Philadelphia Metropolis


Substitute Teacher Hell

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By Michael Waters 

After graduating from college with high hopes, and eight existentially agonizing months driving a forklift in a warehouse, I was at the threshold of a glorious future.

 I had graduated with a degree in history in hopes of teaching, and the following morning I was about to take my first step toward that goal as a Philadelphia substitute teacher.

I started off with what I considered an easy assignment - taking over a first-grade class for one day in a North Philly elementary school. Anthony Robbins styled pep talks flooded my mind that night. I was sure I was going to save the world one disenfranchised child at a time.

I arrived the next morning at a run-down school building with bars over the windows, and an office staff that was rather vague about what I had to do. I caught a teacher next door and had a strange conversation.

"Hello, nice to meet you! Are you subbing today?"

"Yeah, it's my first day, I'm very excited."

"I just want to warn you that you have a pretty rough group of kids. They can be a lot to handle."

"Oh, okay, thank you for letting me know. Do you have any advice for a first-time sub?"

classroom_empty.jpg"The best advice is to break them down quick, and don't let up on them"

What in the hell was this lady talking about? First graders? Break them down? I'm a grown adult male. If worst came to worst, I figured I would raise my voice a little, but come on!

What ensued after I picked those 25 children up from the yard was six-and- a-half hours I couldn't have imagined.

Only about half of students sat down to begin with, and within five minutes none of them were sitting. Children were running, screaming and knocking down whatever they were able to make contact with.

Four distinct groups formed that day in opposite corners of the room.

The first group was the fighters. When I say fighting, I mean these kids knew how to fight. The second group was the climber, who kept climbing up the book shelves and looking at me with huge grins to see my reaction. The third group consisted of girls who lined up along the chalkboard and starting writing, and then used a wet sponge to clean off what they had just written. Finally, there were the children that went and rooted through the teacher's desk while I was busy with the other three groups.

I have a loud barking voice, but it was utterly useless. I was a sub. My day was spent frantically running from one group to another. My voice was non-existent by the end of the day. A trained army could not have divided my attention and conquered as well as these children did that day.

I yanked at least five chairs out of the hands of children who were ready to throw them at their classmates. A security guard came in a few times to yell at the children, and a police officer even made a guest appearance. However, most of my calls to the front office went unanswered. A few times the school secretary hung up on me after I started talking.

For lunch I had about five cigarettes and spent the remaining time calling anyone who would pick up their phone to help me keep my sanity. After the consolation and laughter of friends, I returned to my experiment as to whether I would totally lose my voice after six-and-a- half hours of hollering.

My wife suggested that I try turning it into a game. "Simon says be quiet!" worked for about 10 seconds. The second time I tried it they all laughed at me. At one point, I became so frustrated that I slapped my book down on the teacher's desk with an impressive boom, and glared at the classroom. They stared at me for a moment, and then they all started picking up their books and slamming them on their desks laughing. The silent and stern 'I'm waiting look' was equally ineffective.

At the final bell the students burst out of the room leaving behind a mess of scattered books, torn papers, and overturned chairs. When I got back to my apartment, I spent the next hour staring blankly at my wall and petting my cat.  

I've had several assignments since then, but none of them as bad as this first day. High school is surprisingly better. There are flagrant card games, cell phones, ipods, disregard for anything I have to say, and provocative questions like, "Have you ever got beat down in any other schools?" Yet, surprisingly, it's a lot calmer than elementary school.

While I have avoided taking an assignment in that school since, I'm confident that I could handle that same class if I had it again

Since that first day, I've learned that good teachers develop an elusive quality of authority in their voice that only comes with experience. It has very little to do with volume. Also, I've found that the most essential part of classroom management is a substantive lesson. It took a little while for me to realize that what I saw as a discipline problem was really a teaching problem.

If I can't offer the students anything to engage in, they find something to engage themselves in. And that's usually creating mayhem.


Michael Waters is the pen name of a teacher in the Philadelphia School District.



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