Crayons and Desperation: A Substitute Teacher’s Story

Bill Nye does not approve of my science skills

Bill Nye does not approve of my science skills

Every day I get up at 5:45a so that I can be to school by 7:30a. I spend all day at school and then I go immediately to my second job at an after school program. I’m there until 7p or so and then I come home, eat, lesson plan, and sleep like a coma patient.

I’m subbing around the district and I’ve landed myself in two long term sub gigs over the past month. I was at one middle school for two weeks teaching sixth grade science (what?) and was immediately passed on to a different middle school to teach special ed on a long term assignment (again, what?).

I come in to these schools and these classrooms which have had no teachers and little attention. The first job I took hadn’t had a teacher all year after over a month of classes. This second job started the year with a teacher they had to let go and the classroom had since devolved into general chaos and mayhem, frequently enduring multiple subs in one day of instruction when no official sub could be found.

I walk in to these situations and I clean up the scattered pieces of wasted potential and try to salvage some part of these children’s education for the time I’m there. The lack of order, the perpetual change, the constant unknown can damage a full year of their somewhat limited time in school and without the proper building blocks that educational hiccup can transfer to the rest of their careers.

Throughout all of these schools and jobs and classrooms I seem to find myself acquiring children. If I’m in a school longer than two days I have at least a few kids that won’t leave my side and will consequently defend me to the death. Some need a safe place to hide during lunch so they don’t get into fights and get suspended again. Some have never had someone tell them how much they believe in them. Some simply have nowhere else to go.

At my tutoring job tonight we picked up a new student, a talkative middle schooler who walked in and made herself right at home. She finished her homework and then sat down to stay for a while. I work well after the children go home and I usually do so in blessed silence after a full day of hearing “TEACHER! MS. H! I NEED HELP! I HAVE A QUESTION! HE PUSHED ME! SHE LOOKED AT ME FUNNY!” And so on, but tonight there seemed to be something more important than resting my eardrums. The desperation with which she stayed and yearned for someone to listen to her made me sad. I found out through her incessant talking that she actually lives in the church which houses my program. When I asked a few more questions her situation became a little more clear. It seems her and her parents, sister, and grandparents rent a room from the church. Just one.

Last school year I worked at an elementary school where I taught Reading Intervention, a program which takes small groups of children with the lowest reading levels and provides them with additional support in an attempt to bring them to grade level standards. Every day I walked into that classroom to the smell of crayons and desperation. My middle school career has been sadly similar. The crayons turned to dry-erase markers and the desperation has gone from an odor to a stench.

I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ‘bad’ child, just sad children, lonely children, bored children, afraid children, and a mix of everything in between. I find myself wishing there were a way to save every one of them and needing to temper that desire with the knowledge that there’s, honestly, very little I can do. It doesn’t stop me trying, but it’s something I feel like more of us should realize.