The fall semester has just begun, but it won’t be long before substitute teachers will be needed to fill in for staff teachers who can’t make it to school for one reason or another. What these substitutes experience makes them heroes in my opinion (“Imagine Your Substitute Teacher Is Nicholson Baker. For These Kids, He Was,” The New York Times, Aug. 28).
Even though Nicholson Baker was a K-12 sub for only 28 days in an unnamed Maine public school district, he experienced many of the stresses that staff teachers have to contend with for an entire semester. The constant interruptions of the P.A. system, overmedicated students, underprepared students et al. left him feeling “sick with shame” one day and a “hopeless jackass” another. It’s little wonder that Baker felt “drained, numb, brain-dead” after only his fifth day (“Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher,” The New York Times, Sept. 11).
Critics will be quick to argue that he would get used to these things over a period of time, or that he only had to endure them until school was dismissed at 3:00 or so. But I bet they would change their minds if they had to be a substitute. There is no possible way they can understand the price paid in the physical and mental health of substitutes.
In return, school districts pay substitutes not much more than minimum wages for their time, treating them as little more than glorified babysitters. Even if they put in enough hours to qualify for district-paid health benefits, overall compensation is insulting. As pressure mounts on teachers to produce ever-higher test scores, I expect to see more staff teachers calling in sick. When I was teaching, we called such occasions “mental health” days off. They will become more common in the years ahead. I don’t care how dedicated teachers are. The human body can take only so much before it breaks in one form or another.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.