Time for a Sub

When a teacher gets sick, as I have just done, he sees his work in a special light. Examine a teacher’s job and consider what happens when the teacher has to take time off, and you will discover, no surprise to teachers, how difficult the vacancy is to fill or the teacher to replace.

When I was doing my student teaching, there was a kind of teacher disparagingly referred to as Mister Ditto. This teacher had cabinets full of potted lessons in “ditto masters,” an obsolete kind of printing now superseded by photocopying. Every day Mister Ditto would take out a master, print a class’s worth of worksheets, and hand them out. The students would quietly fill in the blanks on the ditto and turn them in.

I am sure that only Mister Ditto could calmly foresee an absence from class because only he could conceive of lesson-planning in this weakly constituted way. My own reaction to the prospect of an absence is always less serene. The reason is that unlike Mr. Ditto, I conceive of learning as of three kinds—knowledge, skill, and understanding—of which only one, knowledge, responds to the Mr. Ditto treatment. When I am gone, who will do the needed coaching in skill? Who will probe with Socratic questioning for an understanding? Who will take on the class as a live work in progress?

Who can mark writing, knowing just where every student is and what kind of encouragement and reproof he or she responds to? Who can work against the inevitable tendency of students to regard substitute teaching as a holiday?  Who will adjust the lesson plans to account for the reality of the learning of the day before?

I referred to one of my substitutes as the Visiting Fireman. He actually was a fireman, and he subbed when his duties at the firehouse allowed. Nice guy, and he had a great story about responding to a fire alarm at the Seven Seas Bar, where the customers would not leave their drinks to evacuate. But not much could come of the lessons he supervised. Another sub was the Reverend. A preacher, he used his substitutions as a chance to transmit the Wisdom of the Ages to “his” classes. The lessons remained undone.

My lesson plans during an absence usually ended up being a lot of Mr. Ditto stuff (or its equivalent in more modern technology), with skill and understanding on hold. Even knowledge became a poor relation to simple classroom management. At some level the students would recognize this. The worst of them welcomed the holiday from productive work and learning, but many, maybe even a majority, had a sense that under normal conditions what they did in class was more worthwhile than what happened during a teacher’s absence. This is probably the explanation for students’ welcoming me back warmly when I returned from my illness. It also suggests the importance of a regular human teacher in learning. Mechanized lessons may be handy, but they do not satisfy students the way a real live teacher can do.

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