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Walkin'

Substitute teaching is a lot like wedding photography.
Back in the 1990s, I shot a couple dozen weddings and decided that they came in two varieties. At some there was a general sense of happiness and contentment in the air as everyone shared in the joyous occasion of two people pledging to partner with each other for the remainder of their lives. At others there was nothing but tension in the air– usually emanating from the mother of the bride– and everyone was on edge to make sure everything went picture-perfect regardless of whether anyone was having a good time. I enjoyed the one kind so much that I didn’t feel I needed to be paid, and disliked the other to the point where there was not enough money in the world to make me do another.
Standing in for a day for the regular teacher has the same sort of duality. If the students are moderately well behaved I can usually get through the lessons and make the experience fun for everyone with stories and jokes. If they are jerks, then I’d rather have a root canal or watch the Cardinals win in extra innings.
Most of the weddings fell into the positive category, but I can’t say the same for the pinch-hitting teaching gigs.
This is because humans are creatures of habit and routine and even slight variations can set them on edge. In a lower elementary class, for example, one of my first duties of the day was to gather the class on a carpet while I sat in a rocking chair and read out loud. Easy-peasy. I got the 18 little darlings all crisscrossed applesauced, opened the book and set the page marker on my right knee. “That’s not where Misses G puts it,” one of the urchins offered. “Is too,” another piped up. Quicker than you can say Nintendo DS the class erupted into a heated discussion over who was correct.
Also, acting up when a sub is in the room seems to be part of the human DNA. In our distant past there must have been an evolutionary advantage to sitting on the wrong rock and acting the clown when Ms. Troglodyte was gone and Mr. Neanderthal entered the cave. Not only do normally well behaved students act up but they must emit a subtle pheromone that let’s the entire school know that there’s a sub in the room so students can begin acting the fool even before they come through the door.
At first, I tried short-circuiting the innate tendency to want everything the same as the day before by making everything as different as possible from the start. First off I’d greet everyone at the door so they knew from the get go things were going to be different. I’d write my name in reverse on the chalkboard so you’d need a mirror to read it correctly, and put a small electronic metronome in my shirt pocket quietly beating away. As students filed in not only would they realize that there was a sub for day but he’d written his name funny and he was ticking. My theory was that if the kids were going to be out of their comfort zone then they might as well be pushed over the edge and maybe they’d turn into a quivering mass of complacency.
I also think every year that this might be the one for the Cubs.
Gradually I’ve changed my approach.
First of all, I never take a job below fourth grade. I stood in as the gym teacher for lower elementary students one Friday and when done went home to sleep through Saturday. One way to solve this country’s energy shortages is to see if what keeps kindergarten teachers going can be extracted and bottled.
Secondly, I try to keep as low of profile as possible. Instead of meeting students at the door I sit hunched down behind a desk. When I talk, I try to keep my voice low and void of inflection.
Finally, I’m a lot quicker to call to the office for help. When I first started subbing I felt it was a sign that I couldn’t handle my job but now making sure I have the correct number to dial for help is one of the first things I do. If they don’t want me back I can always dig out my Nikon camera.
They still shoot with film, don’t they?