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Tale of a Substitute Teacher: Teaching or Social Control?
by Nancy Gigowski Brown
Between December, 1978 and June, 1979. I worked in ten different Boston inner city schools as a substitute teacher. In some oft he schools I spent enough time to get more than a general idea of what was taking place. In most cases I was randomly assigned to classes and subjects that I was certainy not qualified to teach. Generally, when I arrived at the school I was asked to sign my name and was given a room number and the name of the teacher and subject to which I was assigned. My experiences were certainly varied and very interesting. I decided to keep a journal to record each day what I saw, what happened, what students and teachers told me, and the many questions I found myself asking. The following is an entry from one such day.
Every day there is so much to write about. Today half of my day was spent struggling with students who strolled into class late, refused to work, refused to leave the class, and who yelled out more bad language than I had heard in a year. They called me stupid and said “fuck you” as I asked them to leave. As they explained, I was stupid because I was teaching a craft I had just learned the day before and I was slow at showing the students what to do. I had to ask for help from another woman teacher across the hall. I felt caught up in the system that produces these kinds of situations. Of course the students had a right to demand that the teacher know what she was doing if they were going to learn anything. But there was no one else to take this class, so they misplaced me in an art class teaching a subject I knew nothing about.
The problems continued and I finally got angry. The students were somewhat shocked at my outburst. I felt tears. Holding them back trying to maintain some sense of order. I wanted to shout how unfair this whole situation was to all of us. I wanted to tell them how I felt about what a farce schools were and that they were right: schools were places where students were kept, where they lined up, where they spoke when spoken to, where, if they made misguided attempts at grownup behavior, challenging the authority, they would immediately be dealt with in terms of problems and punishment.
Some of the students laughed at my anger. I asked two students, a boy and a girl, why they were doing what they were doing. Why did they need to kick the chairs around, throw books on the floor, swear at the teacher, disrupt the rest of the class to a point where it was total chaos? It seemed like a simple enough question. Their answer was clear and strong. They hated school: they hated teachers! I was a teacher. They hated me. I was stupid, didn’t know what I was doing there. And besides, what difference did it make anyway? They didn’t learn anything there. School was boring. They couldn’t do what they wanted to, and they would quit as soon as they could—two more years, maybe sooner. I felt every word they said. A simple but tragic loss of interest and any commitment to learning.
I talked with the guidance counselor that afternoon. I found out most of the students I had continual trouble with came from “difficult family situations,” a nice way to describe their problems. They were low academic achievers, were absent more than they were in school, had no parental communication, had no hope.
But as I inquired further, I found such a description was common for many of the students in the school. Over half of the children in the city’s public schools come from low-income families, perform poorly in academics, and live in environments that perpetuate their social, academic, and economic problems. The counselor said the problems were immense, too immense for the schools to know just what to do.
I asked how often teachers talked about these problems and of their long-range effects on each other, on their families, on the schools, on the community. He smiled, saying I had not been there long enough. Most of the teachers find a way to do what they have to do; but many do give up and just put their time in. The way things have come about, the systems of learning are now too powerful to change. I disagreed. I felt we could bring about whatever changes needed to take place. I told him I felt the parents and kids could help. They needed to be a part of the decisions. We needed to start over if nothing else worked; and from what I saw this was not working.
I asked another counselor what she thought were some of the students’ concerns and problems. She said that most of the students she worked with expressed in different ways a sense of hopelessness, a nothingness for learning and, most of all, for their futures. They knew there were few options open to them in the world of work. The future showed them nothing. It was frightening to them. I kept hearing what she said over and over. I didn’t want to come back to school the next day. Or if I did, I wanted everything to be different.
Nancy Gigowski Brown is a nutritionist now working as a nutritional educator and coordinator in the Wakefield Schools.