My friends convinced me it would be a cake walk.
I had just graduated from college with a degree in journalism and, thanks to the adventures of military life, moved with my new husband to the Last Frontier.
The problem: Both people who worked at the local newspaper in our small Alaska town were not yet dead. Which meant that there weren’t any journalism openings for me.
Some of my fellow milspouse friends with degrees they couldn’t use in our small town had started substitute teaching at the local school district. As they watched me pitifully apply for job after job, they encouraged me to join their little substitute teachers’ club.
“It’s a really great gig!” they told me as they laughed and told stories about their favorite little cherubs over coffee. “The kids are great, you get to work in a different school every day, you don’t have to write lesson plans and then you get to leave work at work. It’s so easy.”
That sounds amazing, I told myself. I love kids! I even wanted to be a teacher for awhile! I’ll get to influence young minds, alphabetize some papers and change the world, all before I leave the school at 3 p.m.!
Plus, I thought to myself, teacher schedules really rock. They get off every day at 3, they play at the pool all summer long, they get Christmas break and spring break and holidays … do they ever even really WORK?
My friends just kept nodding their heads, wooing me into the Land of Substitute Teacher Envy with their stories of amazing kids and high-impact opportunities … all without stress, commitment or off-the-job hours.
Substitute teaching, I decided, was where the party was at.
And that is how I became the long-term building sub at an elementary school in the heart of central Alaska.
Armed with my naivete and my knowledge of grammar and current events reporting (but absolutely no knowledge of children outside the ones I babysat when I was 15 years old), I marched optimistically into my very first elementary school classroom.
As I stared out at the sea of youthful smiles filling the tiny seats, my insides got all warm.
Playing with these angels all day long? This is going to be a breeze! I thought to myself as I picked up the chalk (because I'm so old that smart boards hadn't yet been invented) and began writing my name on the board.
But within seconds of the morning bell, more than 20 first graders jumped to their feet and assaulted me with simultaneous outbreaks of “Mrs. C! Mrs. C!”
My ears hurt, and I was confused.
I’d barely written my name on the board. Why were 20-something tiny humans trying to talk to me at one time? Didn’t they know that I only had two ears? Why weren’t they taking turns? I hadn’t even yet offered instructions. How could they possibly have 24 questions all at once?
I tried to begin class, but the cute-but-loquacious little Energizer bunnies just couldn’t settle down, and as they bounced up and down on their knees, grunting and waiving their hands wildly in the air to get my attention and tell me the routine for the day (clearly, that routine included 60 minutes of recess followed by seven snacks followed by free play for the entire rest of the day), I was totally overwhelmed.
I had never been in charge of more than three children before in my entire life. And as I took in two dozen sets of innocent little eyes, completely dependent on me to both educate them and keep them from breaking out in a riot, I had no idea what to do.
This was in my pre-mom days, before I had an arsenal of tried-and-true parenting tricks at my disposal. No one had yet taught me how to get the attention of little people who have no attention span.
No one had taught me the clapping trick.
No one had taught me to ask them to “sit criss-cross apple sauce” or “turn on their listening ears" or recite silly rhymes or whisper in my lowest voice until they matched theirs to mine.
And no one had taught me to ask the reliable “designated helper” student of the class (that every good teacher lists on his or her sub plans for the day) to give me the real rundown of the teacher’s routine, which may have prevented me from believing that any teacher allowed all-day art time and called it “centers.” (Where were you at on that one, teacher Mom?!)
No. The proverbial “they” gave me a TB test and a background check and left me to the first grade wolves who’d spotted a starry-eyed, 22-year-old girl in clear she’s-not-from-around-here high heels and pounced on the fresh blood they could smell the moment I didn’t know how to say, “1, 2, 3, eyes on me."
My substitute teacher friends who'd convinced me this teaching thing was going to be an easy gig? They were apparently all natural leaders of simultaneously-talking, completely-unable-to-be-still, I-should-have-pregamed-with-way-more-coffee little people ... deaf ... or total liars.
And liars who, in their own experience, could have helped a sista out.
Those "friends" didn’t bother equipping me with the news about the magical class jelly bean jar that immediately turned a classroom of rabid animals into silent, still statues with one magical bean that they apparently never ate.
They didn’t tell me about the miracle-working card system that transformed one interrupting student into the school star with a simple flip from green to yellow.
They didn’t tell me about all the awesome incentives that great teachers use to keep throngs of jumping, leaping little people from erupting in total anarchy all day long.
And they sure didn't teach me how one corrals a herd of children, gets them to form one line and then gets said line quietly down the hallway without completely disrupting every other classroom that falls in the path of Point A to Point B.
They just assumed that, because I had a degree, I knew ... and was capable.
Capable I was not.
It took just one day in the classroom to recognize that teachers were very special people.
And I just might not be special enough to BE one.
Because I soon recognized that I didn’t have the patience for answering the exact same question, over and over again.
And over again. And over again.
And over again.
I wasn't as smart as the fifth graders who were completing complex math problems in ways I never learned. (I'm a writer ... I complete math problems using Siri, Alexa and my cell phone calculator.)
I didn’t have the sweetness when I was freezing my tush off on March recess duty to explain in depth in my sing-songy kindergarten voice why children who were repeatedly launching their cold-weather gear at their friends needed to wear clothing when it was below freezing in Fairbanks.
“Johnny, you have to wear your hat. It is only 20 degrees outside.”
“But that’s 40 degrees warmer than last week!”
“That’s good math but not good listening. Put on the daggone hat.”
I didn’t have the perseverance to outlast the most testing, trying tiny people.
At the end of one really long week teaching “the” third grade class that lived on in the teacher’s lounge in infamy, I maturely broke down crying in front of 20-something 8-year-olds as I marked the 37th tally on the board (tallies, because as a teacher, I didn’t have the ability to dish out extra chores or give a “mom” talk, since, as one kid reminded me, “I wasn’t his mama”) to indicate the number of free time minutes they all would lose on account of their unacceptable behavior. (Rookie mistake, rookie mistake.)
My tally-marking breakdown was apparently obvious enough that the first grade teacher next door, who barely knew me, knocked on the room door after school and asked if she could buy me a beer. Or bring one to the classroom. Or simply drive me home.
Third graders: 1. Michelle: 0.
And I didn’t have the stamina. After six hours surrounded by 500 beautiful-but-exhausting little people, I drove straight home from work (with all the little germs those sweet little walking petri dishes had gifted me) and crawled straight into bed.
By 4 p.m.
Although I loved hanging out with these superheroes (and the ones who didn't make me cry are actually the ones who made me want to be a mom), I just didn’t have the skills to effectively impart knowledge to 24 of them. All at one time. For six insanely-energetic straight hours. Each and every day.
I could barely keep them all counted and alive.
Which is why today, on National Teacher Day, I salute the patient, talented, amazing saints who daily execute the most challenging job I've ever held.
A SALUTE TO TEACHERS
The listeners of incessant question-askers.
The herders of crazy cats.
The finders of lost minds and mittens.
The referees of crushed and traded snacks.
The knowledge infusers who somehow infuse knowledge without simultaneously losing their own minds.
The learning lovers who contagiously communicate a love for education so that no child is left behind.
The ones with the patience of surgeons who keep an even and steady hand, and the ones who keep on fighting for the students who don’t think they can.
The ones who care so deeply that their job doesn’t end with the bell, the ones creating supplemental crafts and activities long after I was home watching Smallville.
The ones who, as they’ve taught my own children, have fostered creativity, and simultaneously given them the gift of actionable curiosity.
The ones who’ve welcomed our superheroes with open and eager hands, and opened their hearts and minds and souls to new and unexpected lands.
The ones who’ve held their hearts when their Daddy was deployed, the ones who’ve led and mentored and loved to help us fill that void.
The ones who’ve wiped away tears when easy farewells didn’t come, and the ones who celebrated victories when Superman learned how to use his new thumb.
The ones who’ve stretched and challenged when laziness became a game, and the ones who demanded better from each child they knew by name.
The ones who love and affirm and speak life into every dream, and the ones who keep our boys believing that they can truly become anything.
These incredible teachers, we remember each of them by name, and because of what they’ve given our children, none of our superheroes will be the same.
I might not have become a teacher, or had the basic skills to manage a class, but forever I will be grateful for these amazing leaders who save my … rear.
The Sub Who Shouldn’t Have Been