Life in the sub lane: Pint-size tyrants and, sometimes, a hug

Monday, November 30, 2009

When we were in school, we figured money must be the only reason anyone would take the abuse dished out to substitute teachers. Only later did we discover how little they were paid.

There is an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Bart's teacher is nominated for the teacher of the year award. In one scene, there's a shot of the Teacher of the Year Awards Foundation. It is a beautiful new structure in pristine condition. Right next to it is the Substitute Teacher of the Year Awards Foundation. It is a dilapidated building that is smoldering from a fire.

Somebody on "The Simpsons" writing staff knew a little something about being a substitute teacher. Subs are the Rodney Dangerfields of the teaching profession.

I substitute in Montgomery County at the elementary-school level. It can be a difficult and challenging job. It seems as though most students have that "you're not the boss of me" mentality about subs.

It is hard to imagine how pint-size first-, second- and third-graders can be so rude and abusive to an adult who is only trying to help them navigate the day's lesson, but they can be, and they are.

Ask any substitute teacher, and she will tell you the same thing: Discipline is the No. 1 problem, day in and day out. It is imperative, however, to keep in mind that they are only children. Who knows what's going on in their lives that could be causing the bad behavior?

So why do we do it? Why do I and my fellow substitute teachers put up with the disrespect and abuse? It's certainly not the money. It can't be for the benefits, because there are none. Are we masochists? Hardly. Allow me to give you a few good reasons:

The other day, I was waiting for the buses to be called at the end of a particularly trying day with a group of third-graders when one of the little girls in the class came up to me, gave me a hug, and said, "Thanks for being our sub today."

Here's another reason. One time an English class was assigned to write something about politics. One student wrote: "Politicians are people who talk for two hours trying to impress themselves." Beautifully said!

Another time I was at my desk and one of my second-graders noticed that I had a newspaper. "Is that the New York Times?" he inquired. "No, it's The Washington Post," I responded. "Oh," he said, in all seriousness, "that's a good paper, too." Priceless!

Sometimes children write me notes or draw pictures for me in class. I take them home and put some of them on my refrigerator door. They are reminders of why I choose to be in this demanding and rewarding profession.

-- Alan DeValerio,


BEHIND THE WHEEL: If there's anything we all can agree on, it's that we spend too much time behind the wheel. Share your stories of the road: humorous moments, the dark side, the frustrations. Send them to pagethree@washpost.com. Include your name and where you live.

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