(T-G Photo by Doug Dezotell)
Similarly, it's impossible to know what it's like to be a teacher from one day as a substitute -- especially when your curriculum is mostly made up of talking about your job and your international travel experiences.
Even so, I think the experience of spending the day with high school seniors gave me a renewed respect for what teachers do every day of the school year.
On Monday, I substituted for the AP English and Language Arts 4 classes of Claudia House at Central High School, as part of a Teacher Appreciation Week program organized by Bedford County Board of Education. Claudia's name was drawn at random from among SCHS teachers during the April school board meeting. One teacher was selected from each school and given a day off, with a school board member or other volunteer (like me) filling in.
For the first two hours of the day, I had advanced placement English students. The students are in the middle of a unit on satire, and so I spent part of each hour talking about my long-time involvement with The Wittenburg Door, a magazine of religious satire, and about the tricky nature of religious satire in general.
The AP students, in their study of satire, will get to watch another of my favorite movies this week: "A Face In The Crowd," with Andy Griffith as a homespun TV personality who becomes a megalomaniac. I was so tempted to start talking about that movie, but I didn't want to steal their real teacher's thunder.
After our discussion of satire, I touched briefly on my work at the newspaper and about my recent foreign mission trips (I was careful not to proselytize but to simply state the facts of what I'd done and how exposure to another culture and to the poverty of the Developing World had affected me.)
For the other three periods, with the normal senior English classes, Claudia had encouraged me to talk about my experiences at the paper, about writing, and about my trips. We had a workbook exercise as a backup but never needed it.
My program for the regular students was a little less focused, and it's obvious some of them weren't as interested as the AP classes had been. There was one particular section that kept erupting in conversation and that I had to quiet down several times. But for the most part, the students weren't disruptive, and some of them asked really good questions. And some of my weather-beaten old stories probably had them bored to death.
I did take the opportunity to ask each of the five sections their opinion on the issue of standardized school attire or uniforms. I knew that today, I would be traveling to the Chattanooga area with school board members on a field trip to see how SSA is working there.
I expected the students to object to SSA, and some did -- but I was sort of surprised at the students who said they had moved to Bedford County from communities with SSA, all of whom seemed to be in favor of it. There may have been other students with different views who didn't identify themselves, of course.
In between was all of the little business that a teacher has to attend to. I misread my instructions and didn't realize that I was supposed to report my absent first-period student immediately to the office. Claudia had told me under which circumstances the students were to be allowed to leave, but there were judgment calls -- for example, there would inevitably be one student who wanted to run to the bathroom right before the class started.
I didn't eat lunch during the normal lunch period, because I had plans for a late lunch immediately following school. So I used that time to collect my thoughts and rest my voice (my throat was already scratchy from the first three periods of talking). Claudia's assigned planning period is at the end of the day, and since there was no reason for me to stick around for that, I got to slip out of school just before 2 p.m. By then, I was ready for a meal.
And the thing of it is, I had a week or two to prepare for my day as a substitute. Our full-time educators have to be ready to teach, with fresh content, every single day. They have to be disciplinarians, but they risk the wrath of indignant parents if they go too far (or if the parents think they have gone too far). They have to cope with students from various backgrounds, origins and family situations, a level of diversity that the last generation of teachers could never have imagined.
My day as a substitute took me nowhere near those problems. But I think it gave me a renewed appreciation for how important teachers are to all of us, and how difficult their jobs can be.