After the first period bell rang, I listened to the dull roar of high school students walking through the hallway and into my life. But like all first-time substitute teachers there was an an internal debate of great significance raging inside my head: should I be sitting down or standing up when the students arrive? Sitting down looks weak, I thought. I want to establish my authority. I stood up and folded my arms across my black polo shirt. Now I look too serious. Better to seem relaxed so they don’t think you’re a jerk. I put my hands inside my khaki pockets. Now I’m too relaxed. I let my arms hang naturally at my side. That’s perfect.
There are two high schools in the small New Mexico town I live in. One is for the students who have no trouble making the grade. But I didn’t choose this school. Rather, for my first day as a substitute teacher, I chose the high school for the students who are struggling to make the grade and graduate. These students, some of them being nineteen and twenty years old, are stuck in the cycle of failing grades, taking drugs, going to jail, or getting pregnant.
But I wasn’t a total amateur in the classroom. I taught in the Air Force for two years, where I instructed a six-week course that prepared junior airman to become noncommissioned officers. But when I was reassigned to New Mexico, I resumed my regular job where I fixed computers. But as the months passed, I found my desire to teach didn’t go away.
So I decided to become a substitute teacher. I went down to the school district’s office, filled out the application, and was hired on a month later.
I was excited to to teach again because while working back in my regular job, I always caught myself staring at the clock, wishing the day would end. But I never did that as an instructor. I would look at the clock every morning, and before I knew it, the day was over. I enjoyed this feeling, and wondered if teaching in the civilian world would produce similar results.
I also wondered if I would be able to hack it in a high school classroom, where I no longer had the positional authority that the military so clearly grants you with stripes on your sleeve or bars on your lapel.
But there was only one way for me to find out.
I left my house at six-thirty that morning, and arrived at the school early. The campus was small. A long hallway served as the main thoroughfare. All twelve classrooms, two bathrooms, and the administration offices connected to it.
I checked in with the secretary, and was shown to my classroom at the end of the hallway.
I sat down at the regular teacher’s desk and reviewed the schedule and lesson plans, just like my two-hour training course at the school district had taught me.
There were four periods, each one lasting ninety minutes. First period was government, where I’d be teaching the Bill of Rights. Second and third period were economics, where I’d be administering a quiz. And fourth period was New Mexico state history, where I’d cover topics like the state flower, crop, and tree — all things I knew nothing about.
I skimmed the lesson plans, trying to cram six hours of academics into thirty minutes of studying. I felt like a student all over again.
There was a timid knock on my door. A short, brunette biology teacher in her mid-thirties came by to visit me. It was her first year teaching, and she looked shell shocked. She said it had been an exasperating experience.
I asked for any tidbits of wisdom. “Get used to the f-word, the n-word, the b-word, the s-word, and any other swear word you can think of. And if you get a student that won’t listen, get on the radio and call for help,” she said, as she patted the handheld walkie talkie clipped to her waist. I was thankful for the street smart advice, the advice you don’t get in the training course. She headed back to her classroom two doors down.
The bell rang and it was then that I began debating the merits of sitting down or standing up. But the debate was short lived. The door opened soon thereafter and my first student arrived, a husky caucasian boy with a brown pony tail. There were six round tables in two rows of three that seated twenty-four students in the classroom. Ponytail went to furthest table away from me and sat down in a blue chair, turning his back towards me.
I got the feeling Ponytail had as much interest in learning as I did at his age. And in that moment I wished I was nicer to the all the teachers — both the full-time and substitute ones — when I was in school. If I had only known the anxiety they were feeling.
The rest of the first period students filed in with an air of curiosity, each student giving me an inquisitive glance before sitting at their respective table. A skinny white boy wearing a black hoodie and a flat brimmed Chicago Bulls hat came into the classroom and asked if I was “the sub.” I said I was. He snickered and left without saying anything else.
The bell rang again. First period was underway.
I believe the sub’s introduction is paramount to their success, as it sets the tone for the class. So I started off by telling the students they could call me “Mr. D.” and gave a short history about myself: twelve year Air Force veteran, married for five years, no kids and three dogs. I hoped my military service would slightly impress and slightly intimidate them into listening to me. But it didn’t.
There was a slight hum in the classroom. A few students continued talking, paying me no attention. I raised my voice and added a little military inflection, doing my best drill sergeant impersonation. I stood near the talkative students and maintained eye contact with them.
Surprisingly, it worked and they quieted down. I continued on.
I took roll. I made it a point to apologize beforehand if I butchered any of their names, and asked them to pronounce it correctly. About half the class was absent — only thirteen students were present.
I brought up the Bill of Rights slideshow on the projector screen, but I refused to lecture via death by PowerPoint, even though the slides were slathered with text. So I asked a question: why are the Bill of Right important?
Some students glanced around the room, others looked down at their books, but nobody said a word. I kept quiet. Let ten seconds pass, I thought. If one of them talks it’ll set the tone for the entire period.
A shaggy haired boy sitting next to Ponytail finally broke the silence.
“It’s to protect the rights of Americans from an oppressive government,” Shaggy said.
I enthusiastically agreed. First period took on this rhythm. I lectured about an amendment, and then asked an open ended question. After two or three students responded, I advanced to the next slide.
Towards the end of first period the principal, a man in his fifties with a balding head and a grey and brown beard, watched me from the doorway, his stoic face showing neither approval nor disapproval. He watched me teach a few amendments, but before leaving he gave me a thumbs up and mouthed, “Good job.” My confidence soared, and by the time the lesson was done, both the students and I had loosened up. We spent the end of the period casually conversing.
The bell rang. I wished them all a good day, and walked towards the threshold to watch the hallway, on the lookout for any misbehaving students. The principal headed towards me. He shook my hand.
“Most of the time we get babysitters,” he said. “But you were actually teaching in there. Keep it up.”
His words inflated my ego to unhealthy levels. I tried to keep it in check, but it began to balloon out of control. But if I’d known the students of second period, I’d have checked myself, as opposed to being checked in the classroom. But that’s the most exciting part about subbing, I found. Each period has its own unique problems to solve. And just when you think you’ve found the solutions, the period ends and you have to start all over.
The bell rang. Second period began.
When I went back into the classroom, I knew I was in trouble. Instead of thirteen students, all twenty four chairs were filled. The room overflowed with chatter, each table engaged in a lively conversation. But still brimming with confidence, I started off by giving a relaxed introduction. I made the rookie mistake of trying to establish rapport before cementing authority.
And during my introduction, a heavyset Hispanic girl in tight leopard pants propped her feet up on the table in a clear challenge to my authority. The leopard pants weren’t flattering to her plump body, and it looked like she was spilling out of her clothes. But she did have a nice smile and her dark brown hair was mixed with blonde highlights in the fashionable ombre style.
I asked Leopard Pants to kindly remove her feet. Her smile turned into a pouty face. She rolled her eyes at me and snarled, “How come the real teachers don’t care about this but the fake ones like you do?” Her verbal uppercut stunned me, but she did take her feet off the table. She put them in a friend’s lap with an exaggerated leg kick.
It was then that I turned around and noticed a humongous teenage man child sitting at an adjacent table. He had a full beard that’d make most men jealous and he was talking on his cell phone. I asked him to end the call. He didn’t. I asked him again and he gave me a long stare but hung up the phone, leaving his earbuds in. All this time, the noise level in the class hadn’t dropped a decibel. I tried using that military tone and inflection to wrestle back control, but it didn’t work. I cut my intro short and quickly took roll. I pressed on.
I told the class about the economics quiz and handed it out. I said there needed to be absolute silence, but they didn’t heed this instruction either. Each table conversed like I wasn’t there.
I spent the next thirty minutes going around to each table, reminding them to keep the noise down. I felt like I was playing a losing arcade game of gopher smash, because when one table quieted down, another table piped up. I now understood why the biology teacher kept the walkie talkie clipped to her belt.
It seemed like the class made an unspoken pact not to listen to a word I said. Their strategy worked — power derived from perseverance. The students eventually finished their tests, and I resigned myself to an unspoken truce if they could keep the noise down.
I sat down at my desk and watched over the class, looking more like a prison guard than a high school educator. Second period passed by slowly. It was eleven-thirty when the lunch cart trundled through the hallway — the school was too small to have a cafeteria. The principal came by to cover my room, so I went out to my car for a breather.
I called my wife for advice. I told her about the success of first period and the failure of second period. I questioned my abilities, and entertained a fantasy of abandoning the classroom and driving home.
But my wife reaffirmed me, like a veteran boxing trainer giving advice to their prizefighter in between rounds. She possesses an unemotional, analytical way of evaluating a situation. And once she determines what needs to happen, she tells me the truth, whether it’s good or bad. I can’t remember what she said but it worked. My confidence was restored.
I scarfed down my lunch, used the bathroom for the first time since school started, and rejoined the principal in the classroom. I felt reinvigorated. The third period passing bell rang and second period left the room.
The principal and I stood in the doorway and observed the hallway, looking for any signs of trouble. Something immediately struck me as odd. A group of boys congregated outside the biology teacher’s classroom. They spoke to each other in an electric, excited tone. It reminded me of the buzz in a crowd before the start of a prizefight in Las Vegas. The group continued to swell, and by the time I realized what was happening it was too late. The group of boys stormed the classroom like a SWAT team, and I heard the teacher scream for help. There was a fight underway.
The principal looked at me and in a calm command voice said, “Keep your students in the classroom.” He pushed through the crowd, and went to the teacher’s aid. Moments later, he emerged with a teenage boy, the boy’s face a bloody mess. The school security guards ran into the classroom and restrained the perpetrators. And just as soon as the fight had started, it was over.
When the bell rang again, most of the students were still making their way to class, each of them buzzing with excitement or terror. I was somewhere in the middle, but I went back to class.
It must have been a combination of a smaller group — twelve students — and the after lunch blues, but third period was surprisingly docile. The fight seemed to have no perceivable effect on them as if it was all just business as usual. I took roll and handed out the quizzes. With relative calm pervading I sat down at my desk and thought about what to do for fourth period. There was another slideshow and a mix and match worksheet for the students to complete. I decided the latter would not do. I wanted the students to have fun with New Mexico history, so I came up with a Jeopardy game to play after the slideshow.
When the third period students were done with their quizzes I told them to prepare and present a short speech on what they wanted to do after high school. They finished the presentations with twenty minutes to spare, and I let them do what they wanted with the remaining time. Most of them took out their smartphones. One boy drew on the whiteboard. I was just happy they were behaved.
The bell rang. Third period was over. One more to go.
The students moved through the hallway with no issues, one fight being enough for the day. A girl from my third period class spoke to one of my incoming fourth period students in the doorway.
The fourth period girl asked her friend if I was cool.
“Yeah,” she responded, “he’s alright.”
Fourth period was my favorite class of the day, probably because I would meet a boy who reminded me of myself when I was his age. It also helped that there were only fourteen students, and they were all college aged kids who were graduating in early December.
With this group, I managed to convey the right blend of professional and personable. After roll I told them the energy they brought to class would determine how well the last period went. And they brought it the entire time. We went through the slideshow, and then I had them get into teams for Jeopardy.
There was a chubby boy wearing glasses who sat at the front of the classroom by himself. His cheeks were pockmarked with acne. Any one of the aforementioned factors — chubby, glasses, acne — could make you a social outcast in high school. Having all three made it a guarantee.
Chub didn’t move, hoping that I had the eyesight of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and that if he stayed motionless I would ignore him. I didn’t. I told him to go to the middle table — comprised of the “cool kids” in class — which only had three students. He begrudgingly complied.
But when his team landed on a question that hadn’t been on the slideshow — a daily double at that — it was Chub’s time to shine. The question was: what is the state fossil of New Mexico?
And much to the Cool Kids surprise, Chub knew the answer. Everyone in his group gave him a high five. I asked him how he knew this off the top of his head, and he said he liked reading about dinosaurs.
And to make things even better, when we came to another question that hadn’t been on the slideshow — what is New Mexico’s gemstone? — Chub answered this question, too.
Again there were high fives all around. Chub’s cheeks blushed red with pride.
Fourth period passed by smoothly.
The final bell rang. I thanked them for an awesome period, and when the last student left the room, I sank down in my chair like a boxer after the twelfth round. I was tired, sweaty and exhausted. But I’d done it. My first day as a sub was over. And when I looked at the clock on the wall, I realized the day had flown by, just like it did when I was teaching in the Air Force.
So it was the same, I thought. I could get used to this type of day again.
I made notes for the regular teacher, detailing the behavior of each period. I cleaned up the classroom, turned off the lights and walked out to my car. I felt accomplished.
On the way out I poked my head into the biology teacher’s classroom, but she’d already left for the day.
When I arrived home I thanked my wife again for the lunchtime pep talk. I flopped down on the couch and regaled the day for her. While telling her about third and fourth period, I kept thinking how my first day as a sub resembled a boxing match, each period tantamount to one round in the ring.
Round one was a clear victory for me, scored 10–9 on the judge’s scorecard; round two was a resounding defeat, scored 10–8 in the student’s favor; round three had been a victory, scored 10–9 in my favor; and round four had been a draw, as both the students and I were victorious, an even 10–10. The aggregate of these numbers worked out to an overall draw of 38–38.
And for my first day as a sub, I was happy with a tie.
I soon fell asleep on the couch. It was only five o’clock in the afternoon, but I needed to recoup all of my energy for the following day. I was subbing in a kindergarten class the following morning.