Teaching Today

A few years ago I was a substitute teacher.  As any teacher will tell you, subbing is, in many ways, more difficult. The kids are the main reason. Usually subs don’t have to do all the grading and lesson planning that teachers do, but the students make up for it by being little pains in the ass.

Students often think of it as a free day. And it kind of is. Most teachers will fill in the day with boring worksheets. If the kids aren’t going to be doing something of value, why can’t I fill in the time doing fun learning with them. I love hands on things where the kids don’t really know they are learning. Living History, science experiments, crafts, there are all sorts of these things out there, and since subs are not held accountable for the student’s learning in the same way, I had hoped I would be able to do some of that, but that is not the way it worked.

Teachers (especially in a state where substitutes do not have to be licensed teachers) are used to the subs not really having a clue. They tend to ‘overplan’, that is, plan far more than could ever get done to assure that the students to not sit idle. This makes the kids feel overwhelmed, if they know they are expected to finish, or they just don’t care, especially if they know the teacher won’t grade it. Either way is not good for students. Students take the opportunity to do things they normally are not allowed to, and test the limits of the substitute. This is completely natural, but day in and out is exhausting.

The real value of my year in substitute teaching, was the opportunity to meet so many students, and see so many different teaching styles. I would sometimes see the same students in multiple classes and see how their behavior differed. Sometimes I would take assistant positions, which allowed me to observe the teacher directly. In other instances, if I was only there for part of the day, I would meet the teacher, sometimes get to observe for a bit, sometimes not. It was one of these days that I learned about Teach for America.

I have seen special education teachers struggle to teach an autistic student handwriting, because under No Child Left Behind they are held to the same standards as other students.  I have had the opportunity to see the damage of Common Core as well. I have seen kindergartners in tears because they were expected to understand something they were not ready for.

The combined effects of these failed policies are students who range from disinterested to disheartened. They learn from an early age that they cannot meet expectations. This is terrible for their self-esteem. One way to protect themselves is to give up their emotional attachment to success. On the other end of the spectrum, the students who do understand are completely ignored  because the teacher is required to bring up the kids who are behind. This gives those kids a free pass. In the midst of all of this is the testing. How are teachers expected to help students understand when all year they are either preparing for, taking, or recovering from some high stakes test or another. I have actually had a teacher get a sub for the day so she could come in and do required one-on-one testing. How is such a thing supposed to be accomplished?

All of this added stress has had a very negative effect on teachers as well. Those who are not so dedicated see no point in putting up with the stress, and those who are see that they are not able to make a difference in the current system. Between teaching to the test, being issued scripts for lessons, not being allowed to teach the way they learned (and not having been shown any other way), not having time for any activities the students might actually find engaging, and writing convoluted lesson plans to meet vague requirements, it is no wonder that even the best, and most dedicated teachers are leaving.

This leaves a huge vacancy, which substitutes fill in. I took 2 long term positions during my single year of teaching. The longer one was 30 school days. The rule they follow is that after that time, substitutes get more pay for the position. During that time I was the teacher, I wrote lesson plans, taught students, and graded work. My assignment was for a gifted English class. (Gifted is not a program in all states, but it is a way to address the special needs of advanced students.)

It did not take me long to realize that I was  right. When I first heard of No Child Left Behind, and bringing kids to ‘average’ I was keenly aware, as a gifted kid, that in order to get everyone to average, the higher scoring students would need to be brought down, or the average would just keep going up, that is, if they were successful bringing the bottom up.

These high school juniors and seniors were missing the basic parts of speech and had difficulty keeping a basic five paragraph essay format (like the 5 paragraph part). I graded in what was considered a lenient way when I was in school less than ten years before. Rather than not accepting work after the due date, I just took 10% off the score for each class day it was late. The way that the school schedule worked, because they only had my class every other day, if they came in on an off day, I still gave full credit. The students considered this terribly cruel and thought that turning papers in for anything less than full credit was pointless. I found out that many students would do the work, and not take it out of their bag to hand in. As a result I had a shockingly high number of students failing the class. They even had an entire class period twice a week dedicated to doing homework, which I try to refrain from giving anyway.

During my time in this position I attended multiple professional training days that I was not required to attend, nor was paid for. I did what I could to help the students to succeed. Even so, according to the principal at the school I had parents call to complain about me. The only complaint I heard about was about body odor. After I heard that, I went overkill. I continued to shower right before work, but I started putting on deodorant between every class. I received one call from a parent asking what my qualifications were to be teaching English. After our conversation, she was more than satisfied. But it occurred to me that if a parent called the office instead of me, the only thing they knew about me was that I was a substitute teacher, they probably did not even know whether or not I had a bachelor’s degree.

At the end of my thirty days I asked the secretary if they wanted me longer. I was told that I should come back, and I started to tell the students that I was definitely going to be there after fall break. Soon it was brought to my attention that my dress was a bit sheer, admittedly, I should have been more conscientious of that. I immediately went home to change. After classes ended for the day I was asked to the principal’s office and was written up for the dress, and more body odor complaints. That night I stayed late to leave a record of grading rubrics and lesson plans so that the next teacher would actually know what was going on, something that their actual teacher had not bothered to do.

I understand that parents would be upset to find that their students are failing a class, and that they would call into question the credentials of a substitute. But I do not respect a school that would not look into those credentials, or ask the teacher why the students were failing. This seems to be part of the current trend of parents holding teachers, rather than students, responsible for the students grades. (And why shouldn’t they, the national government does). I also find it suspect that this would all have occurred on the last day before they would have to pay me more. I should have suspected this type of thing when a student told me one of his classes had had no fewer than eight teachers in one year.

That said, my year substitute teaching was not all bad. In fact I think it may be my favorite job I have ever had. I met teachers who were trying to make a difference, I was honored to be trusted enough for students came to me with life-changing events, I met students who changed my perceptions, and I can only hope that I touched lives too.


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