Substitute Teachers Bring Out the Worst in All Kids, Including Yours

Substitute teacherOnce upon a time, when I was fresh out of college and didn’t yet know what I wanted to do, I became a substitute teacher in Baltimore public schools. (I’ll pause for your head shakes of sympathy and collective awws of pity.) I avoided middle school — my own child was still little but I knew even back then that that tween attitude was for the birds — so I focused on elementary and high school classes.

You’ve all been in school yourselves, so you remember exactly how you behaved (or didn’t) when the sub handed out a worksheet to go along with a super boring video on, like, photosynthesis or the Bill of Rights or conjunctions or something. It was a set-up for chaos back then and it still is. But if you’re a fly on the wall, it’ll show you exactly how your kid really acts when the authority figure in their classroom is new and all deer-caught-in-headlights. Are they a helper or a hellion?


On my very first day on the job, I was charged with a group of 11th graders. Most of them towered over me like a gang of vitamin-overloaded mutants, and the girls had big, shapely brickhouse bodies that made me look like perhaps I needed more time in the incubator to give my big girl figure more time to hatch. They were a feisty bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds, full of about-to-graduate bravado, so when I unveiled the lesson plan for the day — the traditional video and worksheet 1-2 punch, of course — the kids moaned and groaned all the way through it.

When the agony was done, I let them talk amongst themselves. My leniency gave one sassy group the green light to start a game of spades, and one girl didn’t take kindly when I shut it down. “Why can’t we play?” she said through her snarl, rolling her eyes in the purest of teen disgust. I calmly explained that it would look really bad on my part if the principal came rolling through to check on his new substitute on her first day and found the class engaged in a raucous card game like they were at a family cookout in a park somewhere. There’s a time and place for everything, and spades and school typically don’t mix.

She argued me down for a few minutes, determined not to let this sub knock her clout with her classmates, but when I didn’t back off, she rolled her neck, threw her hand on her hip, and spat, “I’ll call my mother to come up here.”

I snapped. “Call your mother,” I fired back, neck rolling with just as much around-the-way black girl sassitude as she was throwing at me. Mind you, we were only a few years apart so what I really wanted to do was take this badly behaved, ill-mannered little heifer to the parking lot and shake her around for a few minutes. Alas, that kind of reaction is generally frowned upon in the professional world, so I had to resign myself to sitting my tail down before I said or did something I’d regret.

I did the whole substitute gig for a year and some change, a couple of long-term jobs for English, which let me use my brand spankin’ new degree. I met a lot of amazing kids who were bright and enthusiastic and fun and heading someplace in life.

For every one of them, however, I met two or three rancid little maniacs who made my job and every other substitute’s tenure horrifying. Subs get the brunt of the bad behavior kids only fantasize about unleashing on adults they have to demonstrate clear and regular respect for. Who has a substitute teacher’s back? The principal can barely remember you’re there, let alone your name, and parents shrug off a call home from a temp teacher like a parking ticket handed out by a retirement home security guard.
My stab at the substitute gig let me know what I was up against and that — no doubt about it — I was not cut out to be an educator. Truth be told, I’d probably be splashed across somebody’s scandal-screaming headline by now. But it also gave me the utmost respect for real teachers. Most choose the line of work because they genuinely have a passion for helping kids learn. It’s not something just any ol’ body is called to do. And if you’re not, you shouldn’t even try. I’m living proof.

Have you ever gone head-to-head with one of your child’s teachers?

Image via blonde_sage/Flickr

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