February 2010

One Substitute Teacher’s View of his Job and Why It Needs A Title Change

Author: Craig Hysell

The bell rang. My class of high school sophomores and juniors was hustling out the door. I overheard one of the students look at her friend and sigh, “We have a sub in third block, too.”

“Are we that bad?” I asked.

“No,” she said with a smile. “It’s just boring. We don’t learn anything.”


I want to be a teacher. At least, I think I want to be a teacher. However, at 34 years of age I’ve tried a great many things in life, jumping in with both feet often only to realize that my immediate and full commitment was not the best decision. I have never been afraid of work; I’m afraid of working at something I inwardly despise for the entirety of my life. In the veins of patience, experience and semi-maturity, I thought I’d try substitute teaching before I made the commitment to get an alternative teaching certification and become licensed to teach.

Becoming a substitute teacher isn’t really that difficult of a process in Beaufort County, but it is a bit time consuming. I filled out the necessary application online, passed a background check, took a five-hour class at the Technical College of the Lowcountry to prepare me for what I was getting myself into (it was a help), had an interview, filled out a W-2, got an I.D. number and, BAM, I was a substitute teacher. As a substitute in Beaufort County, you can pick when and where you want to sub. Since I wanted to be a high school English teacher, I chose to work at the two closest high schools, Bluffton High and Hilton Head Island High. My first day subbing was nothing short of my worst fears coming true.

My alarm clock went off at ten minutes to six in the morning. I got ready and got to one of the local high schools by 7 a.m. The teacher I was supposed to sub for had actually showed up to work, so I spent the day observing various classrooms and teachers. In the second period, a student literally got up out of her chair in the middle of her teacher’s lecture to come over and read my name tag. I found her actions completely disrespectful and asked her if what she was doing was appropriate. She huffed at me and went back to her seat.

Throughout the day the insubordination became more and more prevalent. On numerous occasions, I witnessed students openly challenging their teacher’s ability to control them. I was shocked by their audacity and perhaps a bit outraged by their arrogance. I have no problem with a student asking a teacher a challenging question, but what I saw was not an effort at furthering intellect. These students were being brats, and the more they were treated like brats, the more they acted like brats. Personally, I thought that a few of them just needed a good kick in the pants. But you can’t do that anymore. Maybe teaching wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to go back the next day.

But I did. And I kept going back. I can’t tell you why, because I don’t know why. I’m stubborn, I guess. But, I realized a few things over the next several weeks.

First, they’re just kids. I don’t say this to underestimate them or belittle them, because that would be both dangerous and ridiculous. Nevertheless, as children on the verge of adulthood, they say things they don’t mean, even if they believe they know exactly what they are doing or saying. (Didn’t we all at that age?) They can be challenging, relentless, disrespectful and even formidable, but it is merely misplaced subversion. They test us because they are trying to learn, trying to find their own two feet on which to stand in this world. They challenge the forum of the classroom because they are in it every day, and they challenge the authority of the substitute teacher because it’s easy. The sub doesn’t know them and the students most likely won’t have to see the sub the next day to reap the repercussions of their abrasive actions.

Secondly, as individuals, I have honestly never seen a nicer, more polite bunch of kids. But something happens once these same students are locked into a classroom with their peers. Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” in 1972 and states that this phenomenon occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment.” In every class in which I introduce myself, this is spot-on behavior. These individually pleasant students get brazen, brash and even boorish in a group of their peers. They show off for one another, each student (but not every student) trying to top the last one’s comment or action. And it’s not like I have tough rules in my classroom. I have two: 1) When I speak, I ask that everyone else is quiet. 2) If a student has a question, I ask that student to raise his or her hand. These rules are not unreasonable or illogical, and I enforce them.

From an individual standpoint, it is completely unlike them to be so irreverent and disrespectful. Perhaps what is most ironic is that the kids who create the biggest disruptions inside class are usually the first kids outside class to say hi to me in the hallway or say “No, sir” and “Yes, sir,” when I ask them a question. It’s surreal—a psychologist’s dream. With these kids, it’s never personal, because I’m not a person to them. I’m a sub. A substitute teacher is an entity, not a human being. Witnessing this groupthink behavior firsthand, I can now honestly understand when a parent proclaims, “There’s no way my child could have done that.” That’s true, but your child in a group is not his or her normal self.

Finally, substitute teachers are not teachers in a traditional sense, and the title completely misleads the student. Contrary to what some of us may believe, the majority of students I have come across actually want to learn, and anything they view as a disruption of that is met with mostly latent hostility. They know “busy work” when they see it; and instead of using it as an opportunity to learn more about the subject matter that might not have been available to them otherwise, they view it as an impediment to the progress of the curriculum and, therefore, a waste of time. I can’t really blame them—they’re teenagers.

Teachers cannot really offer anything outside of “busy work” to substitutes either. Ultimately, it is the teachers and the teachers alone who are responsible for the students’ progress. It is their reputation, their responsibility, their job that is on the line, not the substitute’s. From a purely curriculum-based standpoint, anything a substitute teacher goes over, a teacher is going to have to readdress to make sure the students grasped the lesson. In that regard as well, it is difficult for me as a substitute to explain the intricacies of Newton’s Three Laws of Motion in a classroom when I have only gotten the lesson plan 20 minutes before the bell rings. My brain operates linguistically and grammatically, not mathematically or Newtonianly.

So what is a substitute teacher? I get different classrooms with different classroom personalities and different individuals every day. I am tested thoroughly by each class—four to five classes a day—every day. A good day for me is simply managing the classroom effectively so the students can complete their “busy work.” That’s it. I am a classroom manager, nothing more; and if the kids knew me as merely this instead of a substitute teacher, perhaps their attitude towards this stranger in the room, whom they don’t know and don’t trust (and I don’t know them or trust them), would change. Perhaps they would know that the busy work is there to enhance the lesson instead of expecting the sub to teach. Perhaps they would be more apt to shelve the groupthink and get down to business if they knew that I was there to manage them instead of to teach them. Perhaps all that is needed is this simple title change. Or, perhaps if each department had its own subs, trained in the subject matter, there could be more curriculum enhancement instead of classroom management. Perhaps… but who would pay for it?

I do not enjoy subbing, but I enjoy the faculty and I really enjoy the students (when they’re not reverting to groupthink!). Once they settle down, once they trust me, they are a treat. But this only happens if I have the same classes for an extended period of time, and they always miss their teachers and can’t wait until they get them back anyway. They listen to me instead of test me, because they have begun to trust me, and I do get to teach them in a roundabout fashion. I have no doubt that I would enjoy teaching them for a living and, to that end, subbing has given me what I was hoping it would: an answer.

On the students’ end, learning is a discipline and there must be discipline to learn. Too much and your students quit on you. Too little and they quit on themselves. That’s a hard rope to walk for a substitute teacher who gets 45-90 minutes with students he or she might not ever see again. I once asked a class how I ranked as a substitute teacher. Their response was not what I expected. “At least you care and keep us quiet,” was the answer. We are all forever students.

  1. I am also a substitute teacher in Beaufort County, teaching often at McCracken Middle School but also times at Bluffton and Hilton Head High schools. I agree with most of what you said, especially when I consider subbing in high schools. Yes, there is a lot of busy work in subbing and it is so hard to get teens to do work that they know is pointless and frankly, I have a hard time motivating them to do it too when I know it’s just busy work. I’ve found that there is MUCH more teaching as a substitute in middle school than high school and as a result, the time spent subbing there is more enjoyable. I’m no longer just a classroom manager, as you so aptly put it, but a teacher (I actually am a certified English teacher and taught full-time last year in a neighboring school district, but couldn’t continue in that school system). I really enjoy the students as people, both in middle and high school, but I can actually be seen as a teacher in middle school. In addition, the kids are less inhibited about saying “hi!” to you in the halls and outside of school, which makes my day. Maybe check it out sometime!

    — KCooper    Feb 2, 05:16 pm   

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