I was a substitute teacher in the London school system (though I had no teacher training, nor had taught anywhere, ever). I’d fill in for a day or two, and then I’d move on. Absent High School teachers sometimes left lesson plans for me to follow. I usually pretended that they hadn’t, giving students a “free” period to read on their own or get a start on their homework.
With Elementary School classes, where I had the same students the entire day, I had no idea how to fill the time. This made for some very long school days. For everyone.
One day, I was assigned to Saint John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School. (My first thought was wondering what their school cheer was.) The school was located in Kilburn, a district of London, which, back then at least, was populated by people on the lower rungs on the economic ladder.
More than half the students originated (or their parents originated) from the West Indies, primarily Jamaica and Trinidad. The rest were Irish kids, who, I was informed, had been expelled from Catholic schools for being too difficult to handle.
Too tough for nuns? Hmph. (Meaning, I though nuns were drill sergeants in habits. And these kids were too difficult for them? But not me? Hmph, indeed!)
Saint John’s headmaster (read: principal) was Mr. Kinsman – a middle-aged man, wearing a tweed sports jacket and a mustache to match. (I could imagine him going into a Menswear Store and saying, “You see this mustache? I want that in a sports jacket.”) On first view, Mr. Kinsman seemed entirely ordinary. But I quickly discovered he was the perfect person for the job.
Mr. Kinsman had energy and spark and playfulness, and intelligence and dedication. He loved his profession, and he loved the students. And the students loved him.
Mr. Kinsman would unexpectedly burst into a classroom, announcing, “Spelling contest! Bucket of tar for the winner!”
Nobody wanted a bucket of tar. There, in fact, was no bucket of tar. It didn’t matter. The students caught the headmaster’s enthusiasm, and exploded with excitement.
Mr. Kinsman took to me right away. During the lunch break, I complained that it was getting tiresome, nomading from school to school, and even worse, when I wasn’t needed, being all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Mr. Kinsman was a doer. So he immediately did something.
Cleaning out a little-used storage area, Mr. Kinsman assembled a new classroom. He siphoned off fifteen students, instantly creating a new class. He made a call to the school administration, and Bingo-Bango! – no more substitute teaching for me. I was a permanent teacher at Saint John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School.
Fifteen students. Around eleven years old. A “fifty-fifty” boys and girls; same thing, black and white. One student, I learned, came from a family of fourteen. That was one child smaller than the class. If you threw in the parents, the class was smaller than the family.
The most significant statistic was this: Only two of the students could read.
Let’s take stock here. I am now in charge of a group of energetic, in some cases, certifiably difficult students, all haling from circumstances strikingly different from my own. This was no longer a question of filling in till the real teacher came back. I was the real teacher. And I was expected to teach.
You’ve probably never thought about this. I hadn’t either, to that point. But suddenly, I was pondering, “How do you teach somebody to read?” In a way, it’s miraculous. They can’t read; and then they can. How exactly does that happen?
I’m sure at Teachers’ School, they prepared you with techniques for teaching children to read. I hadn’t gone to Teachers’ School. I had no clue how to do it.
Illiterate children can’t “read on their own.” As a result, the teacher is required to actively fill the day with activities, which are, hopefully, at least tangentially related to learning something. The problem was, I wasn’t trained in how to do that either.
So I made it up.
Five days a week, from nine to three – minus “Assembly”, where they sang Anglican hymns, a lunch break and two recesses – I had to invent quasi-educational activities for my antsy and often truculent students to participate in.
Activity Number One: Art Class.
I handed every student a sheet of drawing paper. I instructed them to fold the paper in half. Neatly and carefully. I told them to fold their paper in half again. Press down on the fold, make a nice, clean crease. I had them fold the paper in half again. Then again. And again. And again. And again.
I had used up about five minutes. We were moving along.
When it was impossible to fold the drawing paper any smaller, I told the students to unfold their papers, and lay them flat on their desks. They would now notice that the folding had produced a substantial number of little squares.
My final instruction:
“Draw a picture in each of the squares.”
By the time the last student finished their “art project”, I had taken close to an hour off the clock.
Activity Number Two: Math.
“Sums” and “take-aways” – in English we can understand, adding and subtraction.
My objective was two-fold. To help students master adding and subtraction while killing as much time as I possibly could. I concocted a plan that would successfully achieve both.
My secret? Extremely lengthy mathematics problems.
I wrote them on the blackboard:
Four such problems easily consumed another hour. At the same time, those kids were learning.
One day, as my students were struggling with my mega-“take-aways”, Mr. Kinsman paid a surprise visit to my classroom. He complimented me on how quiet it was, and how diligently my students were working. Then he glanced at the blackboard.
And he called me aside.
Mr. Kinsman offered me some advice.
“If you want them to ‘get’ the concept of ‘take-aways’, you have to give them problems reflecting their everyday experience. ‘Five cats, minus two cats.’ ‘Seven dogs, minus three dogs.’ You see what I’m getting at?”
I told him I did. And he left.
I now had a dilemma. I knew Mr. Kinsman was right. But his advice was unhelpful as related to the desperately-needed killing of time. Somehow, I had to satisfy both concerns. And I figured out how.
After Mr. Kinsman’s departure, I returned to the blackboard and made an adjustment to my subtraction question. The question now read:
With strategies such as these, I would make it through the day.
Tomorrow: Things I did right – a considerably shorter posting.