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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point


Adventures in Substitute Teaching

 by Scott Selden

I got into substitute teaching while I was applying to graduate schools, and it allowed me to make a couple hundred dollars a week and still have time for applications, letters of recommendation, and work on my writing portfolio. The idea of substituting brought up hazy middle school memories of being thrilled to see an unfamiliar face at the desk, because it promised less and easier class work. So I figured, “How hard could it be? I’ll take attendance and then pop in a DVD. Gonna be cake.”

And I was half right: I definitely took attendance.

I spent most of my time subbing at tough middle schools where respect was in short supply. At that age, I wasn’t much trouble for teachers. I had no idea what I was doing, my voice cracked all the time, I started to sweat in embarrassing places, and I was too inundated with schoolwork to do much of anything else. That doesn’t seem to be the case these days. If three students want to stand up in the middle of class and do the “Nae Nae,” how could I stop them? (It’s a ridiculous dance, but also ridiculously entertaining. Google it.) Nothing I said scared them and there was no way I could physically make them sit down and behave.

Of course, I could call the office and get an administrator to come take away offending students. It was a last resort, but one I stopped being reluctant to use. In the worst class I ever had I sent out four students, one of whom threatened me on the way out, saying, “I’m coming back for you.”
I had to stop three fights. The last one was between two girls, and fights like that can be even more vicious than fights between boys.

The two girls, I’ll call them Asia and Denise, had been insulting each other the entire class and finally Asia just couldn’t take it any longer. A second teacher had come to take Denise outside, and Asia jumped up and slammed her desk into me, trying to get at Denise before she got out of the classroom. I had to physically hold her back. Generally, teachers shouldn’t touch students, but I knew if I didn’t stop her, Asia would send Denise to the hospital. The other teacher and I got the girls under control, but the next day I had a bruise on my thigh the size and shape of an éclair.

I spent many days subbing in a “collaborative class,” where two teachers preside, and these classrooms were full of students with behavioral, emotional or educational problems. I suppose the school system figured removing them from normal classes and bunching them together would streamline the normal classes as well as provide two teachers who could offer more one-on-one time.

This is ridiculous. A teacher in a normal classroom can handle one or two rowdy students. That’s not difficult. However, grouping 25 of these students together is sheer chaos. How can I, as a substitute, control that classroom, even with another teacher present? Frankly, how can a teacher with 30 years’ experience do so? These students absolutely need the extra attention, but they also need a quiet environment in which to work. A classroom with 24 other students with attention disorders and behavioral issues is not the right place for anyone.

 But at the end of the day, there were always some bright spots. Yes, I’ve experienced some very depressing things, from fights and disrespect to eighth-graders who read at a second-grade level. Fortunately, kids are fun. They’re inquisitive and bright. I’ve never subbed in a class without any students who wanted to learn. And even those with no interest in academics showed intelligence and wit by talking and joking with me. The few times we played classroom games, like 7-Up or Four Corners, even the worst of the students showed a capacity for fun and camaraderie.

More than that though, the small moments made my day. The time I helped a student learn about chlorophyll. The time I helped a student write a limerick. The time towards the end of a class when I just sat in a desk and had a conversation with the students. We talked about nothing in particular, but I could tell it meant a lot to have me treat them as equals, and it meant a lot to me, as well. It sent me home with a smile on my face. For every terrible moment I had, I also experienced a moment of genuine passion and enthusiasm.

Substitute teaching was a rough job, mentally and physically. But it was still a mightily rewarding experience: go to a middle school and ask a student to do the “Nae Nae,” or ask a student to tell you a joke sometime. I recommend it.

Selden, a recent graduate of Christopher Newport University, is now teaching overseas.


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