substitute teaching

Ersatz Redux

This morning I took my first phone call from a parent concerned about grades. Am I a teacher yet?

This is my last week in this month-long assignment teaching speech (excuse me, professional communications) to eighth graders and theater arts to sixth graders. One of the days that first week, I came home and told my partner that I could not imagine myself ever teaching middle school full time. Last Friday, we had a conversation about how middle schoolers are some of the most interesting kids to teach. I’ve played around with lesson plans, adjusted pacing, graded many speeches.

I have also heard more terrible jokes about LeBron James than I ever imagined. I have witnessed the awesomely casual powers of destruction wielded by sixth grade boys. I have banished students from the classroom. Over and over again, I have told students to put their phones away and to stay in their seats. I have spent whole 90 minute classes hopping from metaphorical fire to metaphorical fire, trying to put them out before something on the other side of the room got out of control.

I have learned the students’ names.

I have to resist the urge to write that as “I have learned my students’ names.” After a month, they feel like my students. That first week still felt like a sub job. I was leaning on the lesson plans the permanent teacher had left for me. We were watching movies and finishing up projects that had been assigned before I started. By the second week, and certainly by now, that has changed. I’ve been here long enough to assign projects and see them finished. I’ve learned the ins and outs of the various groups of students. The core progression of assignments isn’t mine, but I have a sense of its ebb and flow. I feel like a teacher, not a substitute for one.

I still go home tired, especially because I end my days with 30-plus sixth graders. My voice gets worn out. I have to remind myself that it’s not my kids at home who’ve been testing my limits for 8 hours. My writing has suffered somewhat because I’ve been working so much. Having a job is work (duh).

That’s what I wanted, though. As nice as it is to have time to write, I pretty keenly feel the obligation to work. Related: I keenly feel the obligation to pay bills. Blogging and working on a novel isn’t going to do that. Waking up at 5:15 or 5:30 a.m. is never going to be fun for me, but the last few weeks I’ve been grumbly mostly because I don’t like being up that early…or haven’t gotten enough sleep…or both. I have not been dreading my job like I have at various points since I started in September.

This might not be the perfect job, but it’s one I can do. Sometimes, that’s enough.

…Of course, next week it’s back to catch-as-catch-can subbing. One choice at a time.

Coming Soon: a long-form essay on leaving academia, frantic attempts to play catch-up for CampNaNoWriMo, and sundry awkward pop culture references.


Longterm Ersatz

One decision after another. That’s how it goes.

I’ve just taken a (small) step up in the world of substitute teaching. I have a “long-term” job—it runs most of a month. Substitute teaching is a double ersatz: I’m filling in for the teacher, and the job is filling in for…a “real” job. The long term gig is another step along the way, not a destination. Still, it’s a step that comes with some minor perks. Among them:

  • I know where I will be working when I get up in the morning. For a while, I don’t have to refresh the district’s online substitute management page every few minutes starting at 5:15 a.m.
  • I’m teaching at a school that’s on my side of town. It’s still a 25-minute drive in traffic, but it’s short enough that traffic won’t make it too variable unless there are wrecks.
  • I do not have to learn a whole new set of students’ names every day.
  • I get a small bump in pay.

There are other things I appreciate more.

First, and most importantly, I actually get to teach. One of my biggest frustrations with substitute teaching is that my responsibilities are usually limited to handing out worksheets, showing films, or giving tests. Effectively, I’m a babysitter at the “good” schools and a corrections officer at the “bad” schools. (When learning happens at the rougher schools, though, it is incredibly satisfying.) As an aspiring professor, I was in it for the teaching. I like research, but that’s mostly because I like learning. Discovering unknown material and concocting novel theories are cool, but I’m nearly as happy in a quality seminar. Adjuncting was often awful, but there were good moments in the classroom. I still have vivid memories of straining to sing the tenor line in a shape-note unit for non-majors. I like teaching. With the long-term appointment, I get to do that. I have some control over lesson plans. I get to deliver content and respond dynamically to student needs. (And apparently choke on a few buzzwords.)

Second, and related, this becomes a trial run for moving towards certification and full-time secondary teaching. This is closer to doing the job than I usually get, right down to adjusting my teaching plans and schedule for standardized testing. It’s not a perfect simulation: it’s unlikely that I’ll have to deal much with parents, for example. Nobody will be grading me on the grades the students receive on those standardized tests. I have some responsibility for grading, but I’m working within the permanent teacher’s architecture. Same for lesson plans (though he’s encouraged me to adapt the plans he’s left as I see fit). The school I’m at is a “good” one—mildly suburban, mostly middle-income or better. It’s an International Baccalaureate middle school. Basically, it’s a cushy gig that probably wouldn’t resemble my first few years of being a teacher.

If day-to-day subbing is the adjunct situation writ miniature, the long-term sub is more like a visiting assistant position. It’s not precarious, but it’s a long way from stable. At the end of the month, I’ll be back to the grind (or maybe employed outside the school district). Maybe I’ll have made enough of a mark at this school to go on its preferred list for the rest of the year. Who knows? It’s a step, though.

Too Much School, so…Back to School?

Some days come poorly off the mold. Their shape is not symmetrical. The joints don’t fit. They wobble. These are not the “worst” days—those seem to come off the line perfectly shaped to suck. These poorly-formed days just suck life out of you. Minor annoyances and substantive problems scrape against each other without quite coalescing into a proper crisis. You get through them, but that’s usually the best you can manage. They’re not quite bad enough to inspire any feeling of victory when you come out the other side. Today is one of those, grumbly nearly from the get-go.

If you’re keen on integrating the following thoughts into the course of my blog, they go with the loose sequence that begins with “Of Carrots…” and continues with “Get a Job, You Schlub.” It also includes the “Cut” series, though those are more tightly tied to the practice of scholarship. There’s not really anything about writing in it, unless you count wanting to write. (You can imagine that as a subtext through the whole post.) This isn’t a plea for sympathy, just a snapshot from the inside of trying to make a life as a post-academic.

I have been living in Austin for six months. I have been looking for a full-time job pretty much that entire time. I am still looking. I substitute teach three or four days each week, usually a 30-40 minute drive from our apartment. The other weekday is reserved for hunting full-time employment. Often, I don’t know where I’m going to be working until I get up at 5 a.m. to start stalking the district’s online substitute system. (During the day, good jobs are often gone in one or two minutes. That’s particularly tough when you’re actually at a school doing your job.)

It sucks, even without mentioning the conditions when I get to work.

Like adjunct faculty, substitute teachers are not eligible for benefits…nor are they eligible for unemployment insurance. Pay is low. I make more on a real per-hour basis than I did adjuncting (where my hourly rate was based solely on the time I spent in the classroom). Oh, and my PhD? It entitles me to exactly the same daily rate as any completed four-year degree. It’s still not a living wage, and I still don’t feel “employed.” It’s certainly not a career, and it’s more supplement than support for my family.

Long-term job searches are draining as hell. The last time I had a job that I “chose” was in September of 2012. I’ve been “on the market” since then, although I did not do any serious job-hunting between finishing my oh-fer on academic applications in April and moving to Texas in August. I’ve been lucky in that my partner eventually found work, and that we had some savings. Things have gotten tight, but never quite desperate.

The problem is that looking at job listings gets a little more like staring into the abyss every week. Human resources people and departments at the kind of companies that list jobs on-line are as indentured to formulae as university search committees. Miss a keyword or have the wrong job title and you go straight to the circular file, no matter how qualified you are. The more rejections I get, the harder it is for me to look at a listing and think “I can do that” rather than “there is no way in hell I could even get an interview.”

There have been studies on this stuff , and reports. They don’t offer much positive.

My doctorate is an unhappy limiting factor. I have the option of leaving a seven-year gap in my resume or owning up to my years in academe. Mostly, I just have to hope that the relevant people read my cover letter and that I can sell them there. For entry-level positions, I seem overqualified and likely to jump ship when some imaginary university comes calling. Jobs beyond entry-level tend to require specific work experience that graduate school failed to provide, even if I otherwise have sufficient knowledge and skills. HR filters are not set to account for these things. My post-relocation network is also thin—another obstacle to getting the all-important foot in the door.

The upshot of all this is that I have too much education to get a job…no matter how many times I’m in a school and an incredulous teacher says “You have a Ph.D. and you’re subbing?” I find it very reminiscent of a recent post and the ensuing discussion over at Pan Kisses Kafka. It’s a similar catch-22 in that you allegedly need experience to land a tenure-track job, but experience as an adjunct counts against you because if you were good enough, you would have gotten a tenure-track job right away.

For me, it is looking more and more like the solution to too much education is somehow more education. That might mean doing alternative teaching certification and going from “substitute” to “permanent” secondary teacher. It might involve getting third-party certificates in various software and programming platforms. One way or another, I need to gather up some keywords and documentation to cover up all the education I’ve already got.

Nothing seasons a wobbly no-good day quite like irony, naja?