Teaching Profession Opinion

Day by Day

By Gwyn English Nielsen — January 01, 2004 6 min read
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Armed with a little German and lots of patience, subs can find job satisfaction.

I don’t mind living a life of repetition. Most people do. For some reason, though, the status quo doesn’t quite satiate me. Hoping to touch the extraordinary, I decided to journey into the realm of substitute teaching.

I had taught full time for 10 years in two states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and found that there were few truly unique benefits associated with working at a single school. Sure, there were health insurance benefits, paid vacations, and sick days, but most employers in other occupations could provide these. When one had to stomach the same administrators, colleagues, parents, students, and migraines for 180 days out of the year, the minuses quickly seemed to outweigh the pluses.

Granted, I probably make about half what I once did, but I have perks that transcend a fair union contract. For one thing, I have the luxury of saying (at least to myself), “Heck, no, I am definitely not going in today.” How many people can say that without eventually being fired?

Another big plus is that if I happen to walk into a classroom brimming with juvenile delinquents, I can relish the notion that I don’t have to return the next day and start sending kids to the vice principal en masse. If an entire class is unruly, one of my favorite tactics is the “pop quiz” (or “pop test,” which carries more weight). I have a rare talent for making up questions off the top of my head. This comes from improvisational acting classes, a necessary prerequisite to teaching. I have even done this for foreign language classes such as Spanish and Italian, and I don’t even speak the languages.

I do, however, speak German—not fluently, but enough to impress a class. (A word to the wise of my breed: Try to learn key words and phrases in the foreign language classes your district offers. The students will think you know more than you do, and they’ll listen to you. Try to avoid the truth, if at all possible. Of course, this is underhanded, but then again, so are the students.) I’ve subbed for more German than English classes. I studied German for four and a half years, English for my entire life. I’m even certified to teach English. Clearly, education contains inherent paradoxes, just like everything else.

One disadvantage to substituting are the telephone calls at the crack of dawn. “Are you available today?” “In what way?” I feel like saying. Although I recognize the caller’s low, raspy voice, at that hour of the morning I tend to be mentally blurry. Once I actually showed up at the wrong school because I was still in Dreamland when I wrote down the assignment.

Another mistake I make while half-asleep is accepting assignments I shouldn’t. On one occasion, I agreed to be the personal assistant to a severely disabled high school boy. He and a collection of special-needs personnel took one look at my 5-foot-5-inch, 112-pound physique and decided I was completely wrong for the job.

I wound up answering phones in the attendance office, which wasn’t as insipid as it sounds. The vice principal’s office was right next door, and all day long, I was in the thick of the disciplinary action. On that particular day, two teenage girls had been suspended for starting a fight. Hours later, two upset mothers converged on me, their vociferous protests far more defiant than those of their daughters had been, and they exhibited much more disrespect for the chief disciplinarian. What’s the adage, the one about the apple not falling far from the tree? After the smoke had cleared, I was happy to go home, relieved to know that I wasn’t returning the following day.

Try to avoid the truth, if at all possible. Of course, this is underhanded, but then again, so are the students.

Perhaps I am most content when I am actually able to teach a subject or subjects. This is why I tend to accept positions in elementary schools, where stepping up to the plate is relatively easy, provided the regular teacher leaves plans that don’t require too much batting practice. Occasionally, I’ll come across a true sadist who will leave me with the most ridiculously complicated plans and props: an overhead, transparencies, calculators, etc., which are generally concealed in different areas of the room. (No “treasure map” is ever provided, either.) I’ve found that this kind of teacher is usually disorganized and ineffectual and, unsurprisingly, seems to have disruptive students. So while I’m desperately searching for all the materials, the students are having a field day. Given a choice between the aforementioned scenario and teaching without any plans at all, most substitutes would prefer the latter. We subs thrive on spontaneity.

When conditions are especially favorable, I can metamorphose from “substitute” to “special guest teacher.” One of the best experiences I ever had was in a middle school where I was substituting for a public speaking and acting teacher. Since my expertise lies in these areas and the classroom teacher had left no definitive plans, I seized the opportunity and adopted the class as my own. I knew I had broken through when a student said, “You’re not a sub. You’re dynamic!”

In the faculty lounge, however, I’m pretty much invisible. Teachers like their comfortable coteries, and change of any kind disrupts the balance. Sometimes, I can actually feel the tension in the air: “Oh, no, not another sub. We can’t share our secrets with her—she’ll tell.” I’m the new kid in the school every day of the working week. Finding an accomplice is nearly impossible, unless there’s another sub in the room. Then it’s instant camaraderie. We’re puzzle pieces that fit together quickly and easily.

Substitutes are infamous across the board. Administrators tolerate us, most students see us as decorative doormats, and classroom teachers consider us ill-prepared baby sitters. I’m not saying there aren’t stereotypical substitutes, but they are the exception, not the rule. A large percentage of subs are former executives or full-time teachers, armed with a degree or two, full certification, and a plethora of classroom experience. We are retired and collecting a pension from a former life, we cannot find a permanent position to our liking, we are pursuing other interests, we have other demands on our time, or we find living the new and different on a daily basis adventurous and refreshing. In my case, all of the above apply.

To foster a sense of unity, some districts actually have “sub” organizations or mock unions, which are helpful since school boards rarely take substitutes’ rights into consideration. In meetings, topics such as pay, scheduling, and effective means of classroom discipline are broached; it is the president’s or speaker’s responsibility to voice these concerns to the assistant superintendent, which often, and sadly, is done without much success.

After all is said and done, if I were to weigh the pros and cons of subbing, I’m not really sure in which direction the scale would tilt. But that’s all right. The reality of teaching is not perfect, no matter where one is in the pecking order. For the time being, I’ll take the good with the bad and continue to pursue an extraordinary life as a substitute teacher.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Day by Day


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