Thoughts on Substitute Teaching

The hardest job I ever had was substitute teaching. Students think it’s their job to make life miserable for subs. It’s a thankless job, and I have high respect for those who do it often. I have lots of horror stories about it, but I have one story that still makes me laugh. I call it “Gone with the Wind.”

In the spring, winds in Wyoming can be horrific, knocking anyone off their feet. On a day of hurricane force winds, I drove to the hilltop elementary school to substitute teach first grade in the afternoon. The teacher had a family emergency so I’d been called in quickly to take over.

Walking in the door, my hair and clothes looked like I’d just been pulled out of a dryer. Nevertheless, they needed me and didn’t really care what I looked like. I’d never been there before so the setting was completely new to me. No time for orientation; I was quickly shuttled to the room and left on my own.

I hardly had a minute before the room filled with twenty-three confused six- and seven-year olds wondering who this strange woman was in their room. A thousand questions came at me from every direction. I finally got them to sit down and I explained the situation as I knew it. Their teacher would return tomorrow, but today, we would have fun in the afternoon.

Two stacks of math papers were left on the teacher’s desk with instructions to go over them. Getting a helper to pass them out, we worked on the one paper together, then I turned the second on over to them to work on as I helped individuals and looked for something to do after they were done. The room was typical of first grade. No text books. A few workbooks with pages torn out. Stacks and stacks of graded papers and unused papers ready for the next lesson. The walls were filled with the children’s art projects and letters and words.

I was proud of myself with how well the math lesson went. I’d found some coloring papers that had shapes and words indicating what color to make the shapes. It was a perfect follow up to math so I passed those out and talked about how much fun it was to color. The kids got their little crayons out and started going on them. Then it happened.

A sound blared into the calm. Before I could say, “is that a fire alarm?” the kids were gone out the door to the playground. The wind held the door open, coming in with a vengeance undeserved by an innocent sub. I stood alone, surrounded by a vortex of flying papers. Risking a death by a thousand paper cuts, I shouted, “Wait for me!” as I headed into the flying debris for the door.

With gargantuan effort, I managed to shut the door. The thought of needing a key to get back in flashed through my mind. First things first, where were the kids? I looked through my whipping hair and thought I saw them. I held my hair back and there they were, half a light year away, piled up against the playground fence like tumbleweeds. The wind pushed me along toward them. A door opened as I blew past and a teacher stuck her head out. “Go back to your room, it’s a false alarm.” I’d figured that out since no one else was out except for me and my class who was piled against the fence. If the kids hadn’t been so well trained, we might have figured it out before Hurricane Wyoming Winds hit.

I made it to the fence and yelled that we needed to go back. Forming a chain, we slowly tromped our way back to the classroom. I opened the door and the indoor hurricane started again much to the children’s delight. They danced in the flying papers as the wind stripped the walls of their drawings and the words that they were to learn. Papers from the desk and the math papers I was so proud of circled the room as their crayons went rolling all across the floor.

With a mighty pull, I got the door shut and turned to watch the paper drift down like the flakes in a snow globe when you set it down. Paper covered the floor, the same floor the children were dancing around on. Stop! I yelled. The children froze like they were playing statue.

My mind raced. What am I going to do? This room has been ransacked! I couldn’t walk away. But how was I going to get some semblance of order back?
A girl started asking where her crayons were so I knew my problem was even bigger. “Here’s what we’re going to do. First find the crayons that you think are yours, and take them to your seat.” Of course, some were crying because they couldn’t find theirs and other were saying they had too many. Nothing came out even, but everyone at least had some crayons.

“Now we’re going to pick up the papers around your chair and sort them into math papers, reading papers, drawing papers, and another kind you have.” That’s when the chaos began. Unable to think abstractly or as a unified group, questions came from every direction. I felt like Indian Jones running down a tunnel with poison darts coming from every direction. One of the girls kept wrapping herself around my leg and moaning, “I love you, Mrs. Kjar” and I kept peeling her off.

By the end of the afternoon, the kids got their things, lined up at the door, and disappeared as quickly at the sound of the bell as they had earlier, leaving me in the shambles of the nice room I’d first seen. I couldn’t hang everything back on the walls, I didn’t know where it went. I spend a couple of hours sorting through papers and got them as organized as possible before I left. No other teachers came in to ask what happened or to even say hi. I did the best I could and left a note of explanation.

I never heard from the school or teacher again. I’m sure she had a fit when she saw her room, but to quote Han Solo and Lando Callrisian, “it’s not my fault.” It was Hurricane Wyoming Winds.

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