Monthly Archives: October 2011

JOURNEY INTO PURGATORY

PURGATORY (N): “Derived through Anglo-Norman and Old French from the Latin word purgatorium. Term can refer also to a wide range of historical and modern conceptions of postmortem suffering short of everlasting damnation and is used, in a non-specific sense, to mean any place or condition of suffering or torment, especially one that is temporary.”

“Temporary suffering or torment?” That about sums up substitute teaching. Ha ha.

Up until about 10 years ago, districts usually hired their own subs. Since then, there’s been an increase of partnerships between private companies and public school systems. These companies handle certain aspects of staffing for public schools. A lot of districts in Michigan now get their substitutes from a company I’ll call “The Service Group of Educated Professionals (SGEP).”

Back in 2006, I worked for SGEP as a sub for one year. At the time, SGEP was a small company that only operated in a handful of counties in lower Michigan. The application process was pretty simple: background check + photocopy of ID + photocopy of teaching license + orientation meeting = sub jobs.

This time around, the process was way more complicated. SGEP now serves about 80% of the state. As the company’s grown, so has the amount of red tape I had to cut through in order to become a sub.

For example, this time around, I had to pass these online training modules about the following topics: STDs in Schools, Bloodborne Pathogens, Food Safety, Allergen Information, First Aid, and Sexual Harassment. Each of these modules was 20-40 soul-sucking minutes of audio accompanied by some of the most boring powerpoint on the face of the Earth. In addition, when SGEP did a background check, a “failure to yield to a stop sign” traffic ticket from 2004 came up on my record. The ticket was no problem for SGEP back in 2006, but it 2011 SGEP was treating this old traffic ticket like I was on the Terror Watch List (thankfully, they were eventually able to look beyond this travesty from my past).

The weird thing about substitute teaching is that nobody actually interviews you for the job. In many ways, your application is an interview. It’s a series of background checks and forms that are designed to weed out undesirable candidates, but there’s nobody at SGEP who sits down one-on-one with you and figures out if you have the right personality for the job.

Which begs the question, what other job doesn’t require an interview? Answer: suicide bomber. Imagine this conversation:

Terrorist Leader: So how did you hear about the job?

Prospective Suicide Bomber: I saw the ad in the paper.

Terrorist Leader: Well, I’m looking over your resume here and we just, ah, we were looking for someone with a little more experience…but we’ll keep your application on file and if anything opens up, we’ll contact you.

Prospective Suicide Bomber: Thanks for your time.

Choosing to be a substitute teacher, I guess, is like being a suicide bomber in that if you’re crazy enough to do it, nobody is going to stop you.

Ridiculous, right? What’s almost as ridiculous is the orientation meeting I had to go to recently. Back in 2006, the orientation meeting was a short affair on a Saturday morning that lasted about an hour. The orientation I went to three weeks ago was much more painful.

As a rule, the bigger a company grows, the more inefficient it becomes. SGEP is no exception. The meeting was scheduled for a Monday afternoon at 1pm. Right after lunch is a terrible time for a meeting. I’m unemployed. What else do I have going on?

The meeting (predictably) doesn’t start on time. I keep myself amused by looking around the room at some of the applicants. There are about 60 of us in this auditorium. Most of them are recent college grads who can’t find teaching jobs (suckers!) but there are a few older people who look like they’re entering the workforce after a hiatus. I see a guy who came to this meeting in a full-on suit. He’s rocking the “grey-wool-pinstripe-single-breasted-suit-with-vest-and-power-tie” look and he seems annoyed that everybody else is in jeans and t-shirts. Maybe he was expecting an interview? (Perhaps he should read the section above about interviews – ha ha.) I also notice a dude who bears striking resemblance to Robert Plant (not “golden-god-circa-1975” Robert Plant, more like “duet- with-Alison-Krauss” Robert Plant).

The meeting starts at 1:32pm when “Molly” the SGEP rep, walks on stage and says, “Before we get started, does anybody have any questions?”

Thus begins the worst orientation meeting ever. Here’s a tip for anybody who has to run a meeting in the future: do not ask that question at the beginning of the meeting. Ever. Because this is what happens: before the words are out of Molly’s mouth, eight hands shoot up in the air.

The first question comes from a woman who appears to be in her late fifties. She asks, “I’ve recently retired. How will substitute teaching affect my pension?” There is an almost audible eye roll from the rest of the room at the relevance of this question. “Molly” and this woman then proceed to carry out a conversation in front of the whole room. After nearly five minutes, the woman comes to the realization that substitute teaching is going to be a waste of her time and leaves. (Cool, more sub jobs for the rest of us!)

SO FINALLY this orientation starts. The SGEP staff pass out folders to us and “Molly” says, “Along the top of the folder, please write your last name, then your first name.” Almost immediately somebody says, “I need another folder.”

I had a soda with lunch (which I rarely drink), and by this point the caffeine really starts kick in and I get fidgety. “Molly’s” voice is slightly shrill and her voice is straining to fill the auditorium, so it kind of sounds like she’s just yelling at all of us for being here. She starts ripping through her Powerpoint and breezing past slides while saying, “we covered this, we covered that, etc.” To make matters worse, the Powerpoint is visually grueling to look at. It’s got a terrible template background with Arial font. Arial! The default! C’mon “Molly” be a little creative! Try MS Comic Sans to give the presentation a whimsical feeling, or go with Helvetica to bring that air of professionalism, anything but Arial!

During the orientation, “Molly” gives pointers for being a successful sub. She gives out tidbits of information that range from the obvious (“make sure you know where the school is and get there early”) to the practical, (“at the end of the day, ask the secretary if you might be needed tomorrow) to the banal, (“if you think like a child, you’ll be a successful sub”).

The meeting ends with “Molly” explaining that there are a lot of substitute teachers in the workforce right now and that getting a daily sub job is pretty competitive.

Gee, “Molly” thanks for the encouragement. You really know how to run a meeting.

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DAY 1 – I’M BACK IN THE SADDLE, AGAIN!

With all apologies to Aerosmith, indeed I am back in the saddle  – metaphorically speaking of course. I’m back in two ways:

1) This blog is now my 4th attempt at writing something online.

2) Today was my first day back in a classroom since June 22nd, 2011. I’ve spent the last four years of my life teaching English at a high school in the Detroit area. Due to low enrollment, I (along with about 25 other co-workers) was laid off over the summer. After nearly four months of being a stay-at-home dad, I was finally able to land a substitute teaching job in the Lansing area. Yes, Lansing! I had to go all the way to Lansing! To substitute teach! Sons of guns, the Michigan economy is terrible!

Sensing my impending layoff,  I spent the summer applying to teaching jobs all over the state. I interviewed at four different schools and came up bust. This was a bummer (obviously). As the summer came to a close, it became apparent that I would have to substitute teach for the second time in my professional career.

Needless to say, I was quite excited to get back in the classroom today. As I was driving to this single-day assignment, I had the idea of chronicling my adventures as I went from classroom to classroom. For the obvious reasons, I’ve changed the names of the schools, staff, and students that are mentioned.

Today’s assignment was covering for a 6-12th grade Choir teacher who also happens to be a friend from high school. This teacher was taking one of his class periods to a competition at a local university, which meant that I got two prep hours today! Translation: I got paid to sit and read for two hours. He left a selection of movies for each class to watch, which narrows my job strictly to “crowd control.” Basically, I just have to make sure nobody gets hurt and no other teachers complain about the noise. It’s a straightforward gig.

First hour comes in and they decide that they want to watch the 2006 movie “Dreamgirls.” As I’m getting the DVD player set up, a helpful freshman named “Jane” offers to take attendance. As I’m fiddling with the broken TV remote, Jane begins talking to me in a friendly way about the long-concluded TV series, “Lost.” She first asks me if I’m familiar with the show, and I respond in the affirmative. She then launches into her theories about the show, as if fresh episodes were still airing (I suppose that I sounded somewhat like Jane when I was 15 and “discovered” Led Zeppelin in 1996 via classic rock radio). It becomes apparent that Jane is sort of a hapless nerd about the show. Her theories are really complex and she’s referencing stuff that I don’t remember, and then she talks about wanting to write an alternate ending for the show because she was quite unsatisfied with the finale. As I get “Dreamgirls” started Jane says, “This movie sucks so I’m just going to sit in the hall and do homework and listen to Bon Jovi on my iPod, okay?”  I nod and she heads out to the hall.

I take a seat in the back of the class, along with 20 other students and we sit there watching “Dreamgirls.” Various students whisper at an acceptable volume, or check their cell phones, or do homework. It’s a pretty relaxed class and I grab something to read. After about 20 minutes of reading, I become aware of the fact that students are just kind of drifting in and out of the room without telling me. They might be trying to skip, or they might be running to their lockers, or whatever, so I decide to take a seat by the door.

As I’m sitting there, I remember what it feels like to be a teacher and to not have the freedom to use the bathroom whenever you want. Because, if there is one rule about subbing, it is this: NEVER LEAVE THE CLASSROOM. The nicest class will devolve into a scene from “Lord of the Flies” within seconds if you leave that room. So, I’m watching Beyonce belt out some Motown-esque song and I realize that I should not have had that second cup of coffee this morning. Gahhh.

I keep checking the clock and, after a toe-tapping eternity, the hour comes to an end. I dismiss the students and tell them to have a good day. As the last student exits the door, she tells me, “You know, we have bells in this school, right?” and then leaves. I realize that I just let the entire class leave before the bell. Rookie mistake. To my defense, the school I used to work at never had a functioning bell system. I didn’t have to use the bathroom so badly, I probably would have cared a little more.

I get 2nd and 3rd hour to myself and I spend the time reading this book called, “I Hate New Music” by Dave Thompson. It’s an easy read and it’s sort of funny. But, parts of it come across like the old-timer sitting on the porch saying, “Ahh yes, those were the days.”

Fourth hour rolls around and I face my first challenge: thirty five 7th graders. They come into the class revved up from lunch and there are three boys who are taking turns throwing an empty plastic bottle at each other (For those who are not aware, this is typical middle-school behavior from boys). I tell them to stop and they do….for a while. I then seize the bottle and throw it in the trash.

I take attendance through the mindless chatter of the students and we get started. This class, after much debate, decides that they want to watch the Disney animated feature, “The Princess & the Frog.” I put in the DVD and fast-foward through previews for the following direct-to-video releases: “Cinderella II” , “The Hunchback of Notre Dame II”  and, “101 Dalmatians II” (which is not to be confused with “102 Dalmatians” – I am not making these sequels up).

Aside from an isolated paper-throwing incident, the remainder of 4th hour goes off without a hitch. As the students exit and 5th hour begins, it becomes apparent that 5th hour will be the most annoying class of the day (hereafter referred to as “MACOD”).

5th hour is made up of 41 8th graders. In my professional experience, 8th graders are fooled into thinking that they are the coolest people on the face of the earth (a title, by the way, that is held for eternity by Keith Richards). They try to make jokes, get attention, assert their authority, imitate relationships, etc. Anyway, the MACOD is extremely loud and it takes a while for the class to settle down. When I worked as an English teacher, I would rarely shout over a class – and as a sub I do it even less. Instead of raising my voice, I opt to stand in the front and pretend to check my watch. A few students catch on and start shushing each other. When that doesn’t work, a girl named “Elle” makes a big deal of standing up on a chair and yelling, “SHUT UP.” This makes me chuckle because I’ve seen this move in other Jr. High classrooms and I know what’s coming next; the class is silent for 0.43 seconds and then everybody starts talking again. I finally raise my hand and the class is quiet long enough for me to take attendance. I then introduce myself and then ask if anybody has any questions. A girl with stringy blond curls and a red sweatshirt raises her hand and says, “Can I call you Chester?”

“No.” I politely say. “But you can call me ‘Mr. S’ if you’d like.” I then face the MACOD and say, “I’m going to let you choose the film today by voting. When I hold up the DVD, please vote by raising your hand, not by shouting. Understand?”

They all nod. I then hold up the first choice, “Newsies.” Instantly, the room explodes in shouts, “NO!” , “YES!” , “WHAT IS ‘NEWSIES’ ABOUT?” and “CAN WE JUST WATCH HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL?”

I waive my hand and they quiet down. “Hey, vote with your hand, not with your mouth, remember?” And again they all nod. And again, I’m waiting for the next blast of noise from the MACOD. I then raise up the next choice, “The Princess & the Frog,” and again: “NO!” , “THAT’S MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME!” , “YESSS!” and, (I’m not making this up) “CAN I CALL YOU ‘CHESTER’?”

The class and I repeat the ritual one more time for the film, “Oliver” which receives no votes (thus proving that every generation thinks Charles Dickens sucks) so I get ready to sit through the first 45 minutes of “The Princess & the Frog” again. The 8th graders are still quite loud and fidgety. As the film plays, there is the constant din of conversation. I sit along the wall and pretend to read my book as I scan the classroom. I soon notice a small group of kids taking kleenex off the teacher’s desk and make little paper balls, which they then throw at their friends. It’s sort of funny to watch. This group of four or five kids is clearly the ‘cool’ group. I let it go on for maybe a minute and then sneak over and tap the kid who I perceive is the “leader” on the shoulder.

She looks startled and a little ashamed. “Excuse me,” I say in a low, even, unemotional tone, “Would you please stop throwing paper? I’m holding you responsible for cleaning this mess up at the end of the hour.” I make sure to have a neutral expression on my face and she’s having a hard time reading me. She isn’t sure if I’m going to write her name down for the teacher, or if I’m going to send her to detention, or if I’m going to ignore the problem and walk away – and that’s the point. Always leave them guessing. She stoops down to pick up the wadded tissue and I walk back over to a spot along the wall.

As I walk across the class, the girl with the red sweatshirt says, “Can I call you ‘Chester’? You look like a ‘Chester.'” and then she giggles at her own pathetic, Jr. High attempt at making a joke (or anti-joke, if you like Steve Wright and Norm McDonald). I walk over to her and say, “What did I say you could call me?”

“Mr. S” she says.

“Did I say you could call me anything else?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “but you look like a ‘Chester.'”

The really mean part of me takes one look at her stringy curly hair and I start flipping through the mental rolodex of jokes about haircuts that I learned from other students at my previous school. Ultimately, I settle on a joke, but hold back. I mean, I don’t want to make this girl cry. So, I just look at her friend and say, “Is she always like this?” Her friend laughs and shrugs and I walk away.

The whole time, the class is still jabbering at conversation volume and the pseudo-creole jazz soundtrack to “The Princess & the Frog” is only making matters worse. But, thankfully, the hour ends and the MACOD leaves the room to go to their final hour.

6th Hour, like 1st hour, is made up of high school students and they are way more laid-back than the middle school students. However, to my dismay, they vote to watch “The Princess & the Frog” and so I pop it into the DVD player for the 3rd time. Then, the bell rings and I’m out the door. One day down.