Friday, February 20, 2009

Substitute Teaching

I pause outside the classroom door before entering and take a deep breath. What will this group of students be like? Eager to learn, or resistant to knowledge of any sort? And what sort of substitute teacher are they expecting?

Whatever the answer to that last question, I'm probably not it. I take a certain pride in this knowledge as I stride into the classroom with my shaggy hair and black leather jacket, maintaining an air of nonchalance even as I can almost hear the students thinking, "Wait . . . he's our substitute?"

The couple of minutes before class officially starts are always the most awkward, and so I pretend to be busy looking over my notes while I secretly gauge the energy of the room. The vibe I get is generally positive. Good. I look up, meeting their now expectant gazes, and flash a brief smile as if to say, "No, I'm not the dreary middle-aged guy you were all probably expecting. Cool, huh?"

I take attendance and start talking about the topic of the day, logarithms, all the while monitoring my connection with the class and striving to maintain it. Am I moving too quickly? Too slowly? If I lose them for a minute, it can be difficult to get them back. It's just like being on stage.

Scratch that. It is being on stage.

The class goes well. Of course, a handful of students never take any notes or show any interest whatsoever, but most do. More importantly, I get the impression that at least some of those who do show interest normally don't.

The class ends, the students leave, and I am left in the classroom, alone. I'm really good at this, I think to myself. A tiny but persistent voice somewhere asks, "so why not do this full-time?"

But I know the answer immediately: because experience has taught me all too well that if I were to do this for an extended period of time, removing the word "substitute" from my current designation, then whatever quality it is that makes me a particularly good teacher would fade away, and I would become that very stereotype which I now happily defy. I know that as soon as it ceases to be a role and becomes a defining feature of my existence, a vital part of myself is lost.

In truth, it's easy to be the cool young teacher when you don't have the responsibility of being available to the students having problems, of grading all of the homeworks and tests, and of ultimately failing those students who don't succeed.

And so I leave the classroom and the building, shedding my "math teacher" persona as I walk to my car, knowing that I can call upon it again when necessary.

In the meantime, I have other roles to play.


  1. When we were talking about this the other day, I wasn't thinking of it quite this way— with the idea of the "role" vs. the "reality" being what helps some people to retain their spark and purpose. It makes sense when I think of the few teachers I had who really kept themselves (and us) interested. One was Bonnie Hibbard, whose approach to teaching was riveting and theatrical... and another was Ms. Berkman, the A.P. Euro teacher who came to school dressed as everything from a Russian peasant to a Franciscan Friar to Karl Marx.

    Of course it's more difficult to dress convincingly as a logarithm.

  2. I wasn't either, at least not consciously. That particular theme emerged only through the process of writing this--which, of course, demonstrates why the act of writing is so important.

    And you're right, the nature of mathematics (or at least, the nature of a typical mathematics curriculum) makes continued theatricality particularly difficult to achieve. But if you remind me next October, I'll see about coming up with a logarithmic Halloween costume.

  3. "I know that as soon as it ceases to be a role and becomes a defining feature of my existence, a vital part of myself is lost."

    This right here easily would have made my "best lines" posts I did monthly (for a few months) on TIBU.

  4. Interesting. I hope it's not generally true, though, or at least not especially true for teachers. One of the things I have learned with a grown-up job is that every single one I can think of--even the coolest--involve a lot of repetition and sameness, so it's always a struggle to keep one's interest, if one is the sort of person bored by repetition.

    That aside, I was an adjunct faculty member at a local university. I taught one class and, like you, thought, "I'm good at this and I love it; why not try full time?" I had roughly the same thoughts you did, plus university teaching requires all that PhD and writing and publishing stuff that doesn't interest me. Teaching is hard to do well, like I imagine it is hard to give a great performance every time you do a show that has been running for years or something.

  5. Wow maze. Thanks!

    Ruby, no, I don't think that all teachers share my experience. I suppose there are a couple ideas getting conflated here: one, that theatricality is often an integral part of good teaching; two, that the role of a teacher is somehow a self-denying one. I think the first is true in general while the second is true for me in particular--which is a simply a complicated way of saying that full-time teaching is not for me.

    I will say this, though: at the institution where I taught full-time, relatively few teachers who had been there for more than a few years seemed to like what they were doing. Then again, that may well be true of people in general.

  6. Interesting perspective. So, can you make a living as a substitute teacher? That's the unfortunate reality of the need most of us have for a job - the need to at the very least make ends meet.

    It took me a few years before I was willing to give up the security of an accounting job for the joy of being my own boss and a professional organizer. I wouldn't quit the one until the other could replace the salary.