Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Substitute Diaries

One of the things I really love about substitute teaching is that it's different every day. Some days I'm teaching literature to high-schoolers and some days I'm reading books to kindergarteners. It really is different every day.

This week I've been working with special needs students at a primary school. The class I worked with the last two days are high performing second and third graders. Most of these kids are autistic with a variety of challenges. Some are verbal and some are not. As a group, they don't like change and it takes them a while to warm up to new people. They much prefer to see the same people every day. I've worked with this group enough times this year that they know me now and most of them have let their barriers down to some extent and are able to interact with me.

I had planned to take yesterday off and work on laundry. I'm pretty sure that, if I stacked it all up, it would reach to the ceiling. But, when the district scheduler called around 7 a.m. yesterday, since it would be another day with this group, I took the work. I'm so glad I did. It was one of the most  exhausting and fulfilling days ever.

I have friends who work in the nursing field who swear that the hospitals really are a crazy place to work during a full moon. It makes me wonder if there was a full moon yesterday. I don't know if the kids have just relaxed around me or if there was a full moon or what, but yesterday these kids were what I would describe as wound up.

First of all let me say that I have absolutely zero professional training or diagnostic ability. What I have is a lifetime of living with siblings who have special needs. All of my "diagnoses" are speculative and my best guess. 

"J" is a very handsome young man who never stops talking. He takes almost all of his classes in this classroom, although he is mainstreamed for PE, fine arts, and lunch. He tries to engage anyone in the room in his fantasy play. Most days you can keep him calm enough to actually work for short periods of time. Yesterday that was mission impossible. He just could not stop talking. It was nonstop, constant, all ... day ... long! There was only one exception. Around lunchtime, when he would normally go out for recess, he went over to the reading area and picked out a book. He told his teacher that he wanted me to read to him, because I am a really good reader. He brought the book over to me, tucked his arm inside of mine, and lay his head on my arm while I read to him. It was so sweet.

Then there is a lovely young second grade girl, "E." When I first met E more than a year ago, she was just learning English as her second language. She's really grown since then and speaks English just fine when you can get her to talk. She doesn't interact much with other children and is unusually quiet. I've never seen her get excited like most second graders do. E fixates on pencils, pens, crayons, and markers. Her fixation on these object consists of holding them up to her nose, right between her eyes. She looks at them by crossing her eyes and will then begin to shake as if she's having a seizure. Usually, she does this a few times a day and when you tell her to stop she does. Not so yesterday, she was completely immersed in these objects and simply could not control herself. I accompanied her to music class. The teacher greeted her and put her in a chair right on the front row. I sat at the side of the room, a few feet away, with two students between us. The class is working on a performance which includes singing with hand motions. A few students will have speaking parts. At first E didn't participate at all. Then suddenly, it just seemed to click. She started moving her hands right along with all the other kids. It was so awesome to see. Every now and then she would look over at me, as if seeking approval. I would smile and nod and she would smile back and keep moving. The teacher came to me after class and told me that this was the first time E had ever participated. Always before she had just watched. She didn't sing, and I don't think she will, but just participating was a huge accomplishment.

Another student is a second-grade boy who is hands down the most polite child I have ever seen. He is very soft spoken and cute as a button. He is mainstreamed for most of his classes and comes to the resource room for reading. He speaks both Spanish and English, but he replaces the c sound with a t sound so "cat" sounds like "tat." He is just adorable. In addition to special help with reading, he receives speech therapy. Yesterday, at the end of the day, I was assigned to escort him to the front of the school where he would be picked up by a family member. We were among the first to be out of the school and had to wait for his ride. He picked up a pen and an eraser that someone had dropped on the front walk and stuck them in his pocket. Then he picked up this little green pony bead and held it out for me. He put it in my hand and said "This is a magic bead. Take it home and plant it in your garden and more beads will grow."

But my absolute favorite moment of the day came when I took two boys to their third grade PE class. One of them, "R," does not want to go to PE, EVER. His idea of a good time is to play computer games. They use computer games very effectively as a reward for doing his other work. He is an angelic-looking child, but can become loud and difficult when he doesn't get his way. They asked me to come and pick him up to go to PE because he has been giving them a hard time. When I arrived at his classroom, as expected, R said he did not want to go to PE because he does not like PE. I told him that I don't like PE either, but I had to go and if I had to go, so did he.

Photo credit
It was a beautiful sunny and warm day yesterday, so PE was outside. The class was learning how to jump rope as well as how to turn a rope for someone else to jump. The teacher paired my two boys with two "big boys." And by "big boys" I mean kids that will probably be football players once they get to high school. I could tell that they were not thrilled with this pairing but they were being good sports. I realized right away that in order for the two big boys to jump, I would have to help turn the rope. The concept of turning a rope for someone else to jump was beyond the abilities of one of my boys, so I tried to show them how to do it. One of them got it and was able to take his turn, the other did not, so I turned the rope. All four boys were able to jump rope by starting from a standing position and starting to jump on a 1-2-3 count. I was pretty surprised that both of my boys were able to do it.

About halfway through the class, the teacher blew her whistle and had all the students sit and watch as she had a student demonstrate how to run in and out of an already turning jump rope. I remember doing this as a child and I also remember that it takes a great deal of coordination and good timing. She told the students that they could try it or not. If they didn't want to try it, they should just continue with jumping as they had before. I was very surprised that both of my boys wanted to try it. One of the "big boys" went first. He got it on his first try. The second of the "big boys" tried repeatedly. He didn't give up and finally, after maybe ten tries, he was able to do it. One of my boys tried once and didn't want to try again. The biggest surprise of all was that "R" was able to do it on his third or fourth try. It was so exciting to see him participating and accomplishing what was surely a huge challenge for him. The two "big boys" rushed over and congratulated him with high fives. I have to admit that I actually had tears well up in my eyes. At the end of class, I complimented both boys on their willingness to work with my two boys.

I want to share this photo with you too. At the end of the day, while waiting in the car pick up area, I looked down and noticed a little girl wearing only one sock. When I asked her about it, she said the other sock felt "weird" so she took it off. Her teacher told me that this is a pretty common occurrence for her. It just made me smile, so I thought you might enjoy it too.

I have enjoyed spending a few days with these kids and I have a great deal of respect for people who do it every day.


  1. What a wonderful day you had and this is just a wonderful post. I may have teared up at one point, too. Children are so special! But special needs children are even more special and really do need people like you to help them. 2 gold stars for you!

  2. Awwww. . . . so glad you can work with these kiddos -- it is a rare gift!

  3. Sounds like an awesome day Vicki!!! Thanks for sharing the highlights. :)