Spending four years as a substitute also helped give me an unusual perspective on teaching. When I went back to school to finish my bachelors and get my teaching certificate, my subbing time was disdained and I was made to take a bunch of courses I didn’t need, except to get that degree and certificate. So I went through the process—three semesters in the classroom and a semester of student teaching.
When I finished it was the summer of 1983. I’d been out of “my” school for two years. I started subbing again right away, and nothing much had changed (except that I had the certificate.) A couple of teachers who had previously been aloof seemed to find that it was appropriate to talk to me now that I was certificated, but as before they said nothing worth listening to.
In December of 1983 the social studies teacher was forced to resign abruptly. He was in the middle of a nasty divorce, and his wife accused him of molesting her daughter (his stepdaughter.) The district hurried him out the door as if he had leprosy, which, in terms of teaching he did. Guilty until proven innocent.
I was offered the job, and I took it like a shot. I would be teaching at the school my wife worked at. The school we had been a part of for over three years. I could barely believe my good luck.
Coming from the outside into the fold in mid-year would have been interesting and challenging enough, but it took me about an hour to realize I was in for a really rough ride. Not to put too fine a point on it, the guy had also been an alcoholic who actually kept a jug in his desk drawer. He poured it into a coffee cup and drank all day. The kids knew it. All he ever did was write and assignment on the board and then sit and drink. The kids therefore had what amounted to a free period every day. The unspoken agreement was that he wouldn’t bother them if they didn’t go wild and try to burn the building down. As long as they kept the noise down, they were pretty much free to do as they pleased. A minority of them resented this, because they wanted to be taught. When the novelty wore off a larger number of them wearied of the arrangement as well, but they didn’t know what to do about it.
Then one day he resigned, and there I was as their new teacher. All I had to do first was completely change the classroom culture. I went at this full-throttle. Lectures every period, homework that was actually graded and returned, tests that actually required them to study—and coming down hard when some of them decided to see if they could still get away with screwing off. I quickly got a rep amongst the faculty as a disciplinarian. It was just self-preservation, but it would carry forward, and save me a lot of trouble with new classes in the future.
The guy’s gradebook was an absolute nightmare. He had columns for every homework assignment, test and quiz, but many of them had no grades at all, and others had just a few. There was not a single column that had grades recorded for every student. This went all the way back to the beginning of the school year.
When I consulted the principal about this, he said it was ok to base their grade for the quarter on the two weeks’ worth of grades they would have to me. I could test them on that material and call it the final exam grade. I determined the semester grade (all that really counted) by averaging their letter grades for the two quarters—in other words, an A and a C would equal a B. It was crude and highly inaccurate, but it was the best I could do.
It was a good thing it was the last two weeks of the semester. I worked 80-plus hours each of those weeks. Over Christmas break my wife tried to reassure me that it would be easier in the spring semester. It was, relatively, but I made it harder on myself by hewing to the traditional lecture/homework/test model. It was how I had learned history in high school, and my three semesters of ed courses hadn’t shown me a viable alternative.
So I came all the way inside. A traditionalist teacher who expected a great deal of his students, took no shit, and in return gave them a lot of information about historical topics. I didn’t recognize/realize it, but I was trying to fill their minds. It would take several semesters for me to recognize this, and to realize I had to find a better way. That took some time.