Monday, November 2, 2009


“Roll on, deep and dark blue ocean, roll. Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain. Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.” – Lord Byron

Some sub jobs leave me demoralized. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen that often, but it did today. I received the phone call just before 6AM to report to the school I had worked at for a week because the Science teacher had knee surgery. When I was told that I’d be subbing for Technology (i.e.: Computer Lab), I laughed. I was hoping only a warm body would be required because if the students couldn’t log in or had any questions, I wasn’t qualified to assist. In a novel, this thought would’ve been foreboding.

When I entered the office of the school, I checked the mailbox for a schedule or plans, but there were none. Before I left the room, I heard the principal gushing because the new building substitute just arrived for her first day. Great, I guess I’m not getting called for an interview. Trying not to dwell on it, I made my way to the classroom, which I was familiar with from bringing students there during previous sub jobs. It was (of course) locked. I found the secretary, who let me in, but said I’d have to enter through the library for the rest of the day, and would have to let in teachers and students from the locked door all day long.

After the secretary left, I got my bearings. I already knew to check the sign-in sheet to see which periods teachers had reserved. Checking the binder, I noted that only the morning was accounted for. What about the afternoon? I read the letter, which told me to have the students use two programs, but that wouldn’t be for the morning, would it? Teachers normally sign up to do projects. I took the binder to the office to ask the cranky secretary. The secretary sent me to someone whose name sounds like an alphabet letter. Miss Alphabet Letter advised me that she was the wrong person to ask, and that I should speak to the principal about scheduling. You know how it feels when you call customer service to explain a problem, to be transferred and forced to re-explain, only to be transferred again? Many sub days make me feel like that.

Trying not to show any bitterness towards the principal for not responding to my e-mail or calling me for an interview, I explained my dilemma. The principal said she’d report this lack of clarity to the Technology teacher – terrific, now I was a tattletale (Or as students say in Cambridge, “a snitch”). When I asked when I should take lunch, she said that the class listed during my lunch was another mistake. And it turned out that one of the teachers, who would be bringing in students, was also a sub. The principal printed the Technology teacher and sub’s schedules, and then explained that the morning was technically my prep, but I knew that since I didn’t have anything to prep for, I’d help the teachers, if needed. Easy enough.

On the way back to the lab, I realized that the sub was supposed to bring three classes – two of which overlapped with another teacher’s schedule. Obviously, the sub had to get priority, or he’d have to come up with a Plan B (Subs don’t like to have to make a Plan B, even though I seemed to be doing it). I ran up to the other teacher’s room, and explained the situation. He graciously let the substitute take all three periods. As I headed back to the lab, I noticed that the sub was teaching Social Studies. Even though they’d be doing computer-related work for most of the day, it was the principle of it. Why didn’t I get called to teach Social Studies? I reminded myself that the sub line works in mysterious ways.

I arrived back to class, just before students were to arrive. First, I thought all the computers were off, and weren’t responding to me hitting the power button, but they were just in sleep mode. I’m ashamed to admit that my eyes welled with tears at that moment. Should the first thirty-minutes of any person’s day be filled with this much drama and uncertainty? In my defense, it wasn’t a good day of the month for me.

The sub came in, cracking jokes with the boisterous students, who quickly brought the noise to an unacceptable level. I had to keep reminding them, and was tempted to take over, but the sub said to let him know if a student was misbehaving and he’d take care of it. He was in the middle of their desks, which encircled the room, so why couldn’t he notice them first? When he saw that I just walked over and told students to quiet down, he began to take a more active role. Second period, he made the same mistake by being chummy with the students, but this group was rowdier, which quickly forced him to yell in order to gain any authority. I was glad to see that I didn’t have to raise my voice in order to get them to focus and behave – and this sub said he’d worked in schools with metal detectors. Soon he figured out to stop being a buddy, and then the class ran smoothly.

In between classes, I got a call from a teacher asking for the combination for the laptop carts. I looked around, but this information wasn’t left for me, which made sense since if it could be found that easily, anyone could steal the laptops. Feeling like I didn’t know anything about anything, I advised the teacher to check with the person who had checked out the cart. A little while later, I got a visit from a student, asking the same question, and I told him to check in the office (With the cranky secretary).

Third period, five students showed up without the sub – not a good sign. I wouldn’t let them in because, as I told them, “You ran ahead.” When the students tried to log in, most of the computers wouldn't connect to the Internet, which is what they needed to do in order to complete their assignment. I rushed to the office, but everyone was in a meeting, so the new building sub was covering for the secretary, and since it was her first day, she couldn’t help me. In the meantime, I found a number for the high school Technology department, which I knew serviced the district, and left a message. Meanwhile, the sub couldn’t control his group and I had too much to worry about to deal with them. I asked him to bring the students upstairs, but he said they’d been out of control up there and he didn’t have anything for them to do. Find something, I inwardly seethed. While I looked for alternate phone numbers and left messages, half of his class broke into song, so the sub began insulting them:

“You can’t sing,”

“You’re off-key.”

“You can’t dance.”

“Your pants are cheap and full of holes. Get some new ones.”

At that point, I didn’t know whether to be angrier with him or the students. He was on his own. Soon, the sub left with half the students, leaving the second half to trail behind, singing loudly in the hallway.

The Technology department didn’t call back, and by the time I had my group after lunch, the computers were still down. The assistant principal came in because I’d left her a message, so I explained the situation. At least I was able to show that I’d done all that I could, while trying not to appear too panicked. She looked as frustrated as I felt, and as she told the students to use the time to do homework, I doubted she believed they would listen any more than I did. Most of the students didn’t even have homework. I sent my first ever student to the office as a substitute teacher because when the girls were talking, he kept saying, “That’s what she said,” to make everything sound dirty, causing them to screech. I wasn’t putting up with that on top of everything else. Then the room quieted considerably, but only intermittently, since a bulk of students began to play Truth or Dare, which made them periodically laugh-out-loud.

Glad to finally see them go, I hoped that the fifth-grade instructors didn’t exercise their right to utilize “Optional Tech Time”. I tried to call them to let them know of the situation, but neither teacher answered. Luckily, the option was not exercised. Then the assistant principal came back to the room with someone from Technology. Hooray! Though now that seventh-grade was gone, there was hardly anything to celebrate. I was trying not to get a too little, too late feeling about it.

The tech guy couldn’t find out why only seventh-graders seemed to be blocked, thinking that the teacher may have put up a block just for that grade, and said he’d stay until the sixth-graders arrived last period to make sure they could log on, giving me the same feeling of relief as when I’d received in epidural during childbirth. Though some sixth-graders forgot passwords, I was able to give them other options for work (Plan B: science project or homework). We finished the day quietly, like agitated sea waves calming after a storm. And the last e-mail I received that afternoon was from Human Resources, telling me that the, “Building Substitute position has been filled.” At least I was expecting that.

I pride myself on being organized and in control, but as a substitute, many days provide the kind of turmoil that will not allow organization and control. I have to rely on what’s left for me by others, and how quickly and successfully I respond, is perhaps a measure of my organization skills. I can’t control my circumstances, but I can control how quickly and well I adapt to them. At least that’s what I tell myself.

“Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power.” Benjamin Disraeli


  1. Among my friends, we have a game for 'That's what she said.' When someone says it, everyone has to touch their nose and shout out a color. If you shout the same color as someone else, or are last, you lose.