I used to make my living as a newspaper journalist. Now I work as a freelance writer and consultant. Over the years, I have worked an eclectic mix of odd jobs and entrepreneurial projects to supplement my income when the business of selling words gets slow.
I have counted boxers and briefs while working for an inventory company, and have sold bras during a stint working at a high-end intimate apparel shop. I have been paid to groom natural hair and well compensated for giving lectures about the beauty of wearing it that way. People have rented a special space in my house when they needed a quiet place to create and contemplate and event coordinators have even paid me to come to their events to play my African drums.
But of all of the part-time jobs that I have held outside of my chosen profession, the one that has caused people to most question my rationality and mental state, has been my work as a substitute teacher. Those who care about me and even those who don't know me, cannot fathom how or why I put myself through working a job that they have described as torture and hell.
What many of them fail to realize is that I am a former news reporter. What substitute teachers go through is really not that much different from what I did for decades.
Both jobs require having to function in an atmosphere of chaos and deal with people who throw tantrums and have meltdowns on a regular basis. Substitute teachers, just like news reporters, have to force ourselves to be nice to difficult and self-absorbed characters who are predisposed to treating us like we’re scum and despising us before they even know us.
Substitute teaching is not a job for wimps. It is a job for fools who have a warped sense of adventure and are accustomed to not being compensated for what we are really worth. Former news reporters and writers more than adequately fit that profile. All things considered, I am really no stranger to this type of work.
Lately I’ve noticed that more of my freelance writer friends and former news colleagues have joined me in working as substitutes telling ourselves that it is only until we find something full time that is more in keeping with our professional training. We are of course fully aware that in this challenged economy and with all the competition that we face, our dream second career may never materialize. But we remain hopeful. and we also remain resourceful. We're smart enough to know that nothing a writer does ever goes to waste. So if we survive this subbing experience and walk away in one piece, we will have more than enough material to market as memoir or standup comedy. Non-writers who endure working as subs, also have that same advantage, but writers are more likely to go there.
Last week my friend Ric, a former colleague and freelance writer and editor who lives in Tennessee, announced on Facebook that he will be substituting junior high and high school students in the Nashville area very soon.
“Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers,” he wrote somewhat pathetically at the end of his post. From the tone of Ric’s message, you would think he was about to be led to the gallows.
Instead of sending condolences, I emailed Ric with words of encouragement and advice from my three years of frontline substitute teaching in the Dallas area, that I hoped would be helpful to him. His grateful response inspired me to offer the same support to my other far-flung colleagues who may be contemplating a similar move and want some insight.
So here is my a list of 10 survival tips created specifically for former news writers who are considering subbing when reporting wasn’t enough.
1. Do not be afraid. If you survived the madness of the newsroom, you will be able to handle the chaos of the classroom.
2. Do not take it personally when the students curse you out and call you names when they realize that you are actually going to write up their bad behavior. It is no different from the verbal lashings that we got from public officials when we wrote about their public displays of stupidity. (“You *#@&^! I didn’t know you were going to put that in the paper!”)
3. Be patient with your students’ public displays of stupidity. Remember that the frontal lobe of their young brains is not fully connected to the part in the back that dispenses good sense. That crazed state of mind will correct itself as they mature. But if they grow up to become public officials, that part of the brain will disconnect again, automatically.
4. Do not let the students make you so befuddled that you start to believe that it is you who are crazy and not them. Keep your focus. No, there is nothing wrong with your eyesight. You actually did see that student using a cell phone, despite his claims that it was your imagination. And your ears were not were ringing. That sound was really coming from the cell phone that the student claimed you did not see. Remember to be as sure of yourself as you were when your editor took the liberty of writing in your story about a church gathering that there organ music playing in the room. You were firm in telling him that while he was in the newsroom, you were at the church and there was no music coming from an organ because they did not have one.
5. Believe absolutely nothing that your students tell you. Any “emergency” requests to go to the bathroom are grossly exaggerated lies. Tell them to check back with you when their pants are wet. You must expect the same validation that you required from those news sources who expected you to write a front-page expose based solely on their rumor, conjecture and hearsay. Before granting any bathroom requests, have students produce evidence from at least two reliable sources to substantiate their claim.
6. If any of your students try to skip class by handing you a note that was allegedly written by another teacher, turn their shameless act of forgery into a teachable moment. Activate your inner editor and point out the errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar that you will no doubt find in their bogus document. Then tell them to go somewhere and sitdown. If you discover that the bogus note is real and was actually written by another teacher, make the corrections yourself, using a red pen. Also, write the teacher a note to do better next time.
7. Remember how cool and adept you were at handling those rude and obstinate characters who tolerated you during interviews but really felt you were unworthy to be in their presence? You will need those impeccable people skills when that teacher or principal whom you have never met, bursts into your classroom unannounced and starts ordering them around as though you aren’t even there. (“Well, good morning! My name is Linda. And you are?”)
These next substitute scenarios will not require tapping into your reservoir of news media skills to handle insufferable personalities. All you will need to draw on is your common sense.
8. Refrain from repeating those threats that our mothers used to make that had to do with performing nonsensical and superhuman feats in order to scare us into good behavior. Unless you are an expert in physics and know something about implementing time travel, your threats to knock the students back into last Friday will only get you laughed out of the room. Threaten to call their mothers instead. While subs may not be capable of transporting students back into time, their mothers are.
9. Beware of those students whose eyes light up when they see you. They can sense your inexperience. That syrupy sweet greeting and compliment about how nice you look in the sweater that you have on backwards is a prelude to misery. Save yourself from those suck ups and write them up before you even take attendance.
10. Take immediate action in the presence of students who try to beat you down with their swagger, sass and attitude. Get right in their faces, look them straight their eyes, and clearly, tell them how much you love them. They will either melt or be too shocked and tongue-tied to respond.
I hope that these survival tips dear colleagues, help make your transition into subbing a smooth one.
One final piece of advice: On those inevitable days when things become so unbearable that that you are ready to walk out, do one last thing before you leave. Step back, look at the faces of the students in the room, and notice the ones who are trying to speak to you with their eyes. What they are trying to say is that they really need you to be there and that they really want to learn. While their body language may not be enough to make you want to turn subbing into a permanent gig, it just might fortify you enough to get through the rest of the day. It works for me.