Today is the first day back at school after a long, hot, relaxing summer. I woke up early this morning and got ready for the day, put on my best professional attire, made some coffee, and waited….. And waited some more. Now that I mention it, as I sit here typing away, I’m still waiting. It’s the oh-so-exciting life of a sub. And it pisses me off.
I’m a certified high school English teacher desperately seeking her own classroom. I’ve been graduated and certified for two entire years working in positions for which I’m over-qualified and under-paid. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I am smart, eager, hard-working, organized, and passionate about my chosen career path. Yet I am forced to sit on the side-lines, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the phone to ring, and hoping that my number is called. Each time I get an email, text, or phone call a little butterfly swoops down from my throat into my stomach in anticipation. My struggling wallet does back-flips which causes bill-collectors to line up with dollar signs floating in their eyes. But for two years now, the poor butterfly, wallet, and bill collectors have been fooled each time. On the other end of the emails, texts, and phone calls there are no administrators offering me positions of employment. There are not even offerings of job interviews– not one single interview in over two years. What am I doing wrong, you ask? I have obviously missed something. I am not trying hard enough, you say? Tell that to the countless hours I have spent filling out application after application. Tell that to the well-over 100 schools that have my application on file. It’s not only the depressed wallet that has me down. My entire life is on pause. I want to get married. I have the perfect guy, just not the funds to throw the party or buy the dress. I want to have a nice home, I have the credit and the time is right for buying, I just don’t have the cash. I’d love to have children, but I don’t have a steady job to support kids right now. You get the idea. Life costs money. No job = no money = life on pause. You’re probably thinking I went into the wrong profession if all I want is money. But I’m not asking for extravagances here. I’m not talking in terms of celebrity style dream weddings, mansions, or jet-setter-around-the-world vacations. I’d like a stream of steady, reliable income from a job that gives me a sense of satisfaction and a comfortable family home with my husband and our future children. That might be a lot to hope for, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable.
For the past year, I have been working as a substitute teacher in a major city’s educational system. Let me tell you, I have seen some shit (said in my best John Turturro voice). I walk through the halls of these schools, filled with teachers who think their students are the scum of the earth, and whose students believe their teachers are out-to-get-them and made from pure evil. I have walked through hallways in which every student is banging their books and backpacks on the lockers to cause such a ruckus and to frighten their teachers in hopes that they and the security staff will not notice drug deals being made at the end of the hall. I have seen students threaten teachers, swearing and yelling at the top of their lungs, the threat of detention/suspension/expulsion meaning less than nothing to them. In contrast, I have seen teachers threaten students, swearing and yelling at the top of their lungs in a pointless attempt to control their classroom, only causing an adverse reaction. Now, this particular teacher’s students know, not only can they can get under this teacher’s skin, but that they no longer respect this teacher as an authority figure and they cannot trust this teacher or go to this teacher for help. I enter classrooms in such disarray that, as a substitute, I cannot make heads or tails of what is being taught. Now, mind you, I am trained. Can you imagine what is going on in the minds of the students? I shudder at the thought. In most cases, I know nothing is being taught. I know there are no skills being obtained and there are no lessons being taken away to use in the years to come. Most English classes I see force-feed students material to read, questions to answer based on the plot of the text, and quizzes and tests asking the same exact questions regarding the plot. What do students gain from this? Mostly nothing. Sure, some students will learn something from the text. But students who don’t read to learn (or students who have trouble reading) won’t learn much at all. I look around to each student, knowing they are probably just a number in the system, knowing the system is setting them up for failure. In my positive, over-zealous mind, I know I can make a difference for these students—The Future of America.
Go ahead and laugh, I know you are already. You’re thinking, “Kids today don’t give a crap about their educations.” Um, well, yes and no. When I was in high school (a whopping 12 years ago) I witnessed an outburst or two, or a few kids who seemed lackadaisical about their educations, but for the most part, the kids were more invested in their futures. It’s true. But, to be honest, I think today’s youth are capable of the same. I don’t know what has caused this change. Maybe they are just not being pushed enough to think in that direction. Maybe parents have become less demanding or influential at home. Whatever the case may be, the mind-set of most high school students has changed, but it doesn’t mean they don’t care, necessarily. The right teacher can change the attitude or outlook for any student. One day, one teacher, one lesson, it all just clicks.
I’m overcome with mixed emotions when I leave a classroom for the day after a student tells me privately that they have learned more in one lesson with me than they have learned all year with their regular teacher. Yes, this has actually happened. While I may be “just a sub,” I substitute every day mostly at the same school. The kids are used to me, and for the most part like having me around. They get excited when they walk into the room and see me sitting in their teacher’s desk. I’m not the fun sub who lets them run around the room like a pack of wild animals and I’m not the mean sub who won’t allow them to sneeze without issuing a detention. I’m the sub who is down to business, but conducts a fair classroom while helping the students as much as I possibly can during such a short time. In return, I get students who shout greetings to me across the hallway, I am deemed the “best sub ever” throughout the building, I receive Christmas and birthday presents from students, I endure tearful goodbyes at the end of the year…. But I see these same students struggling every day to grasp onto something they can take with them, struggling to understand their place in the universe, struggling to understand the WHY behind being assigned to read a book they have absolutely no connection to and having to answer 40 questions on a sheet of notebook paper. The answer to that WHY is not what they want to hear. They do not want to hear that the book they are forced to read is part of a curriculum planned ahead of time for a unit of study that meets state standards and goals, that this unit of study was not planned with their individual needs, abilities, or skill-levels in mind—never mind their interests, passions, or something they can connect with their daily existences. Yes, I have been trained to plan units ahead of time, and yes, I have been trained to follow state standards and best-practice strategies. And I do believe this way of teaching can work—and it worked for me when I was in high school. But, many of the teachers I see daily are not helping students make connections, they are not providing students with opportunity to analyze or think critically, and they are not allowing students to evaluate and make decisions. The classrooms I enter have a formula that feels more like a laundromat or hair salon. Read-comprehend-spit it out. Wash-rinse-repeat.
I am not, by any means, saying that all present teachers are like this. I have friends who teach English and they are amazing (two of which, I’ve actually had the pleasure of observing in their own classrooms). In addition, I know that every single teacher (past and present) has once had an ideological mind-set, as I do now. The one difference between those teachers and me is that they have a job and I do not. Maybe the system has beaten them down. Maybe the attitude of students today has put a damper on the way they view their jobs. Maybe students’ parents have blamed them one too many times for the failures of their children. Maybe they are not given enough support from their fellow teachers, administration, parents, and community. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things. Maybe, just maybe, they are tired of trying so damn hard all of the time. But hey, teachers, it’s okay! You’re tired and I understand. You’re job is difficult and society hasn’t a clue about all of the extra time and energy you put into your work and the extra out-of-pocket money you must spend on your students. They put you down at every turn and place blame on you for the failings of an outdated system. It’s okay. I know you haven’t given up. You’re just worn down. Who the heck would want to deal with all this garbage? Surely, you’ve tried your best. But if you don’t want all the stress and misery that comes along with your job anymore, as crazy as it may seem, I know someone who does!
I know that if I was given the opportunity to teach my own classroom, I would give my students the chance to understand the WHY behind it all. I would do my damnedest to invigorate their natural desire to learn and question. I would meet state standards, but yet work to ensure that all students, regardless of learning types and abilities, would leave my classroom knowing that their time with me was not wasted—knowing that they not only brushed up their grammar, but they have learned how to think critically and make wise decisions. Given the opportunity to put my fist-full of ideals to work, I could make a difference. Whether my efforts affect hundreds of students or only one, I will know I have made a difference. And yes, maybe after years and years of being torn down and blamed by society, I will join the wash-rinse-repeat club. But damn it, it’s my turn! And only time will tell if my idealistic views have any truth.