I eked out a catch-as-catch-can living by substitute teaching in the D.C. Public Schools. My job was to maintain continuity during occasional absences or while the school system sought permanent teachers. I knew the priority was keeping students reasonably safe, but I clung to the hope I might occasionally get to teach.
After being certified in social studies, my first call came from Grant ES, a special education school. On arrival, I was told I’d be teaching blind primary schoolers. My background with blind people consisted of twice meeting my father’s aunt, Blind Bella, and witnessing a blind college classmate from Florida experience falling snow for the first time.
When I reached the classroom, I found eight smock-clad students spread out on the floor, engrossed in finger painting. The teacher watching over suggested I let them continue for thirty minutes, handed me a lesson plan, and smiled knowingly.
I hadn’t laid eyes on finger paint since I was five. I squatted down as the students smeared colors from their papers to the floor and back.
“What’re you making?” I asked.
“Snow man,” one told me.
“Man walks on the moon,” another said.
“Big mess,” said a third.
Fearing for the floor, their clothes, and my job, I encouraged staying on paper. Then, one by one, I ported the children’s masterpieces to safety, walked each artist to the sink, and then situated them at desks.
The teacher’s lesson plan: Review latest Braille lessons. We conducted a round-robin reading from Braille to English. Whenever Stephen, the only black student in the class, reached a long word, he read, “Midnight.” His classmates laughed. I said, “Do any of you like being laughed at? Raise your hands.” When nobody raised their hands, I said, “Instead of laughing, we should help each other. Isn’t that what friends do?”
I checked into the office before leaving. The vice principal asked, “How’d it go?”
“Through a glass darkly,” I said.
“Perfect. You free tomorrow?” he asked.
“Same kids?” I asked.
“See you tomorrow.”
Next day, I had deaf students. My background with deaf people was seeing deaf students on the subway when I was in high school. How they communicated via sign language, gestures, and facial expressions fascinated. When I reached class, the students were wearing headphones.
“We’re not teaching sign language,” my escort explained. “We’re trying to tap what’s left of their residual hearing. You’ll communicate with them using this microphone. If they can’t hear you, hike up the volume.”
Thirty minutes later, after I’d barely introduced myself to the students, the principal announced over the PA system that the entire school was departing imminently for the White House. Nobody had warned me. I herded my twelve students onto a bus. Once students disembarked, we tried to keep track as they scurried over the White House pasture, blending in with students from other schools. On signal, I drew my deaf students as if with magnets to a row of folding chairs and observed them fidget to the DC Youth Orchestra’s beat. After the orchestra’s performance, a White House rep invited the assemblage to approach for cookies and punch. Running amok, students crumbled cookies over the lawn. Eventually, we coaxed them back onto buses. “Where did we go today?” I asked my class. We’d hardly begun our conversation when the dismissal bell rang.
The next day, they called me back to teach children with intellectual disabilities. I said, “I’m your man.” Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance without words, the students maintained perfect rhythm and cadence. I wondered whether the words meant as much to them as they do to the Average Joe.
Calling substitutes wasn’t centralized; at worst, the same school called twice to sub simultaneously for different teachers. I tried filling my dance card ahead of time. When I wasn’t getting enough work, I blitz-called to market my services: five schools called the next Friday morning. The elusive long-term assignment—firm commitment for two weeks or more—was the stuff dreams were made of.
Most mornings I waited by the phone with my cup of coffee, bowl of hot raisin-y oatmeal, and Washington Post, catnapping. More often than not, between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., the phone rang. The waiting game resumed from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. When I answered, I probably sounded like Helene, from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Who Am I This Time?” As the story goes, Helene wins the part of Stella in “Streetcar Named Desire” in community theater opposite her Stanley, whom she falls madly in love with. After that show closes, as they approach their next roles, Helene asks, “Who am I this time?”
I quickly learned the secret of substitute survival was adaptability:
“Electricity? I’m an expert at replacing shattered light bulbs and testing dubious flashlight batteries.”
“Math? Didn’t I tell you my father’s a mathematician? We solved math problems for family fun night.”
“Ping pong? Wait until you see my backhand!”
“Woodshop? I learned at my father’s side.”
“I can do that.” The refrain from A Chorus Line became my theme song.
The first two months made me question why more teachers didn’t come unglued:
- I observed eight 4th-grade girls shove two scrawny boys into the girls’ room. There they beat up the boys, then called for help, claiming the boys had barged in and attacked them. Jumping to the boys’ defense, I said, to the contrary, the girls forced the boys into the girls’ room. Said the vice principal: “Some of those girls were angels . . . until today.”
- I’d been told that if 3rd-grader Robert cried, I was to send him to the office. Robert’s Valentine to Mike reached the wrong Mike, who tore it up. Heartbroken, Robert cried. Instead of sending him to the office, I let him lead the game at recess.
- Two 6th-grade girls fought in the hall, drawing a crowd. The loser’s friends came after the winner, who sought asylum in my class, blood streaming from nose and mouth.
- As I was teaching French to attentive high school students, rocks came flying through windows. Glass shattered; students scattered.
- On May Day, I escorted a Russian class onto the school’s front lawn to plant their Russian flag. Thinking I was a student, two passing students offered me drugs.
A youngish woman who’d been substituting at Lincoln JHS daily for four months cautioned me, “You’ve got it all wrong thinking anybody expects or even wants you to teach. The system can’t tolerate our teaching. Our job is maintaining order. Don’t rock the boat. Give the kids deskwork. Tell them, ‘Don’t bother me. I’ve got reading to do.’ As long as they keep their voices down, whether they’re doing work is none of your business. If they whip out decks of cards, let it go. If you confiscate them, they’ve always got more. Don’t fight it. You’ll survive longer if you don’t try to accomplish anything. Come along for the ride.”
I typically subbed for the same teacher for a day or two. Sometimes, schools held onto me to avoid early-morning scrambles, even though they didn’t know yet what they’d do with me. I finished out one school year at Banneker JHS by bouncing from Math to English to Home Economics to Family Life to Boys’ PE. That enabled me to see some students across subjects, but afforded little chance to digest a curriculum, earn student confidence, and tailor engagement strategies.
Sometimes I screwed up. While trying to follow teacher’s orders, I let students use two months’ supply of modeling clay. A Lincoln teacher once left deskwork for students. When they asked me questions, I did my best to answer. After returning, the teacher said, “It’s not your job to teach.” Lincoln didn’t ask me back for a while. Once, provoked, I said, “You know damn well,” and another school’s students dubbed me “Mr. Damnwell.”
While some teachers and subs left campus or ate lunch in classrooms, I sought refuge in the teacher’s lunchroom. Teachers wove me into their gossip about administrative changes, curriculum revisions, confiscated switchblades, upcoming student shows. They treated subs as extensions of the school community who deserved welcome. “I’d like you to sub for me next Tuesday” and “you’re starting to fit in” meant I was gaining ground. With rare exceptions, teachers were inclusive and generous. They talked about matters of the heart and job strain: “It’s hard to shake off when students threaten to slit your throat,” and “It’s getting harder every day.”
Lewis ES offered me the chance to teach a self-contained 5th grade class for two weeks. My big break! The day before starting, I picked up lesson plans after dismissal. There were also lists: Here are the kids who are non-readers. Forget about them. Here are the kids who can’t write. Forget about them too. The list of students who had trouble sitting still said: Don’t hesitate sending them to the office. The message was clear: write off nearly all the boys and certain girls.
With due respect, I ripped up the note. The next day when I met the class, I said, “I understand all of you read and write. We’re going to have lots of fun together.” I ignored the catcalls about who couldn’t read or write. Applying principles of civility, I relaxed the usual rules about moving around and raising one’s hand before speaking out. My goal: Seeing that all students—not only the ones who usually profited by the rules—got to strut their stuff. For two days it felt like I walked along the ridges of an alligator’s back. By the third day’s end, most students were reading aloud in small groups. By week’s end, nearly everybody was. The kids sometimes laughed, even squealed: something new was happening.
Once everybody had the “aha experience” of seeing everyone else read, I designed, with their help, an exercise about expectations. It consisted of 10 statements reflecting stereotypical views, such as “All cops are out to get you,” and “All over the world people agree sewing and cooking are women’s work.” After students silently marked each statement true or false, we talked about how we create stereotypes, insist people behave according to them, and punish them if they don’t live up.
To encourage students’ writing skills, I assigned essay topics like, “What My Father Wrote to Me When He Was My Age, Knowing Someday I Would Be Born.” I told students they’d be evaluated for creative expression more than for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Students read their essays aloud to rapt audiences. I wrote ungraded comments.
Rumor spread: there’d been an “awakening.” Students who didn’t read or write before were doing both, confidently and with pleasure. The principal came to observe, because the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills had not predicted this sudden surge by documented non-performers. The students knew they faced the performance of a lifetime. The principal watched for three hours, saying nothing, occasionally smiling or nodding. She later said, “Great job.”
When the regular teacher returned, my time was up. Did she continue to write off students who, according to standardized tests, could neither read nor write? Did the principal set her straight? Did the “awakening” persist? I was invited back to that school to teach 4th and 6th grades at various times. Occasionally, I encountered my liberated 5th graders in the hallway. However, I was never asked to sub again for that 5th grade teacher.
Subbing entailed certain bureaucratic challenges. Once or twice monthly, when I arrived at a school that called me in, I was told, “Sorry, we don’t have a classroom for you.” Rules required they still pay me for a day’s work, and they found a way. Usually, they also found a task to justify payment. Once I was asked to file reports on infractions by girls: extortion, gambling on the steps, fits (whatever that means), stealing a skirt, and beating up a boy.
Paychecks didn’t come like clockwork either. At one point, after three consecutive checks failed to arrive, I went to headquarters and was told, “Complete an emergency check request form.” But their supply of blank forms had been exhausted. In sympathy, my car registration expired. A DC police officer stopped me for failing to signal a left turn 100 yards before an intersection. When he asked for registration, I explained I didn’t have money to renew it and why. He commiserated and asked my subject area. I said history. He said, “Name two of the four Julio-Claudian emperors and I’ll let you off with a warning.” I said, “Julius, Claudius, Nero, and Caligula.” Finally, someone let me use my degree!
When I was subbing at Francis JHS—staffed by grandmothers, Cheshire Cats, religious moralists, and men of law who shot now and asked questions later—the Principal called an assembly to prepare students for the next day’s visit by U.S. News and World Report. She told them, “Your slouching at your desks is what causes Vietnams.” After opining on the beauty of roses, she said: “Most of you are beyond hope. You failed to learn how to read during the critical years so now you are in eighth grade, are 15 or 16 years old, and read at a 4th grade level. You really don’t have a chance. All you can do is try. You won’t make it, though, because instead of rappin’ you ought to read, that’s your need, but you don’t carry books in your purses and backpacks as you ought.” Though normally students weren’t allowed to take recess outdoors, she said they’d get to during the media visit.
Having overcome any notion I was faking it, I entered each classroom with the mantra, “I may never see these children again. This could be my one chance to demonstrate how exciting X can be.” I tried to convey, “I’ve got something in store, but you have to want it.”
When Cardozo HS asked me to teach world history for a few days and I found no lesson plans, I told myself, “From time to time, there is magic.” I prepared a pop-up lesson to demonstrate that any society can be analyzed at six levels: political, military, economic, intellectual, social, and religious. I asked students—organized into three-person teams—to take any recent newspaper and cut out one article describing the status of the United States at each level. Students snipped and labeled, each team presented and then questioned and critiqued each other with gusto. Those students dubbed me “Mr. Shoes” because I wore red Adidas.
Two years into my experience of substitute teaching, the DC public schools instituted a freeze on hiring permanent teachers. Because now schools couldn’t fill vacant positions, long-term substitutes offered the only hope for stability and consistency.
A year later, the new Superintendent of Schools ordered 300 administrators—deemed out-of-touch with the realities of schools—to work part-time as substitutes for the semester. After the Superintendent himself spent a day subbing in a 2nd-grade classroom—his first day teaching in seven years—he left with “new insights.” According to the Washington Post, he asked, “Can a substitute teacher possibly accomplish anything with a group of students he’s never seen before and will never see again?” He concluded that we need to “somehow maintain consistency especially for the younger ones who are the most difficult.”
The next month the Washington Post published “Notes of a Substitute Teacher,” which asked, “How is it realistically possible for a substitute teacher to be prepared for all contingencies?” More profound questions were asked about the educational system that substitutes endeavor to support: Does having the same teacher day after day necessarily mean students experience consistency? What is all our alleged consistency really accomplishing?
Almost no teachers left lesson plans. Some left terse notes like: “Have students draw their emotions using charcoal.” At best, they left busywork. Teachers who left scant or no instructions sent an implicit message: use your creative discretion.
After that school year, the financially-strapped school system eliminated more than 800 permanent teaching positions. As schools readied to reopen for the fall, 50 teachers were summarily fired. The teachers’ union threatened to strike over “unmanageable class sizes, cuts in the school budget and mass confusion at the opening of the city’s schools.” Ten days later, teachers struck in 56 schools and immobilized the educational process in most of the other 132. When the strike ended, I breathed again. I needed the work and the kids needed the schools.
Unable to fill a position vacancy, Banneker hired me to teach electricity to 7th graders as a long-term sub. I accepted, despite fleeting concerns I might inadvertently electrocute some unsuspecting students. My nickname “Mr. Shoes” had spread from Cardozo, two blocks away, to Banneker, its feeder school. I had cachet. I knew if I engaged students in devising the learning process, they’d draw each other into the intrigue. I tried sketching the movement of atoms and neutrons on the blackboard but couldn’t hold their attention. So I worked with students to choreograph dances so they could feel how atoms and neutrons move. As they morphed into atoms and neutrons, they learned, with joy and laughter, until mastery.
Rumor flew: the Principal was going to hire me for the whole school year. Teachers remarked, “Looks like you’re going to become one of us whether you like it or not,” and “Everybody knows you’ve got it.” Instead, headquarters identified a permanent teacher who needed a new placement while waiting out retirement. A job I would never have applied for—but came to love—escaped my fingertips.
At Duke Ellington HS, an absent teacher tasked me to work with students in painting self-portraits. I’d learned portrait painting as a high school student, but not with technology assists. First, students took each other’s photographs. Then they traced projections of the photographs and elaborated on the tracings. Each step fostered my own process of discovery and fueled my excitement as I directed questions to the students so they’d reflect on their actions. Before I left, a student gifted me a small vase she had thrown on the wheel and then glazed.
In the months after the teachers’ strike, violence became more pervasive. At Banneker, a tall 8th-grader named Anthony who refused to try out for the basketball team and was always courting two girls was stabbed three times in the stomach by two quiet boys—his best friends. The next day, the principal convened a school-wide assembly. He stressed the importance of the homeroom unit and asked students to encourage classmates they saw “straggling to school” to arrive on time. Teachers’ lunchroom conversation focused on “a sickness that can be repressed only so long.” Conversations about threats against teachers occurred daily.
Two days later, a massive, bloody fight broke out at Cardozo. Hundreds of girls shouted, pulled hair, punched, kicked, clawed, and pinned each other to the ground. Some boys watched while others tried to intervene. One girl ran seven blocks to Lincoln to get help. A 14-year-old Lincoln girl shot her twice in the leg.
Two days later, I was back at Banneker when a pack of fifteen Cardozo boys tore through the hallway. After hearing glass breaking next door, students jumped from their seats. A few ran into the hall; the rest huddled against the back wall. When the pack entered, I sensed a gust of wind as if a tornado struck. One boy hoisted a globe and tossed it like a medicine ball against the back wall, shattering it and spreading students to either side. Another charged right at me with deliberate madness. I stood my ground, arms at my sides, staring into his eyes the way I’d been taught as a summer mailman to deal with oncoming dogs. I was ready to be bowled over when a girl in back yelled, “Mr. Shoes!” The boy veered away and led the pack out into the hallway. The breaking glass we heard earlier had been a mere fishbowl!
Due to winter break, I didn’t get back to Banneker for weeks and missed the teachers’ lunchroom conversations. Why did the Cardozo girls fight? Why was the Cardozo girl who ran to Lincoln shot? Why did the Cardozo boys invade Banneker? Was anyone hurt? Was there much damage? I never found out.
A few weeks later, Cardozo called me back to sub long-term in algebra and probability theory. The regular teacher was held captive by intestinal parasites in a Mexican hospital. Because he was math department chair, the vice principal said I’d also be chair pro tem. The students showed me what they’d been learning and explained how the class operated. The probability class learned to play poker mathematically. We sent a homemade get-well card to the teacher at his Mexican “hacienda.” Incidentally, some Cardozo girls got caught gambling and “smoking reefer” behind locked girls’ room doors. After police remanded the offenders to the Women’s House of Detention, the girls’ room was unlocked only for the first ten minutes of each class period and by special arrangement.
On a return to Banneker, a student confessed she wasn’t sure whether Vince Lombardi was a famous baseball player or the man who painted Mona Lisa. I wanted to say, “You’re close. Mona Lisa plays for the Dodgers” or “Lombardi invented deep-dish pizza.” What would you have said? I told her, “Look it up. Get back to me.”
A 3rd-grade teacher at Stevens ES left instructions to randomly assign each student a required spelling word. The students’ task was to write a sentence using their assigned word and incorporate the sentence into an Earth Day card. The teacher would forward the cards to the White House. Antonio drew the word “smother.” I expected a cautionary tale about how to keep a baby warm while avoiding tragic over-diligence but hoped for Maya Angelou’s recipe for smothered chicken. Surprising only me, 8-year-old Antonio articulated the poetry of protest like a young Langston Hughes:
My oh my
do they smother
I often wonder, did the White House write back? Did Antonio keep asking questions? Did anyone hear him? Or did someone just shut him up?
After four feast-or-famine years, I quit substituting. Believing I might make a difference made quitting hard, but seeing capable, compassionate teachers become worn down and afraid helped set me free.
It hurts schools and children that substitutes have the status of Mayflies: pilgrims without destination, babysitters without snack privileges, mercenaries without weapons. However, these are symptoms of larger problems facing education. The challenge is figuring out how to overhaul our “tried-and-true” approaches so we can better prepare children to live productively, smartly, inclusively, healthfully, humanely. For starters, we might try answering Antonio’s question.
To resuscitate his long-neglected right brain, Jim Ross resumed creative pursuits in 2015 after retiring from public health research. He’s since published 50 pieces of nonfiction, several poems, and over 180 photos in nearly 60 journals in North America, Europe, and Asia. His publications include 1966, Friends Journal, Ilanot Review, Lunch Ticket, MAKE Literary Magazine, Meat for Tea, Pif Magazine, Stoneboat, The Atlantic, and Thin Air. Jim aspires to write more long-form nonfiction combining text and photography. He and his wife–parents of two health professionals and grandparents of four toddlers–split their time between Maryland and West Virginia.