Urbana substitute a soothing presence at Thomas Paine

Urbana substitute a soothing presence at Thomas Paine

Tammie Kirby had days when she wondered whether being a substitute teacher was worth it. Like the day the kids were jumping on the tables, hiding under them, throwing things and generally wreaking havoc.

"There were days when I thought, 'You know, I'm not going to make it past lunch,'" Kirby said. "They see a sub, and they walk in and think it's play day."

But the tanned, athletic Urbana woman who radiates energy has learned to handle those days and thrive. Because, in her 13 years as a full-time substitute in the Urbana school district, so many more days have left Kirby full of joy and satisfaction.

"I do it because I just love it," she said. "Every day I get to be in a different class."

For the first few years, a highlight of the job was working at the same school where her four children attended, Thomas Paine Elementary School. When Kirby started substituting, twins Mandy and Megan were in kindergarten; her son, Adam, was in first grade, and her eldest, Ryan, was in third.

The teaching gig followed several exhausting but exhilarating years.

"I had four in diapers for a while," Kirby said.

Her husband, Marty, said her Catholic upbringing and big family helped Kirby gracefully and lovingly rein in the chaos.

"She took care of those poor kids when I was working every day when I was trying to get (the masonry business) started," he said. "She made that house a home."

Though Kirby considered returning to school for a teaching certificate – she already has a University of Illinois degree in therapeutic recreation – balancing the care of four young children and work with a degree program would be too much to handle, she said with some regret.

But working at Thomas Paine, Kirby found the environment welcoming and gradually became sub No. 1 on the school's call list. In the last few years, she's decided she's only going to substitute at Paine.

That's just fine with fourth-grade teacher Kay Grabow.

Grabow said Kirby's consistent presence and energy have helped students continue learning even when their primary teacher is absent.

"She knows my personality and my discipline style, my expectations for the kids, and she knows that for a lot of the teachers in the building," Grabow said. "You can't write that into your lesson plan."

Kirby also helps teachers feel comfortable leaving the classroom. Grabow remembers when a family emergency took her out of school for several days during a year when she taught a particularly difficult class.

"She was the only sub who would come back," Grabow said. "I've been so grateful ever since."

Kirby said her philosophy is to be firm with students and to let them know that although she follows the lesson plan, not everything will be exactly as their teacher does it.

Kirby's latest challenge: taking over the second-grade class that Jon White, the teacher now charged with several counts of predatory criminal sexual abuse against minors, used to teach. Since White was arrested at the school on Jan. 31, Kirby has stepped in to provide the children with stability and continued learning.

Marty discouraged her from taking on such a difficult situation, but said he knew she'd made up her mind to teach the class while the district found a permanent teacher.

"The school's lucky to have her from the difficult situation," he said. "They go to her first because (they) know that if there's anything that can be healed or taken care of emotionally, she's the one to do it."

Tammie Kirby didn't waver in the decision.

"I did it for the kids, so they'd have a little bit of continuity," she said, "knowing they knew me and I knew them."

Though the first few days were tough, Kirby said in late February that the class has calmed down and gotten back into a positive routine – and that their learning is right on track.

The district has hired another regular substitute, Sheila Kingry, to finish out the year, Principal Ken Paxton said. After having been at parent-teacher conferences together last week, Kirby and Kingry will share the classroom Monday and then Kingry will be the sole teacher beginning Tuesday. Paxton said Kingry has been in long-term difficult situations with the district previously, including substituting for a teacher with a terminal illness.

As Kirby has juggled classrooms through the years, she's also juggled the responsibilities of four-time motherhood.

"I clean and clean and clean. I do three loads of laundry every day," she said.

She also cooks dinner for everyone and attends just about every game her children play in (and with four multisport athletes during high school and summer leagues, that's a lot of games).

Aside from classroom subbing, Kirby usually teaches physical education once a week to eight Paine classes.

"She's a bundle of energy, and she's fun," Grabow said. "The kids always look forward to having her."

Fittingly, Kirby's "me" time also involves physical activity. She wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to exercise daily – what she calls her only non-child-related hobby, aside from summer gardening or enjoying the sunshine.

But she isn't much for sitting around, even though she could.

"She doesn't have to work, that's the luxury we have now," Marty said. "It just doesn't make a difference – she wants to do it because (working at Thomas Paine is what) she loves to do."

Grabow hopes Kirby keeps being a presence in the school indefinitely.

"Being a sub is a really hard job," Grabow said, "and she goes about it so joyfully and so competently."

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