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On Being a Substitute Teacher

Learning what students, and school districts, really want

On a typical day in North Carolina, hundreds of substitute teachers take control of classes in the state’s 117 public systems, filling in for faculty that are sick, on vacation, or attending conferences.

Parents may hear a passing reference to these stand-ins as children give a synopsis of their day. Other than that, substitutes are largely unnoticed by the public, but they have tremendous responsibility. I know firsthand. For four months last year, I was a substitute teacher in the Orange County School System. One or two days each week, I led classes of teenagers in everything from advanced biology to woodshop. Just like a permanent teacher, I was in charge of classroom management, lesson plan implementation, and discipline for 30 or more teens at a time.

The fact that I was ushered into a classroom after only a cursory application process, not much more complex than applying for work at a fast-food restaurant, should concern every North Carolinian.

Even more alarming is what I witnessed once there: disruptive behavior, frustrated teachers, and plenty of wasted time.

But the fact that I believe I was a good teacher, despite not having a teaching degree or any classroom experience, provides more anecdotal evidence to support what education reformers already know: It doesn’t take a teaching degree to teach well. Effective teachers enthusiastically interact with students, provide them with work from bell to bell, maintain discipline, deliver consequences for bad behavior, and increase student knowledge.

Surprise, you’re a substitute — or something

As simple as it sounds, my desire to contribute to young people’s lives led me to a county school board office last summer. I assumed the substitute-teacher requirements would be formidable and the competition stiff. A friend of mine, a retired university professor and occasional substitute herself, assured me I would be hired. I wasn’t so sure.

In my best “dress for success” business suit, I went inside and asked for information on the substitute program. The person at the desk handed me a folder and asked whether I was also interested in fill-in receptionist work. Puzzled, I said no, and left the office wondering why a substitute candidate would also be viewed as a potential clerk. That encounter should have been a tip-off. I wanted to teach. The county wanted a babysitter.

The requirements were simple. I completed the county’s standard application, supplied three reference letters, obtained a health certificate, and agreed to a background check. I submitted my package and waited for an interview. Summer passed, but no phone call came. I assumed I’d been beaten out for a job that pays just $62 per day, or about $9 per hour, for uncertified teachers like me. A lot of people must want to be in the classroom, I told my bruised ego.

Then one fall morning the phone rang. It was the local high school asking me to teach a class, even though I’d never been hired. But as the school’s substitute coordinator told me, “You’re on my list.” Without interviewing for the job or receiving any orientation or training, I was handed control of a classroom full of teenagers.

Welcome to substitute teaching in North Carolina, Mrs. Martinez. Although it had been 20 years since I’d stepped inside a classroom, I quickly recognized that some things hadn’t changed. There were still distinct groups of students: the jocks and cheerleaders, the brains, the individualists in offbeat clothes, the loners, and the troublemakers. They were easy to spot hanging out before class, and at lunchtime, just as we’d done in my high school days.

The external familiarity was encouraging, but once inside the classroom, things were much, much, different than I ever experienced. No longer were kids passing notes or throwing spit wads at the teacher’s back. In 2002, kids were verbally and physically defiant to authority and to their peers. Some wouldn’t stop talking. Others refused to sit in their assigned seats. Now and then, a student swore at me. Cell phones rang. A few kids were determined to make things difficult from the moment they stepped into class. One told me her mother would sue if I didn’t give her a pass to her car. I laughed. She didn’t.

Her remark and attitude revealed a discouraging truth I couldn’t ignore. Girls have become loud and crude. Some seemed to enjoy being mean. Rude comments, with accompanying body gestures, were common. One group of girls actually scared me. After repeated difficulties with one of the members, I had no choice but to have her removed from class by the principal. Her girlfriends drilled me with icy stares from the corner of the room. From then on I watched my back in the parking lot to make sure I wasn’t followed home.

The culture of chaos

Not long after that incident, a News & Observer of Raleigh story on violence in North Carolina schools for 2001-02 reported that the number of minor assaults by students on teachers increased significantly over the previous year. I would have questioned that statistic before becoming a substitute. After being in the classroom, I believed it.

This environment was difficult and troubling for me, and the detrimental effects on students were obvious. Sadly, many kids stared at their desks as if they were resigned to the chaos. I was surprised, but not shocked, the day a usually quiet teen stood up and yelled at two students behind him to be quiet. I hadn’t seen what instigated the outburst, but after taking them aside, my heart broke when I discovered the frustration this young man was experiencing. He’d simply had enough.

These discipline challenges diverted attention from each day’s lesson plan. Ironically, that didn’t put the kids behind in most classes. Teachers typically left only enough work to keep the class occupied for 30 or 40 minutes of an hourlong class period. Perhaps some teachers didn’t want to place pressure on a substitute. Regardless, it was only in advanced biology that students were really engaged and busy the entire period. It is no coincidence that these students were also the best-behaved. Although parents and the community often hear pleas for lengthening the school day, fully utilizing existing class time would make that step unnecessary.

My classroom experiences left me depressed and dismayed at times, but despite the many disruptions, I connected with the majority of kids. My education and life experiences helped them to understand abstract concepts. My heart swelled when I saw the proverbial light bulb go on in a student’s mind, and I can understand why many people love the classroom.

You don’t need a degree to switch on the light

I soon discovered I was an effective teacher, even though I don’t have a teaching degree and don’t know anything about learning theory. My approach was simple and universal: Enforce the rules, administer consequences, and encourage an atmosphere for learning.

I found I could supplement lesson plans with personal and professional experiences to keep those young minds occupied and thinking. In Spanish class, my husband’s family heritage became a bridge to talk with students about the culture of the countries they were studying. In English, my reporting experience helped a young man plan interview questions for a newspaper story he was writing. And in science, my reflections on Hurricane Floyd spurred a discussion of the economic and social effects of disasters as an introduction to a videotape about major floods around the world.

Most kids want to learn and like to learn. But without discipline, the classroom environment will continue to deteriorate. I want to return, but I shudder to think what I may see the next time I step inside a classroom.

Martinez is an associate editor at Carolina Journal