After leaving TFA at the end of the 2007-2008 school year, I chose to remain hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District and become a substitute teacher. Although I had failed to make significant gains with my students as a corps member, I resolved that as a substitute I could at least perform the work of making sure that teachers’ sick days did not mean a loss of learning for the students in their classes. My mission was the same: providing students with an excellent education. The fact that it was for a temporary period with each class meant that if I didn’t do well, I didn’t have to feel too much guilt over it. Given my recent catastrophe of a first year, it seemed like a great fit.
As a substitute, I got to go outside of the confines of my school and see how dozens of schools throughout LAUSD operated. My calling area was South LA, where I had worked as a corps member, but I also occasionally worked in wealthier parts of town if a teacher specifically requested me. I saw well run schools with high morale, out of control schools that seemed to have given up on the students entirely, and others struggling to improve. It made it clear to me how truly different each school can be, even within the same area of the city.
There were good and bad days. Once I got a call from an elementary school that asked me to sub for a second grade class. When I got to school I could find no sign of my students at the morning assembly, and when I asked a teacher she said that they were with the TA and would arrive shortly. I opened up the room, and ten minutes later heard the sound of screams coming from down the hallway. As they got closer I could make out voices:
“Fuck you Ms. Mason…you stupid bitch!”
A group of seven students who looked to be made up of six year old through eleven year old kids stormed in. The TA ran behind them shouting. One of the kids went into passive resistance on the floor, lying across the ground limp, and the TA proceeded to grab him by the ankles and drag him into the hall as he screamed and cursed at her. A fight broke out in another corner of the room that I moved in to break it up, and after about five minutes the room returned to a level of calm. As I took attendance, the boy who had been dragged into the hall said to me,
“This is the ED class.”
I hadn’t heard that acronym before. We didn’t have an ED class at my old school. “What’s that?” I asked.
He looked at me with vicious glee. “You don’t know about the emotionally disturbed class? Oh man, we are gonna have fun with you, mister.”
That was a bad day.
That school had a level of chaos far beyond the one where I had worked as a corps member, and the bad school culture extended beyond the emotionally disturbed class. The playground was a war zone of bullies picking on weaker children, and many opted to stay in their classrooms for their own safety. Once during the two days I spent there, as the TA broke up the third fight of the morning, one of the girls in the class looked at me and said softly, “It’s like this every day. We never learn anything.” It was a truly heartbreaking moment. If this had been my first school, I doubt I would have been able to survive three months, much less a full school year.
However, the great thing about subbing was the range of experiences that it gave me. I had other days that year that shaped my certainty that remaining in teaching was indeed the right choice for me, and made me proud of the job I had chosen. The best moment came in November, when for a period of two weeks I substituted for a fourth grade class several blocks away from my first school. The school had a good ambiance and students seemed happy there. Determined to improve upon my first year, I tried to make those two weeks a microcosm of the kind of year I would have ideally liked to have. I was firm on discipline without being a jerk, and I made a huge effort to make my lessons more understandable and clear than they had been in year one. It paid off, and student disruption was diminished mainly by the fact that they found they could learn something useful from me. The students and I, somehow, enjoyed our time together. I worked particularly hard with one girl during those weeks to help her write an essay. Her first drafts were nearly unreadable, and I stayed after school with her each day to help her improve, until at the end she turned in something readable and coherent. Not great, just coherent; and that was a victory.
When I look back, that was the first time that for an extended period of weeks, I felt like a good teacher and not a crisis manager. I have a ton of quotable lines from my awful day, but very few from that time.
On my last day there the girl who I had stayed with after school to fix up her essay writing came up and hugged me. “I wish you never had to leave,” she said. It wasn’t because I’d been a nice guy or an entertaining place holder for her real teacher; it was because she had learned something from me, and I had the writing sample to prove it. There had been other students like her in my class during my first year, but I was so focused on the negative elements of that year that I never allowed myself to celebrate those small victories. Being in a new environment gave me the clarity to see how much small victories matter.
Subbing ended up being a magnificent experience on many levels. I gained experience with a variety of school environments, which I think enriched me as a teacher. I saw that I could thrive in some places and still collapse in others. I saw that every school, well-run or chaotic, has hard-working teachers struggling every day to achieve the same small victories with their students. Most importantly, I was able to continue the mission that I joined Teach For America to do, but on a smaller scale. At that time, that was exactly what I needed.