting to plan the lesson has me feeling like a first year teacher again.
Tomorrow I’ll be sure to go out of my way to say “thank you” to the teacher who left me those great lesson plans and a class of students ready to learn. It’s the same message I gave those kids when class ended, heartfelt gratitude for a renewing and inspiring day as their substitute teacher.