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.

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.

Wordplay: Scrabble

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Yesterday, we writing consultants indulged ourselves in some board game activity during one of our slowest days in the writing center. The game of the day was Scrabble. I’ll assume you’ve heard of this game. If not, stop reading, look it up, play a game or two and come back. Now, I must confess that I am not a rabid Scrabble player. Despite my voluminous lexicon, I only dabble in the game occasionally. Gage and Ori are the players. Ori is even a part of the National Scrabble Association.

Because I don’t play Scrabble regularly, I had several starts and stops as the first game began. Sure, I fell behind quickly, but the nature of the game is such that you are never truly out of it as long as you use the board efficiently and get decent letters. The words you can make are up to you. You are only limited by your vocab and the seven tiles in your possession. Any turn can be the game winning turn.

La/Fax/Ore/Axed in the bottom right is worth 55 points

I feel like the game of Scrabble is on par with telling riddles. There is an innate desire among the well-worded to show off our skills and Scrabble allows us to do just that. Not only does the game help increase and display one’s vocabulary it also helps build vocabulary by forcing players to build off of words already laid out on the board. I felt great when I turned Ori’s “Jo/To into Jot/Toy and then followed that up with Goy, a triple word score.

As the first game went on, skill and board efficiency won out. Even though I got better, I was not much of a match for Gage and Ori. They were gracious, the reality is that I was a no more than an interesting strategic wrinkle. But I’m OK with that. I took as much pleasure from playing as I did watching Gage and Ori use their tiles to see the possibility of words on the board. Ori dropped Mink which Gage turned into Minks/Shiv. Of course, the coup d’etat was Ori’s final gambit. His 55 point score, a wicked combo of La/Fax/Ore/Axed, would have won the game had I not played Clean/In off of one of his previous plays. My play allowed Gage to put down Ice for a triple word score and seal the deal.

That is how the game works. Each player brings his own knowledge to the game board and augments how other players see and play the game. Honestly, I can’t wait to play again.

Do it Yourself

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I received an email from one of my students last night, asking me to take a look at a paper she was working on. This is nothing new, in fact, it is encouraged. We appreciate it when students seek us outside of their allotted thirty minute appointments. This particular email, however, contained the following rare gem:

Can you take a look please? Also, it’s due at midnight.

The email arrived in my inbox at 10:09 p.m. Really?

Far be it from me to condemn a student for procrastination, heck, when I was an undergrad I was an elite procrastinator. But come on. Isn’t 10 p.m. a little late to be looking for a second set of eyes? By this point you should be logging on to submit your paper via Turnitin.

Moreover, dear student, you are making a major presumption about my free time. You clearly think I’m not doing anything of such immediate importance that I can’t drop it and attend to your request. Titling your email “A favor” is just an understatement. Let’s be real, I’m doing you more than a favor!

Some of my students say I’m mean. That’s not true. I’m cruel. There is a difference. That being, were I mean I would have ignored the email, or worse yet, responded to it, saying I was on vacation and would not help. That’s not my M.O.

Instead, I went over the first paragraph of my student’s paper making notes and corrections. I then emailed the paper back to her and told what I did. I also added that she would have to go through the rest of the paper on her own to find and correct her mistakes.

It was cruel of me to only start the corrections, but I feel that these students need to understand that, at some point, there won’t be someone there to guide them through their revisions. They need to develop and absorb the skills and techniques we teach them so they can do it on their own.

Part of teaching is knowing when to let your student do something on their own. If I can’t get my students to that point then I feel that I have let them down as an educator. Trying to stand on your own is the only way you know you can stand on your own.

Wit and Wordplay: A Lesson in Education

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Our love of words has been well documented on Phreelance Writers. I often find myself talking to Gage and pausing to find the right word to accurately describe a situation. It’s not just an exercise in pulling esoteric words from my vocab, it’s about picking le mot just, the one word that fits best.

Now, time for something completely different…

Gage and I surround ourselves with people who share our passion for writing and words. This has developed into a community of people who also strive to find the perfect word.

During the past few weeks, many of the students we tutor have been working on an essay about an “academic discourse community.” I won’t bore you with what this means exactly since we, ourselves, are somewhat confused by the terminology, but this link is a decent enough explanation. The students were told to pick a class, other than English, to use as their discourse community. Naturally, we tutors thought some students would pick the Writing Center. We later found out that the Writing Center was not a valid choice because it is not considered a full class.


This assignment got me thinking about Phreelance Writers and the Writing Center as a discourse community. Looking over the requirements, we appear to fit the bill. Let’s break some of this down:

1) has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.

We all enjoy reading, writing and academic discussion. On top of that, we all work in a writing center, teaching students how to write better. If that isn’t a “common public goal,” I don’t know what is.

2) has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.

This is the same as “insider knowledge,” and, yes, we have it. Certain words have taken on new or secondary meanings so that we can use them in mixed conversation while smirking at our own wit. We have even developed a way of saying a specific word to denote both a greeting and a fulfillment of the mitzvah.

3) uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

Our main “participatory mechanism” is wit. We treat it like a currency, using it to trade humorous barbs, stories and repartee. We vibe off each other, pushing our jokes and ideas to earn the maximum amount of credit.  We’ve created a space that rewards creativity while simultaneously eliminating the banal.

The point is that the Writing Center would have made for a great academic discourse community. It’s the only class that includes all the students and it’s one of–if not the only–space where students and instructors interact on fairly even terms. A shame it was banned from contention.

Words and wordplay are important at Phreelance Writers and in the Writing Center. Our desire to use them in new and unique ways inspires students to do the same when they write. They learn from listening to us banter. Just because we don’t teach in the traditional sense of a classroom setting doesn’t mean that we aren’t educating the students we see. Respect our vision.

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