The recruiter for the agency that's hired me to substitute teach in local charter schools warns me that the other participants in the training I'm to attend will be inexperienced. I sign in at the big Woodland Hills office complex and am issued a name tag and sent to a big conference room. There are about fifteen of us. With the exception of a woman whom I will refer to as Stacy, who is either close to me in age or has had a hard life, the other perspective subs are in their twenties. Colored markers and paper are passed out. We are to make five drawings. The first is to represent a saying that is meaningful, the second is to portray our own unique gift to the world, the third is a symbol that would best represent us, the fourth is to illustrate our retirement plans and finally, we are to make a picture of how we spend our spare time.
My petulance is equal to the groups' enthusiasm. I can't draw (or sing.) I don't get the point of illustrating a meaningful adage or asking anyone younger than myself about retirement plans but I get it that he's showing us that some sort of creative, introspective activity might distract a class for a few minutes from terrorizing a sub. My colleagues however are into it and most go on at length describing their artwork. I note that, except for one very loud and weird guy who I can't imagine lasting for more than a minute in a high school class, whose saying is in German, most of the quotes are derived from Dr. Seuss and Disney films. I riff on William Golding and say that as a citizen of the world I am an optimist and by virtue of having a brain I am a pessimist. I am many years removed from Cat in the Hat and Disney princesses. For my gift to the world, I draw a smiling picture of myself. Instead of going on about running a bible camp for handicapped children I simply state that I'm chill, which counterproductive towards my aim of just getting the damn thing over with, elicits a big laugh. My symbol of an apron for my mom-ishness also amuses. This is an easy crowd.
Even more odious than sharing, for the next project we are divided into groups and given an article to read. Our article describes setting up an efficient classroom. It is not really germane to a day to day sub except for the over arching notion that order prevents chaos. We are assigned to create a poster to represent the article. I am grouped with Stacy and two very young girls. Two large shopping bags are under Stacy's desk. She exudes body odor and foul breath. Her blouse is short enough to reveal a stretch marked gut stuffed into safety pinned jeans. When I say “kids” she corrects me. “students!” The facilitator gives me a nod when I reiterate what is expected of us for the poster thing. Stacy has her own agenda though and grabs the Sharpies. She starts in on the poster, disregarding the instructions. The two young girls are passive and unless their miens magically transform it will take thirty seconds for thirty kids to induce barrels of tears. Stacy is determined to spell out RESPECT and have each letter represent something that the article stressed. The article is actually about collecting lunch money and organizing a cloak room but Stacy soldiers on. The C gets “cooperation” but then she changes it to “control.” T gets “time management.” S is for “schedule.” P is for “patience.” The R is for respect and I just let it slide, not giving a rat's ass about the doubling of respect. Stacy still hasn't figured out either of the Es when time is called. The other two girls beg me to make the presentation to the group and I do a Bartleby the Scrivener “I would prefer not to.” Stacy is chosen by default and blathers on, revealing that she's already working in classrooms, until the facilitator cuts her off to move on a task even more repugnant than sharing our drawings or working in a group. We are to role play.
The only solace is that I am not grouped this time with Stacy. I am elected immediately to play the teacher. Having stood my ground on the poster and not wanting to seem totally bad assed, I agree. We are to demonstrate an example of how to diffuse a potentially volatile classroom situation. My group decides that our scenario should consist of a student ,who as been sent to the office for disciplinary reasons, returning to the classroom. I don't feel particularly genius for figuring out that whatever was happening that led to the kid, er, student, to be deported wasn't working. I suggest that the returning student be presented with a choice of alternative activities to occupy him or herself. I simply smile and offer up a magazine, crossword puzzle or computer time and I am that bastard child of Einstein and Gandhi.
Stacy's group opts for a teacher trying to get the attention of two girls engaged in gossip. Playing one of the girls, Stacy is dead on, ignoring the teacher and going on about a boy in the cafeteria. Her depiction of a teenage girl, body language and all, is flawless. Unfortunately, the girl playing the teacher doesn't stand a chance and again, the facilitator has to step in. Too bad. It is a captivating performance.
A number of the young ones will last only a few days as a sub and others will figure it out. I assume that some of my fellows will become full time teachers. The German speaking guy however is so obnoxious I rather enjoy thinking about his inevitable Lord of the Flies outcome. Most of the potential subs are around the same age I was when I began to teach. I didn't even have a five hour training session like this one but eventually I made it work. Even Stacy, if she does an hour of improv will likely survive. The preparation course demonstrates a few ways to keep a class occupied and quite helpfully, provides some practical suggests for avoiding bedlam. I suspect that a lot of the practical instruction will serve adequately until instinct kicks in.
The agency is private and for profit but lacks the efficiency I'd expect from a real business. I've submitted all of the required documents but I continue to receive e-mails indicating that they aren't on file. My references, I am notified have not responded to e-mail but according to my references they've yet to be contacted. Eventually I assume they'll get it together and I'll be called to sub one or two days a week.
LAUSD is another story. I was told back in early December that I'd be processed. I leave a number of messages for the assistant principal who's made the offer and my calls aren't returned. I discover that I've been offered a regular evening job at a different school but they've forgotten to notify me. An hour is spent with the school secretary trying to arrange my processing. Everything is done by telephone, not e-mail. Finally she reaches someone who indicates the woman who processes new teachers is “too busy” and that I shouldn't contact her for two weeks. I send her an email. The response is terse. No salutation or signature. Just “call the office.” I make a number of attempts to call. There is no voice mail. Finally I am able to leave a message. My call is returned. The woman is brusque and asks me if I'd completed a physical exam. She is particularly ticked off when I admit that I'd had not idea this was required. When I was originally processed nearly thirty years ago, the physical was performed at LAUSD. Unfortunately, I can't schedule an exam for another week so it might well be months before I'm actually able to teach in an adult classroom.
I have started collecting teaching materials and planning lessons in my head. There's this endorphin rush that kicks in when a class is going well and a feeling of hopeless desperation when it is not. A teacher, after all, is a performer and I look forward to keeping the class engaged and working the room.
The lag time between applying to teach and actually entering a classroom though reminds me of other facets the educational system that I have no patience with. While the sub agency is a private business, I've had indicators that there are some efficiency issues. I'll be working in charter schools, and having been the parent of charter school students my experience has been that administratively they tend not to function as well oiled machines. My biggest concern though is the behemoth LAUSD. After having run a business for decades, the communication breakdown and lack of urgency is maddening. Undoubtedly the decidedly unbusinesslike way of doing things will continue to incense me, but still, I can't wait to shut up and teach.