I’ve got a puzzle for you: Who’s paid barely enough to keep her cable TV from getting disconnected, required to be available on a moment’s notice, sometimes rudely disrespected on the job, and receives no employee benefits whatsoever? Did you guess a substitute teacher? With the coveted job perks I just mentioned, you’d have to be desperate—or independently wealthy—to sign on.
As a high school teacher for eight years, I got a whopping three personal days of leave each school year. Granted, I got a reasonable amount of sick leave, but several years I didn’t use any. If I hadn’t succumbed to shingles one New Year’s Day, I’d be able to count my eight-year sick day total on one hand. It turns out there’s a down side to being so healthy. Oh, I did sometimes get a winter cold, but when you’re actually sick and not just sick and tired, who feels like writing up elaborate lesson plans for a sub to ignore? It was easier to take a couple of DayQuil, throw a six-pack of Kleenex Plus in my bag, and drag my runny nose to school. At least my students would get exposed to some genuine science along with the cold virus one of them had most likely given me in the first place.
I’m not even close to being independently wealthy, so I guess there’s only one plausible reason I signed on as a substitute teacher a couple of months ago. Or maybe I’m hoping to get my foot in the door with a school district whose employee roster is as difficult to break into as Alcatraz was to break out of. Time will tell if this was a smart move; it has at least proven educational—always a plus in my book.
This isn’t my first stint as a substitute teacher. I subbed a little when my children were young and ended up in my daughter’s first grade classroom a couple of times. She was very excited to have me in her class and proudly announced to everyone, “that’s my Mom!” Her classmates were suitably impressed; it was really rather endearing.
My second experience with subbing came just after we moved to Tulsa in 1989, and I hadn’t found permanent employment yet. I thought I’d make a little money while I was waiting for a medical laboratory position to pan out by signing up to sub in a couple of area school districts. It was a short-lived endeavor, as I did find work pretty quickly. I only took one sub assignment, one half day for the math teacher at a local school for pregnant and parenting teen girls. Eighteen years later, I was hired there as a certified science teacher.
I’ve spent several days in the past month in STEM classrooms, mostly for pre-engineering classes, although I’ve also filled in for biomedical and adult dental assisting teachers. I’m not sure it’s fair to compare my current service to the poor subs who pinch hit for me in the past and for whom I suddenly have the greatest empathy. The students chosen for the programs I’m working with now are highly motivated and aware that they can be dismissed from the program if they don’t keep up. That alone is refreshing. My former students, on the other hand, were rarely this committed (and did I mention they were pregnant or parenting girls? Oh, the drama!), and most were about as interested in biology as I am in whose baby daddy was seen riding the Tilt-a-Whirl with whose cousin at the Tulsa State Fair.
In this new subbing adventure of mine, it’s been fun to see students engaged in science projects and excited to explain to me what they’re working on. It’s restored my faith in the competence of future generations. Don’t get me wrong. I sincerely loved my former students, but I was subject to some serious discouragement at their inability to share my enthusiasm for energy pyramids and organization of human body systems. Reproductive systems aside, of course. Those, they were engrossed in.
Who knows if substitute teaching will lead to anything more permanent down the road for me. It’s been a positive experience for the most part, and I’m learning what it’s like to work with groups of students who are enjoying doing science, something I also love. I’m gaining a new respect for substitute teachers who walk into a new situation every day, not knowing what is expected of them or how they’ll be received by the students they’re charged with managing. Even if subbing doesn’t lead to a new position with a gold-plated pension and my own classroom with a life-sized dissectible torso (I can dream, can’t I?), I’m learning that kids can still get excited about science.
I guess my reasons for being a sub are not such a puzzle after all.