“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.”
—Diogenes Laertius, 3rd Century Greek philosopher, inscribed on a cornerstone of Capitol Hill High School SW 36th Street and Grand Boulevard, Oklahoma City
When I tell people that I am a substitute teacher for Oklahoma City Public Schools, I usually receive an amused, sympathetic response. We all have memories of subs in our own public school days—harried and disheveled, dodging spit balls or other objects, hurling empty threats of referral or detention, and watching helplessly as the students pester one another or ditch class. Subs are a strange group, outsiders of sorts, showing up to an unfamiliar environment to perform an unknown task. Substitutes are by nature erratic interjections into the normal working conditions of public school life, and considering the stresses associated with substitute teaching, subs get little recognition or reward. While full-time educators, though under-paid and overwhelmed, are publicly showered with respect and admiration, subs don’t even enjoy the lip-service of public gratitude, and instead are generally ignored or taken for granted. Besides the 1996 film The Substitute, starring Tom Berenger as a crime-fighting, substitute-teaching vigilante (“He has a lesson to teach,” goes the tagline. “And nobody’s going to have a problem with it”), there are few allusions to substitute teaching in popular culture. And, unlike the teaching profession itself, subbing has few romantic or idealistic undertones.
There is a reason the students tumble through the door, their eyes gleaming with frenzied anticipation, slinging down backpacks, jumping around each other, singing, rapping, screaming, referring to me as Sub, Bro, or Mr. T, before I get the chance to properly introduce myself. There is a reason why they gather around the desk, group in the far corner, ditch to the hall, or throw balled-up paper across the room into a brimming waste basket. And the reason is, there are teachers and there are substitutes. I am a substitute.
Substitute. The word is almost pejorative. It comes to us from Latin, substitutus, the past participle of the verb substituere, meaning “to put in place of.” A substitute is just that—a replacement. The substitute is there because whoever or whatever should be there isn’t.
It took a little time before I got up the nerve to sub for a class. Oklahoma City Public Schools’ automated substitute calling system was working quite well, leaving multitudes of robotic voice messages on my answering machine.
This is Oklahoma City Public Schools Substitute Employee Management System calling for … (insert pre-recording of my voice) Aaron Siemers … Using the telephone keypad, enter your personal identification number or press the star key for further instructions … to make the system wait, press 9 …
I suppose, in my apprehension at the thought of returning to high school, the setting of so many hyperbolical anxieties and humiliations, I was content with making the system wait. In the meantime, the robotic voice continued to leave messages on my answering machine, and that pre-recorded sound of me saying “Aaron Siemers” reminded me that, yes, in fact I had put this in motion, and therefore had a slight obligation to see it through. So when a job subbing for an art class at U.S. Grant High School came up, I hit that magic button on the phone, and the next Thursday found myself traipsing up concrete steps.
For those of us who graduated public high school prior to Columbine, protocol since has changed somewhat. These days, getting into school is a lot like getting on an airplane, except that the students don’t have to remove their shoes. Once inside the doors of U.S. Grant, I skirted the line waiting to go through the metal detectors and veered into the main office. Behind the desk, staffers were answering phones, assisting beleaguered students and orienting the substitutes. There was a gaggle of subs occupying the chairs lining the back wall of the cramped office space. One of them—a middle-aged white man, balding, in brown tweed pants and holding a folded newspaper—took the chair next to me. From the way he joked with the staff, he must have been a regular at Grant. A woman, maybe mid-50s, was sitting near the door. She was dressed rather flamboyantly: purple stockings, grey coat, and a burgundy blouse that fell like a drape. Then a young black man came in, about my age, mid 20’s, wearing loose-fitting brown slacks and carrying a briefcase.
It was 7:45 a.m. and the first bell was about to ring. An African-American woman, the matriarch of the office, handed us our respective schedules for the day, and we dispersed. The art class was room 213, but I had planning period first hour, so the secretary asked me to cover a social studies class down the hall. I cautiously walked to my first sub assignment.
Oklahoma City Public Schools is one of 24 school districts that comprise the greater Oklahoma City metro area public school system. As in many large, urban centers across the country, the last 30 years have taken a bite out of enrollment, while the outlying suburban districts such as Edmond Schools, Putnam City, and Moore Public Schools, bolstered by white flight and suburban expansion, experienced significant growth, with increase in property-tax generated revenue and student enrollment. As Oklahoma City Public Schools careened through decreasing enrollments and chaotic management, experimenting with various integration plans associated with Brown v. Board of Education (and its local cousin, Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell), the suburban school districts prospered. By the end of the century, Oklahoma City Public School enrollment had fallen from its high in 1969 of over 70,000 students to around 40,000 in 1999. Meanwhile suburban districts like Edmond Public Schools saw enrollment increase from around 4,000 in 1970 to near 20,000 by 1999. The reputation of Oklahoma City Public Schools suffered as well, along with indicators such as graduation rates and test scores. Older buildings fell into decay and many parents began looking for other options.
Constructed along with John Marshall (1948), Southeast (1949), Northwest Classen (1955), and Star Spencer (1956) high schools, the original U.S. Grant was established in 1953 to serve the suburban neighborhoods quickly growing in the postwar boom. Oklahoma City Public Schools, like most districts throughout the country, was then a racially segregated district, and U.S. Grant was built to educate the white students living in southwest Oklahoma City. Today the school serves a predominantly Latino and white student body, and the neighborhood surrounding the high school comprises of mid-size, two-to-three bedroom houses from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, ranging from the ramshackle to the well-kept, with intermittent, somewhat bedraggled looking trees. Pennsylvania Avenue, lined with parking lots, strip malls, fast food restaurants, and gas stations, runs noisily by the campus.
As I walked Grant’s halls, my thoughts turned to my own high-school days and the terror we at times inflicted upon substitutes. Would my sub karma come back to haunt me in all its fury? The students were already waiting for me, so I took a deep breath, entered the classroom and surveyed the room. About 15 students were present, each exhibiting some degree of sleepiness, from tired looking to head down and snoring. I introduced myself and explained the situation.
“Hi, my name is Mr. Siemers. I just graduated from college. Mr. So-and-So is not in today, but he left an assignment for you all to complete. Any questions?”
It was my first day and I was ready for anything. The first to speak up asked to go to the bathroom. Surprised to be let off the hook so easily, I quickly scribbled out a note. Such is the life of a sub.
We opened up the social studies book, and a few of the students started in on the assignment. The class was 9th grade American history and the chapter covered the Euro-American settlement of the West and the migrant homesteaders of the 19th century. The instructions left by their teacher required the students to define the terms and answer the questions at the end of each chapter section. It was still before 8 a.m., so a few had their heads down, sleeping. Still more talked in the corner, oblivious to my authority. I flipped through the pages of the textbook, and glanced at a diagram within the chapter. It was a drawing of a sod house, nestled on the American Great Plains, with chickens, a horse and farm implements scattered about. Captions and arrows explained the items within the picture. One caption, pointing to the house itself, read, “dirt floor — hard to keep clean.” I couldn’t help but agree with the logic.
As early as it was, the students were relatively well behaved and a few completed the assignment. I sat behind the desk and kept an eye on them as the minutes ticked by. A student asked me a few questions about college, and the bell rang. In a flash I was in an empty room, so I gathered my belongings and made my way to art.
In 2001, after more than three years of planning, Oklahoma City metro voters approved MAPS for Kids—a seven year, one cent sales tax increase expected to generate more than $500 million in revenue for Oklahoma City Public Schools and surrounding suburban school districts. MAPS for Kids coincided with other urban development plans, or “metro area projects,” including the renovation of Bricktown as an entertainment district, the Oklahoma River project, the construction of the Chesapeake Energy Arena, and a new downtown public library. If there is a renaissance in downtown Oklahoma City, it can be largely attributed to the success of these projects.
MAPS for Kids was designed to rebuild, renovate, and rejuvenate the dilapidated public school district, setting aside funds for new Douglas, John Marshall, and U.S. Grant high schools, and renovations to over 70 other public school facilities. Oklahoma City voters passed it with 60 percent approval. A decade later, the jury is still out on MAPS’ impact on student performance. Test data from 2006 to 2011 shows improvement in English, U.S. history, algebra, and biology, and drop-out rates have also slightly declined over the same period. However, only time will tell if the district’s investments and reform will benefit Oklahoma City students well into the 21st century.
Except for being pelted in art class by an unknown assailant with a limitless supply of broken crayons, my first day substituting at U.S. Grant went surprisingly well. The crayon assault lasted for a couple minutes, with variable intensity, right after lunch. The students barged in the classroom with a lot of energy. As it was my first day, I didn’t have a chance, though I did manage to keep some composure amongst the flying crayons. When the last bell rang and the class emptied out, I cleaned up the balled paper and scattered missiles and breathed a sigh of relief. My first day as a substitute teacher was over.
One of the main challenges facing Oklahoma City Public Schools is the dramatic shift in student demographics experienced over the past decades. Since the 1970s, Native American and African- American student enrollment has remained relatively stable, while enrollment of Euro-American students has fallen from around 50,000 in 1971 to less than 7,500 in 2010–2011. Meanwhile, Hispanic enrollment has surged from less than 1,000 in 1971 to over 16,500 in 2010–2011.
With this proportional increase of Hispanic students in public schools, the need for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and bilingual education opportunities has increased in turn. The 2010–’11 district profile published by the school system reports that 32 percent of the students in Oklahoma City Public Schools speak Spanish in the home. From 2002 to 2010 the “English Language Learners” student numbers increased in the district from 6306 to 10,477—meaning almost 1 in 3 public school students have some degree of limited English comprehension. While most of these students are bilingual, with a conversational English proficiency, there are many students in the district that have at best a scant understanding of the English language, and ESL classes are playing catch-up while the student struggles with language difficulties. For instance, during the course of my substituting, I taught a science class in which 9th- graders, many of them still learning basic English, were attempting to understand photosynthesis from a 12th-grade text book. Not only was the material relatively advanced, the terminology was completely unfamiliar to these students. It may as well have been particle physics in Mandarin Chinese.
After my first day at U.S. Grant, subbing got easier. During the course of the school year I substituted at a number of Oklahoma City middle and high schools. I was really enjoying interacting with the students and improvisational teaching, as well as talking with other substitutes about their experiences in the district.
After a morning of classes, another sub and I decided to get a bite to eat at a local Vietnamese restaurant. She was middle-aged, with glasses, a sweater, and a slow, kind voice. We were both subbing for a physical education class at the middle school up the street, and we had about 20 minutes to eat lunch. She talked about her ambition to write children’s fiction and fantasy, which we discussed before I asked about her experiences as a substitute. She mainly worked with elementary schools, she said, because the children are better behaved and easier to control. From her slow, restrained demeanor, I could see how a raucous pack of high school kids could rile her.
We then talked about the students in our class today, sixth and seventh graders, the majority of whom were of Hispanic descent, and some with little or no English language skills. She said that she had been taking free Spanish courses herself at a local church and invited me to come along sometime. We paid for our lunch and returned to the gym.
As we walked to our class assignment, the middle-school teachers, these anyway, huddled, laughed, complained, and gossiped like any other working stiffs. A student rushed by on his way outside and a teacher, an overweight middle-aged man with a grumpy look, yelled at him to slow down and tuck in his shirt. My substitute partner and I made our way to the gym to prepare for the coming onslaught of hyper-energized seventh- graders. The bell rang and they burst through the door, threw down their backpacks, and reached for anything round and bouncy. The gym filled with the sounds of feet pounding on the hardwood floor and of children shouting. Things got ugly when we told them they had a written assignment on health and sports. The students groaned in chorus.
Around the nation, strains on school systems and teachers are resulting in a general increase in the number of teacher sick days taken, and subsequently the number of substitutes needed. During 2010–’11, Oklahoma City Public Schools reported a 92 percent teacher attendance rate. With over 2,000 elementary, middle school, high school, vocational, and special education teachers in the district, that calculates to nearly 190 substitutes needed every day.
There are legal limits to the number of days a non-certified substitute can teach in Oklahoma City Public Schools. By the end of the term, many substitutes have taught their 100 allotted days and substitute jobs may go un-filled due to a lack of personnel. Substitute teaching is a vocation on the periphery of the economic mainstream because of its low pay and uneven scheduling. Most substitutes take the job as a part-time way to make a little extra money, while others are considering a career in education and are in the process of certification. Still others are retirees, recently unemployed, new to town, or just interested in helping out at the public schools.
In Oklahoma City, substitutes must possess a high school diploma, pass a background check, and sit through a very basic orientation and blood-borne pathogens presentation before subbing at any of the district’s public schools. The substitute orientation day was a fairly impersonal, modest affair. About 100 potential subs sat in a large auditorium while a video narrated the appropriate response to spilt blood and other bodily fluids in the classroom. I looked around at the subs, who were at least making an effort to pay attention. I am sure that we were all hoping that, for fifty bucks a day, we wouldn’t be dealing with biohazard cleanup. The group was an eclectic, diverse lot. In Oklahoma City public schools, almost anyone can be a sub. Teacher certification is encouraged, with a higher rate of pay, but not required. Many classes, including science and mathematics, are at times taught by substitutes with as little knowledge of the subject matter as the students whom they are teaching.
Obviously, it’s largely up to full-time teachers to educate Oklahoma City’s students. As a substitute, I am an outsider with a limited vantage point, and I walk a fine line between improvisational education and just following orders. I encountered some encouraging, highly motivated teachers and some smart, dedicated students. However, anybody who’s graduated from public schools in the last 15 years might testify to the lack of inspiration and vitality in the classroom, the mounting strains on teachers and students, and the ubiquitous role of the television and the personal computer as its own kind of substitute for an educator. For instance, at one physical science class where I subbed, instead of studying chemistry, geology, physics, or astronomy, they’d been watching the Brian De Palma movie Mission to Mars over the past few class periods. Their teacher had recently been dismissed for, reportedly, aggressively handling a student. I entered a classroom to discover absolutely no lesson plan, a locked cabinet of science textbooks, and 30 bored, frustrated students. I also subbed for a position called “Reading Specialist,” only to implement a lesson plan that involved the middle school students surfing the internet and playing the first-person shooter game Medal of Honor. After a few return trips to the school, I discovered this was par for the course, and was the same lesson plan that the full time teacher delivered daily.
Teaching is a tough job, especially in a district facing the challenges of Oklahoma City Public Schools. As a sub, one becomes more sensitive to the real issues facing teachers every day, and less likely to search for easy answers to the complex problems surrounding public education.
Over lunch break, I asked one area middle school technical education teacher what he thought of the substitutes for his classes. “Mainly we’re just looking for some warm bodies,” he said with a shrug before launching into a story of how once, when a substitute he had specifically requested had backed out of a three- day commitment, he returned to a classroom with over 20 fist-holes in the drywall, punched by a frustrated student. Looking around, I could still see the spackled patches and the unpainted walls, remnants of the rampage.
Later, the teacher showed me the Tech Ed workshop, littered with last year’s projects: a mockup space station, a rickety geodesic dome, old computers, and various industrial tools. I saw an area with definite educational potential, but a lot of clutter and disuse as well. Asking one teacher to supervise 30 students, a classroom, and a workshop is a lot to ask, I thought.
I excused myself and went to the library, where I was subbing for a Reading Recovery class. The class was defining Internet and computer terminology, and I realized most of these students were born in ’90s, raised in the digital world. I asked a student to look up “e-mail” in the large dictionary sitting out on the bookshelf. When all she found was émail—the French word for enamel—I scanned the copyright and found that the publishing date was 1993. We went through the remaining definitions until the bell rang, and the students frantically handed me their papers as the class emptied out. The librarian sat quietly behind a computer while the halls filled with the clanging sounds of lockers, laughter and shouting. School was out for another day, and I gathered my belongings and merged with the throng of students. One recognized me in the hallway, and he grabbed his friend by the arm and pointed to me, “That’s our sub,” he said, a smile stretched across his face, almost running down the hall now. I gave them a wave and walked outside.
1. A new U.S. Grant was rebuilt in 2005–2006 and the original school building was demolished.
Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 23, Dec. 1 2012.