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Confessions Of a Substitute Teacher

A Sub's First Day (Letter To a Friend)

Dear Educator,

Today I did my first day as a sub. I was called at 7:00 to substitute for Mr. R's class at Hell Central. I got showered ASAP, had a quick breakfast, and raced to Hell, where I arrived at 8:05, twenty minutes late. Hell was further away than I realized. I signed in and got pointed toward Room Thirteen. There, I was faced with a very disorganized desk, stacked to the ceiling with books and papers. Before I could make sense of them, the kids quickly informed me that they were Mr. G's papers (the para-pro), and that this was Mr. G's homeroom class. Luckily, Mr. G was out, too.

The kids informed me that all I had to do for them was to take roll and count entrees, and that they would then leave for first period. And I was very silly not to know all this. (Apparently my main purpose as a sub was to provide the children with entertainment. They were much obliged to see me fulfill my duty so well.) There were many helpful opinions as to which roll page applied to homeroom, how I was to take roll, etcetera. Finally, I realized that Mr. G apparently just says "Roll Call" and the kids call "one, two, three," etcetera. They each knew their number. I didn't. But I dutifully marked them down on a blank piece of paper, not yet having had time to study the absentee sheets ~ I figured I'd work those out later. One kid, name unknown, came in and tossed a tardy slip on my desk. (She did not get marked tardy, since, within five seconds, I would not have been able to identify her face from the other 27 kids, to know her from Betsy Ross.) Homeroom was now over.

First period. Okay. As the children swarmed through the door, I tried to sort through the stacks on the desk, while simultaneously greeting kids and introducing myself. Absentmindedly, I muttered the names of the items to myself: "Teacher's Manual, okay. Science book. Math. Schedule. Oh, let's see... worksheets?" Immediately eight kids squealed, "Oh, can I hand out the papers? Me! Me!"

"Okay," I smiled, graciously. "You may hand them out." Two little girls smiled with delight and enthusiastically handed out the papers. The kids got them, said, "Huh?" and knew not what to do. Then half a dozen voices yelled, "These are for fourth grade. We're third grade." Nevertheless, several students had dutifully, though sorrowfully, begun to muddle through the worksheet. Before I had time to muse upon this development, the intercom came on and a voice from the unknown said, "Please take your class to 'the story pit'." Apparently, this was a surprise to all the other teachers, too, who knew that the media lady was coming, but not today, or not first period, or something. My kids, being completely uncontrollable, managed to form a zigzagging "line" and marched in the most unruly fashion down to "the story pit" (I was simply thankful that they knew where to find it). They were then called down by Mrs. D, who told them that she was "very ashamed" of the fourth grade (meaning, specifically, my class, I am sure). Now, Mrs. D was an old schoolmate of mine, but if she knew me from Adam, I couldn't tell it. She was perpetually frowning at life and offered no assistance. Seeing that I was "fresh meat," though, she and the other teacher there took advantage of the opportunity and left me, alone, to stand guard outside the story lady's room with all three of our classes, while they took off for places unknown. I waited outside and watched the dull video. Unfortunately, this did not put the kids asleep, as it most assuredly would have done back in my school days. The video ended, I then managed to get my kids back into an unruly line and march them back to class. We found the correct math lesson, and did about half of it before the bell rang. No sooner than I had gotten used to the second group of 27 faces, it was time to be introduced to a third group of 28 faces.

Ah, fourth graders. Thrill of the day. I know why they saved fourth grade for last; no doubt, they did it in hopes that the subs would stay until at least noon, when they could begin the real initiation. We started our math lesson. (I was very lucky to be called in to sub for a math/science teacher, don't you think? Because the damned lesson looked like Greek to me, at first glance. At second glance, it just looked like really hard math, which I don't recall ever having seen outside the seventh grade or the GRE.) We muddled through it, with the kids refusing to look at my examples on the board; instead, dashing ahead to start their lesson while I was still reading it to them. That was about one third of the students (we did fractions today); or 33 percent of the students (we also did percentages); or 630 pounds/??? grams worth of students (converting to metrics); or nine gallons worth of students, cremated (units of measurement). Now, I haven't converted to metrics since the seventh grade. Fortunately, we had an equivalency table and I had the teacher's manual; but I have a feeling that some of the kids must have already viewed it and memorized it. Quite a few of them finished their lesson before I even got through reading it. Being finished, they began to fold papers into airplanes, paperwads, and the like. Now, that left another third of the class hopelessly lost in a lesson they didn't understand. This also left two thirds of the class to talk loudly among themselves. While this was getting out of hand, I tried to help each kid who had a question; but of course, each of the needy kids managed to be on opposite ends of the classroom, and needed help all at the same time on different problems. I then attempted to do examples on the board to help explain the more difficult questions ~ with the one third who finished early yelling, "That's easy ~ we don't need you to explain it." As a result, at least half the kids didn't know what the hell we were doing.

Ah, but now let me tell you about the third third of the class. Special ed., apparently. There were three kids on Ritalin. I only knew this because one told me that he missed his morning dose and needed it now. The second gave me some rigamarole about how that particular medicine was for last week, and he didn't need it this week. Yet a third one never spoke up at all. Now, at this point, I was frantically flipping through my Substitute Teacher Survival Kit looking for the page on "Medicines ~ How and Whether to Dispense." I found no medicine page ~ it's there, I know, but the book has no table of contents (I plan to write a terse letter to RESA). I did have the foresight to send a kid to the office and make sure that it was better to wait for this kid's lunchtime dose (my idea) than to give him two doses within one-and-a-half hours of each other (his idea). I told him to wait, and we went on with the "lesson" (their lesson? or my lesson? I think we know the answer to that). But, by now, it was time for Ritalin-Kid One's 11:40 dose. He did get his dose. Alas, the other two did not. I didn't find time to read the sub's folder until after lunch ~ so I didn't realize that the two other kids were Ritalin kids (though I might have guessed, easily). They missed their dose. (Maybe two doses, because the teacher's note mentioned a 3:05 dose. I'll bet their parents were thrilled that night.) Thank God they weren't diabetics, epileptics, or schitzophrenics (as far as I know).

Need I tell you how many times the special-ed' kids left their seats? The scuff marks on the floor (which the janitor remarked upon) will testify to that. Special-ed' number four was a loud, unmaneagable bully, about twice the size of the next largest kid in class. He and another girl said that they "don't do" the same math work the other kids do. I spent fifteen minutes scrambling around the teacher's desk trying to find some special lesson with their name on it. Finding none, I looked at their last week's lesson and made up several problems along the same lines. (It didn't matter one whit, because they didn't bother to do their lessons, preferring instead to talk and be disruptive). Fortunately, lunchtime intervened, but before lunch, they were to go to the bathroom down the hall and wash their hands. This, they got to do alone ~ it was all I could do to keep fights from breaking out at the rear of the line. I got the kids into something less than an uproar, and marched them, in something short of single file, down the hall to the cafeteria. I myself did not get lunch, having left my billfold in the room. (I didn't want to walk the half-mile back down the hall to get my money). But I found out that a coach got to watch the kids during lunch, and I got a free time (gasp, relief). I went back to Room thirteen and finally got to read the schedule that the teacher had kindly left for me. I was greatly relieved to see that P.E. was after lunch, so I knew (or prayed) that someone else would take charge of that. Lunch was over all too soon.

After lunch, I tried to figure out the best way to let 28 kids take a bathroom break (they had taken at least three each during class, the bathroom fortunately being in between the double suite of rooms ~ they didn't actually have to "leave the room" for this. But for after lunch, I thought they'd better go "down the hall.") After at least half of the kids had dashed out the door and down the hall, one kid said, "We don't get to go to the bathroom after lunch." Fortunately, all or most of them (I hope) made it back. I didn't do a head count. At this point, I figured one or two fewer heads was a good thing.

Now, thank God, it was time for the P.E. teacher to come and get the kids. Massive relief, for me. The coach was a real "take-charge" kind of guy. I wish he could have taken charge for the rest of the day. But I had a lovely free time in which to try to figure out what the heck came after P.E. The sub folder did not leave a clue, other than "snack." Okay, "snack," I thought. "Refrigerator." I opened the refrigerator. Three stale pitas. "Twenty-eight kids," I calculated mentally. "Units of measurement. Loaves & fishes?" Six slices of deli ham. Fresh? Who knew. By now, I wondered frantically if "snack" was a sub-section of math. I gave up. "Ask the kids," I thought, vaguely remembering my brief, now distantly removed, sub training session, which advised, when all else fails, to "ask the kids."

I went to pick up my kids from P.E. There, I mixed up another teacher's kids with mine and was talking to them as if they were "my" class. I did this because they had been the homeroom class, and I recognized their faces as having been in my room. Of course, they were looking at me as if they'd never seen me before, and thought that I was the legendary, threatening "stranger," who goes around talking to kids.

Finally, I found my correct kids (alas) and we trooped back to class. The requisite "snack" was satisfied by multiple trips to the vending machine. But snacking could only last so long. As the munching came to an end, I found expectant faces looking up at me. (Sigh). At this point, I just gave it up. "What,", I asked "do you usually do after P.E.? I got a dozen different answers, most of which fell into the category of "talk," "whatever we want," "watch TV," "race down the hallway," "wrestle and scuffle," "punch each other out," and "REDRUM! REDRUM!" I decided to listen to the kid who said, "We do science." Now, science wasn't on Mr. R.'s list that I could see, but the science book was available, so I made them each read a paragraph. At that point, I hoped that it was time to go. The book said, "2:15 ~ dismissal." I was then informed that some of the kids were to have "After Care." Not knowing what the heck to do with them, I took the others to the bus, getting a soft reprimand by Mrs. D because I was supposed to be at the head of the line of kids, not halfway back breaking up fights. I let them get on any damn bus they wanted, then went back to the classroom and did a head count of the kids who were in "After Care." I had left at least seven, I think, but came back to find about five. I got varying answers from them as to how many of them there were supposed to be. I also found, to my dismay, that I would have to stay with them until 3:05, at which time they'd go to another room for "After Care." I got at least two or three different opinions as to whose room that would be (different ones for different days), so I sent a semi-reliable kid down the hall to make sure that it was, indeed, Miss D's room ~ not the old Mrs. D (my age); the young, blond Mrs. D. At 3:00, I gladly marched them to Mrs. D's room, where they met up with two other classes and stood in the hall, waiting till 3:05. Mrs. D came back from wherever she'd been, frowned sternly, and told them they weren't coming in her class till they got completely quiet (I whispered an apology. She said, "Don't worry," and shut the door). They then began to quiet down in a way that I had not thought possible, and Mrs. D opened the door and let the little apes in.

I then walked back down to the office to make sure that I had done whatever I was supposed to do for the day. Not having peeked into the classroom all day to see how it was going (they weren't fools), the office staff expected me to be long deceased by now. So, seeing as how I foolishly got within arm's length of the front counter and presented my person to the secretary, they threw out their meat hooks and dragged my carcass to an appointment book, where they quickly signed me up for Mrs. H's Wednesday class and Mrs. P's Thursday class. Apparently, their meat hooks are set to automatically detect "fresh meat." Either that, or no sub ever before survived and actually showed up in person at the end of the day.

Suffice it to say, I now have a more human, compassionate understanding of your habit of scarfing down half a bottle of rum every Friday. I only wonder that you make it till then.

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