The only people more worse off than substitute teachers in the public school system are the students. First class citizens, of course are the legislature, behind them comes the district and administrators, then the teachers and other full time staff such as custodians and para-educators. On par with para-educators, paid slightly more because of certification but without the certainty or solace of working in the same building everyday, substitute teachers are the ER doctors of the public school system doing triage day in and day out as opposed to real education. Part of this is just human nature but the larger portion of blame lies in the poorly funded and afterthought that the public education system has become. A system that has turned teachers into data generators, trackers and prision guards. So it is no wonder that when the substitute shows up the students haze and rebel in anyway they can.
“Subbing” is the process of being hazed for 5 – 6 periods each day. The admirable movement to call substitutes “guest teachers” simply so that they do not have to hear “Yay! Mr./Mz. (Teacher) isn’t here today we have a sub” or “Ah, man. We have a sub today.” The connotations of “sub”, meaning under or beneath, are not lost on the students nor on the guest teacher and are best ignored by the latter. Usually the enthusiasm of having a sub is shortly followed by a prolonged intimate relationship of the student with their phone – often to notify their peers of their impending freedom from “accountability” (tracking) during future periods in the same classroom. Despite these considerate obstacles one is still expected to teach and no sooner is a lesson begun a warm up problem assigned or and entry task proffered than there begins the litany of problems which, at times it seems, the majority of student intellect and creativity are devoted to. Someone needs to use the bathroom, or forgot something in their locker, or they need the nurse for an unspecified medical problem that only surfaced since they walked in the classroom and realized they have a substitute. Namely, students know they can try and usually get away with the normal bag of tricks that would never fly with their regular teacher. I have lumped all students together thus far, but that is unjust. It is really a small number in each class that essentially attempt to pester the substitute into submission or madness or to quit. Yes, there is actually a small, yet vocal, segment of the public school population (6-12 grades) that pride themselves on getting ANY teacher, staff, or substitute to quit. This is the same group of students who instigate conflict among their peers as a form of entertainment.
Students engage in all kinds of behavior that they would never even dream of doing in the presence of their normal teacher. Students, seemingly drunk on the perception of freedom from accountability, mindlessly pull up lewd and inappropriate content on their phones, don’t hesitate to have way way WAY off topic conversations, physically play fight or bully one another, or disengage altogether. The prison mentality is so strong in public education that the substitute appears to have virtually no choice but to adopt the most brutal and base prison mentality and become at the outset the harshest authoritarian possible using machiavellian fear to maintain some semblance of serious academic learning. Again this culture in our schools makes it rather difficult to get student buy-in without some very strong delineation, often by example, of the consequences or punishment that awaits the disruptors who are almost always a small fraction of the class. It’s an equivalent mentality to the whole “When you get to prison pick a fight with the biggest baddest dude and after that, if you survive, you’ll not be bothered.” Though not couched in those terms and without the violence, much of what the substitute teacher must do to insure cooperation is very similar to what the regular classroom teacher does at the beginning of every year to insure student buy-in, namely enforce consequences, the difference being the substitute must do it for every new class. Writing the student up, contacting administrators and parents – the consequence is usually more of a punishment for the substitute than the student and is one of the sources of unpaid overtime for which substitutes are not compensated. This idea of making and example of a student early in the period, ideally a chronically misbehaving one, might indeed establish some kind of order but it is fraught with peril and can often backfire causing students to disengage.
Techniques like learning to write on the whiteboard without turning your back on the class, posing your body so that while you are helping one student you are able to see the rest of the class and making students aware that you are waiting… These are old hat for regular teachers who by the second week of school often need not employ them so extensively. There are many of these strategies. They often mirror what practices a stage performer must adhere to in order to sustain the illusion. The comparison to performance is not idle. The substitute has a very short time with which to gain the students’ attention and entice them into actually working with the caveat that some students in almost every class will refuse or revolt or worse. So teaching is in competition with the entertainment provided by the students phone and video consumption. Can the substitute possibly be as or more interesting? Perhaps some of the time but it is a tall order and risks devolving into post modern clownism.