A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 12 2010

While You Were Out…

while you were out

Taking a day off from work is supposed to be relaxing.  For teachers, however, a day off can create just as much stress as a day on.

Why is this the case? Let me tell you.

Teachers, as people who are, generally, worriers, find it unsettling to leave their students and their classrooms under the care of a substitute teacher, because all number of things can go wrong while the “lead” teacher is absent.  (Note: I don’t blame the substitute teacher in all cases.  I just know it is extremely difficult to hold students accountable with a substitute teacher, who has little prior knowledge of the students and has no real authority. See this for more.)

First, students rarely learn when a teacher is absent. No matter how explicitly you explain the assignments to your students before you leave, or no matter how explicitly you explain the lesson plan to the substitute teacher, students always find an excuse to say they couldn’t do it.  “Where’s your letter assignment?” “I gave it to the sub yesterday!” “He left all collected work in my bin.  I never received yours.” “I swear–he has it!  Ask him! That’s not fair!”  This is not just anecdotal, either.  Teacher absenteeism is damaging to student achievement.  Leave the classroom and learning halts.

Second, the outcome is frequently a destroyed classroom. It’s as if an invisible demon sees an opportunity to infiltrate the classroom in your absence.  You don’t blame your students, you see.  You can’t, because you don’t know whether they are your students or other students in the building who choose to (a) tear posters off the wall, (b) place dozens of mastery chart stickers all over your desk, (c) draw comic renderings of students and teachers, (d) inscript gang shoutouts onto desks, (e) stick gum in spiderweb patterns across all flat surfaces, (f) rearrange the desks so that they resemble a rugby scrum.  Again, you have no hard proof. And no hard proof in the world of education means you have to believe the student’s explanation that a tornado came through your classroom while you were gone.

Third, things go missing. Just as assignments that were supposed to have been turned in go missing, personal belongings go missing.  No matter how hard you clear the room of what a golfer might call “loose impediments,” students find ways to add teachers’ items to their cache of belongings. Even a laptop lock can go missing (it will be useless to whoever took it since s/he doesn’t know the combination).  Always, the demon is to blame.

Fourth, the disaster incidence rate rises. Here is what might welcome you at 7am after a long weekend:

Another burst water pipe in the ceiling, another minor flood, another pile of soggy crumbled ceiling tiles, and the same classroom in shambles. Deja vu, much?  Yes. Much.

Thus, taking a day off from school is not all fun and games. It’s stressful.  You never know what will happen while you are out.


Teachers, then, have to make a careful mental calculation when deciding whether to take a day off. Are the benefits of taking a day off–to catch up on sleep, to finally grade those unit 1 exams, to actually feel for one split second as though you are living a normal life–greater than the risks of leaving your classroom under the care of someone who you don’t know?  Think long and hard, dear people. Your sanity will greatly depend on the decision you make.

Ideally, of course, a teacher wouldn’t have to even consider taking a “mental health day.” Realistically, however, the stress of teaching is great enough such that doing so is not only wise, but even necessary.  Right now, there’s this thing called “October exhaustion” that is rolling around and hitting every teacher I know.

But it happens.  And life moves on.

Teachers: what strange things happened in your classroom while you were out?

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2 Responses

  1. Barb

    I once had my homeroom students pick the lock on my filing cabinet and steal copies of tests, all while the substitute sat quietly at my desk and said nothing.

    Another time, the substitute told the kids to just stay in my room with him instead of going to their other classes, and they would all watch movies all day long. He also sent kids to the computer lab to request power cords for my classroom computers (I had removed them and taken them home to prevent the kids from playing on them in my absence) because he wanted something else for the kids to do if they didn’t want to watch movies. He was drunk, and spilled his coffee all over my desk.

    I also had students who were shouting so loudly with a sub that the principal heard them from two hallways away.

  2. Sadie

    I am a stubstitute teacher and I am always really surprised to hear stories like this. However, it really does happen. I try my hardest to make sure the classroom is as consistent as possible. If you get a good sub keep them! The more I go back the better I know the teacher, classroom, and students.

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

D.C. Region
High School

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