The Substitute
by Jim Ross

Nearly every country, culture, and school system uses substitute teachers to fill in for occasional teacher absences or for longer time periods while schools seek permanent teachers. Almost universally, substitute teachers are mocked and reviled by students and by schools, which accord them a status equal to a mayfly.

For four years, I eked out a catch-as-catch-can living as a substitute teacher. I knew the priority was keeping students reasonably safe, but I clung to the illusion I might occasionally get to teach.

After being certified in social studies, my first call came from a self-contained, special education school. On arrival, I was told I’d be teaching blind primary schoolers. When I reached the classroom, I found eight smock-clad students spread out on the floor, engrossed in finger painting. The teacher watching over suggested I let them continue for thirty minutes, handed me a lesson plan, and smiled knowingly.

I hadn’t laid eyes or hands on finger paint since I was five. I squatted down as the students smeared colours from their papers to the floor and back.

“What are you making?” I asked.

“Snow man,” one told me.

“Man walks on moon,” said another.

“Big mess,” said a third.

Fearing for the floor, their clothes, and my job, I encouraged staying on the paper. Then, one by one, I ported the children’s masterpieces to safety, walked each artist to the sink, and then situated them at desks.

The teacher’s lesson plan: Review latest Braille lessons. We conducted a round-robin reading from Braille to English. Whenever Stephen read a long word, he said, “Midnight.”

I checked into the office before leaving. The vice-principal asked: “How’d it go?”

“Through a glass darkly,” I said.

“Perfect. You free tomorrow?” he asked.

Next day, I had deaf students. My background with deaf people was seeing deaf students on the subway when I was in high school. How they communicated via sign language, gestures, and facial expressions fascinated. When I reached class, the students were wearing headphones.

“We’re not teaching sign language,” my escort explained. “We’re trying to tap what’s left of their residual hearing. You’ll communicate with them using this microphone. If they don’t hear you, hike up the volume.”

Thirty minutes later, the principal announced over the PA system that the entire school was departing imminently for the White House. I herded my twelve students onto a bus. Once students disembarked, we tried to keep track as they scurried across the White House pasture, blending in with students from other schools. On signal, I drew my deaf students as if with magnets to a row of folding chairs and observed them fidget to the Youth Orchestra’s beat. After the orchestra’s performance, a White House rep invited the assemblage to approach for cookies and punch. Running amok, students crumbled cookies over the lawn. Eventually we coaxed them back onto buses. I’d hardly begun debriefing my class about their field trip when the dismissal bell rang.

Most mornings I’d wait by the phone with my cup of coffee, bowl of hot raisiny oatmeal, and the newspaper, catnapping. More often than not, between 7.00 and 8.00 AM, the phone rang. The waiting game resumed from 3.00 to 5.00 PM. When I answered, I probably sounded like Helene, from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Who Am I This Time?”

The first two months made me question why more teachers didn’t come unglued.

      •   I observed eight 4th grade girls shove two scrawny boys into the girls’ room. There they beat up the boys, then called for help claiming the boys had barged in and attacked them. Jumping to the boys’ defence, I said, to the contrary, the girls had forced the boys into the girls’ room. Said the vice principal: “Some of those girls were angels … until today.”
      •   I’d been told that if 3rd grader Robert cried, I was to send him to the office. Robert’s Valentine to Mike reached the wrong Mike, who tore it up. Heartbroken, Robert cried. Instead of sending him to the office, I let him lead the game at recess.
      •   Two 6th grade girls fought in the hall, drawing a crowd. The loser’s friends sought asylum in my class, blood streaming from nose and mouth.
      •   As I was teaching French to attentive high school students, rocks came flying through the windows. Glass shattered; students scattered.
      •   When a junior high school girl kept disrupting class, I sent her to the office, where she alleged, “That man tried to stick his worm in me.” The office staff’s refusal to take her seriously gave me cold comfort.
      •   On May Day, I escorted a Russian class onto the school’s front lawn to plant their Russian flag. Thinking I was a student, two passing students offered me drugs.

Almost no teachers left lesson plans. Some left terse notes like: “Have students draw their emotions using charcoal.” At best, they left busywork. Teachers who left scant or no instructions sent an implicit message: ‘Use your creative discretion.’

A 3rd grade teacher left instructions to randomly assign each student a required spelling word. The students’ task was to write a sentence using their assigned word and incorporate the sentence into an Earth Day card. The teacher would forward the cards to the White House. Eduardo drew the word “smother.” I expected a cautionary tale about how to keep a baby warm while avoiding tragic over-diligence but hoped for Maya Angelou’s recipe for smothered chicken. Surprising only me, 8-year-old Eduardo articulated the poetry of protest like a young Langston Hughes:

         My, oh my
         Do they smother
         Our cry?

I often wondered, did the White House write back? Did Eduardo keep asking questions? Did anyone hear him? Or did someone just shut him up?

After four feast-or-famine years, I quit substituting. Believing I might make a difference made quitting hard, but seeing capable, compassionate teachers become worn down and afraid helped set me free. AQ