Friday, November 6, 2009

Who Are You Today?

“But the chameleon was very mixed up.

It was a little of this and it was a little of that.”

- Eric Carle, The Mixed-Up Chameleon

By the time I finished showering this morning, I had not received a sub call, so I donned my “civilian” clothing – jeans. After doing my hair, I strolled into the kitchen to prepare my children’s breakfast and lunch bags. In the middle of food preparation, the phone rang: Private Caller. I knew the sub line could call from 5:30AM to 9AM, but if I’m not called by 6AM, it’s rare that I’ll get work. I suspected that one day I’d get a late call because a couple of years back, I worked for a teacher who made a habit of calling in sick at the last minute, causing flustered subs to rush into the office after the first bell rang. Now that I was a sub, I empathized with their predicaments more than ever - I had twenty minutes to get out the door.

The job was for sixth-grade Humanities at my old school. I knew the absent teacher during the six years I had worked in the school, and from time to time we’d discuss Social Studies, because I'd taught fifth-graders she’d get the following year. Two years ago, the school went from Social Studies to Humanities in the middle school, and she adapted. I was excited for a chance to teach Social Studies and Language Arts, and to see my former fifth-grade students.

But I wasn’t excited that I had to rush. I threw together the children’s meals and tossed food in my lunch bag, while my husband was in the shower, unable to help me. Then I rapidly redressed, brushed my teeth, packed my bags with essentials (books and laptop), and ran out the door, barefaced. I entered the school just as the first bell rang, feeling the familiar atmosphere. “Who are you today?” the family liaison asked. Later, the principal saw me in the hallway and smiled. “Who are you today?” Instead of replying that I was still a sub, no thanks to her, I smiled back and said, “Hi,” and gave her the absent teacher’s name. Throughout the day, teachers brightly asked the same question, “Who are you today?” Others would whisper, surprised, “You’re still subbing? You haven’t been able to find a job?” And then I’d say what I’ve said countless times about how there have been few jobs, even fewer Social Studies jobs, bad economy, a lot of competition, no interviews. It sounds hollow. And I feel pathetic.

I knew the day would be professionally easy. I was familiar with the curriculum, the students, the school, and the classroom layout, plus I knew that the teacher would leave me competent plans. But emotionally, I knew having a reunion at my own school, with my former students, would be difficult. The day was a veritable love-fest; upon seeing me, students screeched and hugged me. They felt like authorities as they got to tell the new students how they knew me. My old students asked questions about my life and I got catch up on their lives. It was good to see how they grew and changed over the summer and the last two months of this school year. I missed already having camaraderie with a group, instead on working on creating one.

For Social Studies, during the first two periods, the music teacher came in for a presentation. It was good to see that Humanities and Music were in collaboration, which I had always felt was missing between the classroom teachers and the specialists. During his talk, he asked about the Era of Exploration. My former students shifted their eyes in my direction. “Don’t disappoint me,” I warned. They didn’t. After the music teacher left, students were to write what role music played in their lives, and just like last year, they were well-behaved as they did the assignment.

For Language Arts, periods three and four, the students needed to read, “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, complete a vocabulary sheet, and write a response to the poem. The first class entreated me to read it aloud because as a former student said, “She reads really well.” Perhaps they recalled that they could get me to do almost anything with a compliment. I could see the attraction of teaching Humanities if I could run Social Studies and Language Arts separately. It’s the idea of either teaching them thematically or chronologically, attempting to marry the two subjects into one period, which caused me pause. I enjoyed making the students look up words they didn’t know in the dictionary and helping them to decipher the poem. I was in my element.

The last two classes went smoothly, and I helped in the building sub in the office last period because the secretary has been out sick (Hopefully, its not swine flu). Trying to help a student who came into the office, I made a fabulous impression when I asked the principal where the printer was, because it wasn’t it its normal place, although it was right behind me. The principal didn’t even know that I volunteered to help because she left the building at that moment. My last conversations were with the Building Sub and the Art teacher, who were dumbfounded that I wasn’t getting any offers. When I explained the lack of jobs, she said, "We had four openings here." "But not in Social Studies," I replied, remembering that a Humanities teacher was laid off at the school last spring. One teacher noted that the kids were talking excitedly about me during her class. It seems that all the people who have the most faith in me are powerless to hire me.

If I were able to be honest, I’d say that I don’t know who I am anymore. Today, I got to be a Humanities teacher. As a sub, I feel less like a “real” teacher than I did as an assistant, when I had one school to report to, one classroom to work in, the same students everyday, and subjects that were in my charge. Before looking for a full-time job, I used to think I was a capable teacher. Now I feel like I play the role of teacher (I’m not a real teacher, but I play one on TV). And at this point, I can’t call my time spent writing any more than a hobby or an indulgence. If I were still a teenager in the 1980s, I’d call myself a poser. As the lyrics in the Supertramp song say, “please tell me who I am.”


  1. I empathize completely with this feeling - I taught in one building for two years before getting cut back and onto the sub list ... I know staff and students mean well when they say "you don't have a job yet!?!" but it still feels bad. Either 1) I'm not as competent as they think or 2) I am good,m but the economy really is that bad and jobs may not open up for a long time. I can only hope that things get better for public education!

  2. That's exactly how I feel. I hope administrators in these schools realize that if we can make a difficult class run smoothly, they should snatch us up.
    I remember when the daily sub job was always open in Cambridge, but now with the economy, it rarely posts, and is now filled with people who don't even want to be teachers. I hope things get better for public education too.