It is said that some people are born teachers. This may be true. It is definitely true that some people are born with a love of learning, and that sometimes leads people into teaching. With me it was the latter. I had never given thought to getting a teaching degree, and during my first four years in the classroom I didn’t have one. In fact I didn’t even have a bachelors, but these were small schools and they were sometimes just glad to have a warm body to substitute. I was warm, and it soon became clear that I was a very good substitute, and became much in demand.
I first walked into a classroom as a substitute in the fall of 1978. I had just turned 22 in August, so I wasn’t much older than the members of the senior class. I never stopped to consider that, though. I was their teacher.
It didn’t take long before I was modifying the lesson plans I was left, which were often extremely sketchy, or nothing but a bunch of busy work. Busy work is one of the great frauds of the classroom. Assigning kids a chapter to read and a bunch of questions at the end of that chapter to answer will NOT keep kids busy. It will bore them. They know why it’s been assigned, and they know it is going to be boring. Hence, the fifty-minute class period will be boring—or in some cases, more boring than usual. And the person at the desk is not their regular teacher, but is very real, and very competent, beyond that.
Busy work with a sub in the room is open season, in other words. Kids are like sharks, and they smell blood with the sub in the room and nothing to really do for 50 minutes. I knew this would happen. I had loved high school, and I knew all the tricks a high school class would try on a sub. So I made sure right away that the kids recognized me as a teacher, and not a “sub.” I told them I didn’t care what usually happened in that classroom, but I was NOT their regular teacher, and we would do things my way while I was their substitute teacher. I also told them about respect—specifically, that is has to be earned. I pointed out that works both ways, and that startled a lot of them. With one statement I had brought the power dynamic of the classroom right out into the open. I had created an alternate reality in that classroom. That which was not spoken of openly, “Who’s the boss, and how does this all work? And how come nobody ever talks about it?” I had opened a door on another method/approach/perspective to/on teaching. Method, approach and perspective would doubtless all have been used to describe what I was trying to do. I didn’t need to describe it. I just needed to do it. Once we were through that door together we were in a place where teachers respected their students enough to acknowledge that fact, and use the teachable moment to help them realized they had a reciprocal obligation to respect me.