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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