Substitutes may not be 'experts,' but there's a lot they can teach

While substituting for a blind music teacher recently, I had a student who himself acted blind. I suspected he was not blind but was merely trying to jerk my chain a little. But I wasn't certain. The students were taking a test, and he requested the test in Braille. In my folder, among the exam papers, was a sheet in Braille - I suspected it was for the regular teacher and not for the student, but again I was not sure.

If you were the substitute, what would you do?

Consider yourself in other scenarios I've had as a substitute teacher at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School (MCNDHS) in New York City. You are trying to teach a lesson when you are drowned out by the singing of "Guantanamera" from the classroom next door. Hearing the chorale through paper-thin walls is endearing. Do you teach over the voices? Or encourage your students to join in?

Taking attendance in a Chinese language class, you struggle with the pronunciations of some of the names. A few of the rowdier students, who no doubt have a better grasp of the names, offer to take over the attendance-taking. Will this responsibility calm them down? Or will they abuse it?

Finally, a typical question for the sub: Is the student who asks to go to the bathroom or an appointment with a counselor telling the truth, or just using an excuse to cut class?

A substitute teacher is thrown into a class armed with a lesson plan from the full-time teacher. The most effective lesson plans, in terms of getting students to work quietly, is a test or an assignment. The substitute learns to have students "hand in" their assignments, whether or not the full-time teacher has asked the sub to do so.

Of course, lesson plans are not always so effective. On my first day as a substitute, I was put in charge of a Spanish language class. The teacher left a note to "Have them work on their Valentines." The students laughed when I wrote their assignment on the board.

Trickier still was an hour-and-forty-minute class in which the students were instructed to read chapters 9 and 10 of Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior." In a crammed classroom, with a substitute teacher, students are not inclined to sit quietly and read for nearly two hours.

In my efforts to create an environment where learning was possible, I first pleaded with the students, then berated them, to quiet down. Having them take turns reading aloud helped. Though the noise level was still high, the students began to police one another.

As a certified sub, I've taught music, Chinese, photography, Spanish, English as a second language, physics, American history, global history, English, and math. My Chinese-language skills are limited at best, but for history, English, and math classes I've been able to contribute original lectures.

A history class was captivated by how supply and demand curves helped to explain the prices of the Tommy Hilfiger jeans they were wearing. An English class was eager to devise metaphors for the school and to add to a list of words that use Latin and Greek roots.

So, if substitutes can contribute to all these classes, why is it that teacher certification in New York (and in 22 other states) requires that the applicant have majored in, or have at least 30 college credits in, the subject he or she intends to teach?

The full-time teachers at MCNDHS are a capable group, and I suspect that several of them, along with many eager and qualified college graduates, would be able, like the sub, to take on classes outside their college major.

Fostering intellectual curiosity at the high school level is not the exclusive domain of someone who is an expert in a given subject. Consider a math teacher, for instance, who pays more attention to the blackboard than to the students.

Making students excited about learning is something an English major could do in a high school math class. The requirement that teachers major in the subjects they intend to teach is actually dissuading eager college graduates from full-time teaching. This is precisely the population that the administrators should be trying hardest to court.

Facing the dilemma of the music student who was acting blind, I went ahead and gave him the sheet with Braille writing. For a moment he fingered the Braille quite convincingly. He then chuckled, gave me back the sheet, and requested the actual test. As a sub, that turned out to be one test I felt I had passed.

Brenn Jones is a certified substitute teacher and editor of Stir the Pot, a newsletter at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School in New York City.

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