Before beginning my illustrious career as a church secretary, I bounced around between substitute teaching gigs. Those gigs, which lasted from 2009-2010, inspired this collection of anecdotes.
In 2007 I attended Binghamton University where I underwent training to become a high school English teacher, the dream I had held deep in my heart since about my junior year of high school. When I graduated in 2008, I expected (silly me) to teach high school English soon thereafter. Not once did I consider during that preparatory time that I might do anything else. In other words, I did not foresee that my post-graduate school life and career would include conversations like the following
Me: “My name is Miss M.”
Kindergarten student: “Can’t we call you something easier?”
Me: “I don’t know how that could be any more simple.”
Needless to say, sometimes the most memorable moments are the least anticipated, and it is in the spirit of the unexpected that I review with enthusiasm the best moments of my time as a substitute teacher. Hopefully you will see, as I have in the rearview mirror of personal reflection, that unexpected journeys always afford much learning, laughter, and of course, story-telling.
Subbing is humbling
There is a fine line that separates what is humbling from what is humiliating, and it is a line I have walked in the last year. Whenever you are asked to operate outside your area of strength, expertise or even basic know-how, such a request usually comes with a hefty slice of humble pie. I have had several helpings this year.
As an English-as-a-Second-Language substitute, I spent most of the day reaching far back in my memory for whatever was left of my Spanish education in an effort to communicate with my temporary students. When I thankfully recalled “Siete te” (you sit) I began to say it with gusto hoping to successfully plant them all in chairs. I said it three times in frustration to a puzzled boy who finally told me “I am from Kyrgyzstan.” Suddenly I was the one who needed the chair.
The following dialogue occurred while reading a book to a second grade boy where the main character fell ill and took advantage of his mother’s pity:
Me: “Are you familiar with the phrase ‘milking it’?”
Second grader: “I’m allergic to milk!”
I once dropped my cell phone under a desk while students were taking a test, went after it and was physically stuck for about fifteen seconds. I emerged to stifled laughter that I quickly validated and encouraged saying I would laugh were I in their shoes, and then sat down with the remains of my dignity.
Substitute teaching has taught me the importance of dignity maintained in the midst of less than dignified moments, which I try to remember as I explain the stain on my dress pants to the clerk at the drycleaners as the channeled creative energies of a marker-wielding first-grader.
Subbing is educational
I learned a great many things while I was substitute teaching. I learned that even if a room had been rid of asbestos and housed an industrialized fan, you still should not eat your lunch there. I learned that the strategy I had employed to avoid learning names does not work with a kindergarten student who fails to answer when addressed as “Pink shirt with kittens”. I learned that a good teacher should be able to teach anything as I struggled to explain compound fractions to a fourth grader. I learned the navigation of unfamiliar buildings, the skillful interpretation of sub plans written in the worst handwriting and that five-year-olds do not, even a little bit, grasp the competitive aspect of dodge ball.
I also learned about the American teenager. To combat my own boredom, I made it a practice to engage in conversation anyone who would talk to me. I asked them what they liked or disliked about school, what their weekend plans were, college plans, or movies they enjoyed. When I spied the conspicuous white ear buds and familiar white chord, I asked what music was currently playing and why they liked it. Some students were not receptive, and I learned to leave them alone. But there were others who talked endlessly and passionately about sports, movies, film, books, friends, high school or other things. So when I hear adults talk about the apathy of today’s teenager, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been talking to the same kids. When I hear teachers talk about how hard it is to get kids interested in anything, I can’t help but wonder how much time we teachers spend learning about what does captivate the interest of the students we are so desperately trying to engage.
Subbing is unexpectedly good
To bring it back around to the beginning, my year of subbing was not something I looked forward to when I sat in education classes imagining kids giving me apples and thanking me for impacting their lives while somewhere in the distance a clarinet plays the underscore of Mr. Holland’s Opus. I thought I would walk off the graduation platform into my perfect classroom. But that was not how things went, and as I look back on the last year, I do not think I would have chosen that perfect classroom and clarinet music over what I have now in real experiences with real kids.
As much as I despised the 5:30am phone call, it helped me learn how to pull myself out of bed. As much as I felt discouraged an inept to teach science to 6th graders, it challenged me to go outside my comfort zone of knowledge and gave me a taste of what struggling students face on a regular basis when teachers ask them to do the same. As much as I disliked an inconsistent income, it forced me to budget money better than I did before. As much as I felt uncomfortable in charge of a class of kindergarteners, it put me in contact with the class pet guinea pig, which I absolutely enjoyed petting.
In the end, I learned that unexpected things bring unexpected joy when I lean into them rather than resist them. This is a tough lesson for a planner like myself and those like me, but it’s worth it.
My little friend Cinnamon the guinea pig would heartily agree.