When Students Physically Dominate a Sub

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.