Fasten your seatbelts and get set for a raucous ride when the former Chocolate Singles Magazine founder and publisher reenters a public school classroom as a substitute teacher. Many of you may remember Ms. Thang as the successful entrepreneur who launched the first publication that introduced African American singles to the burgeoning world of personal ad dating, along with an enticing menu of star-studded parties at some of New York's most coveted venues and exclusive travels to exotic Caribbean destinations. But after a sensational fifteen-year run, the decline of print advertising dollars took its toll and Chocolate Singles was forced to fold the tent.
Abandoning the limelight and finding refuge in her new Atlanta domicile, Barbara Miles decided, after an extended hiatus, that a return to her original calling, teaching school, would be just the antidote for the simultaneous collapse of her business and marriage. Little did she suspect that twenty-first century schools function in a whole different and unpredictable orbit than the one she had known earlier. But the trooper that she is, Ms. Thang lifted her chin and buckled down to confront the bevy of surprises and challenges that greeted her as she tested her mettle for returning to a full-time teaching position.
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Ms. Thang Goes Back to School
Survival Lessons from a Substitute Teacher
By Barbara Miles
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Barbara Miles
All rights reserved.
The Community Classroom
The three-hour orientation session was held in a fifth grade elementary school classroom. Really. We, the chosen ones, crouched meekly in our seats like good little students fully engaged in our lesson, or doing a damn good job of faking it.
"Are there any questions?" the instructor asked, while rapidly packing her gear, signaling the end of the lecture as she prepared to bolt for the exit.
Silence. We sat obediently on our hands. Not a creature was stirring.
What circumstances had brought this unlikely gathering of dissimilar souls to this classroom, I wondered. I stole a glance at the recently retired teacher whose fixed income was perhaps coming up a bit short to sustain her lifestyle in today's economy. Then I eyed the teacher wannabes; some of whom were under-qualified for full-time positions and others, interns majoring in education seeking to jumpstart their careers. Several transferees from other school systems had also answered Wilton County's cast call for substitute teachers while waiting for permanent openings consistent with their credentials and experience.
Questions? No, there were no questions. We had made the cut; what else was there to know.
But did my non-traditional classmates know what they were getting into? Probably not. I suspect the unemployed former TV journalist may have imagined she was signing on to become a guest lecturer. The out-of-work financial analyst whose office had been downsized in a company merger may have thought he could just make regular classroom appearances as role model for the day. And surely the computer programmer and other tech sector geeks whose jobs had been outsourced to India were confident that they could lure children of all ages into their temples of knowledge with their deft command of icons and iPads. Even I, a former teacher and erstwhile magazine publisher, didn't delay the instructor's departure with my usual probing questions.
In better economic times, many of us would have been actively courted by eager headhunters looking to pocket a fat fee by auctioning us off to the highest corporate bidders. But that was then and this was now. Jobs of any kind are hard enough to come by, and I, like my classmates, needed to go back to work.
Once I made up my mind to take the plunge, I applied to several school districts in my area for a substitute teacher position. Imagine my surprise when prospective employers weren't particularly impressed with my resume! When I called back to check my status in one district, the human resource administrator informed me rather tersely that I just had to be patient. "You need to understand," she stated haughtily, "we routinely get considerably more applications than we have openings, and you will just have to wait your turn."
For me, it was a rather rude awakening. Until then, never in my long and varied career had I ever imagined that I would have to stand in line for a substitute teaching job. Obviously, "over-qualified" is a term that has been erased from the vocabulary of today's HR snobs.
But it seems that job opportunities, as with most things in life, are a matter of feast or famine because, wouldn't you know it, two offers came simultaneously from neighboring school districts, Wilton and Marshview. I opted for Wilton simply because the hourly pay scale was a few dollars higher, a consideration at which I wasn't inclined to scoff.
Some school districts have an observation requirement for new subs, which is essentially a one-day commitment to sit in on one or more classes during regular school hours. Wilton County had no such requirement, but I thought it was a good idea. So I created a bit of a stir coming out of the starting gate with my "observation" request.
Schools can be very regimented institutions. In general, they don't take kindly to departures from normal procedures. There was no paragraph, not even a footnote, in this particular district's rulebook about observation opportunities for prospective substitutes. But to their credit, Wilton rose to the occasion and endeavored to accommodate me. Thus, my reintroduction to the world of education since my long-ago days of teaching was at a well-organized, high-achieving middle school.
After my daylong visit, I was inspired. What I didn't realize was that I had apparently been paired with the most gifted teacher in one of the best schools in the county.
When I entered Mrs. Long's classroom, escorted by one of the assistant principals, she hardly looked up to acknowledge our presence. I tried to remain inconspicuous, taking a seat in the back of the room as the AP quietly made her exit. The teacher was obviously in the middle of a lesson and endeavored to ignore the interruption. I surmised that visitors were often steered her way.
The look of Mrs. Long's classroom, first and foremost, told the story: a lot of learning was going on here. I was dazzled. The first thing that caught my attention was a display of dioramas depicting various stages in the evolution of man. Compositions mounted on bulletin boards around the room attested to the fact that the students who constructed these visuals were thoroughly familiar with the history they portrayed. Collages told another aspect of the story — early man's interaction with his environment. And an attractive, neatly organized interest center, replete with a sofa and two huge fluffy floor cushions (Can you believe it!) offered an appealing array of books, computers — all Internet connected — magazines, video and audio tapes for small group and independent study.
This teacher was a joy to behold. She never raised her voice (only her eyebrows) but occasionally tapped softly on her desk to get the students' attention. Participation in class discussions was animated. These eager minds just couldn't wait to be expanded. When they took a test, all of them appeared to be fully engaged. The ones who finished early tiptoed over to the teacher to have their work checked, after which they busied themselves with some special project from the abundant options in the interest center.
I was sold! This was important work. Minds were being molded, horizons expanded. This was the face of the future. I could sink my teeth into this.
The list of 40 things every substitute teacher should know distributed by the orientation class instructor included the following nuggets: a general admonishment to always be positive and avoid negativism (no further instructions on this point); tips on avoiding gossip and rumors; advice on how to acquaint oneself with the curriculum (a neat trick when the substitute is called the evening before or the morning of the assignment); cautions against becoming too familiar with the students; and this one, which ultimately was of particular concern to me: Don't deal directly with parents. Parents should never come to the classroom without a pass from the office.
While recognizing that the stuff presented to us was pretty superficial, I had sat serenely through my three-hours. After all, what was there really to be apprehensive about? I wasn't a novice. I was a veteran of two big city school systems where I had been a certified, highly rated teacher, and ultimately promoted out of the classroom to become a college administrator at a well-respected New York City campus. So I knew education from the ground up. Hell, I could teach anybody's class and probably the teachers too, if truth were told. Or so I thought.
Who am I?
Good question. Back in my publishing heyday, friends dubbed me "Ms. Thang." Okay. Translate successful entrepreneur and accomplished wordsmith who knows how to strut her stuff. If they only knew the truly reticent, compulsive workaholic who hides behind that façade! Give me one job and I'll find a way to elevate it to two, sweating bullets all the way. Maybe that's because I've been working practically my whole life; got my first job at fourteen years old. I've always set pretty high performance standards for myself, which I too often take to bed with me at the expense of a good night's sleep.
In the early 80's, enticed by the lure of entrepreneurship, I decided to try my hand at publishing. As it developed, I hit the right market niche at the right time because my small, independent, low-budget magazine took off at warp speed, becoming an instant success. Some of you may have read about Chocolate Singles in the New York Times, N. Y. Daily News, Wall Street Journal, Essence Magazine and other major publications. Many of my subscribers saw my face so frequently on The Phil Donahue Show (Remember him? Ruled daytime talk before Oprah) and local TV channels that they thought I was on the programs' payroll. To media far and near, I became the "it" girl; face of the first singles magazine to target my underserved demographic. And, if you lived in New York, who could forget those star-studded, singles-only parties that jam-packed such popular venues as the Palladium, Studio 54, The Red Parrot, Copacabana and The Underground.
Chocolate Singles Magazine had a good run for nearly fifteen years, but eventually the declining market for print publications took its toll. Although my audience was increasing, advertising dollars had become so fiercely competitive that even such industry titans as Time Warner and Conde Nast were taking a serious walloping. My small company couldn't tread water forever, so after the simultaneous dissolution of my magazine and third bad marriage, I fled to Atlanta for a long overdue hiatus from love and life in general.
After two years of idleness, interspersed by a sprinkling of volunteer work here and there, I found myself suffering from a malady I had never experienced in my entire life — an acute case of cabin fever. It seemed everybody I knew was working but me. It was like I could find my way to the mall blindfolded and my car would steer itself automatically to my favorite parking space. I became so predictable that one of my friends once came looking for me at the mall when I failed to answer my cell phone, located my car in its usual parking spot and came directly to my favorite store to ferret me out.
When I wasn't bargain chasing, I found myself sinking into daylong doldrums filled with an endless cycle of cable news networks and crossword puzzles. I was reminded of the wife whose husband complained about his difficulty adjusting to her early retirement when her normal lively and informed dinner table conversation had digressed to daily updates on the latest soap opera trysts. I, too, was becoming irrelevant. There is nothing like extended idleness to breed a better understanding of a good old-fashioned work ethic.
A return to teaching would be more than a means of making strained financial ends meet. I wasn't down to my last dime and, with a few lifestyle adjustments, could survive. But I wanted to go back to work. Going back to my original calling represented an opportunity to become relevant again, to make a contribution to the collective value system of the next generation. I felt abundantly motivated. I was going to help save the world — one child at a time.
Panic was about to overtake me when, after satisfying all the eligibility requirements, including background checks and finger printing, I sat around several days waiting for the phone to ring. Then the call came. It was for an elementary school located in a somewhat remote eastern Atlanta suburb that was about a 45-minute drive from my home.
Friends couldn't understand why I would be interested in an assignment that involved so much travel, but I wasn't worried. I was a seasoned business traveler. In New York, the trip to my office in the Borough of Queens from the great white elephant of a suburban estate that had been my ex-husband's ultimate fantasy was an hour at best by car. In traffic, which was always unpredictable, it could easily be stretched by another half hour or more. So I was well conditioned for this little trek. As long as I didn't get lost, I would get there with time to spare.
My first assignment was a fifth grade class in an ethnically integrated, predominantly Caucasian community that was actually more exurban than suburban. In some respects, it reminded me of my old New York neighborhood that was located on the outer fringes of an advancing urban sprawl where the mini mansions of the community's new social elites lived side-by-side with the modest country cottages of third and fourth generation inhabitants. This was that, minus the mini mansions.
The school was a new construction in its first year of operation. Its lackluster architecture wasn't a likely candidate for any awards; except for the abundant windows, it was easily mistaken for a one-story industrial plant. As I crossed the threshold of my new career, I sniff ed the lingering scent of plaster and paint that new buildings seem reluctant to surrender.
I had started out in the dark, anxious to get there and get situated before the children arrived. The sun was just peeking over the horizon as I walked through the school's nondescript entrance.
In retrospect, I was Alice in Wonderland falling obliviously into a deep, dark and uncertain rabbit hole. Like Alice, I was equally unsuspecting of the abundant array of surprises my substituting future would hold.
Now, having emerged on the other side, I am writing this survival manual for others like me, new recruits who rush with wide-eyed wonder toward the uncertainties of their new substitute teaching assignments. Perhaps I can alert you to a few of the pitfalls in your brave new world before you take a similar plunge.CHAPTER 2
Rules of Engagement
Rule 1: Do a reality check.
In wonderland, things are rarely what they seem. I was soon to gain a better appreciation of the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it's probably just that.
My first day of subbing was entirely manageable and unbelievably exhilarating. The absent fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kane, had left model lesson plans. Besides the basics, which accounted for nearly every minute of the school day, there were numerous helpful notations. A schedule for daily specials (art, music and physical education) was neatly charted; library privileges were explained, as were interest center activities; line leaders had been designated to avoid a mad scramble for the coveted positions; and names taped to the students' desks facilitated identification, a critical asset on that first day when the substitute is attempting to establish rapport. There was even a well-defined point system for rewarding good behavior.
I ended my first day feeling entirely successful, but the plan was so well written and the students so disciplined that a robot could probably have executed it. Still, I felt empowered when other teachers in the fifth grade cluster noted that they hadn't heard a peep out of the class all day. It was true; the students had been exceptionally well behaved and motivated.
In all honesty, I have to concede that the magic was not of my making, and the fact that these children had such good work habits was no accident of fate. I would guess that they had the potential to be as disorderly as any other class. But it was immediately apparent that a system of controls was in place. From the moment they entered the classroom, they knew what was expected of them throughout the day.
A soft buzz had permeated the room as students greeted each other, exchanged pleasantries and speculated about the stranger standing at the door. Substitutes are a familiar sight, so they didn't seem particularly surprised to see me. The bolder ones approached me to ask if their teacher was out for the day, while the rest of them simply hung up their coats and took their seats. The morning assignments left by their teacher were already on the board and they knew what to do. My name was also on the board, but I introduced myself nevertheless.
These fifth graders were challenged throughout the day to perform academically, with numerous opportunities for creative expression. Threats were not necessary. In this environment, the carrot worked better than the stick, and the most effective carrot was spurring them on to feelings of accomplishment.
We quickly established a mutual commitment to our respective goals; they recognized that I was serious about carrying out their teacher's plan, and they were willing to help me over any rough spots. Hands flailed the air vigorously as they competed to give me guidance in interpreting classroom rules and procedures. All of us shared a common goal: to impress the absent teacher with our performances when she returned.
Excerpted from Ms. Thang Goes Back to School by Barbara Miles. Copyright © 2015 Barbara Miles. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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