While I’m not teaching English at JCC, I will be a substitute teacher time and again, mainly at high schools. It’s actually a pretty nice deal. For the most part, I sub for English teachers. It’s a win-win. The teacher gets a day off, and usually I have time during class to grade papers, or prep for my next college class, or even work on my next book—and I get paid to do so. Granted, the students come first when I’m subbing, but in all honesty, I do have time to work on other projects as I’m watching over them.
Most days are pretty straight forward. I have my assignment the night before. I arrive at the school a half-an-hour before school starts (usually 6:55 AM for high schools), I visit the main office to find out what room I’m teaching in, and then I try to find it; the whole time I’m trying to look like I know where I’m going.
What makes this a challenge is that most of the high schools I sub at have the same design—almost. The main buildings are exactly alike, but some are reversed. And just about every school uses a different numbering system for their classrooms. What might be room 2721 in one school could be 2317 in a different school.
Once I arrive at the classroom, the real fun begins. Teachers are supposed to have clear lesson plans set up for the day, telling me what I should have the students do at any given time. Most of the teachers do an excellent job providing this information, but once in a while I’ll show up and there will be a sticky note on the teacher’s desk with the words, “Sub: show movie to class.” Then I need to figure out which movie and how to play it. That’s when I usually pop into the classroom next door and ask another teacher for help.
95% (or so) of the time, things run smoothly. Then there are days like the one I experienced recently.
When I arrived at the school that morning, I got my assignment from the front office and went up to the third floor where I would be teaching. There are four periods during the day, and the teacher I was subbing for had first period planning. Still, I went to the room to make sure I knew what I was doing for the rest of the day.
The teacher had a nice binder with specific instructions. The only hitch was that there was a single paper of the worksheet. On it was a sticky note which read “make copies.” Because I had arrived early, I headed over to the teacher’s workshop area. The door was locked and no one was inside. No problem. I had time. I could do it during the planning period.
Upon returning to the classroom, there was another teacher there. She looked surprised to see me. I explained who I was, and she became even more perplexed.
“We’re doing PSAT testing today in this room for the first three hours,” she told me. “Go down to room 3228 to find out where you should be for the rest of the day.” No problem. I took the binder the teacher left for me and off I went to 3228.
The room was filled with teachers, each grabbing their testing materials and going off to rooms they didn’t normally teach in. When it was my turn, I explained who I was subbing for. The lady in charge frowned at me. “Subs can’t give the test. Let me check.” She flipped through her notes, and then after finding the information she was looking for, said, “The teacher you are subbing for was not assigned to give out a test. Go to the sub office to see where they need you.” No problem.
I descend the stairs, back to the first floor. When I arrived at the sub office, the sweet lady in charge of subs was a bit freaked out. Two of the other subs hadn’t shown up yet, in addition, she wasn’t sure where to send me because it turns out my second period class would be taking the PSAT, so I didn’t have classes for first or second period. No problem. I brought my laptop with me and I could work on things in the media center. At that moment, the teacher I was filling in for showed up—just briefly. She told me that she forgot to make copies of the worksheet. I have the worksheet with me, so she scooted off and made copies while I waited for the sub coordinator to figure out what to do with me.
Since two of the other subs hadn’t shown, the sub coordinator asked if I would cover one of those classes instead. No problem. She was about to send me to cover In School Suspension when that sub arrived—five minutes before class started. I dodged a bit of a bullet there. That meant I’d be asked to cover for the other missing teacher: a girls’ gym class. Slight problem, since I was wearing a shirt and tie, but I’d manage.
I arrived at the main gym, only to find it locked. On the door was a note telling the students to get dressed and then meet by the small gym. No problem. I pretend I know where the small gym was located, and then found it soon enough. There was another gym teacher standing in the hallway. She was nice enough, and it turned out she was the other gym teacher. Because of testing, they were combining all the gym classes into one big class. She expressed some concern because that was a lot of students in a small area—and it was raining outside, so we had to stay inside. I asked her, “What do you need me to do?” She answered, “Help make sure no one gets into a fight or gets hurt.” No problem.
However, just after the students came out of the dressing room and were headed to the gym, the sub who was missing arrived. I was off the hook. No longer with a class to teach, I headed back to the sub office. She didn’t have anything for me to do at that moment, so I offered to go to the media center and hang out—that way they know where to find me if they needed me. The sub secretary agreed.
It was a great plan, until I arrived at the media center. It was off limits because they were using it to test for the PSAT. The nice lady at the desk suggested I go to the teacher’s workroom instead. No problem.
Before going back up to the third floor, I remembered that the workroom was locked. Instead, I went back to the sub secretary and asked if I could get a key. She graciously supplied me with one.
Back up to the third floor I trekked. At this time, classes had started and so the hallways were quiet. With key in hand, I went to unlock the workroom, only to find that the door was slightly ajar. I entered, picked a seat, and set up my laptop to begin working. In the corner was a vending machine which sold soda. One of the options was Sunkist—a drink I like and hadn’t had in a long time. I dug out a dollar bill from my wallet, put it in the machine. I pressed the button for Sunkist, and a Pepsi came out instead. Uh. No problem. Yeah. No problem.
Five minute later, another nice lady entered the room. “Are you the sub that doesn’t have anything to do at this time?” she asked. I almost told her I had plenty to do, but instead I answered, “That’s me. What can I help you with?”
“We need your help in the other wing. Head over there and find a teacher standing in the hallway. She’ll fill you in.” I replied, “Sure. No problem.”
I packed up my stuff, and headed to find this mysterious teacher. I found her easily enough. “Oh good,” she said. “We’re doing PSAT testing and need someone to be on that side of the hallway to make sure students aren’t leaving the room to cheat.” No problem.
She got me a chair and I placed it next to a power outlet so I could plug in my laptop. It then occurred to me to ask how long we’d be there. The answer? “About three hours.” Three hours? Yeah, ok. No problem.
It wasn’t three hours. After an hour-and-a-half, another lady approached. “We need you to go downstairs to the cafeteria. There’s going to be a sprinkle of students who need to be watched over.”
Unsure how many students made up a “sprinkle,” I packed up my stuff again and headed back downstairs. In the cafeteria there were two sets of students. One was an English IV honors class which had a rather dynamic teacher. The second set were a bunch of students who looked like they would rather be anywhere else in the world aside from school. Without any specific instructions, I told the second set of students, “Ok. You may work on other homework. You may listen to music if you have headphones. You may talk quietly with other students. What you may not do is be a disruption or do anything illegal, immoral, or unethical.” This statement was met with blank stares.
Ninety minutes later, the class was dismissed and I booked it upstairs to the third floor, again, to teach a class that started in five minutes. The students shuffled like zombies—they were the ones who had just taken the PSAT. Class started ten minutes later than it should have because all the testing hadn’t been completed.
For third period, the students were assigned to complete a study guide on Oedipus. The challenge was that this class had “B” lunch—meaning that the class was divided into two sections: half before and half after lunch. In addition, third and fourth periods were already shortened because the test was longer than normal first and second periods. I gave the students the handout and explained what we were doing. Most of them just sat there and stared at the paper, realizing that they were going to lunch in just a few minutes. Lunch arrived about fifteen minutes later, and suddenly the zombies came back to life. The room cleared out quickly as they headed downstairs to the cafeteria.
For half-an-hour I had a moment to relax and eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwich my wife made me that morning.
The students returned, refreshed. I got them refocused on the task of completing the worksheet. I told the students I would not be collecting the worksheet at the end of the day. When one student asked why, I answered, “Bring the worksheets to class tomorrow. If I collect them, some of you will insist to your teacher that you gave me your paper and that I lost them. We’re not playing that game.”
The last period of the day rolled around. The lesson plan was easy: the students were supposed to read a story out of their books and answer questions. The challenge? The story was a section from Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. These freshman students struggled with reading English in general, so Shakespeare was like a foreign language. I spent the rest of the class helping them with the questions and explaining what they were reading. Several of them expressed their gratitude for my help. My response? “No problem.”
At last, the dismissal bell rang. The school day was over. I went to the front office to return the key I borrowed. The sub coordinator asked me, “How was your day?” I smiled at her and answered, “Fantastic.”
She looks relieved. “Oh, good. Testing days can be so tricky.” I wish her a nice day. As I turned to leave, she asked me, “Oh, Mr. Morgan. Are you available next Wednesday?”
I paused for just a moment before responding, “Sure. No problem.”