October 11, 2012

When The Teacher’s Away… What Happens During The Day?

How many questions do you ask your child about their school day that consists of more than “do you have any homework,” or “how was your day?” Sometimes there are other questions that don’t seem obvious that you might want to get answers to.

I try not to go to the dark place of my profession but I see this more as a way to educate parents about an often-overlooked issue: substitute teachers. Do you really know who is minding the classroom when your child’s teacher is out? Take this as a cautionary hypothetical, not as reason to panic.

My supervisor planned a department-wide collaboration for a school day. We were staying in the building to work together on lesson plans and curriculum, but would need subs for our classes. We requested certain favorites but, of course, they’re always booked up weeks in advance. Our requests were filled by the substitute pool, awarded to the first person who accepts the job when called by the automated phone system. The great thing about being in the building when a random sub is in your room is that you can pop in and check on things. Usually.

I checked in with him during my conference period early in the day and we had a conversation about my directions, my expectations, and answered some of his questions about permanent employment. He seemed like he had some snap and someone who was a bit above average from our typical substitute. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I returned the next day I, as per usual, asked the kids how things went. I was already kind of pissed because the guy had managed to handle only one of the five items on my bulleted list of instructions, but I like to hear from the kids as well. I fill out sub reports on all my substitutes and the students’ reactions and impressions are part of the evaluation on the form. I was shocked and disgusted when I heard the stories.

During a test, one girl was talking. She wouldn’t give her name (yeah, she’s a pain in the ass kid), so he decided the way to handle that was to grab her by the wrist and drag her back behind my desk to question her. It’s common sense to just look at the name on her test but, no, this guy put his hands on my student.

Another girl said he was running his hands through her hair, asking how long it took to braid it like that. She told him to stop touching her and he said, “Damn. I was just asking.”

Another girl said that, after asking a question about the test, he started rubbing her back and calling her ‘baby.’ She told him to stop touching her and he said, “It’s okay, baby…I was just trying to help you with your assignment…”

None of these students volunteered this information; it was always another student in the class that mentioned it and, eventually, the victim would admit it and several students would tell the story to give me a complete picture.

My blood pressure shot so high that I literally saw spots.

Where the fuck do they get these people? I thought. I know our district requires a bachelor’s degree or 60 hours of college credit. I know they require background checks and two business references. I know they are required to take a district orientation as well as a substitute training session. That seems pretty adequate to me. I started reviewing other nearby districts’ policies on hiring substitutes and found that they’re all pretty similar in requirements.

So how did this happen and, more importantly, how often does it happen?

I asked my students. Sometimes we have to have off-topic, honest, one-on-one sit-downs to get some things cleared up. By and large, they say that they never report it unless asked because it’s “just one class period.” They feel as if they won’t see the substitute again so what’s the point? How many times did a teacher tell you when you were in school to “be good for the sub” and “do what they tell you?” Same idea.

I expect the utmost in professionalism from my substitutes. I fill out honest, accurate sub reports. The truth is that, just like every other profession, there are bad apples and straight-up criminals. But remember: a criminal is only filtered out if they’ve been caught at some point. Sex offenders aren’t registered unless they’ve been nabbed. Substitutes who abuse, intimidate, or treat students badly will not get fired unless someone says something.

Not every teacher will ask the students for their impression. Like every other aspect of your child’s education, you need to ask your kid about their substitutes. It may only be one day, but if anything happens in that one day to make your child feel uncomfortable, you need to know about it, as does the school. Check your school district’s website to see what information they have about hiring substitutes. Just inform yourself and ask your kid so you know what’s going on.

I complain about my students incessantly. One thing I will say, however, is that I will always protect them against a threat. I will stand up for them and be their voices when I feel that they’ve been mistreated by someone they should be able to trust. I made it my personal mission to get that bastard fired. If your child’s teacher isn’t the one to do the same, make sure it’s you.

Image Credit: Blend Images / Shutterstock

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