Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn and which were published here is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number 10:
After my assignment at the high school I took on various short-term sub assignments. These seemed relatively straightforward compared to the difficulties I had been through. In fact, I was reluctant to start subbing at first, but after the first few times, I started to regain my confidence.
I had applied to various full time jobs for teachers and was waiting to hear. As the school year approached November and I was subbing more, the TV and the internet were full of discussions about the JFK assassination, which was approaching its 50 year anniversary. Like most people, I recall what I was doing at the infamous moment: I was taking a Spanish test. I remember girls in the class crying, and later, when passing in the hall, seeing the woodworking/drafting teacher outside his classroom, seemingly distant, whistling “Hail to the Chief ”.
I continued to sub, and by January, TV and the internet were focusing on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan. While Kennedy’s assassination is irrevocably linked in my mind to a Spanish test, the Beatles’ U.S. debut is linked to Mr. Dombey’s algebra class where I recall many discussions about the Beatles taking place. I can recall both the Kennedy assassination and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan with complete and unrelenting clarity.
By the third week in January, I was eating lunch during a sub assignment, and was at a point where I had accepted that my age was probably preventing me from being hired as a full time teacher. At that moment, my wife called me on the cell phone to tell me that the principal of the Lawrence Middle School was desperately trying to reach me, and that they had a long-term sub assignment for teaching math.
I called him and left a message on his voice mail. Within two minutes, he called back. He said one of the math teachers was going to be on special assignment for an entire semester starting at the beginning of next week. He heard I had a teaching credential in math and wanted to know if I was interested. My first reaction was “Run like the wind and don’t look back.” Instead I said “Yes, I’d be interested.”
“Have you taught middle school before?”
“I did my student teaching at a middle school, and I happen to like it,” I said.
“What can you tell me about middle school?”
“I can tell you that the students are challenging and that one minute they look like little adults and the next they’re little kids.”
“That sounds about right,” he said and we set up a time to meet.
The principal was a youngish looking man who I judged to be in his 40’s, and he always had a rested energetic look, like someone who had just stepped out of the shower. He had taught before and had been a principal at another middle school before getting his position at Lawrence Middle School. This was his first year there. He explained that the teacher I would sub for was going to be gone on a special assignment working for the school district. “She’ll be helping design the math curriculum for middle school that will align with Common Core,” he told me. “Are you familiar with Common Core?”
I said “Yes” and nothing more, following the edict one observes when being cross examined during a trial: answer only what is asked. He said “I love Common Core. I have two boys, and my younger boy is seven, so he’s going through it. It’s amazing the difference between the two boys; the younger one clearly has a deep understanding of numbers.” I didn’t ask him to define “deep understanding” or ask for examples.
He explained that the teacher for whom I would sub was supposed to be gone for just the third quarter. He added that it was unlikely they would be finished with the assignment by then, so I’d probably be working all the way through the fourth quarter.
“One question,” I said.
“Will she be working with a woman named Sally at the District by any chance?”
“Oh absolutely!” he said. “And Sally will be coming here to talk to the math teachers about Common Core. Do you know her?”
I told him I had met her at the high school. He seemed to take this as a good sign, and took me to meet with the teacher for whom I would be subbing, Mrs. Halloran. I had subbed for her before and had learned she had the reputation of being extremely strict on discipline. In fact, I never had a problem with discipline in her classes, probably because her students feared what would happen to them if she learned they had misbehaved with a sub.
We sat down and talked before her classes began. She was about my age; she had been teaching for about 30 years. She explained her procedures patiently. I would be teaching three pre-algebra classes and two Algebra 1 classes. She had the lessons mapped out for the entire semester, and lesson plans for the next two weeks. After that, I would have to prepare the lesson plans.
I asked what her procedures were for disciplining students. “I give them two warnings,” she said. “They are to be in their seats, quiet, doing their work, or paying attention to what I’m doing. If they are not doing that they get a warning. Second warning is either a detention or a referral.”
Sounded fairly straightforward, I thought and kept myself from thinking that what I think sounds easy usually is not.
When we got to the Algebra 1 course, she pointed out that “We do not teach the FOIL method for multiplying binomials. We multiply them out the long way.”
“I’m familiar with the long way and I like to explain it that way myself,” I said. (I’m referring to (x+y)(2x+3) being multiplied using this procedure: x(2x+3)+y(2x+3)) “After I teach that method, though, I like to show them the short-cut,” I said. “It comes in handy when you teach factoring, because then they just reverse the method.”
“Well, for factoring, we use the diamond method. Are you familiar with that?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ve seen the diamond method,” I said. We both were silent for a moment. So silent I heard birds chirping outside.
“No, actually, you can teach them FOIL. Yes. Teach them FOIL. It’s OK.” I don’t know what was going through her head, but she struck me as someone who was about to go on a vacation from which she would not return.