A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 14 2009

My Current Favorite Word and Why Being a Substitute Teacher Sucks

“Froward” is my current favorite word.  Essentially it is a Middle English synonym for “intractable”.  The word is uttered often by the domineering male protagonists in reference to their wives in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” (thanks to the generosity of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, I was able to secure tickets to this season’s penultimate Shakespeare Free For All performance on Friday).

I like the word because hearing it–especially when it is used to describe someone’s behavior–makes me laugh.  As I was watching the play, I couldn’t help but imagine myself using that word in the classroom: “Young scholar, why are you being so froward today?”  Shakespearean “shrews” are like the rowdy students of today’s classrooms in that they both seek to undermine authority.  Clearly, teachers don’t “tame” students.  But, to be honest, I impulsively made the comparison.  There certainly is nothing like a little Shakespeare to stimulate the mind on a Friday evening after a hard day’s work.

But, anyways, getting back to Friday…

Friday was a surreal day.  I reported to the school where I have been temporarily assigned to co-teach with a 2008 CM.  I expected to be eased into the school culture. The principal told me to wait in her office for the two instructional coaches, who would then introduce me to the school.  Instead, ten minutes before the bell rang, the assistant principal walked in and gave me a stack of DC-BAS assessments and told me I was to sub for my co-teacher, who was not in that day.  Beyond the initial shock of this news–I felt like Sasquatch getting buzzed–there were too many other things that made this situation undesirable:

  • Excepting one 2009 CM whom I knew, I knew no one in the building and had been introduced to no one;
  • Excepting the walk from the principal’s office to my co-teacher’s classroom, I had no knowledge of the layout of the school;
  • I had yet to meet my co-teacher and, as a result, had no idea what sort of rules and expectations I could enforce in the classroom;
  • I had no knowledge of how the school ran (e.g. when periods started and ended, which lunch break I had) or what its rules were;
  • I had no idea where the bathroom was (during my lunch break, I circled my floor twice before discovering that there were no open ones on the floor);
  • I was expected to make my way (blind) through three consecutive 80-minute periods.

These factors contributed to an interesting, heart-pounding day, to say the least.  But, there was one additional factor that made Friday difficult: I was a substitute teacher.

Let me be blunt: being a substitute teacher sucks.  To say that students don’t take you seriously is an understatement.  You have no legitimacy.  And even if you are a legitimacy builder, you don’t have enough time to develop it.  The above factors certainly didn’t help.  I couldn’t even feign like I knew what I was doing because I had no context to base my behavior on.  They could see that I was a fish out of water.  And they tested me.

A number of students fed me fake names (e.g. “Hi Mr. K, I’m Chuck.”)  Other students tried to convince me that my co-teacher permitted the use of cell phones and iPods during exams (e.g. “but Mr. K–Mrs. J lets us use them!”).  When I polled the class about this odd policy, most of the students raised their hands.  In a sense, I was exploited.

This got me thinking: how does this occur?  How do students exploit substitute teachers?  In answering this question, I discovered that economics can help a lot.  In economics, there is the idea of an information asymmetry, which basically means that one side has more information than the other and is thus able to use this knowledge differential to exploit the ignorance of others (scientia potentia est, right?).

As an example, a deceitful taxi driver has plenty of opportunities to take advantage of naive passengers by taking them on a 5-mile detour to go 5 blocks away.  There is a conflict of interest (i.e. the incentives are misaligned) between the taxi driver–who wants to make more money by driving a long distance–and the passenger–who wants to get from point A to point B spending the least amount of money.  Well, my students were behind the steering wheel on Friday and they were taking me on a long detour.

This information asymmetry is ultimately what leads me to believe that being a substitute teacher sucks.  A sub has little to no understanding of the context of the classroom in which he is teaching.  Even if the regular teacher leaves a sub binder filled with lesson plans, a substitute teacher still will not know the nuances of how the classroom operates.  Substitute teachers are not familiar with students, which can be harmful in two ways: first, the sub will not know which students to be “on the lookout” for and, second, students will be less likely to place trust with the sub.

I think my economic explanation for why substitute teachers get exploited is a sound one. But are there any other explanations out there for why being a substitute teacher sucks?  I can’t think of any.

The implication of this analysis is simple: in order to help my students close the achievement gap, I will need to close the knowledge gap first.  With the lead teacher back in the classroom on Monday, I feel confident that things will work.
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4 Responses

  1. Xidi Liu

    I am glad that things worked out for you for the school placement, but in the mean time, after reading your blog, I have to say that “you made through your first day as a sub teacher.” Not being able to imagine how tough that must be, I am sure that you have done pretty well, considering all the disadvantages you mentioned. I am sure it sucks for you on day 1 to be a sub teacher. Trust and legitimacy takes time to build up. Remember Polak’s game theory (I am sure you have taken it). Informational asymmetry will have its biggest effect on one time game. But if the game has multiple rounds or is contiguous, the relationship between the players will change. Being a sub teacher does not have the power of future punishment. But once your long term presents is established, things will change big time. So I am eager to follow your D.C. adventure and I am waiting for the next chapter to start for you.

    Good luck, man!!!


  2. Xidi Liu

    Also, sorry that somehow I posted twice (the internet connection sucks in my apartment). Also my English is getting a lot worse and my German is not getting better.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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