Guest Column

Go to the Head of the Class


As superintendent previously in the Central Unified School District in Fresno, Calif., I considered it my duty to know as much as possible about what was going on in our schools and classrooms. What better way to do that than to work as a substitute teacher for a day.

An opportunity presented itself when our teacher union representative was asked to attend a state workshop and needed a sub for the day. He was a high school government teacher and often shared with me how much harder teaching has become over the years. He challenged me to take on his classroom while he was away.

Perfect. I would get to spend some quality time with our students and get back to my roots as a teacher. I’d have a context for his persistent reminder about today’s challenges in the classroom. I looked forward to an exciting learning opportunity.

Serious Prep
I pondered how to plan for his senior government course. In preparation, I devoted the majority of my weekend developing a lesson plan that included a PowerPoint presentation, a fun pop quiz and several hands-on cooperative learning activities. I couldn’t kid myself; I knew these lessons had to be interactive.

I didn’t want to take on a class and disappoint these kids. I was heading into a 90-minute block period and needed to be well-prepared.

“These kids are sharp,” the teacher let on, “and they expect nothing but the best.” What a challenge, I thought. Although once a teacher, I hadn’t been in front of the classroom for years. I’ll bring some Halloween candy, I thought, just in case.

I asked the government teacher whether he thought a lesson on school boards and the related governance structure would fit into his curriculum. “Just the thing,” he exclaimed. “That’s covered in our syllabus.”

I wanted students to learn that, although California schools operate as part of a statewide system under the policy direction of the legislature, more local responsibility is granted to school districts than to any other government entity.

Engaging Exercise
During each of the three 90-minute lessons, I attempted to teach students that school board members are elected and have four main jobs as a governing body: (1) create goals for the district; (2) develop policies to meet the goals; (3) be accountable to the public; and (4) involve the community in the school district. I illustrated the point by way of the new policy just approved by the board of education — the voluntary drug-testing program.

Students learned the board had adopted drug testing in response to the Fresno County grand jury’s recommendation to reinforce the state education code on drug-free schools. I had each class divide into groups to weigh the pros and cons of drug testing in a high school.

Their responses were intelligent and thought-provoking. Most seniors thought testing would lessen peer pressure by providing them with a ready-made excuse to say no when offered drugs by their peers. Others thought it would undermine trust between a student and parent. Many students said they expected their parents would sign them up for the program were it offered before they graduated.

One remarked, “I wish I could have had this testing program this year. … My mother constantly hounds me and suspects that I am using drugs. If I was tested, the program would have proven to her that I am telling the truth.”

All concluded that school boards really have a lot of power and must use it appropriately to be accountable to the public.

Generally, the students were conscientious and well-behaved. One class became rambunctious after their break. I was relieved the principal chose to visit the classroom then to observe the students for about 20 minutes. His presence gave me time to collect my thoughts. These kids were much calmer with him in the room.

The students I saw that day were bright, sincere and respectful of one another and me. While they knew as superintendent I was in charge of the whole district, I don’t think it made any difference. They seemed pleased that they had a “special guest” substitute teacher for the day. Students were engaged in the activities, and most seemed to approve of what they were learning.

My substitute teaching assignment fell on a Friday in fall, the day of a big football game. Toward the end of one period, a popular football player asked to leave class early to retrieve his cell phone from the office. I wondered whether he was telling the truth, but in spite of my uncertainty, I nodded consent. The students laughed quietly as he departed.

Whew, I later reflected, 90 minutes is a long time to be “on” for students. I wanted to be actively involved with them for the entire period and didn’t want to lose a minute of face time.

In retrospect, this teaching opportunity has influenced my filter when making decisions as a superintendent, especially concerning high school issues. Teaching is more demanding than I ever remember. The curriculum seemed almost designed for the college level, and students were not as attentive as I remember they once were.

Definitely too many students were packed into one classroom, making it difficult to maneuver through the aisles. Thirty-seven students radiated a lot of heat in one tight area. The air conditioner could not keep pace. What I noticed the most: Students’ demand for my attention was beyond belief.

I must confess I wore the wrong shoes for a full day of teaching. High heels are tough going in today’s teaching world. Furthermore, if a tech-savvy student hadn’t been available in the next room to troubleshoot the projector, my PowerPoint show would have been a complete disaster. I can’t imagine how hard it might be to fill 30 minutes of lesson time on the fly. I was pleased with myself that I had the foresight to bring the candy.

Marilou Ryder is superintendent of the Victor Valley Union High School District in Victorville, Calif. E-mail: