Today marked the last time that I will work as a substitute teacher until next September. I have to say, it’s quite a relief to know that I’m done, and I now feel that I can focus more fully on preparing for the trip to France that I leave for in five days. I also am feeling rather reflective about the whole thing, so here are some of my thoughts, in no particular order, organization, or theme.
Substitute teaching is an excellent job for freelancers and travel folks.
It varies from district to district and state to state, but if you’re in a good area, you can teach as a substitute teacher every day of the week if you want (especially if you’re flexible about age groups and subjects). Or, you can teach one day a week. Or one week a month. You are the only one in charge of your schedule, and nobody really cares about what days you’re available and what days you aren’t. Feeling tired, hungover, or ill? Don’t answer that early morning phone call from the assignment system. Have a client’s deadline bearing down on you? Don’t take a job that day. I found that having the ability to say “no” to working on any given day was an incredibly freeing feeling, and it helped me to take control of my time. When I turned down a subbing job in order to do something else, I was far more likely to get whatever it was done than I would have been in the past on a simple day off. It was great for my freelance career, and it has enabled me to both do my France trip this summer and plan for other travel in the future. Once you’re in the system you’re in there for good, and you can take off for weeks or months at a time without any consequences except for a lack of income. I plan on using this flexibility to take advantage of cheap off-season travel deals this coming fall and spring.
[dcs_img width="450" height="338" thumb="true" framed="black" lightbox="true" author="photographer: Kelsey Freeman" pos="right" mleft="15"]
Our education system is fucked.
In the six months I’ve been a sub, I’ve encountered 9th graders who don’t know what an adjective is, 12th graders whose only aspiration in life is to “be famous”, and 7th graders who don’t know what a multiplication table is. I’ve learned that being able to read and write by third grade is now apparently an achievement, and that getting 60% of a school to get close to passing the state test is as well. I see kids who are, quite honestly, hopeless who end up in an endless feedback loop of being passed around from school to school without making any actual progress. One of the kids at my main school has assaulted teachers and staff at two prior schools (which she was expelled from) and has threatened the principal here, is constantly on detention or in-school suspension. Her behavior is atrocious and yet the system is helpless in trying to change it. Overzealous parents, ridiculous lawsuits, and No Child Left Behind have all but castrated school administrations and teachers to the point where really, they’re subservient to the students, rather than the other way around, and the kids know it.
I would never, ever want to be a full-time public school teacher in the United States.
The only reasons I have maintained my sanity while working at a public middle school all stem from my status as a substitute teacher, not a full-time one. Regular teachers know that sending students to the office too often will make them look bad. I don’t care about looking bad (and am in a good position as the favourite sub of all three principals at my main school), so I am actually able to discipline the students more than their regular teachers are. Also, unlike a full-time teacher, if I have a particularly bad class of kids, I can make a note to never sub for that particular teacher again. I have subbed for some teachers who have truly hellish kids all day long, and I would have quit long ago if I were them. I’ve met teachers who don’t hate their jobs, but I have yet to meet a single teacher who actually, genuinely enjoys and loves their job. Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the field, if you ask me.
Special Ed is basically a holding pen for students with behavioral problems, at least in urban schools.
I no longer sub for special ed teachers unless I’m truly desperate. Most special ed classes have at least two, often three teachers in the room at a time to control the classes, and even that doesn’t work. In my experience, special ed classes are raucous at best, and thinly controlled chaos at worst. Special ed classes are the only times I’ve had fights break out in class, had students get up in my face (and I mean that literally, within inches), and had to call in security. I’ve talked to several special ed teachers at my main school, and the general consensus seems to be that the schools don’t want to expel their truly bad students because it will make the school look bad, and so instead they just stick them in special ed. It doesn’t help the kids with behavioral problems, and it actually makes it harder for the kids with real learning disabilities to actually make progress.
Subbing is, at times, a lot like teaching in Korea.
You spend a lot of time having no idea what’s going on, and you’re the last to learn about things when they do happen. You’re out of place and people don’t know quite how to treat you. The students see you as something of a joke, even if you know what you’re doing. You spend a lot of time sitting at a desk in an empty classroom just so that the school can say that there’s someone there. You don’t generally know what you’re doing for the day until you get to your classroom. Plans get changed and nobody tells you. Some times a full day becomes a half day, and sometimes a half day becomes a full day. Sometimes, I feel like I even speak a different language than my students do, and I definitely come from a different culture.
[dcs_img width="275" height="400" thumb="true" framed="black" lightbox="true" author="photographer: Rob Shenk" pos="left" mright="15"]
Kids want to go to college, but somewhere along the way the message of how to accomplish that is getting lost.
My middle school kids all want to go to college, but they seem to have little to no concept of what bearing their current actions may have on their prospects. I’ve talked to many kids about college while at school, and most of them don’t seem to understand that you have to make really good grades and have good behavior. Some of the students I had today had no idea that having things like suspensions, fighting, and failed classes on their record would have an effect on their ability to get into college. Clearly, the desire is there, but nobody is telling them what to do to get there, other than the vague goal of “doing well”. I suspect that this is a classic case of the administration thinking within their own paradigm, rather than the one that most of the kids live in.
One of the biggest problems with our schools and students has nothing to do with our education system at all; it’s the parents.
As a teacher in a public school, I have encountered a shockingly high number of parents who, frankly, don’t give a rat’s ass about their kid’s education. When I started off as a sub, I would threaten students with a call to their parents. Many of the kids simply said “Go ahead, she don’t care”. I assumed that they were lying and were simply trying to get me to not call their parents. Sadly, they weren’t. I’ve encountered this personally and have heard countless stories from other teachers that echo the same sentiment. Many of the parents have been able to scrape a living out of fast food jobs and welfare checks and assume that their kids will be able to do the same, so they don’t see the point of working for an education (yes, I know that sounds like an ugly stereotype, but this is what I have heard from the mouths of the students themselves and encountered myself). The schools are trying desperately to impress upon the students the value of a good education, but the problem is that all that effort is for naught if the message isn’t being echoed at home. What the US urgently needs is a cultural shift towards valuing education. Unless parents of all kinds start to value education more, this country is going to backslide very quickly.
School administrations are more concerned about looking good than actually serving their students.
I already mentioned the fact that schools are loathe to punish students properly for fear of looking bad, but it goes much, much farther than that. For instance, despite a general call from the Dept. of Education for schools to increase their days of instruction, my main school knowingly and willingly gave up an entire month of instruction, just so that it could look good in the papers. You see, Virginia’s state tests, the SOLs, can now be done on computers, rather than the old pencil and paper way. However, taking the test on computers requires that only a portion of the school can take it at a time, as there aren’t enough computers to go around. My main school decided that it would make the school look really good if they were able to claim that 100% of the students took all their SOLs on computers. The problem with this is that doing so means that for all the students to take all their tests, they will be in testing for three weeks (instead of the 3-4 days it would have taken to do the test on paper). For three weeks, the kids had testing for the first 3 hours of the day, and then shortened, 30 minute periods afterward. The kids who weren’t testing on a given day were held in random classrooms that were, effectively, holding pens, until the 3 hour testing period ended. Since it’s almost impossible to do quality instruction in a 30 minute period, most of the teachers pretty much gave up on getting real work done, especially since half the class was often missing due to nobody having a clear idea of what the schedule was that day. The final week of school has been field trips, with about 95% of the school gone on any given day (and the rest in random holding pens, again). So, between the testing and the field trips, most of the kids in my main school haven’t had a single day of real instruction since mid-May. All because the school wanted to look good.
Don’t get me wrong: I love this job and I think that it’s a really good fit for my lifestyle, personality, and goals. But, it has definitely been an eye-opener for me, especially since only three of my sixteen years in school were spent in a public school. I’d love to hear thoughts from other folks, whether you’re parents, teachers, or merely curious readers.
[dcs_small][Header credit: Link