When Students Physically Dominate a Sub

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

The latest teacher to email us, Patrick, shares a disturbing account of his subbing days:

I have been enjoying your series on substitute teaching, as I have been a sub in a number of varied situations. Just a brief background: I am a New Jersey based music teacher and spent five years (which included extended school year) as an outside “contractor” teaching music in a self-contained school for autistic students. I loved the work and—if I may say so—was very effective. Working with students who were on various points of the autistic spectrum was beyond rewarding.

I loved teaching so much that I decided to become a certified teacher through a program in New Jersey called “alternate route.” This basically means you earn your certification while working. I moved from my school for autistic students, and was hired into an inner-city public school in Newark. I was initially hired as a substitute because the school is very tough to teach in. The principal and administrators wanted to make sure I could “handle it” before they allowed me to pursue my certificate.

I should also tell you the principal was completely inept. He had no presence in terms of discipline, nor in terms of building a school community. These things were vital considering the community around the school is mired in poverty. Directly behind the school is one of the most notorious public housing projects, where many of the students came from. On my first day I was directly warned by two teachers that the principal was losing control of the building.

My first few weeks weren’t bad. I was able to establish myself and began offering lessons to students before school. I started a school drum line and was doing OK. It was not “easy” by any means, but I was holding my own and getting work done.

By December, however, the school began slipping into complete chaos. Fights became a regular occurrence, and I felt like I was breaking up two a day. One day a fight between two fifth-grade boys became so intense that I had no choice but to go into the scrum and try to break things up. I did not lay hands on anyone, but I was trying to get between the boys when one of them turned around and began choking me.

Luckily a student ran down to alert security and a guard came running in. The boy took his hands off my neck and ran away. I was left sitting on the floor in shock.

Mind you, I was merely classified as a “sub” (even though I was there every day, writing lessons plans, coming into school early to give lessons, and even starting a mentor group for older boys), so I had no support from the union, no paid time off. Nothing.

By the time January rolled around, the school was just plain out of control because the students knew there was no recourse for bad behavior. The dance, art, and gym teachers and I sat down a large group of 6th and 7th graders—some of our best students—to beg them to stay on track and not get caught in the nonsense. The school got so bad that full-time teachers were taking leaves of absence due to stress. Some teachers were physically assaulted. Verbal abuse from students was a daily thing. Substitute teachers refused assignment at the school.

This reached its pinnacle in the early spring when I was put up against my smart board by a 7th grade boy who turned to the class and said “Take a picture because I’m about to beat the shit out of the music teacher.” Luckily two other students came to my aid and get him to back off.

Not only did I finish the year, I went above and beyond the job of “substitute.” I presented concerts, gave lessons, established relationships with some of the toughest students, and made an impact. But in the midst of the chaos, I was never able to move into the alternate route program. The principal was let go at the end of the year, and, due to school closings, I was moved out and replaced with a certified/tenured teacher.

So all of the work I did was for nothing. I was informed it couldn’t be applied towards my alternate route work, which I couldn’t believe. A year in this school wasn’t only worth a teacher’s certification but an MA in Education AND Purple Heart!

However, I was so affected by my time, and the kids, that I still returned to the school for the year after and continued to run a mentor group free of charge.

Another sub, Paul, was able to avoid the violence in his school, and he offers some advice to other teachers:

I was tempted to do a little storytelling about my fun times as a sub after I read your “Chill Substitute” note, but I realized I’d be playing the part of Jordan Peele in the clip you embedded, since my story is strangely parallel: On one subbing assignment, I ended up toasting hot dogs in a glass-blowing class. No mind-altering substances were involved for me, but otherwise the stories track rather closely!

I’ve also had a tiny bit of experience with one of your other topics: school violence. I’ve only been peripherally involved in a few fights between students. What I’ve noticed—and other teachers should feel free to correct me, since I’m new at this [hello@theatlantic.com]—is that fights tend to be more vicious between girls, and they tend to be between younger students. Boys are generally one-punchers, and the juniors and seniors usually have enough maturity (or apathy) to avoid actual brawls, or at least to avoid them on campus.

I’ve long felt the best way to handle a fight (any fight) is to keep it from happening in the first place. One day during my student teaching, my mentor and I noticed that our hallway was much more crowded than usual, probably waiting for something—probably a fight. We waded out into the crowd and made ourselves visible, and the crowd dispersed.

In contrast, a fight broke out just outside my door on the one day I hadn’t posted myself in the hall. Since it was two boys fighting, it was over by the time I got outside. Another day I did get between two girls, which was against all my training. They tell us to never interpose your body into a fight, as you might get hurt. I took that risk anyway and it worked, but it might not have. Probably my smartest move in that encounter was to widen the gap between the combatants: as an administrator took one girl to the office, I took the other in the opposite direction—ostensibly to her locker to get her bag, but mostly to keep them out of sight of each other for a while.

Other times, a student comes looking to start trouble with me. In that case, the best way I’ve found to deal with it is a sort of aikido [a Japanese martial art]. One day when I was subbing, I was handed a note by a student that said “Fuck you sub” (and yes, I automatically corrected his punctuation in my head even as I read it). I handed the note back to him and cheerfully said “Thank you!” As I walked away, I heard another student ask the note-passer what I’d said, and I heard the note-passer say, baffled, “He said ‘Thank you’!” The note-passer gave me little other trouble that period—and he returned to my classroom no less than three times, over the course of the day, to ask if I was mad about the note.

My philosophy is that if a student wants to start a fight with you, why give them what they want?  

I felt like I passed a test that day, and my confidence as a sub skyrocketed. In fact, that confidence may have helped land me my current full-time teaching job. Now classroom management is much less of a problem (though I’ve found that my laissez-faire attitude that I had to adopt while subbing is still with me, which is not always for the best). What’s killing me is the paperwork which I never had to deal with in the past, including inventing emergency sub plans. I should probably do that tomorrow, come to think of it …

Sometimes it’s the substitute teacher who gets violent; here’s a local news segment from Prince George’s County, Maryland, showing a sub whipping his students with a belt, and in the following segment from Phoenix, a substitute throws a kid to the ground after the latter spits a racial epithet at him:

If you’ve had an experience with a sub who went too far, drop us a note.