This I Believe

Nicole - Brookline, Massachusetts
Entered on August 30, 2007

School Lessons: Notes from a Sub

When the sub dispatcher calls early in the morning, even without being fully awake I know never to accept a kindergarten aide position as I was once chastised for refusing to restrain a five year old with ADHD. Despite school policies requiring teachers to have emergency sub plans, frequently teachers fail to anticipate an absence. “Well, it does not look like the art teacher wrote sub plans today,” the secretary notes as she hands me five attendance lists. Even worse, are the days with lousy sub plans, when a 7th grade history teacher leaves a difficult article on Barbary pirates to read for the entire eighty minute period. Occasionally I am shocked by what I am being asked to do. “I guess you are proctoring MCAS testing today. The materials should all be in the classroom,” the vice principal announces unlocking the cafeteria and assuming that I will figure out what I need to know by reading the test booklet directions. And other times I am downright angry at being left an assignment with no chance for success. “Miss, you don’t play the piano?” A fourth grader asks as eighty other faces look expectantly up at me to begin chorus.

As a substitute I have no knowledge of school policy, nor have I been given written information such as a handbook. I have no communication with the teacher that I am filling in for besides what she has left on a desk in the classroom. I have no training on high needs student populations such as those with emotional, learning, or physical disabilities. I am often handed a set of keys and told to have a great day.

As outlandish as it seems perhaps just as future doctors benefit from the experience of being a patient during their medical training, future principals should be mandated to spend time in schools working as janitors, cafeteria workers, elementary school teachers, secretaries, and especially as substitute teachers. I believe that if we really want to know how good our schools are, forget accreditation boards, superintendent visits, principal walk-throughs, standardized test scores, teacher evaluations, and documentation of student progress. Just ask a substitute the following questions. Are teachers warm to a new face? Are students respectful when their teacher is absent? What do students say about their teacher? Does the principal stop by to see how the substitute is faring? Is there a lesson plan with a meaningful activity for students? Would I want to sub in this classroom? A school’s character emerges through a single day of subbing. And while the presence of a substitute once in awhile may not have any detrimental effect on the majority of students, if a teacher’s contract has fourteen sick days and personal days a year every graduating twelfth grader most likely has had a substitute teacher for over a year of their thirteen years in public school. As a future school administrator I believe that pivotal to student learning is a school’s policies regarding subbing and teacher absence.