Why I Don't Have Subs Supervise Group Work (Or, Bleaaaaaaaaaaaaah)

I was talking today to a sub I met; she’s recently started working in my district so I got her information. We were discussing what teachers want out of subs. I said I’m looking for two things at a minimum, ideally three. The two minimum are to follow the plans I leave and let me know what happens over the day, including specific names. The extra-credit third is to keep some sort of control over the classroom.

With most of my classes this year, all three were doable (or should have been – one sub decided not to tell me that a kid had told another student to fuck off, because he felt he’d dealt with it at the time. The kid involved was ED and had another student not reported it to me, who knows what would have happened long term – not your call to make, Mr. Substitute, and that’s why you were not invited back to my classroom). But one of my classes was a challenge. Eighth period.

Now, I adored my eighth hour. It was full of funny, smart kids and we all got along really well. However, of the 29 kids in that class, ten were…challenging. Of the fifteen most challenging kids on our core this year (based on referrals and the numbers of times we discussed them at core meetings [ad nauseum, by the way]), ten were in my eighth hour.

I got along well with all of them (including my pals the Slacker and the Goofball), and when I was there, we were good. Got our work done, had a good time doing it, didn’t make really stupid choices….it was just what class should be. But when I was gone…oh, when I was gone. They fell apart.

Every damn time, they fell apart.

I tried everything I could think of – bribery (free time when I get back! Candy!), threats (detentions, referrals, personal meetings with admin), parental conferences in advance (kids called home and told parents they would have a sub and needed to be good), extra supervision (pop in visits from the teacher next door, admin, and our student achievement coach), safe places (I gave the subs lists of kids who could take breaks if they needed to so they didn’t fly off the handle)…nothing worked. At least not for everyone. We finally got to a point where most of them could handle their shit relatively well, and I had to be relatively content with that, because I couldn’t come up with any other solutions.

The second-to-last time I had a sub this year was in…late February, maybe? I had a training for something and so I needed coverage. Normally I try to leave a sub relatively easy work – individual work, some sort of review, student-directed, nothing assessment related – but this day I HAD to have them working in groups so that I could get to where I needed to be by spring break. With great trepidation, I gave them an uplifting speech on behaving well and how I knew they could do it and I was so looking forward to that good report…you know, lying through my teeth.

When I came back, I grabbed the sub report and started reading before I even took my coat off. Every class had a good report (period six had been a little shaky at first, apparently, but had gotten it back together), and some had great reports (period two was called “delightful”….except period eight. The sub wrote that too many kids had been a problem to name names, that they’d been off task, that they hadn’t gotten their work done, that they’d argued and screwed around and basically sucked hard. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

So at lunch, I hauled the whole class into my room, after having checked with a few trustworthy kiddos to ensure that the sub report was accurate (they verified the behavior problems). I read them the sub report, including the praise for the other classes, and then, with a steely glare, I read them their section.

After I finished, I did the whole I’m-so-disappointed-I-thought-we-were-past-this-you-guys-are-so-great-for-me-I-can’t-understand-why-you-don’t-want-other-people-to-see-how-rockstar-you-can-be spiel. Then I asked anyone who felt they’d made bad decisions yesterday to come to the front of the room. About eight of my charmers shuffled forward. I then had the kids who were still seated to show me their work from the day before. About half had finished it; they went back to lunch. Most of the rest were almost done; they finished and left.

Anyone who was nowhere near done joined the front of the room bunch. That group got another lecture on making good choices and how they owed their classmates an apology for having wasted so much time the day before that they’d then lost part of lunch. They shuffled back to their seats and got to work. I stood at the front and gave ninja death stares to any kid who seemed unfocused. Finally one kid, Mr. Sincerity, came over to me. “Can I talk to you in the hall?” he asked. We went outside. “I don’t think it’s fair that I’m here when I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I couldn’t get my work done because of the Goofball and the Fidgeter. They kept punching me.”

This kid is known for lying like a politician angling for votes, and he sells it every time, so I didn’t believe him for a second. Clearly he just wanted to get out of the consequences. “Then why haven’t I heard about this before?”

“Because I was afraid they’d hurt me more if I told.”

I told him I didn’t believe him and sent him back in to the room. Then I grabbed Ms. Reading and went to the cafeteria to find out if his story was true. I asked my most trust-worthy group of kids if anything had happened in class that I didn’t know about. They shook their heads. I pressed the issue – anything with those three boys? Nope, nothing. About to walk away, I decided to ask one more time. Anything involving punching? Ohhhhhhh, yeah! The Goofball and the Fidgeter kept hitting Mr. Sincerity! Aghast, I asked why they hadn’t mentioned that before. The girls shrugged – they hadn’t thought about it? And it seemed like they were just messing around?

When I got back to my room, I called the office and said I needed an administrator ASAP because frankly, I had no idea what else to do. My favorite AP (I mean this. She is awesome and I love working with her) came down to deal with it. After I filled her in, she sent Mr. Sincerity to the office to make a statement and we sat down to chat with the other two.

Now, I adore these boys. They are troublemakers, absolutely, but they work their butts off for me and they make me laugh, and by the end of the day, I can usually use a laugh. So I was heartbroken that they would do this. When Ms. Rockstar AP asked them what happened, neither said anything at first. So I pressed them on it, at which point the Fidgeter started to cry as he told us what had happened.

He said that Mr. Sincerity had been calling them fags and making racial slurs [both punchers are Latino and Mr. Sincerity is White] and comments about their mothers. So they got tired of it, and they started hitting him. They were careful to do it only when the teacher wasn’t looking, but that was why.

Now, maybe I’m naïve (probably I am, honestly) but I believed him. The tears…this kid might lie, but he wouldn’t cry about it. This was something that was hurting him immensely. And I told Ms. Rockstar AP as much when she came back to me after she’d concluded the investigation, found no evidence to fault Mr. Sincerity, and suspended the Fidgeter and the Goofball. She didn’t disagree, but, as she put it, no one had heard Mr. Sincerity say anything, but seven or eight kids had witnessed the physical violence. She had no grounds on which to take any other action.

I’ll never leave group work again for a sub. And I’ll never forget the Fidgeter’s face as he broke down in tears, so crushed by the words that had been hissed at him in class.

(I wish this situation had had any humor in it. At least the photo does: by aaardvaark)


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
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