Diaries of a Substitute Teacher

October 19, 2022

The 27 exuberant 11-year-olds made the frigid, white bricked classroom feel much more alive. One student sat turned away from his work wearing a blue, fleece squid hat with the tentacles dangling in front of his eyes. Another girl drew Axolotl’s, a salamander-type amphibian that lives in the canals of Mexico. She drew them in bunny onesies and canoeing through tomato soup. She’d been studying them for 2 years. Across the room another girl sprawled her collection of designer dresses she made across the carpet, while the boy next to her had his forehead pressed against his desk, eyes glued to the novel in his lap. They were supposed to be answering questions “en français” about an episode of “TinTin en Amerique,” but, as a substitute teacher, I was less inclined to keep them on task since they were being quiet.

As the day progressed, however, I got to know their behaviours and motivations a little better. One student continued to fall off his chair for his classmates’ attention, a girl was using an expired inhaler every time she coughed for my attention, and another girl yelled “No one cares Josh!” across the room for his attention.

For social studies we watched an episode of Frozen Planet, and they channelled their rambunctious energy into rooting for every hunted animal.

“Go, go, go!” a girl shrieked as a pack of wolves chased a bison calf. The calf was moments away from freedom until another, larger bison bulldozed the calf down while escaping. The wolves began to devour it.

“What a betrayal!!” a boy yelled in disbelief. “Come on, you got this!”

The boy in the squid hat cheered as a swarm of penguins quickly waddled from a seal. The whole class erupted in applause when the slowest seal wiggled its way out of the seal’s mouth and escaped.

Being a substitute teacher in a room with 27 rowdy grade 6 students was similar to the whales tantalising the seal in the next scene. The whales didn’t go right for the kill, they were strategic and played with their food first. They chipped away at the ice, breaking the seal’s safe platform piece by piece. The only difference between this class and the pod of whales was that the whales had a carefully orchestrated (no pun intended) sport at play, whereas these kids were being their organic selves. It was admirable, sweet and absolutely exhausting all at the same time.

During September I picked up several substitute jobs in the division I was working in. I picked up anything I could take: French, gym, music, kindergarten. Nothing was off the table, and each day I had new experiences that made me love and regret being a substitute all at the same time. Some classes were kind and sweet, and some tested each rule their classroom teacher had previously enforced to see what they could get away with. However, the colourful behaviours I witnessed from children held no weight to the strange behaviour I saw from adults. I could usually enter a school, spend 6 hours there and come into contact with 1 adult, and maybe they’d look and talk to me.

If I was lucky enough to have an EA in the classroom, I would pray it was one of the good ones, or else I was forced to witness the authoritarian dreams come true from usually a middle-aged “Karen-esk” EA as they power-tripped all over the classroom.

“Boys no hats!” one EA named Missy yelled aggressively, interrupting the circle time I was having at the front of the room.

“But, our teacher always lets us,” a quiet, shy boy defended.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Your teacher isn’t here, and I hate hats!”

It was like it was their time to shine and it seemed the only behaviourally classroom strategies they knew were yelling and inserting dominance. I guess human behaviour really isn’t much different from the whales or the wolves.

September ended and I had never been so poor in my life. I was a permanent teacher in a city an hour away and had been for 6 years. I cashed in my $80, 000/year salary with incredibly good benefits for this substitute teaching job. I cashed in a stable job for no benefits, no concrete hours, no classroom and no salary. I desperately craved change and the 2 hours a day I was making to the city were not feasible for my life anymore.

However, thinking back to the 27 monkeys I was babysitting, the Grinch of a woman that was in the wrong profession and the notification that alerted me that my bank balance was reaching “critically low status” made me feel like I had made a terrible mistake.

When I was reassigning from my teaching position I remember saying to my principal, “I need a change and I can’t do that by staying the same,” and damn how I thought that was a smart thing to say. It was similar to my fall 2020 mantra: Change occurred but didn’t conquer. Well, I was feeling mighty conquered right about then. Similar to that bison that was bulldozed over and betrayed by one of his own. Did I make the wrong choice?

Jessica Jones in front of an ivy wallJessica Jones is a teacher living in the Manitoba prairies. For the past year she has been actively writing and sharing her experiences with co-dependency, alcoholism, and the impact it’s had on her and her relationships. Her interests include psychology, photography, and her brand-new podcast called Mulch. For more stories and articles by Jessica follow her on Instagram @from.mulch, listen to her podcast Mulch or visit her website frommulch.com.

Featured Image by Hazzel Silva on Unsplash