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.

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.


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A few days ago, my dad asked me if I had any resolutions for the New Year.  I said something cheeky like, “Nah, I’m just gonna let it ride,” but after further reflection, I was wrong.  I do have one.

Before January first of next year, I will have a different job, or so help me; I will impale my face on the nearest pen.  I’ll explain.

Our supervisor Barbara always talks about how people need to respect their employees.  Barbara is a great boss—the best I’ve ever had and probably the best I’ll ever have—but the people who get to make the big picture decisions, like how many windows our classroom has (none) or how many benefits we get (none—oh, and the Northeastern ID cards we got don’t let us check out library books or get into the gym.  We still haven’t figured out what they actually do) or how we get paid (barely enough to survive in Boston), well, I don’t feel they respect us.

I’m tired of explaining my work situation to people I meet.  I tell them I work at Northeastern University teaching writing, and their eyes light up and they say a sentence that includes the word “faculty” and I have to disappoint them.  The more I explain my situation, the more dissatisfied I become.  My 2010 job situation was OK.  I worked for people who didn’t respect me, but I got to do some great work with some really great students.  I learned a ton from my boss.  I got to work with some great guys.  I’ve learned that I can be a pretty good teacher, but I still think I can be a better writer than teacher.

2011 is job application year on steroids.  I will literally make every single publication imaginable aware of my existence.  I will swallow my pride, digest it, and eject it into the latrine so I can make use of the handfuls of contacts I’ve made in 2010.  At this point, I don’t even care if someone else gets me the job.  I’ll send them flowers every month.

Readers, I encourage you to hold me accountable for this promise.  If 2012 rolls around and I’m still stagnating in this job, please mail me a box of Bic ballpoints so I can salvage my honor.

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.

No Topic Assigned

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I’ve taught writing courses–freshmen composition, argumentative writing, teaching writing, business writing, technical writing, narrative writing, writing about literature, to every shape and size of college student for nearly twenty years:   ESL students who had been in the US less than a year college freshmen ready to quit, seniors ready to graduate, graduate students in biophysics, kinesology students, law students, social workers, even students on the U of M football team.  I’ve assigned rhetorical forms: a classical argument, a narrative, a business proposal, a story, a lab report, a legal rebuttal, a social services report.  I’ve never assigned topics.

If my students learned nothing else in my courses, I wanted them to learn that writing belonged to them, that the power and magic of writing is most deeply enmeshed with the ability to express thoughts about the topics about which people feel the most passion.  I wanted my students to see that writing is a form of expression that belonged to them, that they could possess so that they could go through their lives with this incredible craft at their disposal.  I would ask my students, “How many times have you written about topics that professors assigned?”  They would respond with groans and rolled eyes.  “How did you feel while you were writing those essays?”


Well, I would tell them, “if you are bored writing in this class, I will be bored reading it.  So let’s not be bored.  Write about topics you care about!  Write about topics that infuriate you, or engage you, or fill you with joy, or stimulate you, but do not write about topics that bore you.”  Writing is one of the seven great arts; can you imagine a musician in a composition course being told to create a composition about Mozart?  An art student told to paint an interpretation of one of Kant’s theories?  A journalist told to write a story on yesterday’s news?  All of these types of artists are told to create according to the structure or form of the art itself.  So part of my reasoning is I wanted to teach in the way of all the great arts.

But more importantly, I wanted my students to create.  Creation is mysterious–we do not understand it.  I myself do not understand the process of how I am creating this essay right now.  All I know is that when I write, at a certain point, I am taken away from myself.  I am part of a greater consciousness than just the me that is separated from others by the barrier of my skin.  I am tapped into a great force, a great welling of creativity.  And all artists experience this, and scientists and mathematicians do too–read Einstein when he discusses the process by which he created his theories and formulas.  He did not understand it.  This is awesome.

I wanted my students to experience even a second of the awesome experience of creating, where the words flew faster than they could type, where they knew exactly what they were saying but could not believe they had written something that grand when they read it.  I wanted them to experience creation; I wanted them to be creators.  I wanted them to be artists.  I wanted them to experience the awesomeness of this process we do not understand, and I wanted them to feel reverence for it, and I wanted them to know that this creativity could be reached at any time they chose to sit down and let the muse take them away from the boundaries that keep us separate.

That is why I became a writing instructor.  I wanted my students to fall in love with writing just like I had.  I wanted  writing to save their lives, just as it had saved mine.  I wanted them to feel the urgency to create in whatever field they went in.  Assigning topics destroys that possibility.  Quite frankly, often assigned topics  interest only the instructor, or instructors chose topics so the student can exhibit knowledge.  But writing is not  meant to merely exhibit knowledge.  It is meant to engage us in the great creative process that has existed since before the beginning of time.  Creation–whether of an essay, an invention, a mathematical formula, a painting, a musical composition–creation is the finest activity in which we humans engage.  It is the closest we get to experiencing what it must be like to be the grand creator of the universe.

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