Substitute teaching is not easy, and we who have done it know the anxiety of looking out at a mass of unfamiliar, judgmental faces. Sometimes those kids seem ready to eat you alive.
My first assignment as a substitute was a long-term English teacher position in a ghetto school, and I had several panic attacks and sleepless nights. In the beginning, I was torn between my idealistic, grandiose notions of reform versus sheer terror. I also felt the pangs of perfectionism as I fought for a quiet classroom and diligent work ethic. I rarely achieved either, though I got plenty of headaches. I thought an iron fist would determine who ruled and who obeyed.
The kids were a bit more street smart and manipulative than I am, however, and they were not interested in being world-class grammar geeks. They needed someone to hear them. I found myself in a power struggle with students who know what it is to feel the air zing with bullets, see a best friend get stabbed to death on his front porch, and live with drug-addicted parents. When I started listening to their stories, I saw why reading Lord of the Flies might not help them as they tried to survive.
Getting to know the high schoolers and taking a personal interest in who they were as individuals changed my attitude drastically. I went from being the know-it-all reformer to the student, realizing that maybe I was there for a different reason than the stated job description. Humility is the gateway to growth, after all. I started asking God why He had me there, at that school and with those particular kids, and that is when I got a glimpse of my true assignment in this lifetime.
I believe now that I was put here to be an encouragement to others, and students who graffiti buildings during the lunch hour and billboards at night taught me that. Their stories broke my heart, first making dents and then cracks in my armor. I cried with some of them. They have seen so much and yet they are so young, and the weight of unfairness in the world weighed heavily on my spirit. I am glad – I believe God can make something beautiful of the messes I make if first I break and grieve. Being trusted with my students’ confidence and truth was one of the greatest honors I have ever experienced.
My substitute teaching career does not end there, of course. I have found myself at the other end of the spectrum, with middle school students in uniforms at an affluent school. I took the same mentality, though. Initially, my reaction to an assignment for the day is fear and trembling, imagining myself in a boxing ring with 40 chihuahuas all barking and nipping at the same time. I had to take a breath and consciously remind myself that God was not necessarily sending me to that school and that particular classroom for a paycheck – I was going because someone there who needed encouragement that day. With my real assignment in mind, I went to the 7th grade zoo and tried to manage classrooms where I could barley hear myself shouting instructions, but I found those students who needed encouragement.
We find what we are looking for. As teachers, as adults, and even as substitutes, we have tremendous power and influence with our students, and every child needs a cheerleader. I remember how much teachers meant to me as I just tried to survive school in my own way, even in privileged schools. I still remember the encouragement they gave me and how kind words kept me going and gave me a piece of hope to hang onto.
We are good substitutes when we see that our six or seven hours of chaos can actually be our chance to make that difference, even if we do not witness the results. I find everything positive I can to praise and encourage and let the negative go. We are only there a short time, just like we are only here on earth a short time, and the people who cross our paths meet us for a reason.
What is our purpose and what role are we here to play? That is our real assignment.