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My Life as a Substitute Teacher in Suburbia: Chaos and Cruelty (Opinion)

I’m in the middle of giving a lesson about the Cold War to my 7th grade class when a student returns from the restroom, her face pale. “Hey, Teacher,” she says, “Someone wrote that there’s gonna be a shooting.”

A million thoughts race through my mind. I wasn’t trained for this. I’m just a substitute. I’m not supposed to leave the classroom unattended, but I need to see the threat for myself. I thank her for telling me, exit, lock the door, and practically sprint down the hallway. Sure enough, “1:00 P.M., SHOOTING,” is written in big black letters on the brick restroom wall.

It’s just a petty, faceless threat. But I can’t shake the pounding of my heart and the sour feeling in my stomach. It’s only my second middle school assignment, and I decide it might be my last.

I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to help children discover their intellectual passions. Pursuing an alternative-certification pathway, I became a substitute.

My training in the summer of 2023 consisted of a couple of online videos. My first assignment was 45 days of 8th grade science at a suburban Wisconsin middle school. The morning of day one, I’m told it’ll be easy: “Students are scared and shy for the whole first week.”

But minutes after the first bell rings, my students—already—snap colored pencils in halves; draw on the desks and tables; grind pigments into the tiles with their heels; run; shout; and whip the broken pencils at each other.

I stay late after school cleaning the floors and unsuccessfully scrubbing scribbles from the desks.

As soon as I’m in my car, I can’t help but cry.

In the weeks that followed that first day, I alternated between feeling uplifted by the infectious enthusiasm of my students and deeply dismayed by the unchecked cruelty I witnessed. A student headlocked another and mimed shooting him in the head. Some boys taught a special-needs student how to cut himself. A trans student was called a freak. A gay student was called a zoophile, and it wasn’t meant in a positive way. A white student called a Black student a monkey. In the middle of a lesson about eclipses, a boy proclaimed that he hates Jews. I told him I’d write a referral. “I don’t care,” he said. “My mom doesn’t care, and my football coach doesn’t care.”

Given my lack of experience, I wondered if the discord was my fault. This idea was dispelled when I visited a tenured teacher’s classroom and witnessed one boy pin another to the floor.

One day, a student started class by throwing chairs and tossing Chromebooks. I tried to teach, but he wouldn’t stop barking like a dog and threatening to use the stapler he stole as a weapon. I moved toward the phone to get help, but knowing teachers cannot touch students, he blocked me with his body. When I tried to exit, he guarded the door handle. When I finally managed to leave, he locked me out of my own classroom.

Another day, the principal—an imposing military veteran—came into my classroom to give a disciplinary speech. Even in his presence, some of the students wouldn’t stop laughing and mocking. He later gave two weeks of notice and quit midyear.

I told a veteran teacher that I didn’t remember things being this bad. Since COVID, she said, misbehavior has been rampant.

Despite the chaos, I managed to see why people loved teaching. A group of students asked to spend lunchtime in my room. They told me they got bullied in the cafeteria. I allowed them to meet; they chatted and watched movies as I graded papers. On the final day of my first assignment, the kids surprised me with a party. In lieu of cake, they offered me Halloween candy they’d saved. They decorated the room with balloons. One gave me a “best teacher” award he’d made from cardboard.

There are great kids and staff in that school—and truthfully, more good moments than bad ones—but it’s the bad ones that stick with you. It’s easy to look back fondly on that surprise party, for instance, but it’s easier to recall how, just an hour later, other students had popped or stolen all the balloons.

After my second middle school assignment, I stopped teaching middle school. I put my goal of attaining certification on indefinite hold. I pick up only high school assignments now, and though it’s much easier for me, I sometimes miss the “good chaos” of the middle schoolers.

I just don’t know how to reason with students who deny the personhood of their teachers or peers. I don’t understand how to instruct when students are never quiet; in my second assignment, I joined the growing ranks of teachers who use megaphones to give lessons. I can’t shake the fear I get from bombing and shooting threats or from students’ willingness to be cruel. I don’t know how to motivate students who understand they will pass regardless of their inaction.

The education system is currently failing. It feels unequal to the challenges students bring to school from their families and neighborhoods. Teachers have been saying it for years. I listened—I thought I listened—but I was ignorant of the reality until I became a teacher myself.

In the district where I taught, more money would help. With a lack of state funding and declining enrollment, staff members are continuously facing the possibility of layoffs. I watched firsthand as benefits—such as compensation for teachers who must sub during their prep periods—got cut. The mental health of both teachers and students is at an all-time low, and yet, resources are dwindling.

The most important thing I’ve learned from my experience is just how vital it is to listen to teachers and believe their experiences. We must support front-line educational professionals and look to their guidance when shaping policy. We must maintain community with our school staff; simply checking in with teachers could make a massive difference. Education is not the job of teachers alone. Without parents, policymakers, and citizens doing their parts, the missions of schools will continue to go unrealized.

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