On my first day as a substitute teacher, one kid upset the whole class with loud raspberry sounds, one girl kept whining that her stomach hurt, kids’ names flew in and out of my head, and I kept wondering who was in charge when in the room with me was a math specialist, a full-time assistant and a student teacher.
Despite having absolutely zero teaching experience, I realized who was the boss: me.
I always imagined a linear career path: small paper, big paper, Pulitzer, book deal. My ladder turned out more like a jungle gym, however, as I went from dot-com drone to newspaper reporter, wire editor, graduate student and then freelance writer. It took me years to realize that journalistic glory means less to me than raising a family. And in nine years as an at-home dad, choices my Lovely Bride and I made allowed her to risk and soar professionally – and not worry about whether we’re out of milk.
After friends’ countless suggestions – and wringing my hands over it for months – I applied to become a substitute teacher in my local public schools . I know, who’s the number one person on whom people try to pull a fast one? The sub. (I flash back to 7th grade band class and switching seats and instruments. Or to poor Mr. Bradley, the middle school sub who would get so angry he would bend a yardstick over his head until it almost broke.) But I figure that if I return from the trenches wanting more – despite the difficulty of dropping into a different situation almost every time – then maybe I should look into the expense and schooling required for what I’m now old enough (awk) to call a midlife career change.
It turns out all you have to do to be a sub in Baltimore County is attend a two-hour orientation, have no criminal record and pass a fingerprint check. I’m in! They didn’t even ask if I speak English. A college degree or credit earns you higher pay, and you have to attend a 2-hour orientation session which mainly teaches you about the sophisticated “Sub-Finder Express” automated phone system.
It lets you can slice and dice your availability and choose from five zones in the county in which you’ll take assignments. Or you can opt for high school only or to teach only French. Then the computer will phone you with available jobs the night before – or the morning of – and you pick and choose on the spot. You can also comb online listings, which gives you the leisure of pondering a 7:30 start time at a school 30 minutes away.
Of the 8,000 public school teachers in Baltimore County, between 700 and 1,200 are absent each day because of illness or meetings or a variety of reasons, said the woman running the prospective sub orientation. In the course of a child’s 13 years in school, that adds up to one full year of not having a teacher. Sheesh. And you’re not the content expert, the orientation lady said. You’re there to keep the class on track with the curriculum so the permanent teacher doesn’t have to go back and repeat what you as the sub failed to complete.
And with 3 percent of substitute vacancies going unfilled each day, she said, there’s plenty of work to be had.
So with the Oscar-winning music playing in my head, and imagining the movie to be made about my life spent broadening young minds, I arrived at my first assignment having dressed for the part. With sportcoat, necktie and freshly-shined shoes, I looked like an administrator (a tip from orientation lady). I arrived early and was barely in the classroom five minutes when the teacher across the hall said her sub cancelled, and could I stay a few extra hours? They loved me already! But it was much harder than I expected to get a roomful of squirmy 3rd graders to calculate perimeter (it’s easy: add up the sides) when I don’t know what they do and don’t know.
The gig I stayed extra for that day might as well have been in a different school. It was a 5th grade gifted and talented reading class, run by a student teacher who led the perfectly orderly class through an hour-long discussion of The Hobbit (which I never read, because the 100-page introduction was too boring). She let them work in pairs, then together as a class, and she hardly had to raise her voice. I functioned as the extra adult in the room and tried out the principle of management by proximity (another tip from orientation lady) by wandering the room with my arms crossed and looking official.
I’ve had six or eight sub gigs since, and they’ve ranged from the most unruly first-graders ever who fought over pencils they snatched from each other to another class I had twice and remembered most kids’ names. Most recently, I fancied myself as Mr. Schuester from Glee when I subbed for a music teacher. She left a music-related crossword puzzle, which bored the kids and bored me, too.
At supper that night, naturally, I turned for advice to my own first-grader on the critical topic of exactly when students are allowed to sharpen pencils, which they seem to do almost as often as they want to go to the bathroom.
Carla: “Well, you’re supposed to start the day with four sharpened pencils, Dad.”
I have so much to learn.