The Substitute Teacher's Impermanence

The brevity of her place in a classroom is both her largest foil and most important asset.

A substitute teacher sits on the floor with students as they read.
Tia Martin, center, a substitute teacher, works with students in Henderson, Nevada. (John Locher / Reuters)

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.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of spring 2015, there were around 626,750 substitute teachers working for a mean annual wage of just under $30,000. Most are paid an hourly wage, with the mean falling at around $14 per hour, but many round to the nearest day or half day. For example, in Washington, D.C., a sub is paid $15 per hour, but only in half-day or full-day increments of $60 or $120. In terms of benefits, a substitute is sometimes offered a retirement fund, but health insurance is not an option.

The required qualifications for substitutes vary by state and district. For some, just a high-school diploma is needed to register. For others, candidates have to have a bachelor’s degree and some level of training (ranging from one hour to a few days). None have specific teaching-experience requirements. That sense of inconsistency is one of the hallmarks of subbing in public schools; a quick look at the website for the National Substitute Teachers Alliance (a non-union group that advocates for subs) shows that when it comes to subbing, there is rarely an answer to any question other than, “It depends.”

Inconsistency defines the substitute experience, as Baker learned. In 2014, Baker registered as a substitute teacher for his local Maine district and spent 28 non-consecutive days in the classroom. As he documents in this day-by-day account, his assignments ran the full range of ages and subjects a substitute is liable to encounter, bouncing from second grade to high school and from lead science teacher to “ed tech” in the course of a couple of days. Baker cuts to the anxiety at the heart of being a substitute when he responds to a student’s compliment saying, “I’m not awesome. I just don't know what I’m doing.”

I’m all too familiar with that feeling. I substitute taught in both Illinois and Washington, D.C., and despite the vast differences between the schools and circumstances, I never quite felt like I knew what was going on. In Illinois, I registered as a sub with three districts in my home county, a small farming community where writing “Ms. Heing” on the board launched a barrage of questions about whether I was related to the other Heings in the area (I was) or knew various cousins the students had at other schools. That familiarity gave me a leg up, as did the rural school setting. Discipline was rarely an issue, and when it was, the school had the time to remove a student from class and have them sit in the office or meet with an administrator.

That wasn’t the case in Washington. Whereas in Illinois all I had to do was file paperwork and show up in person to ask that I be put on the call list for each school, in D.C., I had to apply, interview, and attend a brief orientation. Then, rather than being called, I was able to log into a website that let me sign up for openings. Most weeks, I was able to set my schedule on Sunday evening. I subbed for all ages, eventually landing a spot as a dedicated sub at a high school.

But even with the regularity of subbing in D.C., the job wasn’t easy. I learned how challenging it can be for a substitute to manage a classroom, particularly when deeply rooted challenges—racial and economic inequality, for example—exacerbate the kinds of opportunity gaps that contribute to discipline problems. I knew that there were many factors influencing student behavior; a lot of them opened up to me about events at home or work schedules that would make any teenager struggle with focusing on worksheets. But without training or guidance, and with administration overwhelmed by more pressing concerns, the volume of things that can go wrong in a hectic classroom—kids leaving the room without permission, bullying, yelling—often left me completely drained. While many classes, particularly those with older students, were well-behaved, I’d routinely leave middle-school classes with every intention of never subbing again. It was just too much, with too many moving parts that never seemed to come together when I needed them to. But subbing has a built-in burnout cure: Every single day is different, and I was optimistic enough to assume different could always mean better.

Baker was able to take a multi-day training prior to being placed on the call list, from which schools could call him morning-of for placements. But trainings like the one Baker attended are difficult to make worthwhile—how does a district effectively condense everything that must be known about teaching into four one-hour meetings? Late in my time as a substitute, the school I subbed at organized a similar set of trainings to try to get a handle on growing behavior issues, but it became clear quickly that the administration had an overly rosy view of what a substitute can do. The reality of the classroom for a substitute teacher is very different from that experienced by the lead teacher, particularly in schools where staff is stretched too thin to address every problem. Kids learn fast when a sub’s threat to call the office (a last line of defense, as a sub can’t write a detention or take action more significant than wagging a finger) doesn’t mean anything. The ability to control a classroom is the foundation on which every other piece—the work left by the teacher, the bell schedule, rules about cell phones or food—has to rest. But as anyone who has been in a classroom led by a substitute knows, keeping a lid on a group of worked-up kids is a sometimes Sisyphean task. It’s a lesson Baker learns quickly, amid a room of yelling pint-sized balls of energy.

Baker’s book, at 719 pages, reads like an hour-by-hour diary of his assignments. Although the format can feel trying early on, within a few chapters it becomes clear that this is the only way a reader could truly grasp the monotonous, hectic, and exhausting world of substitute teaching. Baker relies on dialogue between himself and students to capture the sense of constant movement that whirls around him, silence falling with the same sense of relief he felt when finally—finally—the kids settled in to read. He masterfully uses the book to place the reader directly in the action and into a world that few are given the chance to see once they leave school.

Given the lack of requirements and relative ease of getting started, it may be a surprise that many districts have a substitute-teacher shortage, meaning there aren’t enough registered subs to fill all vacancies on any given day. Those who do enter the fray are often an invisible workforce in a school—if everything goes as planned, the administration won’t have to give any thought to the classes for which the sub is filling in. There’s a transience to subs that both makes serious time or resource investment likely unrealistic for most districts and engenders their separateness from the rest of the faculty. It can give rise to a dismissiveness that Baker encounters early on, when he overhears teachers saying they throw away assignments completed when a sub is in charge. Baker is an outsider given access to a world unto itself, to the machinations and inner workings of the public-school system.

There are two relationships at the heart of Baker’s book and the substitute’s work: that with the students and that with the public-education system. Baker clearly feels kinship with the students and uses his time with them to ask questions about their workload and their personal lives. This is when his image as not-quite-an-authority-figure comes in handy; he, like many subs, found students willing to talk to him about their home lives, their relationships, their goals, and other personal subjects in a way they would likely never talk to their teachers. He listened as students talked about their long bus rides to school every morning, unstable home situations, and other extenuating circumstances that made each day a struggle.

That lack of authority can work in the sub’s favor or against him, depending on the students. For Baker, it largely works to his advantage as the students seemed to genuinely enjoy having him in their classes and often told him as much. As a young woman in a sub pool dominated by retirees, I saw the way a sub's informal place in the classroom can work in my favor or against me. I experienced a similar frankness to that seen by Baker; students were quick to ask me about college or open up about their personal lives, a level of trust I tried to respect by taking them seriously. Yet, few things undercut a sub quite like a student walking into a classroom and asking if she’s a new kid in class.

Given the lack of teaching experience required to become a sub, few things are more terrifying than being left with an empty day, but I often found across every school I subbed at that innate childhood curiosity worked in my favor. Some of the most engaged classes I taught were propelled only by student questions about history, politics, and life in general, and I’d often leave them wondering where the idea that students aren’t interested in learning comes from. Other days, when computers were off limits or non-functional, I had the pleasure of teaching students how to use glossaries and indexes in their textbooks, something that was requisite when I was in school but has become largely obsolete in the age of Google.

Substitute maintains its bird’s-eye view of the school system, and Baker doesn’t delve into school policy or a context outside of his own specific experiences. At times, I wished for a more in-depth exploration, but Baker’s approach stays true to the nature of subbing. A sub is not just powerless when it comes to the bigger-picture issues of the classroom, but also left out of the loop almost completely. He captures the tensions between faculty and the charm of the students perfectly in their own voices. Even if it drags at times, the book is ultimately engaging as a whole.

But of course, both substitute teaching and Nicholson’s book all comes down to the students, for better or for worse. Among the book’s more enjoyable features is the hilarious dorkiness of children, who sing random clips of songs and crack awkward jokes at lightning speed. Over a year after I left substitute teaching, I still find myself laughing about things students said, including 4-year-olds fighting dreaded “turkey-bugs” (turkeys the size of bugs, in case you were wondering) and 17-year-olds rapping about leaving campus to get Panda Express. But they can also be a sub’s foil, seemingly going out of their way to ensure mass chaos. Baker sums up perfectly the frenetic energy between the substitute and the student—and the very nature of being a substitute teacher at all—when he writes, “Loud bad funny brilliant sullen blithe anxious children. If I were a real teacher, I would go completely nuts. I love them.”