Substitute Teaching

(I originally wrote this in 1997. I had it up on the old version of the furrs.org website before I took it down and replaced it with the current WordPress-based version. )

Ever been a substitute teacher? I have.

It was the spring of 1989. I was studying toward a Master of Public Administration degree at Virginia Tech, the large state university located in my home town of Blacksburg, Virginia. Having finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia in three quick years and immediately gone on toward a master’s degree, I was in a position when I signed up for substitute teaching to work alongside teachers I’d gotten C-‘s from just four years earlier.

Or so I’d thought when I signed up to be a substitute teacher. The money wasn’t bad, $45.00 per day, and I hoped to get work three or four days a week, which would have worked nicely for me since almost all of my classes in graduate school were held in the evening. It struck me as a good deal: since I had SOME KIND of college degree, I was considered qualified to ride herd over schoolkids in some cases only four years younger than I was myself, and said herd-riding would involve essentially no work and a fine opportunity to engage in power-trips.

Unfortunately, since I didn’t have a teaching degree, I wasn’t a hot commodity in the minds of the assistant principals who handled calling substitute teachers. If I’d had a teaching degree, I could have worked five days a week and gotten paid more. As it was, since I only had a basic Bachelor of Arts in English degree, I only got called to work on those days when all the teachers in Montgomery County were out of town at conferences.

In other words, I only got called three times all year. Four, if you count the time I got called by two schools on the same day. By the time I started getting calls, I’d given up on getting a lot of sub work and was instead gainfully employed as a student worker at the university library, collecting periodicals and sending them off to be bound. It was nearly as mindless as sub work turned out to be and I could show up for work in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, so all in all I wasn’t too disappointed.

My first experience as a substitute teacher was at the rural high school in the southern part of Montgomery County, Auburn High. Auburn High was in fact a combination middle school/high school, and when I was called for my first- ever assignment, I wound up presiding over a gamut of driver’s ed, sex ed, and a fistfight between two overweight teenage girls.

It was a cold, wintry day, the sort of day better spent sleeping until noon, and when I was wakened from a sound sleep by the school’s assistant principal, I uttered a groggy “yes” before it could penetrate into my mind who I was going to be replacing: “the Coach.”

Yes, I was got to play Coach all day, handing out mimeographed exercise sheets on weighty subjects like parallel parking (in drivers’ ed) and masturbation (not in drivers’ ed). The Coach had several classes of driver’s ed, two periods of hall monitor duty, and one period of sex ed/health with an extremely giggly bunch of eighth-grade boys. Augh!

The worst aspect of my first substitute teaching shift was my utter failure to understand authority. When the kids ignored their normal seating chart and sat near their friends and began to horse around, I made empty threats in hopes of getting them to shut up and stop hitting each other. I was the classic harried substitute.

The second worst part was the eighth grade sex ed class. The boys weren’t difficult, but they certainly were giggly and full of nervous energy, and when I opened the folder and found that I was to give them a test on masturbation and pregnancy and other bodily functions, I realized why they’d been laughing maniacally ever since they came into the room.

Fortunately, the assistant principal wandered in “just to check on things” just as things were about to get out of control. I’ve never seen a roomful of people get so quiet so fast.

The third worst part was the fistfight. The class I had immediately after lunch was another driver’s ed class, held in a small classroom in which every seat was taken. This meant that I had nowhere to move troublemakers; I couldn’t tell someone to sit by themselves on the far side of the room. The small room also made for a lot of noise, as every squeak, grunt, or cough echoed around the walls. Unfortunately, two of the students, sweaty adolescent females in jeans and dirty denim jackets, chose to sit next to each other specifically so they could continue a running argument on which one of them was the bigger slut (their word). Not ten minutes into the class, as I was at my utter frazzled wit’s end trying to get the kids to shut up and just do their goddamn exercise sheet on parallel parking (I had begun an internal, unvoiced monologue about the whole mess, one in which I cursed like a sailor) the girls suddenly stood up and began clawing and shrieking at each other.

At that point, I snapped. I shouldered my way between them (which was an odoriferous experience), shoved them apart, glared at them, and then turned and headed for the door, snapping “you come with me.” I didn’t even look back to see if they were following; fortunately, they understood the tone of my voice to mean what it in fact meant (that I was ready to start breaking things, including people) and didn’t cause any further problems. By the time I got downstairs to the office, my trembling anger had worn off somewhat and I remembered to be startled when I looked around and found them close on my heels, following me in to the assistant principal’s office, where I left them and returned to the classroom. I had no further trouble from that class.

That was also the high point of my day: realizing that if you act like you’re used to being obeyed, the students will generally act accordingly.

It wasn’t a completely bad day; the period I spent with the 11th and 12th grade gym class (in Virginia at that time, gym was optional beyond 10th grade), trading stories about college life and sports with them as they rode bicycles around the locker room, was kind of fun.

I had an even better time during the period I spent sitting in the teacher’s lounge having sexual fantasies about some of the other teachers. It was strange, after years of spending lunchtime at Blacksburg High School discussing what color underwear our math teacher had on each day (if you get the impression that she was young and cute and we spent a lot of time dropping pencils in front of her, you’re right), to finally be sitting in a lounge with young, attractive teachers who’d reach under their blouse and adjust their bras without a second thought. Unfortunately, none of them propositioned me. C’est la vie.

I didn’t get called to substitute teach again (which, after that hellish day, was okay by me) for a month or two, and that time, I was asked to replace a geography teacher at the somewhat less rural high school in the county seat, Christiansburg.

I’d been to Christiansburg High many times before, as a student, due to a bizarre implementation of gifted-and-talented funding in Montgomery County. When I was in high school, all the gifted-and-talented students from Blacksburg High School got bused over to Christiansburg High School once or twice per school year in order to spend the day watching art films in the CHS auditorium. Oddly, the school system only involved thirty or so BHS kids in what I called “Art Film Day,” but let the entire student body of CHS in. Since the average BHS student was the kid of some professor at Virginia Tech, while the average CHS student was a farmer’s kid, one would think that it would make more sense to show the films at BHS to the entire student body and let the 30 or so bright kids from CHS come over, but no, it had to be done in the county seat. Of course, that dodges the question of what good showing us the same art films year after year was supposed to do for us, but when you found out that the gifted-and-talented programs were being run by a 70-year-old woman who did the job more or less to have something to do, it made more sense.

Anyway, when I showed up to substitute teach that day, it wasn’t nearly as bad. The CHS students didn’t do things like throwing each other down the stairwells, and that alone would have made for a less difficult day than the day I spent at Auburn, but surprisingly (I hadn’t entirely outgrown my Blacksburg-centric prejudices) some of them were actually intelligent. Since I was subbing for an 9th grade geography teacher, my classes weren’t really of the salacious sort — masturbation appeared nowhere in the content — and kids didn’t get the giggles from the quizzes I handed out. Mostly, they read books, did homework, or talked quietly with me about sports at the University of Georgia.

Unfortunately, the teachers at CHS weren’t anywhere near as cute as the teachers at Auburn, and hardly any of them used the teacher’s lounge anyway, preferring to camp out in their departmental lounges. That is, those few teachers who hadn’t gone off to Richmond for a conference — those teachers who did stick around and showed up for work that day — generally commented that they had better things to do than go down to Richmond for a conference that would be less involved with new teaching methods and more to do with drinking heavily in hotel bars and screwing that hot little number from the English department or that new guy in the math department. I hoped, of course, that I’d be called back to substitute again on a day when the hot little English teacher wasn’t in Richmond getting screwed by drunk chemistry teachers after drinks in the hotel bar, but, well, no such luck.

In fact, I was only called one final time to substitute that school year, and that was a day in mid-spring when once again everyone had gone out of town and I was called by two high schools.

It was a sunny, warm Friday. I’d spent the entire night before sitting up at one of the computers in the Public Administration department annex writing an essentially content-free paper on some aspect of government administration which was due at 9:00 that morning; I had nothing to do the rest of the day, having gotten in all my hours at the library earlier in the week, so I planned to turn the paper in and simply report home and go to bed. Arriving home at 6:30 a.m., I turned on the shower, let it run to get hot, and had just stepped in when the phone rang. It was Christiansburg High School’s assistant principal, asking if I could work that day since all the teachers were out at some conference.

Now, at this point, as I said, I hadn’t been to bed. I’d been up since around 7:00 the previous morning and was heading for 24 hours without sleep. However, I’d passed the point of tiredness and was running totally on caffeine and pure nervous energy. So I said “yes.” It was money, after all, and I had nothing better to do than sit in a chair at the front of a classroom and gibber noiselessly at my shoes while the students looked on uncomprehendingly.

Seconds after I got off the phone with the CHS assistant principal, the phone rang again. It was the assistant principal, Mrs. Tate, from my alma mater, Blacksburg High School, looking for substitutes. I’d been hoping and praying all year for a chance to substitute at BHS, mostly to see the shock and alarm on the faces of my former teachers as I walked in wearing a tie, picked up a clipboard, and headed off to take charge of thirty or so impressionable young minds. Consequently, I told her yes as well and immediately called the CHS assistant principal back and invented some lie about how I couldn’t substitute after all. Then I got back into the shower, bouncing about with a deranged sort of wiredness that was half exhaustion, half caffeine, and half excitement at the idea of finally subbing at BHS.

Fortunately, my job that day involved replacing the art teacher, a field I was completely and totally incompetent to provide instruction in, so I got to spend a halcyon day waving my hand vacantly at the kids’ projects and then nailing myself to the stool in the front of the room so I wouldn’t slump and fall off.

That day was everything I’d imagined. When my former teachers, most of whom were still working there, saw me wandering down the corridor looking blankly serious and carrying a clipboard and attendance book, their reactions ranged from stunned alarm to wild glee. The worst example of wild glee was Mrs. Carr, the woman my friends and I had spent four years referring to as “Goody Carr,” after the short story _Young Goodman Brown_ that all 9th graders in the USA were forced to read. Mrs. Carr and I had never gotten along, not just because of the way in which I’d refused to do any of my homework in 9th grade honors English but also because of the way I used to toss imaginary objects to friends on the other side of the room all the time during 11th grade honors English. When the poor woman saw the guy who’d made two years of her life total hell wandering in to substitute teach, it’s no wonder she came right up to me and told me that she hoped the kids made my life a living hell.

Unfortunately, the hot little number in the math department whom I’d spent the best years of my life fantasizing about (along with every other boy in the class — it was no coincidence that the boys averaged a half a grade point lower in her classes than the girls) was not one of the people who indicated that they were pleased to see me there. In fact, when I wandered by the math department to say Hi and see what her reaction was, it was evident that she had to think for a second to remember who I was. You’d think that she’d remember the guy who never did his trigonometry or calculus homework and who consistently had the lowest grades in the entire class, but apparently she’d succeeded in banishing those ugly memories. It was depressing.

The kids mostly were well-behaved. All of the classes that day that I “taught” involved an awful lot of beating-up-on involving some defenseless lumps of clay. I didn’t detect an awful lot of artistic talent, but then again, I was doing well to have a pulse by the time lunchtime came around. I never came close to falling asleep … gallons of black coffee saw to that, but I was about as fried as anyone other than a long-haul trucker running on benzedrine and Waylon Jennings could possibly be.

For some reason, I got asked for the hall pass a lot that day. Apparently the restrooms at Blacksburg High School were a lot more fun than I’d remembered them to be; the kids practically kept a revolving door going all morning going to and coming from the john.

I guess it’s no wonder that, early that afternoon, when I saw one bored kid staring vacantly off into space instead of working on his art project or throwing aluminum paint trays around like Frisbees on the outside patio like all the other kids, I simply walked up to him, handed him the hall pass and said “Have fun.”

The kid looked up at me and then down at the hall pass again and said “Thanks, Mr. Furr,” and hustled toward the door.

I walked back up to the front of the room and sat down on the stool and half-dozed for thirty seconds or so before I realized what I’d done. For all I knew the kid had seized the initiative to hit the bricks and start keying cars in the parking lot or smoking pot in the bathroom (two diversions I remembered spectating at when I was his age) and when he was caught, he’d say “Well, Mr. Furr just gave me this pass and told me to have fun.”

Five minutes later, though, he returned, handed me the pass, thanked me enthusiastically, and went back to his seat, where he remained in fine spirits the rest of the period. I never did figure out what motivated me to just give him the pass unsolicited or why it cheered him up so much to have me do so.

When the day finally ended, I was still relatively alert; I wasn’t feeling the sick nausea of fatigue which I’d expected to be suffering from by that point. In fact, I was still so wired from the seventh cup of coffee and the excitement of getting to substitute teach at BHS that I decided to go check in at my college department rather than going home and going to bed.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, “big mistake.”

I arrived at the Public Administration department at about 3:55 p.m., just in time to find the department head, Dr. Goodsell, going loudly berserk. Our weekly 4 pm roundtable, which that week featured a guy from the Netherlands there to speak about the Dutch public health system, had managed to draw precisely zero students. No one had come to hear the guy speak. Dr. Goodsell was making the rounds of the department grabbing any warm bodies he could find and shoving them into the classroom. I wandered in sleepily, intent on checking my mailbox to see if I had any incoming graded papers or assignments to deal with, and found myself turned rapidly around and frog-marched to a seat at the table right next to the speaker. When the speaker was given the all clear to start a couple of minutes later, the room had six people in it: Dr. Goodsell, the speaker, another one of my professors — Dr. Wamsley, me, and two other graduate students who likewise showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It didn’t help that the speaker addressed us in a nigh-incomprehensible whisper, or that he spoke with all the style and magnetism of Calvin Coolidge, but I was already pretty far gone by the time I took my seat and it just got worse from then on. The caffeine had worn off just about the time I walked through the door and the last thing I needed was to be cooped up for an hour with God’s own gift to boredom giving a lecture on a subject I neither knew anything about nor cared anything about in a stuffy, hot classroom on a very warm day.

I fell asleep for the first time about five minutes into the lecture. Fortunately, I did not snore, slump over, or begin to drool conspicuously. I simply let my eyes close, as if in deep thought, and then found myself being firmly, but surreptitiously elbowed in the side by Dr. Wamsley after a couple of minutes of blissful oblivion. Ten minutes later, it was my turn to return the favor, as Dr. Wamsley nodded off and began a quiet series of whistling snores. He woke me up again around 4:25 and I woke him up again around half past. Then things got really bad, as both of us fell asleep and woke up with a start that the speaker, off in his own little world, actually noticed. Dr. Goodsell was staring holes right through the both of us but there was nothing we could do. When the speaker finally wound up around 5:10 p.m., the two of us hadn’t heard more than a third of what he’d said and remembered even less.

I stumbled, groggy and dazed, out of the room, slapped my face with cold water a couple of times, and made it home less by actual driving than by some form of instinctive homing sense which told my insensible form what turns to take.

It was the end of a very long day.

Unfortunately, I was never again called for substitute teaching. I didn’t submit my paperwork for the next school year because I was off in Vinton, Virginia by that time doing my master’s internship with the town government, and they kind of expected me to be at work each day. Nonetheless, I’ll always remember my three days of substitute teaching — and pray I never have to do anything like that again.

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2 Responses to Substitute Teaching

    • Jay Furr says:

      Yeah, I think the American educational system should indeed be glad I never subbed again. I *definitely* didn’t have the temperament to handle middle schoolers and high schoolers.

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