Reporter's Notebook

Tales of Substitute Teaching
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Stemming from Sara Mosle’s book review for our October 2016 issue, “Pity the Substitute Teacher,” readers share their horror stories and success stories of being a sub. If you have your own, please drop us a note:

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From 'Babysitting' to Stopping Sexual Assault

Substitute teachers are often referred to as babysitters because they typically show up to a classroom just to keep order while the regular teacher is away, keeping the kids preoccupied with a movie or busy work. This reader’s experience, on the other hand, was far more serious:

I was first a regular sub, then a long-term sub (same class assignment for the duration) at the “alternative education program” for boys who had been expelled for behavioral issues. My whole story is way too long to commit to text, but here’s the short version:

A first-year teacher was about to be sexually assaulted at the hands of about six of the worst boys. They were in a covered area, outside on a recreational terrace, with windowless walls on two sides and the only door having a small window. They were at a ping pong table, circling the teacher like sharks, with each one darting in to ruffle her hair when she turned to face the previous would-be attacker.

In my few seconds of observation, their escalation was obvious. So I slammed the nearest boy against a wall and marched him back into the building, banging into doors and walls every step of the way, and I did each of the others in turn.

The teacher was indignant. She “reported me” for being “absolutely brutal” in my handling of “these children.” In her defense, she was completely oblivious to the danger and simply saw me manhandle a bunch of kids. She was of the opinion that they were “mistreated by life and misunderstood,” which while not IN-correct says nothing about the state of their current pathology.

I quit on the spot.

Update from a skeptical reader:

I’m not sure I understand with what attitude we are expected to receive this anecdote. Presumably we are to nod at the sage wisdom of a veteran educator and praise them for averting a disastrous situation. Why should we be so credulous? The writer asserts that he (his masculinity is thoroughly unambiguous) can predict, and successfully predicted, a sexual assault which was about to occur, on the basis of circling and hair-ruffling. I’m not convinced.

Jeff has the best story of substitute teaching I’ve seen so far from readers:

I subbed for a year at Middletown High School in Middletown, Ohio in 1972. My friend and college roommate was the art teacher and I was very much at loose ends, not ready to settle into a full-time routine.

My favorite story was the day I was brought in to sub for the three-hour Vocational Ed class that met in an industrial kitchen and prepared the kids to work in restaurants. There were no lesson plans; absolutely nothing for me to teach. I had the students sit and do their homework for other classes, which they claimed they did not have.  

Mid morning, a group of students said the teacher had told them to clean the walk-in refrigerator, so I let them do that. They went into the walk-in and closed the door, but it wasn’t long before the rest of us could detect the sweet smell of pot being smoked.

I went into the walk-in to deal with the situation and as soon as I entered, they all exited and closed the door, leaving me locked inside. I sat there fuming for about 15 minutes, then they let me out. I walked into a party in progress; everyone was high and they were cooking up munchies for all: omelettes, cakes, cookies—you name it.

There was nothing for me to do but relax and go with it. We had our little feast, cleaned the kitchen, and went on our way.

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 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.