The Ephemeral Educator

Life as a substitute teacher, or reserve teacher as they’re called in Minnesota, has proved to be a lot different than I had envisioned it to be. I went into the experience expecting a lot of worksheets and videos and not a whole lot else. I mean, I had done it before when I lived in Utah and it wasn’t that big of a deal. A relatively easy way to make ends meet for a while.
Boy was I wrong.

My first indication that something was different this time was when I realized that to be a substitute in Minneapolis you have to be a licensed teacher. No problem. This wasn’t a problem not because I have a license, but instead because I found the loophole. A bachelor’s degree and a form signed by the superintendent and, wala, you’re a sub.

As I began making the circuit around the city, subbing for various schools, grades and courses, it became apparent to me that something more was expected of me than to baby-sit and read the newspaper. There were actual lesson plans. Ambitious ones too.

One class I taught was made up of about 30 Somali middle schoolers, all who had moved to the United States within the last year and a half while fleeing persecution in their home country. The students, some of who were just getting used to the idea of being in a classroom, were expected to translate the numbers 15 to 20 into English, Spanish, Arabic, Somali and Oromo. The last one I had to look up, because I wasn’t even sure it was a language. (Oromo is a traditional oral language in Somalia – it has only recently been written down.) Without the correct answers I attempted to fuddle my way through by having the students come up to the front of the classroom and write down the answers on the overhead projector. However, my genius plan backfired and lead instead to a giant disagreement, one in which I had no way of intervening. This was only the warm up.

Some days I have loved the ephemeral nature of this job. I can go home and completely forget about the problems of the children in my classroom. Some days I become frustrated by my inability to make a lasting difference in their lives. I suppose this is the tug of war felt by most in the teaching profession. Wanting to make a difference and trying not to be consumed by it. So much for my easy job.


I wish I would have read more James Joyce…

As I was leaving school today, one of my favorite students asked me,
“What’s it like to be
St. Patty’s Day?”

Good Question.

What is it like to be St. Patty’s Day? I hadn’t really thought about it, but, since it is my name after all, I suppose I should have.

“It’s quite fine,” I said.

“What are you doing for St. Patty’s Day?”

“My husband and I are having corned beef and cabbage for dinner.”

“CORNED BEEF AND CABBAGE?!!! What is corned beef?”

I love St. Patrick’s Day. When I was growing up, we would wake to green milk in the refrigerator and were put to bed with a buttery salty meal of corned beef and cabbage. My mother worked hard to make any and every holiday special and extraordinary and she always managed to do it. This holiday has always been one of my favorites and I think back fondly to my senior year in high school, when I marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, Ireland, playing the cowbell. What a memory.

As a people, the Irish are survivors – the potato famine, the weather, the IRA. Maybe that’s what I admire most about them. Their perseverance and their ability to take all those gray, harsh days and turn them into some of the world’s greatest authors (James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, W.B. Yeats), musicians (The Cranberries, U2, Damien Rice) and peace activists (Bono).

Long live the Irish.


One of the beautiful things about a foot of freshly fallen snow.


Harper Finds His Voice

Like most grown adults without children, my life naturally revolves around my dog. I’ve often said that Harper fills the void left in our life, which, truth be told, isn’t altogether untrue. Our chocolate lab/Australian Shepherd mix is always there to happily greet us when we wake up or anytime we walk through the front door for that matter and he has an adorable penchant for cuddling and bestowing pure admiration and affection. In fact, he is laying his beautiful head on my arm right at this very moment.

It has recently occurred to my husband and I that although we enjoy his quiet, gentle manner and teddy bear-like persona, it might be wise to help him find his inner dog. Living in an inner city neighborhood he often serves as a walking bottle of mace to shady-looking passers by. They catch one glimpse of our 80 pound best friend and they quickly cross to the other side of the street. Children run. Grown men shiver. Unbeknownst to them, Harper wouldn’t hurt a mouse. In fact, one time he actually chased one into our apartment while trying to make friends with it.

So, my husband and I decided it might be useful for Harper to learn how to bark, should the situation arise where we fear for things such as life or property. He doesn’t bark very often, only when he wants to make a point rather emphatically, which, I must say, he does.
That’s why lately our upstairs neighbor has been hearing, “Woof! Woof! Speak! Woof! Woof! WOOOOOF! Good boy! Good boy!”

When I recently passed her in the street the subject naturally came up and she just had to ask. Why were we encouraging our lab with the deep husky fear-of-god bark to bark?
“Most people try to get their dog to stop barking,” she said a little bewildered. “Why encourage him to start?”

“Because,” I said, “he needs to know how and as his mother I must teach him.”

So, we’ve been practicing and I think he really is getting better. Each time I say, “Speak,” poor Harper really tries. You can see his whole body gearing up. He starts to rock back and forth with a look of determination. He mutters a few airy sounding deep breaths. Sometimes no noise comes out all at. But, eventually, when he works up the nerve, he can really let one out.

The ground shakes, my body shutters and my upstairs neighbor shakes her head. I can’t help it. I am proud.