On Tuesday an office aid brought me a sub cover sheet with an interesting assignment on it. The teacher of the newcomer class would be gone for a meeting and needed someone to look over his class. The newcomer class is for students who have been in the United States for less than a year and the entire crux of the class is to provide students with an opportunity to develop their English language skills while simultaneously interacting with rigorous academic content. While I have had a lot of experiences working with students who have a limited mastery of English, these students would be a whole new ball game.
I remember a specific instance at the beginning of the school year. The tardy bell had just rung and I was walking from the portables to the main building to run some errands on my plan time. Two students were walking out to the portables; one of them was loudly smacking on a piece of gum. While I usually turn my eye to gum because I don’t think it’s a battle worth fighting, this kid was really going to town, so I told him to spit it out. He just looked at me and told me, “No English.”
A beat later, I remembered what I thought was the Spanish word for gum and combined that with enough hand motions to get my point across. The student eventually spit his gum out, but I remember walking away wondering if the student had used his language inexperience as an excuse for not doing what was expected of him.
This was going through my mind when I walked into the class during my 7th hour. The usual teacher was just on his way out for his meeting as I was walking in. He handed me one math worksheet for the kids to do, spoke to his students in rapid-fire Spanish, and then left. I passed the work out, not knowing what else to do.
Without even looking at the worksheet, one of the students said, “No se. I don’t know how.”
Another starting circling random answers on his worksheet. He was finished by the time I was finished with passing out the assignment.
Oh, and did I mention that this was the first day of the new semester?
What followed was classroom chaos the likes of which I haven’t seen since the beginning of my teaching career. Students didn’t even try to work. They sat around and talked. One girl attempted to belt out a brutalized version of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”. There was shouting and students tried to move out of their desks to other locations around the room. I didn’t know what to do.
I didn’t speak the language. It was the very end of the day, a day where I’d been at school for 10 hours already with a faculty meeting looming large. I was the proverbial powerless sub. The situation certainly wasn’t bad enough for me to dump it on to an administrator’s lap and because we were out in the portables, the volume wouldn’t be a distraction for other classes.
So, I rode it out. A couple of the worst offenders I moved next to me and I shushed students probably a hundred times, but other than that, I just let it ride. What else was I supposed to do? Finally, mercifully, the announcements came on and students were dismissed. When the last student left, I just sat there for a minute, trying to let my brain decompress. And with that, the first day of my last semester in TFA came to an end.