Saturday, January 14, 2017

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids

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Rating: 2.5 Stars

I received a free digital copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The premise of this book was interesting, but I felt like the execution was lacking. I worked as s substitute after getting my Bachelor's in elementary education, to see which schools I might like to work at. I then had a one-year contract and subbed more after that while working on my Master's in Special Education. Since graduating with my second degree, I have been employed full time in the Behavior Skills Program, a self-contained classroom within an elementary school for students with identified behavior disorders/emotional disturbances. As a result of my experience in being both a sub and a full-time educator, I know both sides very well. I've had days just like those he described in the first few chapters, but for this first bit I could not quite put my finger on what was lacking. The further I read, it became clear: we were getting minute-by-minute accounts of each day, from the early-AM call through the last bell of the day, but there was no real reflection on any of the days or what he learned from it about the state of education in the US today. 

As an aside, I find it alarming that in Maine one merely has to take one evening class, get fingerprinted, and boom, you're a sub. At least here, someone who is not in the field of education can only sub a limited number of days at least. Though it has been 5 years since I have subbed, so things may have changed.

I could readily identify with Baker when he said he felt like he had taught nothing all day. For the times I was in a one-day subbing position I felt like that also. Luckily, I rarely had those. I had several friends who worked at the same middle school as 6th grade teachers, and three of them had babies within two years, so I was lucky to get long-term positions and really get to know the kids. The other teachers on the team then began requesting me as well, and at one point I had subbed there so often that half the kids thought I was a staff member. This went on for three years and by the end of that time, I had strong relationships built with 8th, 7th, and 6th graders because I had subbed so long. As a result of the long-term jobs, I did teach new content - a lot of it. But in those random one day jobs, definitely not. As an educator myself, going on five years now in my position within the Behavior Skills Program, I very, very rarely leave any sub plans that involves subs teaching new concepts. It is not that I don't think they're capable, but it's the way kids are educated today. Unfortunately, particularly in math, students are taught even simple things like one and two digit multiplication in ridiculous, complex ways. They are expected to solve the problems that way on tests, not in ways we were taught 10-20 years ago.

If you have read any previous reviews, you might also know that I am wary of re-created conversations. Unless an author is recording the conversation or taking exhaustive notes, there is no way conversations are 100% accurate - especially considering the volume of those that exist in this book. There is simply no way he would even have had time to take notes, considering how much time he had to spend devoted to the actual students. So, I will go out on a limb and say they have to be fictionalized accounts, at least somewhat.

There also came a point where the book simply got repetitive. Each day started the same - the wake-up call from dispatch, driving to the school, the endless days, and so on and so on. I eventually started skimming, for a couple reasons. One being the repetitiveness as I mentioned, but also partly because I have already lived a lot of days like this. Some I am happy to recall, some not so much.

In the end, I will be the first to say that subbing is a tough gig. I subbed for a long time and there were specific schools and classrooms I would refuse to return to. I was just hoping for something with a little more thoughtful reflection on how an outsider views our educational system and a lot less repetition.

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