A little R-E-S-P-E-C-T please

March 12, 2004, midnight | By Sherri Geng | 16 years, 10 months ago

Substitute teachers struggle with discipline in the classroom

A wad of notebook paper flies through the air as newly-assigned substitute Megan Webb enters the room to begin eighth period. Webb, an aspiring teacher fresh out of college, is met with cool stares from her class of freshmen, who ignore her as just another of the rotating batch of stand-ins for their real teacher.

When Webb was asked to be a long-term substitute for Carole Tomayko's freshmen English classes two years ago, she was unprepared for what would await her. Each day became a struggle to regain control, she says. She was lied to, teased, offended, verbally attacked, blatantly ignored and even driven to tears.

Two years later, Webb sits in her office in the English Department and laughs about her month-long stint as a sub. "When you're new, the kids know," she says, amused. "It was really bad. Overwhelming." Now a full-time English teacher at Blair, Webb is fully appreciating the perks of her regular position.

Each day, about five million students walk into 274,000 classrooms nationwide and find a substitute teacher, according to the National Substitute Teachers Alliance (NSTA). The Substitute Teaching Institute of Utah State University reports that the average student will also spend the equivalent of one full year with a substitute teacher between entering kindergarten and graduating high school. For a significant portion of Blazers, who view subs as little more than babysitters, most of this time will be spent subjecting the substitute to abuse and creating a disrespectful, unreceptive and ultimately damaging classroom environment.

Taking advantage of Mr. or Ms. Temporary

Substitute teaching is a profession that has never enjoyed much respect from students, explains Dorothy Hearn, the Maryland Representative of the NSTA and a professional substitute for 20 years. Hearn sees disrespect as an inevitable consequence of replacing the authority of a regular teacher with the temporary status of a substitute. "The older the kids are," she explains, "the more they understand, ‘Hey, I don't know if the sub knows what's going on, so let's see what we can do to have a little excitement.' "

Rachel Hardy, a regular substitute at Blair for over 20 years, has seen her fair share of substitute exploitation for the sake of "excitement." As a young teacher, she subbed for a group of students who hid classroom materials and constantly bickered while Hardy was speaking. One boy in particular "just kept pounding and pounding" away at her patience, Hardy recalls. "I was ready to kill him, but it wasn't legal," she says.

Often, one student's misbehavior is enough to disrupt an entire class. In one of Webb's morning classes, a freshman girl began shouting obscenities when Webb asked her to stop using inappropriate language. "She started screaming, ‘[Expletive] you, you [expletive]!' " Webb recalls. "I'd never been talked to like that. When I got back to the office, I started crying."

With one of junior Mark Adams' substitutes, he and his friends hid a remote-controlled fart machine in the classroom and set it off randomly throughout the period. To the delight of many students, the substitute was forced to waste class time looking for the origin of the disturbance.
Other pranks that students will often try to pull include changing seats, swapping names, being exceptionally tardy, lying about school policies or bringing in friends who are not enrolled in the class.

Others students feel slighted by disruptions like these, which hamper the progress of the class. "It's a problem, because sometimes when we have subs, people are making jokes and we can never learn anything," says junior Beverly Omari. "Subs are only doing their jobs. You should treat the sub the same way you would treat a regular teacher."

Unbridled disrespect can result in a lack of progress when substitutes must devote more energy to controlling the students than to teaching the class, according to NSTA President Shirley Kirsten. "Of course the students wouldn't be receptive to learning," says Kirsten. "If they're out of control, how can they learn?"

Taking the beating

While Adams acknowledges that substitutes have an extremely difficult job, he feels no obligation to give respect to subs he feels are unqualified to teach the class. MCPS regulations stipulate that a substitute must have at least a bachelor's degree in college to qualify for a position. But for many students, a substitute's temporary status is still an automatic weakness, irrespective of background or training. "I don't intend to make their lives horrible," Adams explains. "Subs are just too easy to mess with; they're only going to be here for a while. There's no permanent effect."

Substitutes are aware of this mentality among students and Webb knows the difference in the effectiveness between a regular teacher and a substitute. "From day one, I can set the tone in my classes," she explains. "But if a sub walks into a room, it's, ‘Who's standing there today?'"

Young substitutes with relatively less experience are also more prone to harassment than substitutes who are regulars. In addition to adapting to the policies of a particular classroom, new subs must learn the ropes of the school system and familiarize themselves with codes unique to Blair. "It's a little more awkward when you just start," admits Colin O'Brien, a new substitute in the Social Studies department. "Students could say, ‘We don't need a pass,' or ‘No, class ends now—the bells aren't working."

In extreme situations, Hardy says, many subs must call for back-up to keep students under control. "If I find myself going out of control," she says, "frankly, that's when I hit security."

Despite the unglamorous pay and the lack of respect, many substitute teachers are content with their decision to sub instead of teach. "We want to work with children and help teachers who are in need," says Hearn.

Other teachers like Webb have tried their hands at subbing but vow staunchly never to sub professionally again. "Oh, heck no," Webb declares, shaking her head. "The beating every day… I admire subs, because I couldn't do it."

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Sherri Geng. Sherri Geng is a senior in the Magnet and SUPER excited for what promises to be another excellent year of Silver Chips! She has insane love for chocolate, sleep, funny people, and her big fat lovable dog Teddy, who is the smartest and most perfect … More »

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