Substitutes are Not Supposed to Smile
by Ute Carson
Capstone Journal of Education, Vol. 3, No. 1, Summer/Fall 1982

"For all the trouble we have given you, we sure love you." These were Peter's parting words as he dashed out of the classroom to catch the school bus. I was left behind, sorting through stacks of papers, writing notes where lesson plans ended and generally clearing the desk for my colleague, Mrs. J., who would be returning next week from two months' maternity leave. Overwhelmed by feelings of farewell, I had no room for reflections.

Monday morning I luxuriated in my private time, swimming laps during the morning hours when only a few days before, I had been conjugating verbs with the third period class I was surprised to find my mind wandering back to the classroom. Would Jim have taken his make-up test yet? Would David have studied to get his grade average up? Was I hooked on teaching again, or just not yet free of the experience The parties the students had given me had taken me completely by surprise The cakes, the special treats, Eric playing the guitar, the goodbye wishes on the blackboard had made me feel good and grateful. But that was the last day‹a special day. What had it really been like to substitute teach at a high school in Gainesville, Florida in 1982?

The experience had been manifold and I knew that I could not draw a picture that would speak to all substitutes at all times What I tried to assemble were impressions and attitudes which I wanted to share Called on short notice to fill in for Mrs. J., I had been ready to throw in the towel before the first week was up. Too many new faces and over 150 names to remember‹hardly anybody paying attention while I struggled to continue where Mrs. J. had left off. I asked myself whether it was at all worth doing. Would I ever succeed in keeping the class attentive enough to learn or would all my efforts have to go into being a disciplinarian, gaining their respect by sitting on them? A gentle, reasonable approach might work with the willing, polite student, but would never reach the one who didn't care about an additional failing grade. And enforcing discipline drained me of my energy. I had to learn that some students can't be reached‹that no matter how often I sent students to the guidance office or kept them after school, they would continue to float through the system untouched by my efforts. It troubled me that a considerable number of high school students would remain drifters, waiting to get out‹to go where? They were the ones who were bored and slept in class, who fought in the library, and cheated and lied.

Upon confronting a student I suspected of cheating on an exam, he denied any wrongdoing. On my last day I found a note from him with a palm tree as a symbol of peace drawn on it. The note read, in part, "I did lie to you. Will you please forgive me? I won't ever do it again. Please forgive. Love, T." I could never bring myself to give up on the students completely but realized that I had to limit my efforts in order to teach those who needed and wanted it.

A temporary teacher is never a sufficient substitute for a permanent teacher. That's what makes substitute teaching a difficult and sometimes trying task. It's not the difference in teaching styles, even though on the surface it may appear as such. "No, that's not the way Mrs. J. does it." "Mrs. J. would like for you to do more grammar than conversation." if it were only a matter of style, shifting the emphasis would solve the problem and a firm reply ("I'm not Mrs. J.") would do the trick. The underlying conflict is over a breach of loyalty. Students are committed to their permanent teacher. The newcomer is viewed as an intruder, a foreigner to be tested, to be kept uncomfortable, so that when the regular teacher returns, things can continue as before. This loyalty to the teacher is the lynch pin of all good teaching. It also takes tact to avoid interfering with the students' attachment to their permanent teacher. Two weeks after Mrs. J's return I was invited to a student banquet where I received flowers and a standing ovation from the students. I had apparently gained their affection without destroying the old alliance.

A substitute has to prove to the class that she respects its priorities. But she can't just hang back. In order for the teaching to continue she must establish herself as distinct and separate from the regular teacher and gain affection on her own terms. Should she succeed in that delicate balancing of loyalties, the students will have learned that two different, yet simultaneous, attachments are possible. Conflict as well as success are evident in Sonja's and Jim's comments. "I have just gotten used to you," Sonja protested, "and now you are leaving." Jim solved the problem by suggesting spontaneously, "Can't we petition the school board to hire both you and Mrs. J. as teachers?" At the banquet, after the farewell speeches and applause for me, Steve toasted Mrs. J's return, which sparked a second round of applause. The transition had worked.

I remember students for a variety of reasons. I fondly recall the helpfulness of Erika and Melissa and Randy when I could never find anything the first week. I recall Jim's humorous greeting the first day on the job‹"If you are our new substitute, I hope you like jokes." And Brad, who broke the newness by introducing his girlfriend to me, and Nathan feeling confident enough to tease me the last day. "Please call me Nathan," he announced, smiling disarmingly. I have not lost my German accent and my "th" still sounds like "S." I repeated Nathan's name with the proper pronunciation whereupon he retorted, "For once you did it right. Thank you, Mrs. Carthon."

Human experiences bring people together, as did the skit the students and I rehearsed. After the group had performed for orientation, they burst into my class, bubbling over with details‹which parts had gone well and which ones had failed. And I recall the innumerable interactions that occurred during the lunch hours, after school and between bells. I sympathized with Donna's concern about how to be a friend to a boy and still be able to say "No," and I sympathized with Jim when he plopped down on a chair next to me, depressed about everything, exclaiming, "It's no fun being 16." I liked to hear about Robert's interest in cars and shared a love for horses with Kim. I responded with pleasure to Kirk's probing questions about history.

It is this human interest that will ultimately make or break substitutes. It goes without saying that they have to be qualified in their subject areas and that their teaching abilities and standards should be scrutinized and reviewed, but interest in the students will determine the atmosphere and shape the interactions. It will even usher in each new day. The bad image of the substitute has a long history and every one has to battle it anew. There are many pitfalls to watch out for. How to be the students' friend without being their buddy? How to allow their personal hobbies and concerns to enter into the classroom without turning learning into bull sessions? How to guide and set limits to student behavior without pushing students to the wall where their only way out is confrontation? And finally, a word of advice to teachers who at times must substitute in areas in which their knowledge is spotty: never fake it; when in doubt, fall back on something you know best.

Students need models‹men and women who are experts in areas of knowledge, but who are also examples of how to live one's life. When I entered the classroom, I brought with me, not just my know how but my personality and background as a mother, a writer, and a housewife, as well. It takes time to establish relationships and here substitutes are again at a disadvantage, especially if they are filling in only a day or two at a time. But like a regular teacher, a substitute must be permitted to fail as well as to succeed. There will be times when she is drained and when she feels that nothing much was accomplished. There will be other times when the day is a joy.

On my way to class the morning after a holiday, I heard a voice shouting across the courtyard. "Did you miss us, Mrs. Carson?" It was Tom, one of the lovable troublemakers. "No," I shouted back. "I didn't miss you one bit, but it does feel good to be back here again this morning." "Substitutes are not supposed to smile," he shot back, and that's how we started the new day.

- ~ -