You Can't Scare Me
I'm a Substitute Teacher
Substitute teachers should be added to the endangered species list. They're getting harder and harder to find. The Indianapolis Public School system recently raised the pay for subs. Will that be enough to solve the daily dilemma of teacherless classrooms? IPS administrators hope so. They say that on any given day their system is short by 50 substitutes. The result is poor supervision, double-duty for other teachers, and minimal advancement of the curriculum.
The scarcity of substitute teachers is not limited to IPS. Many schools are competing for a decreasing number of people interested in the position. "Subbing" is no one's idea of a great occupation. It's highly temporary (usually only one day at a time), there are no benefits, the pay is low, and the experience can drive you crazy. Yet the substitute teacher is a vital part of the educational system. When the regular teacher is gone, somebody has to step into the classroom to help advance the cause of education and at the same time keep the kids from swinging from the rafters. That somebody is a sub.
I have often thought that there must be a special place in heaven for people who serve as substitute teachers. Bless their hearts. They seldom know what they're getting into. A substitute may as well draw a bull's eye on his or her forehead with a sign that says, "I am a sub. Take advantage of me."
We all know what substitute teaching is like. Let's admit it. We were students once. We had substitutes. We knew all the tricks. They haven't changed, and some new ones have been added. Kids still switch seats. They throw paper wads and spitballs. They take advantage of the sub's naiveté when it comes to local class policies. They insist that the regular teacher lets them sit together, or lie on the floor, or go to the water fountain whenever they want to. And with straight faces they contend that they have permanent restroom privileges and that they're allowed to leave five minutes before the dismissal bell.
Kids love subs. I have been a teacher in my school for 27 years, but I'm still a new face to freshmen. Once in a while I can be found standing outside someone else's classroom. As a kid approaches the door, his face will brighten. "Are you our sub today?" he'll asked.
"No," I reply. "Your regular teacher is here."
You can almost hear the thunder as the bright face clouds over.
Substitute teachers must be very insecure people. When they go to bed at night, they never know at what hour the phone is going to ring with a job assignment. They are seldom sure where they will be working the next day. With an hour's notice they must be ready to teach tykes or teens, phonics or physics, music or math, Seuss or Shakespeare.
They must be lonely, too. They come and go as faces in a crowd among the tenured teachers of their schools. Most adults they encounter in their building du jour don't know who they are, and don't much care. They are anonymous figures whose identities are only temporary, tied to the names of those who are missing.
"Who are you today?" the sub will hear at every turn. The emphasis is upon the word today: we don't care who you really are, we just want to know who you're here for.
A frazzled little man will be tightly clutching a paper cup of cold coffee in the teacher's lounge.
"Are you Mr. Brown today?" someone asks.
"No, I'm Miss Davis in girls' PE," he soberly replies.
"Oh, how nice," says the other on the way out the door.
As a substitute teacher, you are a stranger in a strange land, and the natives are out to get you. You're in a place for the first time in your life and you are in charge. If you have questions, the kids are the best source of information and you don't know them from Adam. And Adam is probably pretending to be Kevin.
A good substitute teacher carries a "survival kit" with him to every job. He carries his own customized general purpose worksheets guaranteed to occupy young minds for at least 15 minutes. He packs an ample supply of Kleenex, Band-Aids, pencils, crayons, cellophane tape, notebook paper, 3x5 cards, paper clips, and crossword puzzles. He also has a good book to read (might as well be optimistic), a package of peanut butter crackers, and a large bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol. On his worn-out car, he sports a bumper sticker which says, "You can't scare me. I'm a substitute teacher."
Will the pay increase solve the substitute shortage at IPS? It's hard to say. After all, these hardy souls can't be doing it for the money alone. There are easier ways to earn make a little money. There must be other reasons why intelligent men and women offer themselves up each day to help caulk the gaps in the educational system. Maybe it's the thrill of the unknown or the nomadic lifestyle or the endless variety of the days. Perhaps it's the Renaissance flavor of the job.
Or maybe it's the fun of seeing that little boy's face light up when he says, "Are you our sub today?"