The life of a substitute teacher is an interesting one. On any given day, you may be required to walk into a completely foreign school, and command respect the moment you walk through the front gates. This can often be belied by the fact that you have a fruit cup packed in your bag for recess, and often have difficulty finding the front office.
I will usually get a phone call from the lovely agency ladies at around 6:30 AM, where they sound way too perky for everyone, ready to subject you to a day of hormonal teens or anxious seven year olds with decreasing mental resilience. The ladies on the phones often reveal their hand however, firstly offering you the toughest schools that are the hardest to fill with teachers, which any inexperienced newbie may think is his only option and accept, straight off the bat. Ah, but I have been around the block: “Oh yeah, and what would I be covering there?”
“Year Nine PE, all day," she’ll try to sell.
Hard pass. “Okay, what else have you got?”
She’ll inevitably tell me I have a chance to flex my music and performing arts-teaching muscles at a primary school somewhere close, say 50 minutes north of the city. I rarely accept those, either. One of the main reasons I dropped down to being a temp was to save my ears from the rambunctious crowd that floods in through the music room doors, heading straight for the drums. Instead, I’ll take up the offer of a general cover, at one of the other regular high schools with whom I have developed regular relationships, most likely covering a plethora of varying subjects, and therefore a more diverse spectrum of attitudes and banter-levels from the students.
Back to the walking through the front gate: You eventually find the office and the lady is on a quantum headphone set, too busy to talk to you, and rushing to give you the information between phone conversations you have no way of knowing she’s having until she puts up her finger to indicate she’s now switched conversations. She then points you to the daily organiser’s office, who will load you up with a device like a laptop or an iPad, a hard copy roll with student names, timetables, and a school map.
“Staff room and toilet through there," they will hurriedly point in a vague direction. You enter the staff room, to stack your lunch on top of the other Tupperware in the overcrowded and very loud staff room fridge, and it is there that you take in the energy of the regular staff, to discern the quality of student behaviour at the school. Generally, the more rundown and quiet the staff room in the morning, the worse the students are behaved.
Your first class is in 10 minutes time, on the other side of the campus. This involves you walking through crowds of teenagers with far too much energy for this time of day. Young men who are saying, “Hey sir, long time no see!” despite it being your first time at the school. Young women who just happen to find something hilarious as you walk past. The trick here is to not smile or overly-acknowledge any of this, as a raising of the eyebrows as response to a greeting establishes that I am not here for your entertainment. So, period one: Year Seven, humanities. Of course, half of them are late, and the other half have left their books in their locker or forgot their laptop charger, so before you’ve even completed the roll, you have students doing what they want. My play here is to not smile, but remain firm, fast, and polite.
“Please sit down.”
“Don’t interrupt whilst I do the roll.”
“It is not your turn to speak.”
“I’m getting frustrated with your behaviour; if it continues, you are out of here.”
Outline your behavioural expectations, so everyone is on the same page; I usually go for the universal “three strikes, and you’re out” method. I use this time to identify the movers and shakers of the class. You know, the loud group of boys, who like to test even their regular teachers, but also the reliably polite girls, who don’t say much but can be called upon for assistance with class resources or running messages to the office. A sick burn on the loud kid will generally set the tone for rest of class. Don’t fuck with me. I’m faster and smarter than you, and I have the power. If you don’t want to be here, fine, you can leave, but I’ll make a note of the reasons why, and you’ll have to explain that to the higher authorities.
Giving students choice is key when being a substitute teacher. Basic psychology dictates that, when faced with a choice between two options, a person will choose the option that is best for them, so use that. “You can either stay here and work quietly—I’ll even let you listen to music whilst you work—or you can sit in the principal's office."
As the class begins to familiarise itself with the rhythm of their new teacher for the next 50 minutes, they will invariably settle into their work, in between asking personal questions. That same kid who got burned will always ask me if I follow the footy. “Who do you go for sir?”
They list the names, and no matter what team I settle on for that day—I’m fickle, sue me—there will follow resounding groans of disappointment. After they’re satisfied with the smalltalk, my role turns into that more like that of a glorified prison warden. I keep them on task, with whatever menial and half-assed worksheet they’re required to fill in for the lesson. I do this by any means necessary. Walking around the room, making my presence known, cracking a subtle joke here or there, raising my eyebrows in a comical way. It is usually at this point you will catch one of the popular girls trying to be sneaky on her phone, using it under the table with her head looking down at that distinct angle. It is important here to fire a warning shot, let her know you see her doing the wrong thing. Perhaps wait for her to look up, but don’t directly call out the misbehaviour publicly; you will only get resentment, and forever lose them. Instead, a subtle shaking of the head and an eye glance towards the phone is enough, to warn her not to get her phone out again, lest she risk it becoming teacher property for the rest of the lesson.
I say all of this with a tinge of cynicism, not because of the students. Kids are kids, and fuck, I was the class clown, so I get it. No, my overall disenfranchisement with the teaching industry comes from the lack of administrative support, particularly for young teachers trying to foster a love for the arts, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment. There are, in fact, various point throughout any given day where my faith in the future of humanity is briefly restored. Where the veil of trying to look cool whilst hiding all self-esteem issues is lifted, and some genuinely lovely humans come out of the woodwork. Sometimes, students really do care, for each other and for their education. The same kid who is the loud-mouth smart ass will often be the first to stick up for the quieter one being picked on. Or the popular girl, who can really turn up the bitchy dial, can sometimes be the first to offer help to the special needs student in class. We judge these individuals at our own risk, and I need to keep in perspective that they are all unique, and I am only getting a snapshot of who they are, for 50 minutes at a time.
The noise levels will pick up after a chorus of a harmonising “What do we do when we’re done, sir?” fills the room. Here’s where I get to be creative. I can either stop typing this recount to give them more work out of their textbooks, or I can play a game with them. My favourite is where I have two teams try to cross the room at the exact same time in a line, and anyone who falls behind or in front of their group means the whole team goes back to the start. It’s a great time-killer.
The bell goes, and I’m required to walk the several kilometres back across campus to the staff room, not to eat my well-earned reheated stir fry, but to grab that super flattering hi-vis vest, to stand out on an oval and monitor the boys beating the shit out of each other during lunch. Wendy, or Susan, or Margy, usually lumbers out at the five-minutes-past-halfway point of lunch to relieve me, and allows me a generous 10 minutes to chow down my microwaved sustenance.
After lunch, I’m usually sitting in for a technology or woodworking class. “Don’t shoot the messenger," I’ll always say, “but unfortunately, since I am not your regular teacher, we can’t use the power equipment today." One kid will try to continue on with his practical work, despite me literally just explaining the reasons why we can’t. There’s always one. At this point, I’m usually doughy and full of enough carbs to let them get away with not doing the assigned boring theory work, so long as they are quiet about it. I always take this opportunity to ask about the school: what’s going on, what the teachers are like, and if “the wifi is always this trash here," which they love smack-talking. Most students are good at this point. There is a silent agreement that we are all here riding out the clock until we can go home, but there will always ways be one to push the boundaries. My best ploy is to thank those students who are doing the right thing, with an obvious locking of the eyes with that person who is not doing the right thing. It is usually enough to embarrass that student back into line. Student behaviour management is more effective when policed by their peers. Around 3 PM, the afternoon bell goes and students are out the door. One or two thank me for the lesson, but most I’ll probably never see again. Oh well.
After all this, I return the device and keys to the office, thank them for the day, and get in my car to go home, knowing I have to do it all again, somewhere else, tomorrow.