Excerpt from 'Substitute'


Going to School with A Thousand Kids

By Nicholson Baker

Blue Rider Press

Copyright © 2016 Nicholson Baker
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-399-16098-1



In January of 2014, Regional School Unit 66 — everyone just called it RSU66 — offered an adult-education class at Lasswell High School in Lasswell, Maine, about fifty miles from where I live. It met one evening a week for four weeks. The class was called Substitute Teacher Training. I paid the thirty-four-dollar fee and signed up.

We met in a big white room on a frozen Tuesday night in February. There were eight students sitting at circular tables — a potter, a former seller of artists' supplies, a former nanny, an elementary school teacher recently moved from Boston, a student from the University of New Hampshire, the wife of a firefighter, a recent high school graduate who wore a brown knit cap, and me. Our teacher, Shelly, passed out a packet of information and said she was going to help us build tools and strategies for our substitute-teaching toolbox. (Her name wasn't actually Shelly — I've changed most names, places, and physical descriptions in this book so as not to cause embarrassment or grief.) Everyone who completed the class would receive a certificate and would get paid an extra five dollars per day of substituting, she said. So we would be making seventy dollars a day.

"I don't like to play sage on the stage," Shelly said, but she had a lot to talk about. She'd been an elementary school teacher before moving up to administration, and she spoke in a pleasant, cheerful, sixth-grade-teacher voice. She wore black flare pants and a gray knit sweater. The key to RSU66's approach was "voice and choice," she told us. Students should have a voice in the classroom, and they should and in fact did help to formulate each classroom's unique code of cooperation, using a technique called "power voting," which Shelly taught us. It involved brainstorming in groups of two and the use of many yellow stickers. For the power voting exercise I was paired with the former nanny. She'd recently had open heart surgery: when she sneezed, she winced.

Every classroom's code of cooperation was posted on the wall, Shelly said, and every class also had a series of "learning targets," which conformed to the Common Core standards recently adopted by many states around the country. For example, one ninth-grade learning target for social studies was: "Understands how the interaction of various religions has impacted history." But because students learn at different rates, and because RSU66's test scores, especially in reading, had been coming in too low, the district had adopted a performance-based approach, in which each child could theoretically master different targets at different times. The mission of RSU66, Shelly told us, was as follows: "To lead, to engage, and to inspire a community of respectful learners."

The district needed substitute teachers who genuinely liked kids, Shelly said. "I've had to dismiss a sub for throwing a box of tissues at a child. Not okay." She showed us some videos of the newly reformed elementary reading classes at RSU66, which used proven instructional techniques called the "daily five" and the CAFE method. CAFE stood for "Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency, and Expanded vocabulary," but one of the district's teachers had rearranged it so that it spelled FACE, starting with Fluency. An appealing little girl in the video said the new approach was working for her: "I've never been much good of a reader or speller, and this kind of helps me. If I can understand reading, I can understand words and spelling more better."

Then Shelly taught us how to play a math game called What's My Number? She'd used it on her sixth-graders with great success. Each of us got an index card. One of the would-be substitutes read her card: "I have twenty-four — who has two more?"

There was a silence. I stared down stupidly at my card, which said 26. Suddenly my heart thumped. "I do, I think," I said. "I have twenty-six. Who has ten less?"

Somebody said, "I do. I have sixteen — who has half of me?"

Another pause. An answer. A question. We went around the room doing mental computations, not always correctly. "Anyway, just something fun," said Shelly. She told us we might consider assembling a little canvas bag of puzzles, games, and "motor breaks," for those moments when a classroom was getting fidgety, especially toward the end of the day. "Any questions?"

The man who used to sell artists' supplies asked what time we might get a call from the sub caller.

"If it's middle school or high school, I think she starts calling as early as five or five-thirty in the morning," Shelly said. "Not only does she have to fill every spot, she has to give you time to travel." High school and middle school officially began at seven-thirty. "You don't want to arrive any later than seven o'clock." Elementary school began later, at nine a.m., so we'd need to be there at eight-thirty. There was a need for subs at all grade levels.

She also told us about the mandatory fingerprinting and criminal background check, which cost fifty dollars. We'd need to make an online appointment to be fingerprinted.

At nine o'clock, class was done. "I left for work at six-thirty this morning, so I'll be glad to get home," Shelly said. "Have a good night, everyone." We thanked her and walked out into the icy, gritty wasteland of the parking lot and drove home.

The receptionist at RSU66's fingerprinting office said, "The little boys' room is just down the hall on your left. I'd like you to get your hands nice and soapy and clean, and then take a chair, and Sharon will be with you shortly."

My fingerprinting session went poorly. Sharon, the fingerprint technician, held my hand and helped me roll my fingers over the little glass scanning window, but each time, after a moment of computation, an image of my fingertip would appear on her computer screen with little mauve areas superimposed on it that indicated biometric inadequacies, and then a rectangle would pop up saying REJECTED. After many tries and much sighing Sharon overrode the system and sent my flawed scans off to the identity service, IdentoGO, run by MorphoTrust USA, a subsidiary of Safran, which is a French manufacturer of aerospace components, bombs, and drones. "We'll see what they say," she said. Some people just didn't fingerprint well, apparently. "I had one woman in here, she was a pianist, and she'd worn her fingerprints away. Do you do a lot of typing?" I said I typed all the time. "That's probably it," she said.

On the second Tuesday night, I told Roy, the former seller of artists' supplies, that the idea of being in front of a class of kids frankly scared me.

"They say ex-military make good substitutes," Roy said. We laughed nervously.

"So, we can get started," said Shelly.

She introduced two women, Mrs. Norris, principal of Wallingford Elementary School — one of four elementary schools in the district — and Mrs. Ecklin, RSU66's director of special education. Mrs. Ecklin gave us an overview of some relevant vocabulary. Children who were diagnosed as having some sort of disability were given an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan; a list of IEP students in a class was usually to be found in the sub folder, along with any "accommodations" they were entitled to, such as extra help with taking a test. On the Individualized Education Plan were various codes: LD meant learning disability — for instance, dyslexia — ED meant emotional disability, S&L meant speech and language complications, and OHI stood for "Other Health Impairment," a catchall that included attention deficit disorder, depression, autism, deafness, blindness, and anxiety. "Anxiety is a huge one at the middle school and high school," Mrs. Ecklin said. "It's even trickling down to the elementary school." Kids who'd had cancer treatment were sometimes classed under OHI, because chemotherapy drugs can cause mental problems. "Unfortunately, the law is we have to label them to give them services," she said.

Mrs. Norris, the principal, said, "Never make the assumption — not that you would — that because a child has an identifying label that somehow is indicative of their intellectual capabilities. I'll never forget the child who was identified LD with an IQ of 142. When it came to phonemic awareness, he struggled, but when something was read to him, his capacity to understand it and give it back to you was off the charts. Every child should be treated as though he or she was your daughter, your son, your niece, your nephew, your grandchild — with dignity and respect and empathy. They did not leave their home that morning saying to themselves, 'I'm going to go to school and be as naughty as I can and make the teacher's life as miserable as I can.' I've been doing this for twenty-nine years. I've never met a child who's had that intent. Now, do things get in the way, and cause them to be quite challenging at times?" She laughed. "Yes! But you have to take a step back, and ask yourself what it is that they're lugging. Did they have breakfast that morning? Did someone yell at them? Did someone hit them? Did their brother lock them out? As a substitute, you don't know them and don't know their history, and you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. You have to assume, whatever it is that they're doing, whether it's yelling, screaming, throwing something, calling you a name, that there's a reason behind it that has very little to do with you. The more compassionate and empathetic you are, and the calmer you are, the more success you'll have."

Use humor, not the hammer, Mrs. Norris said. "Humor will defuse and be your friend. And if they say something funny — sometimes they'll say stuff and it's genuinely funny and it's not hurting anybody, it's just funny — it's okay to say, 'Hah, that was a good one.'" Then move on. But don't let chaos spread, she said. You can do a lot with a raised eyebrow, a warning look. "That's the biggest mistake subs make — they give kids too much rope."

Mrs. Ecklin said, "I've been in special ed for thirty years and it's the really naughty ones I really like."

Mrs. Norris said, "We both like quirky, naughty children. We love them. Kids know if you're pretending to like them or if you really like them. If you do really like kids and you show it, they'll eat out of your hand." Show that you're vulnerable, she advised. Apologize to a student for getting off on the wrong foot, even if the student was being a holy terror. "There will be days when you'll think, Okay, I wonder if Walmart needs a greeter. But you always come back. It's probably the most rewarding job you're ever going to do. Especially when kids get it and they tell you at the end of the day, 'I love you.' You might be the only person who says something nice to them — the only person who cares about them — all day long. Unfortunately that's the case for some of our kids. So do your best to make their day a really good day, no matter how they make your life miserable."

After some words of wisdom about fire drills and lockdown procedures and proper clothing, Shelly wrapped up the class and we went home.

On the third Tuesday, Shelly introduced three friendly, snappily dressed guidance counselors who were there to talk about Lasswell Middle School. The middle school had two floors, we learned, and it held sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders divided into nine teams, each with ninety students. The teams were named for great rivers of the world, Nile, Orinoco, Yangtze, Mississippi, Rhine, and so on.

The guidance counselors went into detail about emergency lockdown procedures and iPads — every student was issued an iPad — and class schedules. There was a certain block of time called STAR, which stood for "Students and Teachers Achieving Results," which seemed to involve silent reading. Substitute teachers deserved the same level of respect that everyone else at the school received, said the guidance counselors. Students must dress and act appropriately — no spaghetti straps, no short shorts, no T-shirts with references to tobacco or alcohol, no hugging, no kissing. No cellphones in class. We were to separate students who were being excessively chatty, they said. If a particular student was causing trouble, we should first try to "redirect" him or her, and if they continued to act up, then call the office. "When you call, you could say, 'I've tried to redirect so-and-so several times and they're not following directions and they're being disruptal.'" The guidance counselor paused, puzzled. "Disruptful?"

"Disruptive," Shelly suggested.

"Disruptive, thank you! I was an English major, which is scary."

We broke into groups and did some role-playing about how to deal with excessive chattiness and then I got very sleepy. I was on the verge of nodding off when I heard Shelly say, "Thank you again for coming," and the class was over.

I drove home thinking that as soon as you sit down in a class, even a class you're looking forward to, you begin to want it to be over. Even if you're really interested in what's going on — and I was interested in this substitute training class — t here's an intense impatience to be done. I marveled that children were asked to sit in classes all day long. Such brightly lit classes, too.

A woman from IdentoGO called to set up a second fingerprinting appointment. I apologized to her for having hard-to-scan fingers. "It happens to a lot of people," she said. "Usually it's poor ridge quality, or oily fingertips." She said that if I failed three times, then they would just perform a "name check" on me — nothing to worry about.

I drove back to the fingerprinting office and washed my hands carefully twice. Again most of my fingerprints were rejected.

"See you again, maybe," I said.

"I hope not," said the fingerprint woman.

* * *

On the last day of substitute class, Shelly put out bowls of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups at each table for us to eat. Mr. Clapper, a beefy man with a coach's raspy, commanding voice, was there with two of his senior staff — he called them "ladies"— to tell us how Lasswell High School worked. Mr. Clapper had taught health and physical education for twenty years, he said, and he'd coached the Lasswell football team, and then he became assistant principal and still coached the football team, and now he was Lasswell's principal. "We have a shortage of substitutes," he said, "and a large part of that is because some of our subs are snowbirds. They are someplace warm right now, as opposed to being available." He talked about Lasswell's class schedule. "Our blocks are roughly fifty-seven minutes long, and the students have six minutes to pass in between classes. Lunch happens in three segments, so some of our blocks are broken in two with lunch in between. And then we have one full block at the end of the day."

One of Mr. Clapper's guidance counselors passed around a sample folder of sub plans. "You'll get a roster that you mark off for attendance," she said. "You send one of those nice, trustworthy students right down to the office to bring it down for you." She smiled. "They'll be back very quickly, I'm sure."

The sub plans would include IEPs and health concerns, the guidance counselor said. "If one of our students has seizures, that might be something you would need to know." Substitute teachers really had to pay attention to the bell schedule, she added. "Kids will work on you. They'll say, 'We want to leave for lunch early, we're starving.' They'll badger you. Don't let them do that. They're great kids and you'll enjoy them, but they are teenagers, and they may try to pull one over on you." Every high school student had an iPad, and iPads were for class work, not for games or social networks. Cellphones should not be out in class — they could be used between classes. "We want to keep hands off of kids," she added, "not grabbing them, or putting a hand on their shoulder, or touching them in any way, shape, or form."

Mr. Clapper talked at length about lockdown procedures and fire drills. "We've been throwing curveballs," he said. For instance, they recently did a fire drill within a lockdown drill. Another time they sent a decoy class through the halls to lure students and teachers into thinking the lockdown was over, when it wasn't.


Excerpted from Substitute by Nicholson Baker. Copyright © 2016 Nicholson Baker. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press.
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