Pity the Substitute Teacher, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In our new October issue, veteran teacher Sara Mosle reviews a new book from Nicholson Baker, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids. Baker is a prolific author who decided to go undercover as a sub in a “not-terribly-poor-but-hardly-rich school district” in Maine for a month. Mosle is mostly critical of Baker’s work, so here in Notes we’d rather hear from readers with more experience as a substitute—one of the most thankless jobs out there. So drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com to share your horror stories or success stories. Here’s Gary to start us off:

I was amazed when I “subbed” years ago how little students actually know about any subject. Now, you might get the high enders who will listen to you, but it’s all a babysit for less than a 100 dollars a day. The teacher usually picks her sub anyway, so if you are not a buddy, only in an emergency will you be called to sub teach. I’m amazed that anyone with a pulse would do it. It’s abusive to the person they call in.

Speaking of abuse, here’s a Peele sketch to pair with that classic one from Key:

Another reader, Ardea, was a full-time teacher in middle school but had a lot of interaction with subs:

When I have a substitute (as infrequently as possible, because the students and I fall behind in the curriculum), I just have a stay-at-your desk reading and writing assignment, usually from the textbook. When I have written the lesson plan for an actual lab, disaster always strikes, even with my most competent substitutes. Substitutes who regularly subvert the lesson plan or classroom discipline are usually barred via a conversation with our principal and some settings on the computer system. Hooray!

One of my subs wrote back a tirade about how horrible my students were, told my students they were a waste of taxpayer money, and that they belonged in a mental institution.

He also told me to “post the PBIS [Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports] rules; they work.” I had them on my wall, in our school colors (as they were in every class), plus our office would have handed him a stack of token rewards as part of his sub folder. Our students said he sat on my stool and looked like he was spaced out and sleeping half the time. I was furious, and my principal had him removed from our rotation. Thank goodness.

We had another frequent sub who never did the lesson plan but just told the kids (inappropriate) stories about his Vietnam days and the stuff he used to get away with. He picked on the pretty girls, because I think he was one of those types who resented every pretty woman who wasn’t available to him, even if they were in middle school. He probably assumed that because they were pretty, they could always get their way, that every pretty girl must be manipulative, and therefore he was there to take them down a peg or two with every interaction. Not that he was skeevy, just resentful. And he wouldn’t stick to the lesson plan. (He passed away recently: poorly managed Type 1 diabetes.)

Here’s some advice from a reader who “subbed for a couple of years in the ’90s, mostly high school and junior high”:

The trick is to manage expectations, both of the students and the regular teacher. If the lesson plan was obvious make-work, it would be pointless to pretend otherwise. The kids aren’t stupid, after all.

The trick at that point was to keep them engaged and therefore non-destructive. What this meant in practice would depend on the class. Reading the room was an important skill.

On the other hand, my thing was that I could actually teach calculus, because I actually understood it. Once the math teachers realized this, they requested me specifically. The kids appreciated it, too. Any kid taking calculus in high school is bright and engaged, and having a different teacher explain things slightly differently meant that sometimes I could help make things click in the kid’s head. At the job’s best, I was in the same handful of classes often enough to have a relationship with the kids.

Oh, and no grading! That almost made up for the crappy pay.

This next reader, Bill, who—like Nicholson Baker—substitute taught in Maine, has a great little success story:

I have not read Baker’s book, so it is hard to comment on its contents.  Having read Sara Mosle’s review, it’s likely that my own experiences and opinions will widely differ. The book somewhat interests me, and it it would be nice to see if Baker and I had any overlap in Maine schools (either working or attending). It seems this book has more to do with the viewpoint of the writer than anything really going on. Thinking that two hours of school is sufficient time for the average student daily is a horrifying belief.

Here’s a quick story for you. When I substituted, it was in Southern Maine around exit 3 and 4 (back then). The high school I had attended was exit 2 and in many ways the place I call “home.” The last time I substituted was in 2002 or ’03, prior to my decision to go back to grad school. In 2005, I was living in Gardiner, Maine, a very small town in a state that has a largely static population (most of the state drains into Portland). In the line at Hannaford there, the check-out boy asked me if I had ever subbed at his school. It seems that he remembered me teaching his algebra class once and told me that he learned more that day than the rest of the year combined. To this day it remains firmly in my top 5 greatest compliments.

That is the coin that teachers work for in the absence of actual pay. “Seeing the light go on” is one of the greatest gifts to “good” teachers and it is amazing to me such aggregate commitment to our children is held in such low esteem. If the institution of education hadn't made schools, students, and parents all working against (and blaming) teachers, it would be possible to contemplate returning to the classroom.

There is a huge problem is American education over a large swath of this country, but being a substitute AIDE for less than 30 days total, especially in the completely broken system of “Special Ed,” isn’t going to reveal any mysteries about the system.