October 13, 2016
Everyone has heard the famous quote “You just never know where life will take you,” but how many people shake their heads, reflect, and feel either blessed or saddened in how far they have climbed or fallen. Today is one of those days, when I can honestly say, that I never imagined my career as a corporate executive would turn towards substituting as a world history teacher in one of the most behaviorally-challenged high schools in the district. Although I did not choose to lose my corporate position during a company downsizing, I did pursue training as a substitute teacher in the public school system. As I work towards my masters degree to become a life and marriage coach, I thought it would be worthwhile to get a glimpse into the education system that is grooming our next generation, give back in a productive way, and earn a little extra spending money. I have a heart for helping late teens and young adults who are transitioning from dependents to fully functioning adults. My first adventure story in the classroom is both humorous and sobering, a black comedy that leaves me with many unanswered questions about family life and the public education system. And so the story goes….
I clipped my photo badge on my shirt lapel as I entered Mayfair High School* so that everyone could clearly read that Sandra Dillon was a validated Substitute Teacher, good through May 26, 2017. Yes, I had an expiration date. Yet, how did I get here? Less than one year ago, I was a Director of Corporate Development at TPC Group, even holding the title of Vice President for many years. Now I walked the halls towards the World History classroom where Mrs. Fox* would debrief me on the afternoon’s curriculum and classroom dynamics before her escape. A year ago I was paid six figures, and today I would collect a premium wage of $45 (equivalent of $90 for a full day). When I entered her classroom, I guessed Mrs. Fox to be 30 years old; she was many months pregnant and looked worn out and harried. She gave me the classroom rosters, explained the assignments, and said two of the three classes were AP (Advanced Placement), so the students would be fairly well behaved. She warned me of the on-level class which would be a challenge, especially if Tommy Butler* showed up. Tommy was recently transferred to the school, spends most of his time in in-school suspension, and appears to be working towards getting himself kicked out of this school. She also mentioned her need for a long-term substitute when she goes on maternity leave and told me to let her know if I was interested after today. Me, the engineer, teaching world history? It smelled of Mrs. Fox’s desperation.
Mrs. Fox showed me the white “call” button next to the classroom door. She said if I pressed it, someone would ask me what I needed over the ceiling intercom. I wasn’t to leave the students unattended for any reason; however, someone would come to my classroom if I needed assistance. As Mrs. Fox was giving me her best instructions, Mr. Winn* and Ms. Karr*, two younger World History teachers, walked into the room to eat lunch as was their custom. During this quiet period, I asked many probing questions after I shared a bit about myself. What did I find out? The news was surprising! When I accepted this assignment, I hadn’t done any research. Hadn’t I heard? Mayfair was in the news last year for multiple student fights that broke out during lunch times and sport practices. The teacher turnover in recent years was ~ 40% with the current principal known for not liking kids. I thought on the other hand that maybe she was just scared of her own student population. Because teenagers were entering the school to sell drugs, the administration had to create a policy that all Mayfair students prominently wear ID badges to identify themselves as registered. I was also lucky to get substitute instructions, because over half the time teachers never leave plans for the subs. After a few helpful tidbits, Mr. Winn wished me good luck and encouraged me to reach out if I needed anything. Ms. Karr, a recent graduate in May 2016, warned me not to let the students know this was my first substitute job, because they would eat me for lunch. She mentioned that many substitutes had left the school crying. I didn’t know how this afternoon would unfold, but I surely knew I wouldn’t be shedding any tears of fear or frustration.
The bell rang, and as I stood in the doorway welcoming the first class of AP students, from across the hall Mr. Winn was yelling, “Get your badges out, they need to be visible!” For those who were not wearing their ID around their neck, I politely asked to see badges. Many complied. A few tapped their hands on their backpacks, implying it’s in there. When I asked to see it, most ignored me and continued to walk towards their table. What do I do? This is when I told myself, “Choose your battles carefully.” I let it go and felt grateful on those few occasions when I got a respectful compliance. The last of the students rushed into the classroom as the bell sounded late. I kicked the door stop away, closed the door, and realized we were locked in this windowless room for the next 50 minutes. Cell phones were everywhere. I told the class to settle down and put their cell phones away. I introduced myself as Mrs. Dillon, which sounded so formal in the work environment, and explained their written assignment for the day. After answering more questions, I started the movie. Many times I had to ask them to settle down and put away cell phones. The students constantly asked to go to the restroom. Luckily, the rule was one at a time with a hall pass. After the first student took 15 minutes, I learned my first on-the-job lesson—set expectations! The next students were told 5 minutes max. I watched the clock on my desk and was thankful as each minute passed. I felt barely in control. During the movie, I repeatedly asked them to be quiet and be respectful of their fellow classmates who were working. I received half-hearted compliance, and within 10 minutes they were up to the same noise volume, pushing and shoving at the table. If I didn’t know I was in a high school, I would swear I was in elementary based on their behavior? The bell rang. Whew! I made it through this first class unscathed.
I took a deep breath to get ready for my second class—on-level. Once again I was at the doorway to welcome the students, and Mr. Fox asked how I was doing! “Great,” I responded. If the teachers were taking bets on my survival, I wondered what they thought my odds. After the same greetings with similar responses to my badge requests, I closed the door and carried out the same class introduction, just with a different assignment. Despite its on-level demographics, I knew this class would prove more challenging, because there was no movie distraction, only class time to complete an independent project. I pulled out the roster and apologized upfront for butchering any student’s name as I called it out. Many laughed at my pronunciations and congratulated me when I got a few difficult ones correct. I struggled with the names as many were ethnic; my guess of the racial breakdown was 10% white, 60% African-American, and the rest multi-racial. When I called the name Tommy Butler, I heard “here.” Oh boy, where is this student going to take me?
After taking attendance, I asked everyone to put away their cell phones and to start the assignment, directing them to examples at each table. Everyone complied except for Tommy who was sitting with two other boys. None of them were working on their project as evident by having not paper or supplies in front of them. As I sat at my desk, I watched Tommy put in his earbuds and start to watch a movie on his iPhone. I approached the table and asked them if they needed anything to start the assignment. After the two boys replied no, they kicked Tommy under the table to get his attention. He looked up at me, and I asked, “Would you please put your iPhone away as it is against the school rules?” Tommy just stared at me, and I repeated the request. He slid his iPhone from the table onto his knee. I said, “That’s not good enough, please put it in your pocket.” He continued to stare at me as he hesitantly slid the iPhone into his pocket, yet still leaving the buds in his ear. At this time I was internally claiming some victory, but also knew I needed to leave this alone for now. I had pushed this rule as far as it was going to go in this moment. The substitute teacher handbook is clear that no teacher may take away a student’s cell phone. We are at the mercy of a student’s compliance.
I walked the room asking how I can help and eventually returned to my desk. As I looked back at Tony, he had his iPhone out again, watching a movie. I looked around the room and there were a few kids “sneakily” looking at their phones. I stood up at the head of the room and made an announcement, “Please put your iPhones away. I do not make the rules, but I have to enforce them.” I pointed to the pink flyer on the wall that expressly said no cell phones allowed—one warning and the next time consequences (undefined I might add). When I asked Ms. Fox when I should use the white call button, she responded for continued cell phone violations and behavioral issues. After my announcement, Tony just stared at me and made no attempt to put his cell phone away. Tony was purposefully taking me into a showdown. He wanted to see what this substitute teacher would do. Did I mention before that I felt like I was in an elementary school and not high school?
I approached his table and specifically asked him to put his iPhone in his pocket. He dared me with his eyes. I responded, “I have asked you repeatedly to put away your phone, my next step is to get the Assistant Principal involved. It is your choice, I don’t want to take that next step.” He just continued to stare at me. I finally turned, and as I walked toward the call button by the door, I heard a low collective gasp from the students behind me. I pushed the button. A woman’s voice asked, “What do you need?” I replied, “I have a repeated cell phone violation from a student.” She responded, “I’ll send someone.” Then I heard shuffling as everyone was jamming their iPhones into their backpacks. Even Tommy, yet with a nonchalant attitude, slowly took the buds out of his ear and put his phone into his backpack on the floor. Then Tommy and his buddies continued to talk quietly at their table while the two boys who faced me gave me the death glare. With the aftermath of the call button scare, most of the class worked diligently on the project. I helped some students with their drawings as I looked towards the locked door for teacher assistance. I waited and watched as I didn’t know how long it would take. About a half hour passed, and no one came. With only 10 minutes of class left and the imminent threat gone, the cell phones reemerged including Tony’s. Defeated. I just let it go! I may have won a battle, but I lost the war.
I could not wait for this school day, and especially this class, to be over. Although I certainly had to contend with the cell phone battle, I also had to intervene and tell a group of three students, who were getting annoyed with each other, to stop hitting. My only tools were my voice, intimidation, requesting, begging, and sending to the principal’s office. I heard through the grapevine that teachers, who send students to the principal’s office, are considered ineffective, because they are deemed to have no classroom management skills. A teacher can never touch another student, even in a friendly manner. We cannot take away any of their personal property. I feel like teachers’ hands are tied behind their backs. Later, when Mr. Winn asked how the on-level class went, I told him how no one came to the classroom after the call button. He exclaimed, “They didn’t? Just like them, they don’t support us teachers.”
My third and last class was another group of AP students. I was climbing out of the emotional trough and appreciative that this class would be relatively easier. Class three was a reflection of the first. Although I had to do more shhh-ing, the stress was much lower. I collected the papers from the students as they walked out the door. As one table of girls was finishing, I walked over to their table. One of them said, “You’re the best sub we’ve ever had.” Surprised, I responded, “Well, thank you! Just curious, how did I earn that title?” She responded, “All the other subs are quiet and never say anything.” Then the second girl said, “You have a good vibe about you too.”
So that was my first story of corporate executive turned substitute teacher. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas on what my experience would be like, but I was hopeful to make a positive influence on these young minds. By my own assessment, I felt I was a babysitter at best, a shrew at worst, and would give myself a D (just passing), for my first classroom assignment. I graded myself against my own standards and expectations, but on an absolute basis, I still remain confused on how the school system would rate me if I had been observed. This cannot be the state of our public education system in the suburbs of Houston. Most people have a taste of public education in the ghetto as reflected in those feel-good movies such as Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds, where a few gifted and motivated individuals overcome horrendous obstacles to get their education. I was not in the ghetto, but I felt some of the same ghetto mentality working in many of the students’ minds.
In this high school, I felt like a glorified babysitter. I was babysitting kids who defiantly opposed and disrespected authority for fun or to test their own situational power and kids who have no desire to learn or do well in school. I don’t know of their family background, home life, struggles, or mental and behavioral disorders. My heart goes out to the disruptive students and to those students who are trapped in this environment and truly have a desire to do well. My heart also feels for these teachers. They have been given responsibility and accountability, but have fundamentally been stripped of authority and power. The kids appear to run the classroom by the teacher restrictions put into place, and the students are aware of their power. Although my personal experience with the administration was not favorable albeit limited, I wonder how much the teachers are supported in the classroom.
Today I missed those long ago days of my high school when students feared and respected their teachers and parents. Times change and so do institutions to accommodate. Can a school adapt enough to even partially compensate for the degradation in family structure and values? Has the school system changed in a way that supports the best education for 2016 and beyond? With the average taxpayer cost to educate a student at > $10,000 per year, are these ample funds to create a well-functioning education system? All I know to be true is that with $45 minus taxes in my pocket, I’m left with an unforgettable experience, more questions than I have answers, and a desire to know more about our public education. I have more schools in which to serve before I draw my final conclusions. Next assignment, life skills sub for a middle school.
*All names except for mine and my previous employer have been changed to protect both the innocent and guilty.