I chose to be a substitute teacher.
When I graduated with a Masters in Teaching my children were still young enough to enjoy their mother’s company at school activities. Subbing gave me the opportunity to volunteer in the classroom, chaperone field trips, and attend assemblies. Besides, I told myself, there will be plenty of time and opportunity for my own classroom in the future.
In 2007 my husband was transferred to Walla Walla, Washington. As I was applying for my Washington teaching license it became apparent that my middle school aged children didn’t want Mommy hanging around their classrooms anymore. So I set about getting that long-awaited classroom.
I quickly found out I had three things working against my dream.
First, Walla Walla is a small town surrounded by even smaller farm towns. And like many small towns people get jobs by being related to the right person or by a reference from somebody that has known you since birth. I’m from Oregon… Strike One.
Next, Washington’s education system accepts teachers with Bachelor’s degrees and pays by education level. I had a Master’s with continuing education credits beyond that. I was near the top of the pay scale without ever having proven myself as a regular classroom teacher. Small school districts just can’t afford that. Strike Two.
Finally, we had moved during the establishment of teaching endorsements; those things that say you are highly qualified to teach a subject. I found that though I had taught long term assignments in English as a Second Language and Special Education, I was not qualified for permanent placement. Therefore, job openings that were plentiful and in need of good teachers were closed to me. Strike Three.
So, I continued subbing.
Let me tell you about life as a sub. There are many stereotypes you fight when you enter the classroom. Thanks to media representation, subs are viewed as incompetent, gullible, and socially awkward by both the students they teach and the regular school staff.
We are often given “make-work” (think worksheets, text book reads, or the ever-present video) to give students. Super dry fare for any grade or subject. The kids know the work assigned will never get in the gradebook so there is no incentive for them to do it. Bored kids play pranks and display other off-task behavior that the sub is expected to deal with in a professional manner.
The regular staff are usually friendly in passing but they hardly ever reach out and invite you to join the table at lunch and if there is a celebration in the staff room you are either not invited or forced to participate on the perimeter as inside jokes, student stories, and curriculum complaints are passed around.
But those of us that make the extra effort to actually teach, not babysit, are rewarded by the requests by teachers to be their “preferred” sub, leading to long term assignments and meaningful work for the students. Sometimes, they trust you enough to actually write lesson plans that fit in with their curriculum.
One of the districts I worked for, Prescott, soon regarded me as their preferred sub. The entire school district consists of one building that houses about 200 students, grades K-12. High school to the left, elementary to the right.
My background in ESL came in handy as most of the students were of Mexican descent and English was their second language. Imagine their surprise when they would say something naughty in in Spanish and I would tell them to keep it clean.
“You speak Spanish?” they would ask.
“Enough,” I would reply.
Then the testing would begin. Not for the students but for me. They would see how much I knew. It would start with a cuss word here or there, spoken when my back was turned. Instead of getting angry, I would laugh and tell them I knew that one and continue with the lesson.
If it got too lewd I would turn and use what they termed, my “Mommy” voice. I would put every ounce of serious tone and meaningful glare into my retort. “You will not use that word in this classroom again.” I would hold their eyes until the smile was off their face. Then, I would break into a laugh and tell the kid he or she wasn’t really in trouble. The result was instant relief for the entire classroom as they laughed and it was if I passed the test. No more cussing — I was the cool teacher.
Naming was a convention I threw to the wayside. I let the kids call me what they wanted as long as they were polite. One high school senior called me Maestra Loma and it stuck as did, Mom. Chewbacca was also one of my favorites.
I started eating with the kids during lunch. High schoolers would see me in the lunch line and invite me to eat with them. I gladly agreed. It was better than having a lonely lunch in the staff room. Elementary kids vied to have a teacher sit at their table. It made them feel special that an adult would join them. If there was no room on the bench they would squeeze tight until I fit. The cooks and para-pros asked why I ate lunch with the kids instead of sitting with the other teachers. I would answer, “Because they ask.” I was once told by one of the cooks that my presence was the only adult attention many of these kids got.
Over the years I listened to teen-age angst, brokered truces, and answered all sorts of questions about life. Students would come to the classroom for extra homework help during lunch, prep hours or after school. Elementary kids would “school” me on my terrible accent and took it as a matter of pride when I listened and did my Spanish “homework.” I taught them songs from my childhood, played trivia games about the videos they watched, and allowed myself to be a target during dodge-ball. They started inviting me to soccer games, quinceneras, and performances.
When I was working almost full time at Prescott, the staff joked that the district should hire me as a permanent sub as I was there every day anyway. However, I was still treated as an outsider in the school hierarchy despite the fact they thought I was a competent teacher.
Years went by with no job offer despite glowing references. Then we had a chance to move back to the Rogue Valley. We would be able to go home and be with our friends and family. It was an answer to our prayers.
My last day at Prescott was also the last day of school. The kids had trickled into the classroom I had been covering throughout the day. During lunch I ate with as many students as possible, rotating from table to table. We sang one of the silly songs I had taught them, high schoolers and kindergartners alike. They wished we well. “Could we be Facebook friends? Can I message you? Will you be back to visit?” And sometimes we cried.
At the end of the school day, two middle school girls came into the classroom. “Aren’t you coming out to the busses, Maestra Loma?”
“No, I don’t think I can. I’ll cry,” I told them.
“Please come, we want to say goodbye.”
I gave in and followed them to the bus ramp. The regular staff were standing in front of the school in a tight group waving half-heartedly, anxious to finish cleaning their classrooms. The girls dragged me past the cluster, straight to the busses.
Suddenly, from each bus excited cries burst forth. Arms of all sizes were reaching towards me. I touched one hand and it gripped mine fiercely. “We love you! Come visit us! I’ll Friend you!” Tears from their eyes were matched by mine.
I walked the length of the busses. They did not pull out until I had said goodbye to each waving student. As the last bus left the ramp, I turned to face the other teachers. They were staring at me with amazement. The principal looked perplexed. I just smiled and signed out for the day.
Those kids took me into their hearts in a way I never expected. I belonged to them. I made a difference to them. I never thought that I would ever have that much impact on someone’s life without my own classroom.
After all, I’m just a sub.