Creating a Caring Classroom

October 2016
Written By: 
Phil La Borie

Observations of an Horry County substitute teacher

When it comes to summing up my substitute teaching experience in Horry County this past year, Charles Dickens said it best. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

On the one hand, I usually get smiling faces, hugs and cooperation when students recognize me. That’s very gratifying, to say the least. On the other hand, I’m sure you remember those halcyon days in your school history when a substitute teacher appeared. The class reaction was pretty universal, “Oh boy, yahoo, no need to pay attention, it’s a free day!” But, take heart all you concerned parents, grandparents, guardians and others; although disrespectful behavior does happen more often than I think it should, that isn’t always the case.

But first, to understand how lack of caring and concern can emerge, here is Mr. Phil’s Classification of Students (Based mainly on Elementary School students):

Saints: They couldn’t, wouldn’t or won’t do anything wrong if they were asked or even paid to do so.

Helpers: They appear as if by magic in droves and are always eager and willing little elves. However, more often than not, they add to classroom confusion.

Worker Bees: They can work through the atomic explosion or emotional meltdown that is happening across the desk from them. They simply get on with the assignment regardless of any distractions.

Mystics: The dreamers, off in their own world, or a book or a computer.

Flatlanders: Interested in anything? Anything at all? Not them.

If that sounds a little grim, it is not meant to be so. It’s merely a reflection on the reality taking place in our classrooms today. Most students do care, but sometimes it takes a Herculean effort on both my part and their part to bring it out.

So much of my reception in an unfamiliar classroom is largely dependent on the instructions the regular teacher has left for me. Nine times out of ten, it’s very thorough and complete with a list of those students I should keep an eye on.

And let me pause to commend the teachers. They are a remarkable group determined to do right by their charges.

So my inspiration for creating a caring classroom comes not only from current teachers, but in addition from a very instructive book that I ran across in a teacher’s workroom, Teaching Children to Care. The author, Ruth Sidney Charney, says, “Teaching, by definition is uncertainty.”

Amen to that.

When you enter a classroom as a substitute teacher, it’s akin to setting foot on an unknown shore. Will the natives be friendly or hostile? Anything is possible. But in the midst of all the uncertainty, I feel that one thing is clear: children can be taught discipline. Not by shouting. Not by taking away privileges. Not by sending them to the Assistant Principal (although I’ve had to resort to those actions on more than one occasion); but by example. By showing them that I care for them, want to hear what they have to say, value their opinions and am willing to praise those who set good examples and firmly deal with those who make bad decisions.

They can learn discipline. And discipline starts with caring about themselves. So how are my student classifications affected by caring?

Saints: Generally, they do care about themselves and their classmates, sometimes a little more than is actually needed.

Helpers: In their eagerness to help, they often are the source of “he said, she said” tattling and tales, which are of no help.

Worker Bees: Continue to be Worker Bees. They lead by example.

Mystics: Largely care about themselves and little else. But that doesn’t make them bad students, just focused on whatever it is they’re interested in.

Flatliners: Sadly, sometimes the 5 percent of a classroom that doesn’t seem to care about much of anything continues not to care very much. Are they beyond our reach? Not always. It seems to me that rather than just leave them behind, I look for ways and means that they can relate to. If they’re wearing a nifty T-shirt, I ask where they got it. Why are they wearing it? The point is to get some sort of a dialogue going. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t.

And, to be honest, some students are a combination of all classifications. But then, aren’t we all?

In addition, I’ve observed that substitute teachers don’t get very far with creating caring unless they are professional substitutes. That means dressing the part, showing up early, showing an interest in the class and the classwork and, above all, not taking things personally.

Ruth Charney sums up my thinking best when she says, “When we teach children through our own disciplined and caring actions in the world, we take an authentic stance. We use the most basic and fundamental principle of teaching. Our actions speak louder than our words. It is then that children say, ‘I see you. I see everything.’ ”

Finally, the Tao, as usual, presents us with the path forward. The Way states, “Guide with awareness, Lead with modesty.”

Double Amen.