Subbing the Middle Grades: If in Doubt, Let Them Out #middleschool #subbing #mindfulness

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It was only a half day gig, but I was covering French. I know maybe five words of French so there would be no winging it if we ran out of things to do, which we did. The teacher left very limited assignments, which were accomplished in the first third of the class time, and it was a lovely day for December. Blue skies, a light wind, temps hovering around 50 degrees fahrenheit….

So we went outside, naturally. Apparently the French class never goes outside, but yesterday we did. I have learned that playgrounds are not limited by age, only the imagination. Who doesn’t like the weighty drop of a swing after the soar? Well they don’t have swings on the middle school playground in my town, but they do have a things to play on that integrated into the natural environment. There are wooden beams to balance on and hang from, ropes to navigate, and plenty of fields surrounded by trees that beg to be run through and explored. There are few things better than watching a middle schooler give away all cares and run with abandon outside. And, our work was done for the day. We had no excuses.

Nature is transformative. Before we went outside, clusters of middle schoolers were beginning to form to talk not about French, but each other. They were supposed to be practicing their vocabulary words in small groups, but the inevitable “Who do you like?” game quickly formed between two of the clusters. I observed for a while as I pretended to read.

“Okay, let’s go outside!”

The transformation was instant. Everything else forgotten, except who was going to get the football from the gym. If truth be told, I’d spend the whole day subbing outside. Weather permitting. Nothing beats Nature’s Classroom. The benefits are pretty much endless.

I often tell my yoga classes to “get outside” to ground their bare feet through Earth, which has a magnetic polarity just like our bodies do. We need that connection to feel balanced and well. Even if we have to wear shoes. We need the feel of the elements. The wind moving into our lungs, the sun activating joy and that essential nutrient called vitamin D…

I spent the first have of this past Saturday in a suicide prevention workshop and one of the issues we discussed was the high rate of suicides here in the Northeast where are winters are long and sunlight is limited. When we don’t get outside and receive that essential connection to Earth and the elements on a regular (daily) basis, we fall more easily into depression. As a substitute teacher of the middle grades, I care more about the wellbeing of my charges than I do their grades. I believe that’s my job. I can’t possibly know the ins-and-outs of each subject in each grade that I cover, nor can I know the performance record or learning habits of each student, but I can pay attention to their wellbeing.

With the exception of the underdressed (there are always a few who refuse to gather jackets), there is always reluctance to head back indoors after the allotted time outside is finished. That, to me, is a sign of time well spent. Before we went inside yesterday, I noticed that even the underdressed child with her arms tucked into her shirt had been singing for the entire ten minutes. There is nothing better.

A Reading Aloud Moment Reminds Me of My Own Growth: Another Journey in Subbing the Middle Grades #middlegrade #teaching

Photo Credit: Pexels

Last week found me racing back and forth between classrooms in whirlwind days at the middle school with barely, if any, time for a lunch break. Yet, even during these hectic days, I am reminded of the gifts that arise out of this adventure in subbing the middle grades. I, inevitably, learn something. Last week, I learned that it was no big deal to read aloud to a group of middle schoolers.

Allow me to add a backstory. It is, I believe, no accident that I have chosen to substitute teach in the grades where my self-confidence was shattered when I was in school. It was during these formative years when I learned how to doubt my voice and blush at the drop of a hat. Now, subbing in the middle grades is another opportunity for me to grow and learn. Challenge pushes us to the doorway and asks whether we’re ready to step through.

Last week I realized how far I had come since my own middle school years. This growth hasn’t happened over night. It’s been many years now since I’ve found myself turning red in the face each time I meet someone new or step into the spotlight to use my voice, but I had not realized how comfortable I’d become in being placed on the spot until last week. It was, as I sat reading aloud from a book I had never picked up, with a classroom of middle-schoolers listening (or not) to every word I read, and fluorescent lights glaring down at my face, no big deal. I was performing the role that I had been tasked to perform and it felt as natural as washing the dishes.

Of course my audience helped. I am fully aware of how lucky I am to be subbing in a district where the students are, for the most part, courteous and well-behaved when it really counts. When a German world appeared during my reading aloud and I mispronounced it, a student called out the proper pronunciation and we moved on. No big deal.

And what a cool experience that was, I thought, as I continued to read.

Subbing the Middle Grades & Why I Kinda Like it #substituteteaching #middleschool #empathy

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“You’re doing a good job.”

“I hope you sub for us again.”

“Have a great day!”

These were some of the words expressed by my preteen bosses yesterday, and they matter to me. A lot. This is one of the reasons I show up when I get the call to substitute for a teacher who is absent for the day. The pay is lousy, but the bosses can be pretty great.

By great I don’t mean easy. They test me nearly endlessly, as 10-13 yr-olds tend to do. They can be brutally honest, a royal pain in the neck, and incredibly kind. They are our youth in the process of becoming their adult selves. In the classroom, among them, I am reminded of my own struggles, the struggles of my own teenagers, and of how darn hard it can be to be human in the process of becoming.

Each day offers a clean slate. I generally have no idea if I will get the call, and if I do, where I will end up. No matter what, though, I learn something. And usually that learning comes from my young bosses. Yesterday, while taking a mask break outside with my charges bosses, I was reminded of the power of empathy and how beautiful the face of compassion is.

“Throw the ball! Throw the ball!” the words pressured the release of the girl’s hand, which threw without aim, landing the tennis ball on the side of a young boy’s head. It was an accident that resulted in tears but also an unfolding of frustration into the pure, opened heart of empathy.

In a matter of seconds the girl was by the boy’s side, her face awash with compassion and regret. Before he could find his own words, she had made her way to the nurse’s office and back outside with a soft ice pack in her hand.

Never in those moments was there anger or blame. The tears took awhile to disappear back into joy, but they did. By the end of our brief recess, you would not have known there had been an interruption if you were just passing by.

Last week, it was my turn to express compassion and empathy. And with all that baggage of years between us, I’ll admit it took me more seconds than it did for that 10-yr-old-girl.

“Hey, Sam [not his real name],” I called over to the 8th grader who had tested my limits last year like no other kids had. I was ready for resistance. Prepared for a rough day.

Instead, the voice behind the reply sounded impressed, even flattered. “How do you know my name?”

“I remember you from last year.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.”

That was all it took. If I had told him why, the outcome would have probably been vastly different. Instead, I made the choice to be honest without expounding upon why. I had remembered Sam and that was enough for him. It was, in fact, more than enough. It made him happy. It transformed him a little, and in turn it transformed me.

I don’t know what Sam’s day-to-day life is like, but I know enough about being a middle-schooler to know that it is not always easy. Each action, or non-action in the case of children who fold into themselves, is often a call for acceptance. A call for love. I can only assume that Sam’s tendency towards disruption is a result of his own struggles. Although it can be tiresome and frustrating, it doesn’t mean he is not worthy of love.

I can’t wrap my arms around these young bosses of mine, but I can choose to show them I care in other ways. Sometimes a simple act can yield a profound reaction. I’ve only subbed three days so far this school year and each day has left me transformed.

That, to me, is a day well spent.