Archive for June, 2009


Sam’s Choice

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s— well, it’s probably money.  If there’s two things, it’s money, and a good inspirational teacher movie.  Think Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, even Sister Act 2 had that “if you want to be somebody, you better wake up and pay attention” song, and it inspired the heck out of Lauryn Hill.

There’s a reason these stories are so popular, and it’s because they’re at least somewhat relatable.  We’ve all had a teacher or two in our lifetime that has helped us realize that maybe we’re able to do things we didn’t know we could do, so while we watch Mr. Keating talk about seizing the day, or Mr. Holland beat quarter notes onto the helmet of a well-intentioned but rhythmically challenged football player, we see that teacher who took special interest in us, who made learning geography more like learning real life, or who encouraged us to pursue things that were bigger and better than we thought we could.

But there’s one thing that I promise you you will never find in any inspirational teacher movie, and that’s the inspirational teacher taking a day off.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember any scene from Stand and Deliver where Kimo needs his bi-annual dental check-up, but the only appointment he could get was right in the middle of third period, so he decided he might as well take the whole day off and call in a sub.

There is a reason that scene is omitted, and that’s because generally, it is assumed that nothing inspirational happens when the substitute shows up.  There’s nothing inspirational about math word searches, silent reading, or movie notes on Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Let the inspirational teacher be inspiring, the substitute can… babysit.  The inspirational teacher is Coca-Cola, the sub is Sam’s Choice.

This post is about what it’s like to be Sam’s Choice.

Growing up, going to Fourth of July parties and summer backyard barbecues, I opened a lot of coolers to disappointment.  Nothing takes a party down a notch from absolute perfection like a can of Dr. Thunder.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing terribly bad about Dr. Thunder, and a deep swig of Mountain Lightening can give you just the right jolt to get through that next round of chicken fights, but the message that a two-liter of Sam’s Choice sends is “you’re not getting the full experience.”

This past year, as a substitute teacher in a typical school district north of Denver, I spent most of my time trying to fight that stigma, trying to prove that I could be the full experience.  Substituting, typically, is not taken seriously, in the same way a bartender might not take you seriously if you asked for a rum and Sam’s.  Normally, substituting is something old ladies do because bridge club only meets once a week and their fingers get tired if the only other thing they do is knit.  Because of this, and a number of other reasons, students refuse to accept, respect, or pay much attention to substitute teachers.  For the past year, this was my challenge to overcome.

Quite frankly, the biggest problem is the title.  The term “substitute,” a term which over the course of the past year I came to repudiate, implies inadequacy.  To substitute is to replace with something that is, more often than not, inferior.  “We have a sub today” really means “Don’t worry, it’s not a real teacher.  We’ve got nothing to worry about.”  Which is why over the past school year, I was never a substitute, I was a freelance educator, an alternate teacher.  I would not allow myself to be a substitute.  I’m no Mountain Lightening.

The problem is, convincing the world you aren’t Mountain Lightening when that’s exactly what you’re expected to be is a lofty task.  A note from a teacher like “sixth period can be a handful, but try and get a list of the kids that mouth off, and I’ll deal with them” might as well say, “Hey, Sam’s Choice, I know you can’t handle it, but at least remind them who the real authority figure is, and that should hold them off until tomorrow.”

And I got plenty of those notes.  But thankfully, every once in a while I had the chance to show my stuff, to prove that a little Dr. Thunder doesn’t have to ruin the party, and it can even have its advantages at times.  Students at the school where I did probably 70% of my subbing eventually got to know me, and they started to realize that they couldn’t pull the same stuff with me that they had with other substitute teachers.  I learned that the most powerful word you can use when talking to a student is their name, and I made darn sure to use them.  All of the sudden something as simple as “Auburney, come in and sit down.  You’re already two minutes late for class” held even more power than if it were said by the teacher I was subbing for.  Now not only were they doing something wrong, but I knew who they were, and they had to account for that.  I was still the same person, still a “substitute” in their eyes, but all of the sudden I had power.  The label was gone, now it was just a blind taste test, and without that stigma of “Sam’s Choice,” I was suddenly just as refreshing, just as bubbly, and perhaps even a bit more cost-efficient than that Coca-Cola we all seem to think is far superior.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to removing that stigma.  When people have expectations of you that you don’t meet, no matter the reason, they get upset with you.  When students are used to being able to be late, to sit wherever they want, and to waste time all period listening to iPods when there’s a sub, they start to look at you as the bad guy for not allowing them those luxuries.

And if there’s anything I know from being a high school student myself, it’s that high school students pretty much only consider one perspective, that being their own.  A high school student rarely looks at a substitute and thinks, “the more I’m distracted, the more difficult his job is,”  the high school student thinks, “I should be able to get away with more than this.  This deal is not fair to me.”  And the (sometimes) great thing about high school students is they almost always say what’s on their mind.  And because of that, I have a notebook filled with comments and exchanges that prove this point.  Like this one:

“Omar, I don’t get it.  Why won’t you finish the work that I assigned to you?”

“I shouldn’t have to.”

“Really?  Why not?”

“Because you’re just a sub.  We never do anything when there’s a sub.”

“Well unfortunately for you, Omar, I’m a different kind of sub.  And what that means is yes, you do have to finish your work.  And you can choose to do it now, or you can choose to come back and do it at lunch.  But don’t think that just because I’m not Mr. Fitzgerald that you get a free pass.”

Excuses like “because you’re just a sub” are commonplace, and you can allow them to sting, or you can deal with them head on.  It took me a couple tries, but I learned how to deal with them, and I learned that with some kids, that was going to come with the cost of them not liking you.

“You know what Mr. Graham,” one well-intentioned, good student told me once as he was leaving one afternoon.  “No offense or anything, but I thought you should know: a lot of people think you’re one of the worst teachers here.”

I’m sure I quickly came up with something to say to move him along, but it was difficult for me to hide the emotion that was building inside me.

He called me a teacher.