20 February 2013

The Stand In

I might have anticipated my foray into substitute teaching this week would be the disaster it turned out to be. But I didn't.

Quite the opposite, in fact. My excitement and enthusiasm were so high Sunday night I couldn't sleep. Back in CA, on the nights before sessions with the teenagers of Youth Experiencing Success in Santa Cruz or the Making Waves Academy in Richmond, I never could sleep. My head was filled with ideas for activities the kids would respond to. I was always nervous AND eager.

In retrospect, the differences between those programs and education in MS are apparent. And after almost six months of discovering (and experiencing) stark (and startling) differences between MS and everywhere else I've ever lived, it is curious that I walked into the Substitute Teaching Nightmare so deluded. I really should have known better.

I learned soon after arriving in Holly Springs that substitute teachers for all but the "Christian Academy" are hired through the "educational services" branch of a nationally known independent employment agency (which shall remain nameless in accordance with agreements I signed during their orientation for subs). On the basis of past experience, having worked through this agency before in other cities, the choice to source educators through them seemed rife with potential disadvantages for students and the educational process generally. I had always known the company to excel at record-keeping, marketing and sales, and customer service and to be less impressive as an employer. They were very good at assessing the labor needs of their clients but not very good at cataloging the culture of the work sites they staffed. Skill sets of potential hires were rigorously tested and ranked through a half-day battery of computer-based tests. The face-to-face interview at the end lasted less than 15 minutes.

Given the importance of education in the modern world and the consequently critical role of Teachers, it seemed careless and wrong-headed for this independent temporary employment agency to be entrusted with the selection and placement of teachers.

But what did I know? And besides, there weren't a lot of other earning options in view.

What I encountered during the process to get listed on the substitute roster for Holly Springs was a hybrid creature:  its skeleton familiar to me from past temp work but its muscle and skin distinctly Mississippi/Southern. It took months to apply -- months of virtual inactivity. After submitting resume and application via email (and hitting an interpersonal snag with one of the office staff a week later when I called to confirm they'd received the documents; she assured me they would have let me know if they had not received it...huh? I wondered), I heard nothing more. A month later, I called again to inquire about next steps. The person answering the phone was dismissive:  "We'll get in touch. We're not doing anything til after new year."

Two months later I received an email announcing date, time and location for Orientation and directing me to an online form I was told to complete. "Bring two forms of ID."

Sitting in my car in front of the site a month later, finishing my breakfast and having a final cigarette before the Orientation, I watched the other attendees arriving. A tiny red flag fluttered in my head:  they're all overweight. I didn't analyze the information; just 'marked it'.

There was a homey-ness to the meeting. Most of the other seven participants seemed to either know each other or have a mutual acquaintance. There was a lot of laughter before the training started, sprinkled throughout conversations about weather, food, hairstyles and money. The coziness continued in the formal presentation. Our trainer emphasized and expanded some of her talking points with "real life" stories that felt like gossip as she shared them. Most of the stories were hard to believe, e.g., "Mama walked right into that classroom and slammed a 10-pound bag of potatoes on that teacher's desk and said....."

The video provided by Corporate was happy and sterile; it reminded me of the performances depicting the heroic journeys of pioneer Mormons that I saw in the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center museum in Casper, WY:  everybody so upbeat and and energetic, everything working out so nicely. In the video, a handsome young white guy smiled and strolled down pristine hallways full of happy school children. Between these shots, stills of neat little lists like "The Five Rules of Successful Substitute Teachers" and "Three Things to Always Remember" flashed onto the screen.

We signed lots of forms, a few of them way too long to actually read. Others that seemed redundant to me -- e.g., signing a form that verifies that I read and signed the previous form or signing one form twice, the second signature verifying that I understood what I just signed. I made no comment about any of this. I didn't say a word about the misspelled words and typographic errors in several of the documents. Why say anything?

We were told the final step of the process was fingerprinting and that this would take place later in the week in a different town at 10 a.m. As it happened, that created a schedule conflict for me. I was told the next opportunity would be two weeks later.

Although I definitely had that "four hours of my life I'll never get back" feeling at the end, I was also happy. The weather was beautiful and, having signed a lot forms, there was some sense of progress and accomplishment. (This sense was diminished the next day when the agency telephoned to say they needed my address. Did they mean the same address that appeared on the resume, application, registration form and W-2 I'd left with them in my file less than 24 hours ago? This raised another red flag but I had house guests and we were having a good time. Again, I didn't analyze the flag.)

(For the record, they called a second time that day requesting my home addresses for the last 10 years. I said I'd get back to them. I haven't gotten back to them. I don't know if they're still waiting.)

The following week they called to say there was an unexpected opening at the fingerprinting desk. I was to appear at 8 the next morning at an address in Hernando. On the 50-minute drives to and from this place, I wondered about there being no place closer to get fingerprinted. I wondered how substitute teacher candidates with no car or no money for fuel  would manage this process. But the weather was beautiful. It was a great day to be free and healthy and on my way to a paycheck.

Knowing nothing about any of the schools staffed by the placement service, I signed up for all of them. I was willing to go wherever they sent me. Less than a week after fingerprinting I received my first assignment. I answered the telephone and listened as a disembodied male voice provided the details: 10-day assignment at a high school 25 minutes up the road teaching reading, writing, acting and public speaking. Report to the Main Office at 7 a.m.

I was excited. I posted to FaceBook. I started thinking about what to wear. I rejoiced to have such close alignment between my assignment subject and my professional passion.

The assignment was to begin in two days. Two days to revisit lesson plans from the improvisational theater workshops I'd facilitated in CA in the previous year. Two days to retool and tailor these plans for use with MS teenagers.

The night before, the automated voice called to say my services were no longer needed. I logged on to my page at the agency's website and discovered the 10-day assignment had been reduced to 3. The new assignment started the following Monday, for two days, followed by a return engagement the following week on Thursday. I guessed the permanent teacher's vacation plans had changed.

On Monday morning I reported to the front desk in the Main Office where a beautiful teenage girl sat drinking a Coke and eating a fast-food breakfast sandwich. She glanced at me when I entered and went back to her meal. "Good morning," I offered. "I'm here to substitute for Ms. G_______."  "OK," she responded, wiping her mouth with a well-manicured hand. "My mom's back there. She'll be out in a minute." I stepped away from the desk and wandered around the waiting area for a few minutes, checking out sports trophies and school spirit banners on display. After awhile I took a seat.

A few minutes later a woman dressed in black entered, signed a clipboard on the front counter and sat down beside me. "You here to sub?" she asked. "Yes, I am. First day," I replied. I learned that she had been assigned to "my" classroom for two days the previous week. Coach W_____ entered from a different doorway and instructed the substitutes to follow him. A third woman, who had entered during my conversation with the woman in black, stood and accompanied us.The door opened directly into the cafeteria, a bright, noisy space with high ceilings, full of arriving students. It felt everything in the room -- including tables and chairs -- was milling.

Coach W deposited me in a classroom near the end of one of several hallways leading off of the cafeteria. My first impression was jarring:  the room was freezing cold and it was a mess. A teacher from next door stuck her head in to say hi and ask if I needed anything. "Is there any way to get some heat in here?" I asked. She said she'd call maintenance. Piles of student papers cascaded from the teacher's desk and the utility table beside it. Candy wrappers, textbooks, markers and a few items of clothing littered the floor and some of the desks. A mutilated whiteboard ran the length of one wall, smudged windows dominated another and a third was like a massive scream, tattered construction-paper creations on a variety of themes in taped disarray flapping in the wind current from the furnace blower, now powerfully kicked into service.

I noticed several handwritten notes taped to the door. They were thank-you and miss-you notes from the permanent teacher to her students. A sub from down the hall walked down to welcome me to B_________ High. She said she had subbed for this teacher a few times during the current school year.. I learned two important things during our brief conversation:  first, the name of the class was "Learning Strategies" and, second, the permanent teacher had been on leave since surviving a near-fatal car accident in the first month of the school year.

She helped me look unsuccessfully for rosters for the six classes I was to teach. She said she would contact the office and get them for me. She also informed me there were no lesson plans; either the permanent teacher hadn't left any or they'd been mislaid in the succession of substitutes to share the desk in the intervening 5 months.I asked if the textbooks lying around the room pertained to the course. She assured me they did but said that no one, not even the students, seemed to know which chapter they should be on by now.

I don't have the heart for a detailed rendering of events. Scenes from that day will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.

Some broad-stroke remembrances and impressions I will share:
  • There were 7 attentive, willing students in the first period which began at 7:35 a.m. I was happy to see them, full of energy and ready for adventure. Class size grew with each successive period. The students were less focused, less willing and brought what I'll call more "attitude" as the day passed. Five minutes into the final period I was hoarse, hungry and looking forward to the end of the school day.
  • By their own report, during the brief and infrequent moments of mutual engagement and shared focus that occurred between me and students during the 8 hours I was there, the students are angry about the way administration has managed their instruction since Ms. G_________ left and feel like they've wasted a year. By their behavior, I gather they greatly resent my presence -- not me personally but rather the symbolic presence of the Substitute.
  • I have as much difficulty now with certain personality types of high school culture as I did when I was a student. Examples being girls who work hard at being tough and boys with poor hygiene who make strange jokes. Another unchanged phenomenon: I'm a target. The gauntlet I walked on my way to the teacher's lounge during my "planning period" was vividly similar to countless walks I made down the hallways of New Albany High School over 40 years ago.
  • I assigned the last two classes a writing task as "exit pass". One of the tough girls yelled, "What if we don't write it? You can't make us stay! You can't make me be late for my next class!" "You're right," I answered. "In fact, I can't make you do anything. I can only give the assignment and collect the papers of those who write and leave a report reflecting who complied and who didn't." All her steam with me disappeared. She spent the rest of the hour complaining to her girlfriends in a voice loud enough for me to hear.
  • I was desperately thirsty most of the day. Even after sending a student to the cafeteria in second period to fetch water, I remained excessively thirsty. I am still thirsty, two days later.
  • The students aren't happy with the arrangement -- a seemingly endless parade of substitute teachers.. The subs in question don't like much more and at least two permanent teachers at the school voiced similar dissatisfaction to me. Nobody feels like "it" is working. How make a change..... I see this as one more manifestation of "how dysfunction persists." None of the dissatisfied parties have power or authority on their own to change things. Each individual fears repercussions and will not risk speaking up. United they might stand a chance but they exist within a dysfunctional system. A standard feature of dysfunctional human systems is that the people inside them have limited awareness of or confidence in the power of standing together.. 
  • I wrote a follow-up 'thank you' note to the lead teacher at the Y.E.S. program in Santa Cruz when I got home from school. On the drive home, comparing my experience with a bunch of drug abusing teens in CA with this experience -- small-town/Bible-Belt MS kids, the primary difference seemed to be level of student willingness; a willingness that presents first as potential and is then either nurtured and supported (at Y.E.S.) or neglected in a hundred different ways until it dies (B__________ High and, from what I hear, in most schools across the state).   

I got home and had a drink. Didn't even take off my jacket.

Then I made a shorter second drink and called a friend, a new friend who lives here and taught at Holly Springs High when he first moved to town several years ago (the friend mentioned in the earlier post "The Big Tiny Moment"). That felt good.

Then I got busy on the computer:  revamping lesson plans, switching from a focus on reading/writing/acting/public speaking to a focus on learning strategies; designing a couple of visual/manual teaching aids and printing them off; doing searches on "substitute teaching" and "high school age psychology" and "fillers for teenagers". I was disappointed and angry and hurt and scared and humbled but I would do what I could to have a different experience the next day.

The next day? After a night of deep, restorative sleep (helped a lot by a night rainstorm), I got up, dressed, collected my new lesson plans and went out to discover the car would not start. I called the agency and said I would call them back after AAA showed up.

I didn't call AAA. The car had acted up this way before after heavy rain; I knew that in 30 to 60 minutes the system would reset and the car would start. But I confess I was relieved. I didn't have to go back to the snake pit and I didn't have to lie to get out of going back. The car still wouldn't start 30 minutes later and I called the agency to report it was going to take awhile and they should remove my name from the assignment for that day. Later in the afternoon the car started without a stutter.

In the interim, I logged in to my page at the agency website and unchecked all schools outside Holly Springs in the availability roster. If this is what "school" has become, I can at least limit how early & far I will drive to spend a day with noisy people who did not invite me and who wish I wasn't there.

I haven't decided about next Thursday, the last day of the assignment. I have some curiosity about how the re-engineered lesson plans might work. How the kids might respond. We'll see if my curiosity lives long enough to propel me back to the scene of the crime....