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UncategorizedDays in the life of a substitute teacher

Days in the life of a substitute teacher


By Martin Nicolaus

DECEMBER 19, 2014 — Substitute teachers, like plumbers and emergency room doctors, don’t see systems at their best.  Crap and blood everywhere is their normal. Worse, subs are generally not appreciated.  People usually thank plumbers and doctors. In the average classroom, when the sub walks in, the devils leap with joy.

Tom Gallagher’s new book, Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools, is a hilarious and insightful chronicle of one man’s odyssey as a substitute teacher in the bowels of public education in, well, not exactly all of America, but San Francisco and environs.

The sub’s day typically begins at 5:30 a.m., when the phone calls come in (or not) from the school district’s automated systems.  Getting to the school is the easy part.  Then the fun starts.  Often, the school office has no idea where the sub is supposed to work.  He gets sent to the wrong room with the wrong key at the wrong time and encounters the wrong set of kids.  When he lands in the right place, he may be called on to lead a class in anything from AP Algebra to PE kickball.  Sometimes the regular teacher, if there is one, has left a lesson plan; often not.  As a Catholic school graduate and a college philosophy major, Gallagher brings to the job a saintly store of patience and an Olympian facility in any and every subject.  Almost.

Every school needs subs now and then.  Teachers get sick, called for jury duty, pregnant, etc., everywhere.  But some schools are more voracious consumers of subs than others, and these aren’t the most fun to work in.  These are the schools where teachers get fed up or scared or burned out after short stints, where subs work a day or two and refuse to return, and where the new sub is subbing for another sub, sometimes to the third generation.

Gallagher experienced a lot of schools like those.  He worked in hundreds of classrooms from K to 12 in over a hundred schools, far more than most teachers or administrators have ever seen.  He saw enough of the schools where the system was working to conclude that “we don’t fundamentally have an educational crisis in this country,” as he says in his Preface.  But those schools don’t make for interesting anecdotes; the kids there do their assignments, pay attention to the teacher, and learn the subject matter.  Boring!

Gallagher’s book is at its sharpest, and draws blood, when he describes his experiences in the other schools, the ones where the dynamic between the class and the sub (and usually the regular teacher as well, if there is one) requires military metaphors.  It’s war in there.  Sometimes it’s physical, with kids throwing staplers, pencils, wastebaskets, and anything else handy.  More often it’s language.  From kindergarten up, some of the kids’ vocabularies would make a sailor blush, and they don’t hesitate to use this language on the adults in the classroom.  They don’t just fight authority, they’re constantly at each other, shouting, trash talking, throwing things, slapping and kicking, girls as well as boys.

The teacher’s first job, before any learning can happen, is to create order, and often enough that job takes the whole time between bells.  Gallagher keeps a running tally of how many kids he’s thrown out of class per day, and has worked out a personal iron rule: if he sends a kid to the counselor and the school administration sends the kid back into the room in the same period, Gallagher crosses that school off the list where he’ll work.  Even when he succeeds in getting the noisy, fighting, disruptive kids out of the room, that’s no guarantee that learning will happen.  There are kids falling asleep, eating, doing their makeup, socializing, texting, or just locked up in a private world, paying no attention whatever to the teacher.  When they do engage with an assignment, Gallagher often discovers desperately low levels of knowledge.

Gallagher’s tone in describing these legions of trying classroom encounters is wry, sardonic, often bitingly funny.  He could probably make it in stand-up comedy.  Some of his narratives are as good as anything in Mark Twain.  Of course his humor is at the expense of some of the kids, and of some of the teachers and administrators, but he doesn’t spare himself.

Apart from the Preface and a brief appendix, where Gallagher pencils in the lessons he has drawn from a decade and a half as a sub,  the book consists of anecdotes in daily journal style: date, school, assignment, interesting experiences.  That’s its strength; it’s never dull, it sparkles with novelty and wit, at least two thirds of the way through.  The anecdotal wealth is also its weakness.  One could read the book  as ammunition for the chorus of public school haters.  Writers who think that schools are doing a bad job and/or that kids — especially black kids — are stupid and dangerous, will find grist here for that mill.  It’s clear from the Preface that this is not Gallagher’s slant at all.

As he says in the Preface, we don’t fundamentally have an educational crisis, we have a social crisis, or rather a series of them all wrapped up together, most particularly but not uniquely in the plight of Black America.  The attentive reader will see here kids with PTSD from bullets flying in their neighborhoods, homeless kids falling on the floor to sleep in class, kids who steal food because they haven’t eaten, kids who can’t see the board because they have no glasses, and lots of kids who have no idea how to relate cooperatively with adults because no adult has ever treated them with anything but threats and hostility.

Respect for teachers in school normally transfers from respect for parents at home.  When there is no stable home, when the parents are absent, unemployed, in jail, addicted, ill, or abusive, teachers will be the targets of the kids’ payback.  Order in the classroom comes from orderly home and job experiences, the kids’ own or their parents’.  When there are no jobs and the readiest road to cash is drugs, prostitution, and violence, that’s the ethos the kids will bring into the classroom.  Even a good-hearted liberal/radical like Gallagher has no alternative, in this kind of setting, but to come on hard and mean.  As he says, being a substitute teacher means “that I yell at children professionally.”

Gallagher has done a lot of deep thinking about his unique experiences, and is clearly capable of unpacking his compact statements about the impact of the social crisis on education.  Sure, there’s no lack of Big Picture analyses, but I don’t think we’ve had one informed by this extensive experiential basis, or by a writer with Gallagher’s unique combination of Jesuit and secular education (he reads and writes classical Greek!)  Sub isn’t that book.  Sub is, however, a sparkling, funny, and deeply felt diary from a talented practitioner of a vastly undervalued profession.

Martin Nicolaus is a retired lawyer and translator of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse

You can get a copy of the book at http://submyyearsundergroundinamericasschools.com/


Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. For your purposes you mean properly educated, not educated.

    Meaning people should be correctly educated to your standards.

    For comparison a person who has your thinking pathology on the far right, educated means creationism.

    For you education is telling kids the DMV is a tool of the oil industry or some such quatifiably nutty.

    By narcissim I mean that you have some secret knowledge that only you are smart enough to understand and process, the rest of the world is just too stupid to understand things on your higher plane.

    Your personality is where the gold mine is, the dogmatic belief that everyone but you fooled by the corporate overlords and government stooges. Of course people are going to comment on your stream of consciousness self righteousness.

    That you think you offer something around education is pure hilarity.

  2. Considering “t’s” last post was at 2:37 am, I’m going to assume “t” is for “troll.”

    Children learn by playing and exploring; testing their physical and mental abilities against the people around them and their environment. An “average” child can learn three languages, musical notation, and how to swim by age 5 if unencumbered by “adult” expectations. I believe it was Cat Stevens who sang: “Let the Children Play.” By the time they are seven, their innate curiosity will be the best guide to the appropriate “curriculum” for their aptitude. You won’t be able to keep them from learning something they are interested in, and you can’t make them learn anything they are not interested in.

    Like many situations involving opening minds, set and setting is paramount. No healthy, “normal” child wants to leave the safety and comfort of their home, their parents and siblings, and their toys and play-spaces to sit in a windowless, airless room under fluorescent lights with 30 snotty-nosed strangers and listen to another stranger tell them what to do. Home schooling, with mentoring as needed, trips to libraries and museums, spending (hella) time in Nature, and hella physical activity will produce better educated and healthier individuals than does the totally dysfunctional diploma mills we have now.

  3. That’s what I’d assume too. T must have been looking at a mirror when he sent that link.

    Your comments above are well-stated and follow some of my own thoughts. We’ve created schools mostly to socialize kids for their boring, adult lives to follow and not to either teach them either about the “real world” or to augment their human and social development. Play, adventure, and curiosity fill the heads of most well-adjusted kids and young teenagers. Spending large amounts of time teaching kids rote skills like multiplication tables or how to write Chinese characters seem designed more to teach kids how not to think or to divert them from their innate curiosity. Even issues like childhood development in teens, when brains are finalizing their final hard-wiring, are disregarded by the education system since these teens tend to need much more sleep and down-time to accommodate their rapidly changing brain biology rather than prepping for one test after another, especially tests like the SAT that can have a major impact on their future. There’s a reason most students in grad schools come from fairly well-adjusted, upper and higher-income families. If kids are affected by a lack of food, secure housing and supportive households – not to mention physical violence in their household or neighborhoods – there is no way most of them can learn adequately or hope to compete with most kids from more stable, higher income households.

  4. Since you seem preoccupied with your analysis of my personality rather that responding to the topic (dysfunctional education system), I am assuming this link is about yourself.

  5. Actually I’m a big fan of local governments, when and if they serve their citizens; like the county elections office. The DMV furthers the interests of the auto, oil, and their related industries; and doesn’t do a very good job of screening drivers. It’s a real circus on the roads these days. The Dept. of the Interior regularly colludes with agribusiness, mining, and timber interests to the detriment of fish, game, and the environment. And no, you don’t have to be “educated” to work for a corporation; you just have to know the things they need you to know.

    And then sit still and be quiet in your windowless, airless cubicle for the next 40 years.

  6. You certainly missed the “what is mocking” part of your education.

    First person analytics is always a hoot.

    I’m sure it all makes sense to you but your strung together bits and pieces just read ridiculous.

    The schools are here to serve big business, but the schools produce uneducated types. I hate to break it to you but to work for big business it certainly helps to be educated.

    Working at the DMV, the county elections office, or Federal Fish and Game furthers global capitalism and other such paranoid delusions?

  7. The number one problem is with the parents.

    I’ve always found the reliance on consultants and educrats by school districts interesting, there are few other disciplies where failure is so well rewarded.

    The trendy self esteem movement for school kids was a ridiculous fail, and yet the same disciple gets a pass to monkey wrench away.

    No sane person believes any WMD cheerleaders because of their failure, but trumpet out your credentials to be a educrat and people will stand in line to hand you cash.

  8. No. Obviously you missed the reading comprehension part of your education.

    I cut as much school as I could, and still graduate.
    Everything I know I learned because I wanted to learn it, mostly from libraries
    and trips to the California Academy of Science, the Hayden Planetarium,
    The Steinhart Aquarium, and the DeYoung Museum, all of which used to be FREE.
    The only thing I learned in school was that it was a massive waste of my time.

  9. Your argument seems to be.

    People used to be smarter but the school system made them dumb, we use an outdated schooling mode that makes people dumb, but people used to be smarter and better educated, but in the old days they were smarter, the 19th century education system is bad, but people used to be smarter because we educated them better, I am smarter because I know how people should be educated, although I was educated under the old system, the old system was bad but I am well educated but the new system is bad because it is based on the old system, all the new system is the same as the old system.

    Did I sum you up correctly?

  10. Well, as another person in SF – I get why he crosses schools off his list, but in the SFUSD, the principal usually leaves those kids with the SECRETARY OF THE SCHOOL in the office. The SFUSD is a huge mess, they don’t even have NURSES at them, again, it’s the secretary’s job to deal with sick, injured/severely injured children, & children who need medication. Just deplorably bad. Meanwhile they pay consultants huge wages & the administration super huge wages.

  11. No, the teacher is trying to do their job: educate children. The problem is that children do not want to be “educated,” they want to play. Because they are children. That’s what they are designed to do Telling a child (or dog) to sit indoors quietly for their entire youth is indeed abuse. Another problem is that no one can raise your child except you and your extended family. Certainly a series of total strangers can’t be expected to “mother” and “father” a roomful of total strangers, teach them a “curriculum,” counsel them in behavior, nursemaid them, and police them (all for a pittance).

    Our ideas about what and how children should learn rarely coincide with their aptitudes. This leads to bad attitudes, rebellion, alienation, and mass shootings, which have been going on since the mid-60’s. The Educational Industrial Complex is a business that sells a mindset, along with the programs and books that reinforce it. School infrastructure is essentially daycare so the parents can work for The Man. I’m sure you’re familiar with “Another Brick In The Wall” from 40+ years ago; here’s a version that questions the “common core” crap: http://sco.lt/8zbepl

  12. So a teacher is abusing children by trying to teach them English, history, math, science, etc. instead of letting them curse or throw “staplers, pencils, wastebaskets, and anything else handy”. Who knew?

  13. I’ll be interested to read this. As a substitute in SF for the past 15 years, I bet I’ve worked with many of the same students (and probably avoided some of the same schools who didn’t have supportive administration or counselors).

    I’ve approach my time in the classroom as a visual artist and have involved students in my creative inquiry – with great success in teaching all subjects.

    Our education system could gain a great deal if we used substitutes as visiting experts ready to share a variety of expertise, experiences, and passions with their students.

  14. “The teacher’s first job, before any learning can happen, is to create order, and often enough that job takes the whole time between bells. Gallagher keeps a running tally of how many kids he’s thrown out of class per day, and has worked out a personal iron rule: if he sends a kid to the counselor and the school administration sends the kid back into the room in the same period, Gallagher crosses that school off the list where he’ll work. Even when he succeeds in getting the noisy, fighting, disruptive kids out of the room, that’s no guarantee that learning will happen. There are kids falling asleep, eating, doing their makeup, socializing, texting, or just locked up in a private world, paying no attention whatever to the teacher. When they do engage with an assignment, Gallagher often discovers desperately low levels of knowledge.”

    Uh, this is why our country has gone to s_ _ _ . Our present school system is a relic of the 19th Century, and as measured by the literacy level of the “average” American, obviously doesn’t work.
    Schools are simply huge day-care centers for children until they can be put into the service of the state, which in our case is Big Business. Or maybe they’ll get a job in “government,” which is simply the PR department for global capitalism. Schools teach (force? abuse?) children into sitting still, being quiet, and not questioning authority. “Learning” is something altogether different.

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