To Bro, With Disregard: Substitute Teaching in the New World

To Bro, With Disregard: Substitute Teaching in the New World

By Don Hall

Churning up the Way Back Machine, I recall seeing the Sidney Poitier film To Sir, With Love in seventh grade at an assemble. It was 1979 and I loved it. The tale of a black teacher suddenly thrust into an all-white high school of British juvenile delinquents was both moving and had a great theme song.

Jumping forward to the '90s, I was my own version of Poitier, teaching music to young Chicagoans on the West Side. If one was interested in that experience, one could certainly purchase a copy of Strippers, Guns, and The Holocaust Museum: OR: How I Survived My Time as a Chicago Public School Music Teacher available on Amazon.

After a solid 12 years out of the public school teaching workforce, I'm infrequently back to substitute teaching for charter schools. Once or twice a week, balanced by events work, Literate Ape work, podcasting and pretending to be a reporter on Chicago Med. Not because I have any interest in rejoining the profession but because I got the damn degree and freelance work sometimes leaves some down time. Gotta make a few bucks while you can, amirite?

The experience has been eye-opening to say the very least. In that 12 years, there have been some extraordinary developments that have almost completely changed the very nature of students, public school classrooms and the job. Mind you, substituting for the lower grades is almost exactly the same in most schools. I spent a day as the music teacher for grades 1-8 and it was an absolute joy.

High school kids? Not the same. When observing the brilliance of high school students working to change the world while, at the same time, reading about their classmates eating Tide Pods and filming themselves getting punched in the nuts, squaring the circle is a more complicated process. This is not to say that kids are no longer kids but to indicate that today's kids have tools and attitudes that even Sidney would find overwhelming.

One of the things I've been doing during breaks from the kids is jotting down random thoughts about things that happen during the day:

High School:

Some classes are like being assaulted.

Disregard so concrete that the students completely ignore my presence.

Interestingly, raising my voice has almost no effect whatsoever. If anything, the louder I get, the more attitude is thrown at me. I'm rarely called by my name (which is fine.) However, most of the kids call me "Bro." Mostly my response is "That's MR. Bro, please and thank you."

The question is how do I do this without simply ignoring them as well?

Ultimately, the most important thing I can do is keep my sense of humor. I’m not here to teach but to keep order with no tools or authority whatsoever.

I’m assigned a charter high school on the Southside. 

“Good morning, everyone. Everyone have a seat, please.”

Thirty sophomores continue to talk and play with their phones and basically ignore me.

“Everyone have a seat, please.”

I know if I raise my voice even slightly I will have at least one loudly indignant child divert things by arguing about me raising my voice. So I keep it steady.

“Everyone have a seat, please.”
“Everyone have a seat, please.”
“Everyone have a seat, please.”

Most of them have managed to avoid the frequency of my voice as if I am a dog whistle and they are impervious.

“Everyone have a seat, please.”

I detach for a moment and decide that, as an experiment, I will continue to stand there and say this phrase until they sit down or the hour is over. I say it 12 times before a smallish girl screams "CAN'T YOU HEAR HIM? SIT DOWN!"

And they sit. I look at her and smile. "You wanna be my sidekick today? That was amazing."

She grins from ear to ear.

“You gonna call the police? Why? BECAUSE I’M BLACK?!”

“Because I’ve asked you to take a seat until someone can come from the office to walk you to where you’re supposed to be,” I answer, gripping the door handle frame to prevent the student’s exit.

“BLACK LIVES MATTER!” he screams as if I’ve violated his rights.

“YOU’RE RIGHT, THEY DO!” I bellow thinking my volume might dissuade him from further pulling at me, a boy almost twice my size, wrestling me to get out and away.

I’m wrong. He continues to push and wrestle, almost lifting me off my feet to get out of the room. I can’t quite reach the button to call the office so we are at an impasse.

Three girls, at least ten minutes late for the class (or perhaps they ditched another class when they heard there was a sub in Room 211) force the door open from the other side and he charges like a linebacker, knocking me aside, and runs down the hallway.

And I realize that the only way to get through this day — a day when eleven teachers called in sick on a Friday with only eight subs in the building to cover resulting in a low-grade, incredibly loud chaos — is to simply not care.

Earlier, I saw one of the eight subs leave in tears. Another just up and split after second period. At least I care enough to stick it out.

I know people who would think that calling the police and having the kid arrested for assaulting a substitute was the right call. Not me. These kids have enough horseshit to deal with and I’m just not that kind of asshole. I'm an asshole, just not that kind.

So I sit for the next 45 minutes. The kids in the room go from quiet because of the altercation to less concerned to not giving a shit.

One girl calls across the room. “Hey, SUB!”

I get up, walk over to her, “Yeah, STUDENT?”

She laughs. “You must get paid a lot to teach at THIS school,” she says.

“Nope. Not a lot.” I reply.

Reading the above, one might wonder what could possibly bring me back. I could easily avoid the upper grades and just be the fun substitute for the seventh grade and have a ball. But that feels a bit like conceding to the failure.

At this point, it's the challenge. Each day of high school subbing is similar in that it feels like I'm surrounded by people who have such a casual disdain for my existence that it pummels my self-esteem. In this scenario, I am even less than the sum of my physical parts. I am He Who Must Be Beaten In Order To Run Amok. I spend eight hours with a dozen Lydia Lucio's calling me a motherfucker and to get out of their way and to quit pretending to be what I'm not, I'm exhausted — not out of physical exertion but rather from the almost non-stop adjustment of my rage management.

I used to be damned good at this. Time to re-learn the ropes, get my chops back in shape. And, in an almost sociological experiment, learn more about humanity from these young humans.

I can tell you a few things as I engage this:

  • Public education in America is failing not because of Betsy DeVos or guns or lack of money but because of smartphones. Imagine if every kid in school had a video game strapped like a feed bag around their neck with a permanent battery and unlimited access to games and movies and constant contact with their peers. What possible hope could one expect that any of them would learn to read or do math?

I asked a few regular teachers about the fact that even they do not enforce the bizarre school rule against smartphones in class. Why don't you just ban them from the building? "The parents insist they have them," is the standard response. In fact, in the suburbs, it has been made illegal to take students' phones away.

  • The last goddamn thing teachers should have in the classroom is a weapon. Not a gun, not a taser, nothing. Trust me on this — the hardest part of this temp gig is wrestling with the anger of looking into the eyes of a kid calling you "motherfucker" over and over. Most, if there was a weapon on their hip, would not use it to defend these kids but to exact power — just like the police do. Any teacher who denies this is a liar or terrified of the consequences of admitting it.
  • I saw it happening when I was a full-time Poitier but it’s worse now. The distrust of teachers and authority in general combined with the helicoptering of parenting skills has created a stew of children who know that there is no consequence to any of their actions. I’m certainly not advocating corporal punishment — we can all be happy the days of a teacher hitting a student with a board or a ruler are long gone from public education. That said, there is almost no form of consequence in place, leaving teachers to be more afraid of getting canned than the students have of hurling a chair across the room in a fit. 

It’s poor preparation for a world of brutal policing, unemployment and Donald Trump as the leader of the (not so) Free World. We piss and moan about tone policing but mouthing off to a 25-year old in a uniform and a loaded pistol is pretty much always going to work out badly. 

On the other hand...

None of this is the fault of the kids. None of it. Poverty, underfunded schools with crumbling infrastructure in neighborhoods that have been neglected by the City for decades, the media drumbeat that these kids don’t matter (at least not as much as those white kids on the cover of TIME magazine) all contribute. Add to that the reality that graduating high school means almost nothing considering that college is abortively expensive and that, even if one manages to pay for it, unless you know someone important, there is little chance this education will result in meaningful employment.

This is all going to bite us in the ass. We are failing our children on so many levels that it isn’t any wonder that they’re angry and are going to swarm us like zombies and eat our dim-bulb brains while SnapChatting it the whole time. We have left them to fend for themselves and that negligence has bred a generation of people so independently disdaining of authority, the world is no longer theirs to inherit but to burn down and create a new one from the rubble and ash. So what if some of them eat laundry detergent as a way to get YouTube hits? Some of them organized one of the largest mass protests since the late '60s.

And the next time someone tells you they are a teacher, walk them over to a local tavern and buy them a Long Island Iced Tea. Trust me. They’ve earned it.

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