Friday, February 10, 2012

My Turn Submission -- Substitute Teaching in Hermosa Beach and Juvenile Hall

From Hermosa Beach to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, I have served as a substitute teacher in a number of interesting and diverse educational communities. Some students treat you with the utmost respect, just like their permanent teacher. In other schools, students prove that they have taken tips from "One Hundred Ways to Sink a Sub". Despite some negative experiences along the way, I have learned to sink a few battleships!

At Leuzinger High School, I sent a student out after the first half of class -- one of those types who refused to be quiet after two warnings and moving his seat. Another student walked by my room as I was writing up the student. He asked me, "How many referrals have you written today?" I mentioned that I was writing my one and only referral, enough to get the rest of the students' attention. "You are a great substitute!" he told me, then moved on. It's good to get that kind of feedback, especially for a job that can sometimes pit a visiting teacher against an unruly mass of students.

At Hermosa Beach, I am surround by a wealth of information, a wealth of resources, and wealth of support and investment from parents, teachers, and staff. Many of the students speak other languages and have visited many foreign countries. A diverse and determined community, Hermosa Beach is a fine place to step in and help when a teacher calls in sick at the last minute. In some classes, the students are so focused and prepared, they help me teach throughout the day.

In complete contradistinction to the rich and well-endowed Hermosa Beach City School District, I also serve in the juvenile court schools and camps throughout Los Angeles County. Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall (in Downey) is my most frequent assignment. Unlike the multi-ethnic community of learned students in the Beach Cities, with a student population extensively polite and prepared for the world, the juvenile halls are populated with youth who have lost their way, or never knew that there was one to find. Nearly all of them do not know one or both of their parents. Almost all of them have wandered into gang life, only to find that it's a life not worth living for. Some of the offenders whom I teach have committed murder or other "high risk" crimes.

I was scared the first day. I had no idea what to expect. Students recognize new staff pretty quickly, and they try to run you. "Are you scared, sir?" One inmate asked me with a wicked grin. "No," I trembled back. "Are you? You should be!" was the best comeback that I could come up with the first day. Since then, I have learned to be quick, clear, and concise when setting the standards and holding students accountable. It took time, as any veteran teacher will acknowledge, but it is has been worth it. Working in a juvenile class is not for everyone. It is a hard-core environment, one that can tax a teacher's classroom management skills to the limit. Unlike the public schools, though, I am guaranteed a class with no more than seventeen students. I also have effective and able probation staff on site to assist me when students get out of hand. After serving in Los Padrinos for two years, I learned that -- just like the probation staff -- I have to take on a parental or mentor role, and that it's not impossible. I just have to have the right attitude about it.

One probation officer really made my day. She told me "You are Extra with a Capital E!" In most urban schools, "Extra" is the term that students use to describe a really strict or crazy teacher, kind of like that evil substitute "Ms. Viola Swamp" from the famous children's story "Miss Nelson is Missing". For her, and for me, it's a compliment, one that even the students in Juvenile Hall have come to respect.

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