The United States public-education system is rife with issues and concerns, many of which are coming into sharp focus as, once again, students head back to class for another school year. In the landscape of testing, budget cuts, and the Common Core standards, it makes sense that little attention is paid to the plight of the substitute teacher. But in Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids, the novelist Nicholson Baker explores the complicated place of the substitute in the larger educational picture and finds a system in woeful need of fixing.
Substitute teachers are a ubiquitous part of public education. Anyone who attended a public school likely had both a favorite sub who allowed marginally more freedom than her regular teacher and a much-dreaded sub who was infuriatingly strict. They are part of the fabric of the school year, at least for the students. But for the substitutes themselves, their place in the school ecosystem is far more difficult to discern, and often they are left to fend for themselves with little preparation or (at least in busy schools) support. As explored in another Atlantic review of Nicholson’s book by Sara Mosle, the way a teacher relates to his experience differs from how a substitute will. In her largely positive review, Mosle takes issue with how Nicholson relates to both school policy and the students, and perhaps rightly so. But as I experienced as a substitute teacher, we’re often left to make our own—perhaps flawed—way in a complex system that seems to barely see us.