Like most children, I had a variety of early career aspirations: ballerina, zoologist, astronomer, etc... Becoming a teacher was not a clear calling from the beginning, but a possibility I entertained throughout my years of schooling—something I thought I might like to do. Before I considered becoming a teacher, I had a different dream, though. I wanted to be a substitute teacher!
As an adult, I find this both amusing and illuminating. To point out the obvious, no adult aspires to substitute teach—to receive none of the hard-earned benefits of teaching (health insurance, pension, paid vacation, etc), while being both “in charge” of students and having basically zero authority. Let’s face it; students know how to work over a substitute, and it’s not pretty. (The power dynamics there are important, though, and I’ll come back to that in another post.)
My dream of subbing is all because of one wonderful substitute teacher. Her name was Ms. L’Engel, and she entered my 3rd grade classroom several times to deliver what felt like magic.
Let me first say that we liked our 3rd grade teacher quite a lot. But when Ms. L’Engel came through the door, we knew that the regular program of “school” would be suspended, and we would enter a world of word and number games, storytelling, role-playing, and other novel events. In that world, our benevolent leader smiled and laughed often with us, and made us feel great about ourselves as we learned. It was school-like. It wasn’t a free period or anything, and everything we did was educational—but it was very different from school. It was more fun, free, and it was unpredictable in the best way. Everyone rejoiced when we saw her in that room in the morning.
Looking back, Ms. L’Engel had to have been a skilled teacher to pull that off. I remember that she came several times, and then not again. We requested her over and over, but we were told she was no longer available. Perhaps she had just moved into the area, began subbing, and quickly got a fulltime job somewhere else—who knows.
I wanted to become a substitute teacher because of her wonderfully positive power. I imagine that what made her so impactful was a combination of her skill, her personality, and the freedom she felt in that particular role from the pressure and narrowness of the traditional structures of school and the role of a teacher within it.
Some of that freedom comes with being fresh and new and not having to navigate ongoing relationships with individual students, families, and administration. That would be impractical and limiting in a fulltime teaching position. At the same time, we need to do more to remove the straightjacket of pressure teachers so often feel, which infiltrates classrooms and dampens the joy of learning.
My memories of Ms. L’Engle are from almost 30 years ago. Today, teachers and school leaders have so much more access to engaging, innovative teaching methods and materials through social media and teacher leadership. Yet the pressure teachers experience to perform and conform undermines the potential we have to truly connect students with the joy of learning. Most ironically, the greatest source of the pressure on teachers—test scores—has not demonstrated that the pressure is doing its supposed job.
This article in The Atlantic, Teachers Need Their Freedom, tells a story of the wonderful things that happen when teachers are able to embrace their freedom as well as the negative impact (on test scores too!) when that freedom is lost.
In my own teaching, I’ve always tried to be that teacher—the one who has the magic of Ms. L’Engle, but is the actual teacher, responsible for everyday learning. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I didn’t. One thing is certain, though. The more I was able to (1) relax about the pressure to produce certain outcomes, (2) really listen to the information students were giving me (explicitly and implicitly) about what made them tick, and (3) exercise my professional judgment, the more interesting and enjoyable my classroom became AND the better the outcomes were—by any measure.
Some prerequisites for my being able to relax enough to tune into the joy of teaching and learning were (1) being in a supportive teaching environment, where my professionalism was trusted, (2) having a big enough teaching tool-kit that supported my vision for the kind of teacher I wanted to be, (3) having great colleagues and time to work collaboratively with them and (4) a reasonable enough program/student load that I could get to know my individual students and not constantly be stressing logistics and grading.
One last thought: students take advantage of substitute teachers because they generally feel powerless in school, and they see a chance to assert their power when their regular teacher is gone. I think the more empowered teachers can be, the more they can empower students in their every day learning.
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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.