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Substitute Teaching

August 5, 2014

My niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for the next couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia. I continue this series with a recollection of one of my first encounters as a paid employee of the Philadelphia School System: working as a per diem substitute:

I answered the ringing telephone at 7:15 AM.

“Mr. Gershwin?”

The caller inexplicably converted my name to that of the famed musician, but rather than correct her, I responded.


“We have an assignment for you this morning at Strawberry Mansion Junior High School if you are wiling to travel into North Philadelphia and teach shop”

I had already established that I was willing to teach outside of my areas of certification when I accepted an assignment working with profoundly retarded children and elementary students in District 1. Now I was being asked to accept an assignment in the most dangerous part of the city in a course that was unlikely to enroll high achieving students… but I the additional funds would help and I was open to new experience. Having gone to baseball games at Connie Mack Stadium in that general area I felt secure driving there in my VW beetle. At being over six feet tall and 210 pounds I felt like I could manage a classroom of junior high students.

“OK. What’s the address and who do I report to?”

I learned from experience that substitutes report to different staff members in different schools.

“It’s at 24th and Berks (Note: This may not be the accurate address but it is the general neighborhood). Go to the registrar’s office”.

I found the school on a city map I had and navigated the streets of North Philadelphia to the school. Since I wasn’t a staff member I could not park my car behind the chain link fence that surrounded the school and, unfortunately, like the neighborhoods near Connie Mack Stadium, street parking was at a premium. I eventually found a parking place two blocks from the school and wended my way through broken glass on the sidewalks to the entrance of the school. I was greeted there by a policeman who summoned an NTA (non-teaching assistant) to accompany me to the registrar’s office.

The registrar looked a bit dismayed at who the “people downtown” sent him as a substitute, and walked me to the classroom where another NTA was standing in front of a group of disinterested young men sitting at drawing tables in an otherwise large, nearly empty rectangular room. A bank of windows in the room overlooked the former playground that now served as the faculty parking area and featured three large tables that looked like they could be used for woodworking. The wall opposite the windows had a bank of locked doors where, according the registrar, the tools were kept… but he told me he did not have the keys and also noted that he didn’t think it would be a good idea for me to supervise kids with tools in any case. I didn’t disagree. He also lamented that the absent teacher had not provided any lesson plans and so… instead of working on the projects they presumably had stored in the locked closets or doing an assignment that would advance their understanding of woodworking, the registrar suggested the students could use their back-to-back shop classes for study hall.

The registrar and the NTA then departed, leaving me in charge of roughly 20 students with nothing to do for the next hour and two more groups to oversee for ninety minute chunks later in the day. One of the young men asked to go the lavatory and I looked in vain for some kind of slip to give him. The student reported that their teacher just let them go when they needed to since the bathroom was just down the hall and his classmates concurred. I let him leave the room. Two minutes later another student asked to leave and I told them they could go one-at-a-time and he could go when his classmate returned.

“He ain’t coming back”, one of the students scoffed. “He’s long gone!” His classmates laughed in agreement. I came up with a gambit:

“I’ll let you go and since the bathroom’s right down the hall I’ll stand in the doorway and watch you head down to make sure you don’t do the same thing.”

This seemed to satisfy the student and seemed to show the class that I was not going to let them vanish one-at-a-time. Seizing the opportunity to retain some modicum of order, I continued:

“OK… now get out your homework and use this time to your advantage”

What I neglected to observe was that NONE of the students had textbooks or notebooks, which one of the students quickly pointed out to me. Another of the students then asked if they could pitch pennies. Being at a complete loss for activities to assign, I agreed to this as long as they didn’t gamble and as long as they remained orderly. For the balance of that period a handful of students pitched pennies while another group talked among themselves and a few students slept.

The grapevine at the school was working effectively. The word got out that the shop teacher was absent which meant some students did not show up at all while those who did knew that the substitute would let them pitch pennies.

During the last period one of the young men asked me what kind of car I had and where it was parked. As I left Strawberry Mansion Junior High that afternoon I made two vows that I kept: I would no longer accept woodshop assignments and I would only substitute in District 1.

One consequence of this experience: Throughout my six years as a building level administrator I was VERY vigilant about having emergency lesson plans in place for each and every teacher.



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