Dana Goldstein is a journalist and author of “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.”
‘Substitute,” by the prolific novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker, is an odd book. More than 700 pages long, it covers just 28 days in Baker’s life, during which he worked as a substitute teacher in Maine public schools.
Baker is an award-winning author who has taught college. To become a substitute, he was asked to produce merely a high school diploma and a clean criminal record. He earned $70 per day. Baker doesn’t tell us much about why he embarked on this experiment, other than (presumably) to write about it.
He mentions only in passing that his own children attended public school and that, in 1967, he was one of the first white students in Rochester, N.Y., to participate in a voluntary racial integration program. In a single paragraph, Baker fondly recalls Mr. Toole, his eighth-grade English teacher, who assigned Homer’s “Iliad” and suggested that Baker write his own epic poem. That teacher “changed my life,” he writes. Yet as a narrator, Baker rarely reflects explicitly as a former student, a father or even as a professional writer. “I sought out the teaching job because I wanted to know what life in classrooms was really like,” he writes. “There are many books of educational advice, of theory, of hagiography, of gloomy prognosis — what’s missing is a lived-through experience of how busy and complicated and weird and long every school day is.”
Baker has succeeded in filling this void. “Substitute” faithfully re-creates the grinding, sometimes stultifying routines of classroom life, from shushing the class to cleaning the dry-erase board. Unfortunately, this comes at considerable expense for readers. Baker does not explain his reportorial methods, but the way the book is written, as a series of dialogue-driven vignettes, suggests he tape-recorded each of his days as a substitute. The resulting book too often reads like a transcript, albeit one that highlights both the tedium and charm of teaching school. For example, here is part of a scene from a middle-school classroom:
“ ‘Carry on guys,’ I said, ‘I want to see real math happening.’
“ ‘I feel laughy today,’ said Serena.
“Waylon and Roan signed into Fast Math on their computers. ‘Would that be thirty-six?’ asked Waylon slowly.
“I said four times eight was not thirty-six. ‘It’s close to thirty-six.’ ”
Each of these scenes stretches over multiple pages, quotes stacked upon quotes. If there is an upside to plowing through them, it is that Baker has, like an investigative reporter, revealed much of the educational malpractice common in American schools. Many of his substitute assignments entailed working as an “ed tech,” essentially an assistant in another teacher’s classroom, tasked with helping struggling students. He thus had the chance to witness full-time teachers doing their jobs. They relied heavily on worksheets, flashcards, and playing movies and TV shows. The students had iPads issued (and paid for) by their schools, but seemed to use them more for procrastination and distraction than for learning. In one elementary-school music class, children were told to color in pictures of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, instead of singing or learning an instrument. Few of the teachers demonstrated impressive intellectual capacity. One could not pronounce the word “coterie.” Another asked ninth-graders to reflect on how “Plutonic” love is depicted in “Romeo and Juliet.”
There were scattered examples of competent pedagogy. Baker saw that kids of all ages love literature read aloud. Teenagers listened raptly to Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”; younger children were enthralled by “Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen. One high school history teacher, Mr. Boxer, assigned students to seek out primary source documents that shed light on antebellum social reform movements, such as temperance, abolition and women’s rights. When Boxer realized that the teenagers didn’t know the difference between a primary and secondary source — something they should have learned “like in third grade,” he joked — he used resources from the Yale University library website to introduce them to the concept. Baker doesn’t say so, but by pushing students to engage with difficult texts, Boxer embodied many of the hopes of the education reformers who created the Common Core national curriculum standards, which remain a political lightning rod.
“Substitute” is by no means a policy book, though Baker does end up crafting his own reform agenda, one that is deeply unfashionable in an age when “rigor” is a favorite educational buzzword. He’d like to see more vocational education and less focus on what theorists call “academic vocabulary,” terms like “idiom,” “tone” and “mood.” “If you want an unskilled reader to read, I thought, make them copy out an interesting sentence every day, and make them read aloud an interesting paragraph a day. Twenty minutes, tops. If you want them to take pleasure in longer works, fiction or nonfiction, let them read along with an audiobook.”
To improve teaching, Baker advocates raiding the nation’s defense budget to double teacher salaries, while cutting the number of hours teachers spend in front of students. It’s a good idea and one that many of our international peers have put into practice. It won’t happen.
Baker clearly loves kids, and the funniest, most poignant pages of “Substitute” capture their intelligence, humor, sweetness and exasperating energy. While policymakers have too often ignored the realities of children’s lives outside the classroom, Baker took an interest in getting to know his charges and saw clearly how their challenges affected their ability to learn. Lucas was arrested and sent to juvie. Waylon seemed to be suffering serious side effects from a large dose of the anti-anxiety drug Paxil, prescribed to him after he moved and couldn’t stop crying. Other students were sleep-deprived because of two-hour bus rides to school or because they worked the night shift at McDonald’s.
In the end, “Substitute” proffers a fairly cynical message: that children, who are complicated creatures, learn very little at school. Baker explains this idea to one high school student, telling him about Rousseau, “a guy who had a theory of education that everybody was born innocent, and you shouldn’t interfere with a kid at all, but just let him grow naturally, and we’re all noble savages. He decided that we shouldn’t have to have teachers or force kids to do anything.”
But by his last day as a substitute, Baker was able to admit, “I hadn’t been a good teacher.” He spent much of his time cajoling his students to stay quiet so he could pass out worksheets. His short tenure and low opinion of formal education reminded me of Henry David Thoreau, who, before writing “Walden,” taught for a short time in Massachusetts. Thoreau concluded that school subjected children to “the process not of enlightening, but of obfuscating the mind.”
The thing is, great teachers, like Baker’s childhood favorite, Mr. Toole, tend to overcome these self-defeating attitudes. They learn to control the classroom, plan engaging lessons and work around an educational bureaucracy more focused on compliance than creativity. Sadly, very few of these honorable souls write books. They are too busy.
By Nicolson Baker
719 pp. $30