Philadelphia Metropolis


School Days: A Sub's First Day

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Best of VoxPop: The World of Work


By Alex Harne

Anyone who has ever started a job has had the first day jitters. And why not?  But eventually, that period passes: you fall in line, you get used to the way things work, and suddenly you can't remember why you ever felt so nervous. Unless you are me. I am a substitute teacher. For me, every day is my first day.

In early January, on my very first day as a sub, I was assigned to a vocational high school in Philadelphia.  I pulled up at 6:30 a.m., the sun still down, next to a sprawling one-story building. There were bars on the windows and chains on the door. The majority of entrances had signs with big red letters saying No Trespassing and Students Enter Side Door and Guests Enter Front So I entered the front.

A woman at the front office greeted me and said, "You're here early."

I nodded and told her it was my first day and that I wanted to be sure I had everything prepared.

She gave me a toothsome grin. "Your first day?"

I nodded and smiled back, although I didn't see what we were supposed to be amused about.

"Your first day?" she asked again, but with a half-smirk, half-smile.

"Yes," I said. "I think I'm supposed to ask for the keys."

 She repeated the same three words then laughed as she handed me the key and told me the room number. As I walked down the hallway, she continued to laugh.

Now that I think of it, not a laugh. She was outright cackling.

I found the room with relative ease and opened the door. There were 30 desks neatly arranged, a Promethean board (which is something like a fancy electronic white board), a stack of dictionaries on a shelf, and, to my surprise, no windows. As quickly as I could, I located a lesson plan that the regular English teacher had left and I reviewed it.

It was silent and peaceful for a while, but suddenly I heard voices in the distance.  Then the sounds were getting closer and louder. Louder and closer.  It was a mixture of crowd buzz, footsteps, laughter and screams. Then suddenly, the door burst open and the students came poring in.

My first class was utter chaos with students screaming, throwing pens, candy and I believe the occasional cell phone. Students came and went from my room as they pleased, and not all who entered were in my class. Then, without warning or provocation, one boy picked up another boy and prepared to throw him onto the desks.

Primal fear struck me and I ran over, throwing my hands in the air.

"What are you thinking!" I demanded.

His response was calm and seemingly calculated as he continued to hold the other student up.

"I don't know what I'm thinking," he said.

 Then, he gently put the other boy down. I stood there a moment, dumbfounded, not sure what to think. 

Clearly, I needed a new strategy or the day would end in chaos as well.

My next class, I played things differently. I walked in the room and slammed the door shut - not just loudly but so the walls shook. There was silence for a moment, a silence which I naturally slipped into, barking out orders, explaining how the day was going to go.

"Mutual respect," I said, "you respect me and I will respect you. You disrespect me and I will eat you alive."

Alright, so I wasn't going to earn the teacher of the year award, but they at least listened, probably more curious than anything else.

"And I'll make you a deal," I barked. "You have one period to get this handout done. Finish it, and finish it quietly, then you can socialize. And keep it to a dull roar or so help me God I will find more for you to do, which means more work for the both of us, and I don't want that."

I paused for effect. "Deal?"

They looked at one another, then looked at me. I wasn't sure if they were going to start laughing or not. Two of them spoke together then said "Deal."

For the rest of the period they were hardly angels, but they were manageable.

The rest of the day went the same way. The Main Office must have been pleased. They asked for my contact information so they could call me for future assignments

I left the school feeling as if I had grown three feet, but I also wondered how schools like these could accomplish anything in the young lives of their students. In the midst of chaos in the halls and in their lives, how do they get any serious learning done? It won't happen just by adding computers to classrooms or by just believing in them.

I made it through the day.  But, I know I need to do more. These are serious problems I am just beginning to dive into as a substitute teacher.



Alex Harne is a writer and a substitute teacher who lives in King of Prussia.

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