Willmar Schools, Diversity, and my Experiences as a Substitute Teacher


Posted by womanabouttown | Posted in Race Relations, Willmar | Posted on 14-06-2012

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There was a recent article (OK, probably a month ago)  in the West Central Tribune about the status of Willmar’s elementary schools according to standardized tests. Our schools were among Minnesota’s lowest performing schools in student growth, student achievement, and achievement gap. This is very disheartening news for our town. But guess what? It seems that a lot of people are blaming the minorities for the bad scores. This makes me sad. I have heard some people say “Willmar has gone downhill in the past 20 years” which seems to allude to the growing minority population. Has crime increased in Willmar because of minorities? I doubt it. I pay special attention to the reporting of crimes in the newspaper just so I can say this: Most of the crimes in Willmar are committed by white people.  


I have been a substitute teacher for Willmar Public Schools, just for the last 2 months of this past school year. No, you don’t need a teacher’s license to be a substitute teacher in Minnesota or in most other states. You only need a 4-year degree, which I have. Some states only require a 2-year degree or less.


Anyway, I have made some observations about the schools and about children today in general. Believe me, the teachers work hard. They have a schedule that they are expected to follow, such as language between 10 and 11 am and math between 1 and 2 pm (I don’t know the schedule exactly). The kids go to other classes for math, according to ability. The kids only have 1 recess for the day, tied to lunch, and the whole lunch-recess combination is only 30 or 35 minutes. There are all kinds of special, structured things that each classroom does at least once a week, such as time in the computer lab, music, physical education, art, and the library. The kids move around to these activities a lot. The children who are new to America go to ELL (English Language Learners) specialists every day, maybe twice a day. I saw NO disruption in classroom teaching or curriculum because of Somalis and Mexicans, so let’s not blame them on poor test scores. The teachers go on with their lesson plans. I think the purpose of the ELL teachers is to meet the new-to-America kids where they are with language skills and catch THEM up to the classroom. In other words, the class does not slow down to meet the needs of those who are just learning English. And from what I saw, most of the kids were getting along quite well with each other, despite race differences. They seem to accept diversity much more than adults do, as usual. Adults can learn so much from children.


As a substitute, I sure had to deal with some misbehaving kids, and I’m talking about all kids, of every race. I know that the perspective of a substitute teacher is a little skewed because of children’s innate tendencies to be a little naughty around a substitute. Nonetheless, I was taken aback by the behavior of some of the kids. Unfortunately, it is easy to let the bad behavior of a few kids take over my viewpoint of the kids in general. After a few days of substituting, I got comfortable with sending the disruptive children to the principal’s office, much to their horror. Classroom management was so much easier once those kids were out. I had to remind myself “Pay attention to the kids who are doing really well” and there are a lot of good-intentioned children who are so eager to learn and to help out the poor substitute. Bless their hearts. There are some fantastic children out there.


I can’t help but wonder what home life is like for misbehaving children. Are the parents watching them sufficiently, or do they expect the schools to do all of the work of raising their children properly? More than once, I overheard teachers say  “You might be able to get away with that at home, but not here.” I often hear about the fact that children run their households these days. Sometimes I wonder if parents are just so busy, with both Mom and Dad working full-time. 


 A lot of things about elementary school have changed since I was little. For instance, there are no blackboards. There are white boards, which are usually so covered up in posters that there is very little space for writing. Classrooms now have smartboards, which are big computers that teachers can control with the computer at their desk or by touching the icons right on the board. The smartboard and I are not the best of friends….Another change that struck me is the serving of breakfast and snacks at school. In my opinion, this is another example of parents pushing off some of their responsibilities onto the schools. Yes, kids do better in school if they’ve had breakfast, but shouldn’t that be up to the parents? Are these school breakfasts healthy? Well, I saw pop tarts, sugared cereals, and cookie packs. The snacks fare a little better: I saw sliced fruit, cucumber, and crackers.


I may continue with substitute teaching next school year. I have a temp job now, which may become permanent, but it’s part-time (yay!!!) so I can always do some subbing in the schools here and there. There are a lot of things I like about subbing. Like I said, many children are a joy. I think my favorite position was substituting in physical education with Kindergarteners. Surprise surprise. Who wouldn’t like that? I also liked working with students in small groups, helping them with their math and reading.


Of course I always get a kick out of the things that kids say. I overheard one 2nd grade boy ask another boy “Why were you so mean to me on the bus yesterday?” The other boy said “I don’t know… I didn’t know I was being mean…I didn’t mean it.” Awwwwwww.


To read more about race relations in Willmar, you can read a better blog at http://mamasota.areavoices.com.  


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