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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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.

Pity this reader, Julie:

I substitute teach in Maryland. I went for a half-day job in a fourth-grade class. I walked in and the teacher said, “I was too busy and left no plans. Do what you want.” He also warned me about a problem child. So, long story short, among other things the boy kept running out of the classroom. The fourth time I tried to stop him—after all, I am responsible for his safety. Reporting it to the office had been useless. I told the assistant principle [AP] of the boy’s behavior before I left that day.

Two days later I got a call from the AP. The parent complained that I “grabbed” her son's arm, so the AP accused me of child abuse. After the school filed a request to ban me, I was reprimanded and banned from the school and received a letter admonishing me for my inappropriate behavior. The complaint contained quotes of things I had not said—but I had no recourse. There was no person willing to meet with me. The system made up quotes and never let me defend myself.

All this for $19.00 an hour.

My father worked as a full-time teacher at a middle school in a rough part of Kansas City that had a fair amount of gang violence, so he—a large 6’2’’ retired Army veteran—was always called upon by teachers to try to neutralize an especially rowdy or violent student. (The security guard at his school would actually try to avoid such confrontations.) Physical contact with students is always incredibly dicey for a teacher, regardless of context, so if a student was a threat to others, my dad would try to quickly get him in a fireman’s carry—a safety maneuver, as he would remind parents—and haul him down to the office to detain, often for a police officer. He got assaulted many times but still had parents protest that he shouldn’t have intervened at all, so it was a really fraught, unofficial part of his job. (If you’re a teacher, of any kind, and have any advice or stories to share regarding violent students, please drop us a note.)

A reader in Texas, Dave, recalls a high point and a low one from his days of subbing:

I essentially got assaulted one day. I was the sub in ISS (In-School Suspension) and was helping a student with her homework at the desk upfront when I saw something flying toward me. I managed to duck just in time. It was a pear, and it hit the wall five feet behind us, with enough force to splatter us both with chunks of the pear. I wasn’t exactly sure who threw it, although I knew which desk it had been sitting on all morning, but dude should have been on the baseball team; that was a strong throw and pretty damned good control.

I did almost exclusively middle and high school, but I once did a day with a second grade class that was by far the most fun I ever had as a sub.

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.