Substituting vs. Tutoring

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I’ve warmed to the idea that I should be a teacher. It’s taken some time, but I’ve come to realize that working with students (of all ages) brings me a sublime pleasure that other jobs have not and do not. Because of this, I’ve been working on getting into a classroom on a more permanent basis. I’ve been tutoring for ever; it’s well documented on this blog. But substitute teaching is relatively new as far as my teaching career goes. However, in that short time, I’ve noticed several differences.

Substitute teaching, at its best, is the closest you can get to teaching without being a certified teacher. In many situations, as the sub, you’re responsible for making sure the academic goals of that class are met that day. I relish those assignments, especially within an area of my expertise, because I know I am actually teaching, adding to the knowledge base of the students.

It’s fantastic.

Tutoring offers a similar feeling but it is relegated to an individual. As a sub I can achieve that “Spark,” the moment a student finally understands a concept, fifteen to twenty-five times in one class. When you factor in multiple periods during the day, you’re looking at generating the “Spark” at least one hundred times in one day. Tutoring can’t match those numbers.

Another interesting aspect of sub-teaching is the variety of assignments. As an example, these were my “jobs” last week: Mon-Tue, High school gym class. Wed, 6th grade theater class. Thurs, 6th grade science class. Fri, 7th/8th grade history class. What better way to test your ability to manage a class by pitting yourself against different subjects at different school levels? Plus gym! If you can handle that, chances are you’ll make a good teacher.

This variety can be a bit of a double-edged sword though. I was complaining last week that I signed up to cover an English class but was moved to a theater class when I showed up at the school. Sure, that sucks, especially if you’re trying to gain experience in a specific subject, but as my friend B. Walters pointed out, if you can teach outside your subject area, it makes a better teacher. Wise words.

As a tutor, I stay within my knowledge base, writing. Yes, I know a lot about the writing process, how to do it, editing, drafting, blah, blah, blah. I’ve used this skill to earn a living. Despite how deep my knowledge is, in the grand scheme of subjects, it is narrow. I’d be less confident tutoring someone in French even though I speak the language. As a sub-teacher, I can work in a class in a different subject because the permanent teacher usually leaves a bit of a guideline that acts as a refresher for me on the specific subject, allowing me to be successful as I lead the class that day.

At its worst, sub-teaching is a just glorified baby-sitting. There are those days when you show up, looking forward to doing some actual teaching, and the permanent teacher has left a bunch of worksheets for their students to do. Awesome, now I’ll spend the day taking attendance, handing out worksheets and monitoring students’ desires to leave class for a “drink of water” or to “use the bathroom.” Worksheets are offensive to me. They say the permanent teacher views the day they are not present as a lost day with no potential for learning because a substitute couldn’t possibly teach a class, and classes covered by a substitute couldn’t possibly learn anything without the permanent teacher.

As a tutor, I’ve never had a situation where I had to rely on worksheets to teach or pass time. Most often, students come to tutors with work that needs to be done. On the rare occasion that a student has no work, but wants to work with a tutor, I know plenty of quick lessons to give so that tutoring time isn’t wasted. None of them involve worksheets.

Tutoring isn’t always as great as it seems either. For every student you see who is prepared and ready to work, there are ten students who “have nothing to do” or “forgot/lost the assignment,” if they show up at all. While I’m all for being paid to sit around, playing on my laptop, part of the reason I tutor is for the interactions. I want to see and help students!

A la fini (that’s French), I wouldn’t say one form of teaching, sub-teaching or tutoring, is better than the other. They  have their place in the spectrum of education. For me, however, sub-teaching is a means to an end. It is my ticket into full time teaching. As for tutoring, I feel I can always do that no matter where I am or what I’m doing.


On Teaching Well

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This Thursday, I asked five educators to bring a sample of their writing to a professional development session so that we could do some writing exercises.  I gave them a handout on passive verbs and another on the 19 most common grammatical errors, and started by asking them to circle their passive verbs and change the sentences.  When I introduced this exercise, I was as careful and gentle as I am with students:  with students, I do not want to further injure their already low confidence.  With educators, I must guard their egos.   So I told people to take their time, to ask me for help, that whatever work they produced was perfect.  Several people, including a man who has challenged me frequently in the past, could not change their sentences.  We discussed it briefly, and then moved on to identifying subjects and verbs, and then identifying clauses.  Again, people struggled.  Again, I gently encouraged, made corrections, joked a bit.  But as people started to gather their papers to leave (probably with a good amount of relief), I said, imagine how our students feel.


Imagine how our students, who have been failed again and again by an educational system that sees them as numbers and teachers who fear to roll up their sleeves and interact with them, feel.  Teaching is not supposed to instill fear, shame, or humiliation.  Students are not supposed to learn alone, or never make mistakes, or fear that making a mistake will lead to humilation.  But too often, that is exactly what education means.  Too often, a well meaning teacher brings in a worksheet, passes it out, and tells students to follow the directions.  But often, there is never interplay, room for error, or freedom from fear.


When I teach someone something, I create an organized, structured, exercise.  I tell students what and why we are doing something:   Sometimes I use what others have done, sometimes I make it up.  I know if I want students to learn, I must immerse them in an experience.  I do not say, fix your passive verbs.  I discuss how changing passive verbs can enliven writing and eliminate error.  I do some examples from the students own work, showing them that I too fumble and need to think and scratch out words to do the exercise.  Then I ask them to try, and walk around, and help people when and where they are stuck.

To do all this, I need to ensure students feel safe–no safety, no learning.  This is done with my body language, the words I use, allowing mistakes without penalty, and assuming that my students are trying as hard as they can.  Students respond to safety.  Students respond to praise.  Students respond to someone saying, see, look what you did here!  That’s great!  Now apply what you did to that sentence to this sentence.   Students respond to questions:  so who or what is the actor?  If you are writing, hip hop artists are doomed, who or what is dooming them?  Oh, the desire for material wealth?  Ok, so try that:  the desire for material wealth dooms hip hop artists.  This exchange is gentle, kind, but passionate and engaged too–and students need and deserve our full engagement with them.


When I show patience, kindness, enthusiasm, encouragement and passion, students learn, and find learning relates to what they need to know.  The magic ingredient of teaching is not knowledge although knowledge is critical.  It is not organization although this too is critical.   It is to judge all students as deserving of respect and caring, and giving it to them, day by day, in my interactions with them.

Although I am gentle with students, I am not adverse to asking hard questions or pushing against resistance.  But if a student resists, I don’t force my way through it; I address that instead.  Why do you hate writing?  Who told you you could not write?  Just this week, a resisting student related she had been held back in 3rd grade because her 3rd grade teacher would not help her write well, and she has hated writing and resisted ever since.  So I suggested she write a letter to that teacher, expressing all the fury and rage and humiliation she felt, and then burn it.  Or show it to me.  So then, we could get on with the business of learning writing.

I think this strategy is similar to Japanese philosophy:  the rod breaks while the reed bends.  I try to be the reed, but to never, ever, be the teacher who simply surrenders on a student.

No one taught me to be this way.  Honestly, I do not know why I am this way.  But it is my best trait as a teacher, and I dearly wish all teachers had this.  It seems the great ones do.  My tutors, for example, in their very different styles, show this same level of engagement and caring–whether through joking, prodding, passion, fury on behalf of a student because of a knuckle-headed teacher, intensity, or force of personality, have created what some would deem miracles of learning.

But we know better:  we know it is the engagement with our students wherever they are that leads to trust, and trust leads to learning.  It is ineffable, this quality, and shows many faces:  but the results are always the same–smiling, encouraged students who have learned something today.

Upgrading my Character: Job Search as a Video Game

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Here at Phreelance Writers we love beating horses. Especially if they’re dead. With that, let me talk about jobs and such. I’ve already explained my desire to leave my current position and since then some interesting things have happened. My job search has taken on new dimensions and gone into areas that I previously thought off limits or out of bounds. While I’m curious to see where these paths take me, I’m also wary that I’m straying too far away from my original desires. But at the same time there is a level of excitement associated with where these new paths could lead.

I keep thinging of this video game that  Gage and I have played. The game, a role-playing game, involved a lot of character development through assigning earned points to various skills and attributes. The points were earned by completing missions. As you upgraded your character, new skills became available depending on how you had allocated the points on the various skills and attributes. Gage and I would discuss how we each develped and molded our character to represent the ways we enjoyed taking on the challanges of the game. Gage had developed his into a long-range fighter, complete with sniper weapons attributes that made his character hard to target. I had created a melee character, full of health bonuses and attack damage multipliers.

I  find myself thinking in terms of collecting skills and attributes. These new avenues in my job search represent a chance to gain new skillsets and strengthen various attributes that I considered too weak to be useful. I am my character now. I’m looking for missions (i.e. continued education) to complete so that I can add those earned points to my already bolstered skill and attribute set and become even more powerful (read: more employable).

When I view my job search as a game, I laugh because it’s much more serious than that, but at the same time the comparison makes sense to me. This view helps renew my interest and desire to push through those moments that I can’t beat, those times when I feel like giving up. As any gamer can tell you, you strive for 100% completion. Everything earned, everything unlocked. The perfect character. The ultimate ending.

What’s is 100% completion for me? Good question. I’m honestly not sure. But I feel like it’s something that will just happen. I doubt I’ll be aware of it until much later. I like the idea of that because it means it’s a persistant state. Unlike video games, where you reach the end, watch final cut scene and then are asked if you want to do it again (replay value), in the real world you just stay in that moment of perfection forever.

A Moment like this

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Last month, I made a brief trip back to Boston to take care of some business. While in town, I stopped in and hung out at my old writing consultant job for a few hours. During my visit there was a sudden rush of students needing help on upcoming papers. I found myself thrust back into the fray of explaining how to support topic sentences with evidence and writing strong conclusions that wrapped up an essay in neat fashion.

It was exhausting and exhilarating. It was as if I had never left. I was in the zone, doing what I really enjoy. The next few hours flew by and before I knew it, I had to leave. As I walked out, I was happy and felt good about the couple of hours of work I had just put in, like I had made a difference.

Now, back in Texas, I often think about those few hours and it hits me. I miss teaching. It’s not so much the writing that I miss, but the interactions with my students. I miss their questions and watching as understanding spreads across their faces when they finally get a concept I’ve been explaining. I could never pinpoint what it was about teaching that I enjoyed so much until a recent event brought it to my attention.

Last week, I started a taking a class in the morning before work. I envision as something fun to occupy my time, get me out of bed in the morning and possibly make me a little money down the road. Plus, I just like the idea of learning new stuff. At one point during the class I paired up with another student and we went over the various materials presented that day. As we worked, she asked me question of clarification because she was confused about a particular aspect. I answered her and then gave her a quick trick to remember the answer in the future. That’s when I saw it.

She straightened up, cocked her head to one side, blinked and then nodded. “I get it now,” she said. It was that moment when the piece of information clicked and she completely understood it. I had helped her get there and that made me grin. That moment of complete clarity is the moment that teachers live for. It’s that moment that gets us up and out of bed in the morning. I missed that because I don’t get those moments at my job, which makes me sad.

I think a good job, is a job that allows us to strive for those moments, whatever they may be. For me it’s teaching or, maybe more broadly, it’s the sharing of information. The point is, these are the things that make us happy to do the work we do. Now, I just need to find a way back to doing that work.

Is it Worth it?


A few days ago, I got into a conversation with a friend about education. It started as most of our discussions do, complaining about our current job and how bleak our prospects are. Standard stuff, really. My lament was a reiteration of an old tirade. “I’ve got a masters, why is it that the best I can do is grunt work for grunt pay, fighting for forty hours a week and struggling to make ends meet?”

My friend chortled, “I make more than that, and I don’t even have a single degree.”

His response, though casual, cut me deep. He does make more than me and we work in similar positions. His is an advantage in years of experience.  Sure, I understand that his experience should afford him a larger paycheck, but it’s about more than the fact that he is making almost double what I make. It’s the fact he is further along in a potential “career” than I am and he’s younger than me.

I’m trying not to be jealous.

The idea that this situation exists angers me the most. I spent four years in undergrad and a year and a half in grad school, all funded by student loans, to make less than a guy who went straight into the workforce out of high school. Now, I’m not bad-mouthing my friend’s life decisions. We all have to make our own path. But when I compare us, I can’t help but ask, What’s the point?

If my education can’t grant me better job opportunities then why waste time with it? Why take out educational loans if that education doesn’t put me in a position to repay those loans? I find it difficult to argue in favor of education for education’s sake. Especially, when it feels like the return is so minuscule.

I keep thinking of the board game, Life. When you start the game, each player has an opportunity to go to “college” for the chance to earn a higher paying job or you could just move forward along the game board towards the end goal. You just wouldn’t make as much money on the “payday” squares. I always went through the extra space that made up “college.” I wanted to make more money and invariably the game would give me some bad card that would cost money.

I haven’t played Life in years but I’ve been thinking about it lately. Maybe the best way to play it is to forgo the education and just get right to work. Push straight through to the end goal.

But Life is a game, life isn’t.

I think education is of the utmost importance. It has allowed me to sharpen my analytical skills, my thinking, reasoning and ability to express myself. I wouldn’t be where I am now without an education. So, what’s the point? The point is, I’m not where I thought I would be or where I want to be, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t get there. And I know that my education will help.

2010 in review

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The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2010. That’s about 29 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 131 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 58 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 13mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was October 29th with 243 views. The most popular post that day was Big Hunnid: Phreelance Writer Favs.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for phreelance writers, are e-mails and text messages destroying the language,, texting, and flowery language – phreelance.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Big Hunnid: Phreelance Writer Favs October 2010


Double Space After a Period? September 2010
14 comments and 3 Likes on


Writers July 2010


Are Text Messages Destroying English? September 2010
4 comments and 3 Likes on


About July 2010

Not Helping

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December break has officially started at my job and I must confess that while I’m not psyched about a three week, unpaid vacation, I am looking forward to a reprieve from dealing with the collegiate academic system. I’ve complained before about professors and students, but something I saw recently blew my mind. Indulge me, if you will, in the following.

I had a student come to me this week with a paper that he had previously turned in. It had been graded and handed back to him so that he could revise it and turn it back in for a better grade.  This was all standard operating procedure. However, as I read over the comments left by his professor, I felt rage and anger build inside me.

His professor left unhelpful remarks in the margins of his paper. Comments such as “This is vague, fix it” and, “This thesis is weak.” I’m still uncertain as to how those comments are helpful to a student. Taken alone, these two comments were enough to raise my ire, but the commentary did not stop there. At the end of the paper, his professor hand-wrote a page and a half of notes questioning his topic choice and his overall commitment to the class. The choicest remark was, “I know this is harsh, but I’m frustrated.”

Come on!

You’re frustrated? How do you think he feels? Moreover, do you think writing all of those comments is going to make him want to turn around and get straight to work on making corrections? The only way it could be worse was if you used a red pen. I’m glad he came to the writing center and showed me the paper. I think if I were in his shoes I would have stuffed the paper into the bottom of my bag and “forgotten” about it. College and this program are hard enough without teachers tearing students down and then expecting them to have the academic discipline to seek out the necessary help to become better.

What I take issue with the most is the fact that this professor began to grade emotionally. That’s just unacceptable. I recognize that grading is difficult but the moment you lose objectivity is the moment you should no longer be grading. If you insist on being frustrated, be frustrated with your inability to teach in such a way that your students respond positively to you. Be frustrated with the fact that the paper topic was boring and generated boring papers. Being frustrated with his effort is just an excuse for your sub par teaching.

It was evident from the notes that the professor did not agree with my student’s thesis and counted that against him. That’s unfair. Whether you agree or disagree with a students’ idea should never play a role in the grade they receive. The only thing that matters is how well the student defended their ideas.

His professor ended the handwritten note with, “I know you can do better,” and a smiley face. All I could do was shake my head.

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