Mothers everywhere ask the same question of their children )) every afternoon.
"What did you do at school today?"
When the answer comes back, "Nothing. We had a sub," mothers roll their eyes and say simply, "Oh."
We imagine that our children did, indeed, do nothing all day while in the care of a substitute teacher. Or they did worse than nothing. They were rowdy or rude. They back-talked or threw stuff. We imagine scenes right out of "The Blackboard Jungle."
Why? Because that's how we behaved when we had a sub.
I remember when Mrs. Frece substituted for Mr. Motley. (Supposedly, he had a metal plate in his head from the war and had to get it fixed. That might not have been true.) Mrs. Frece didn't know what else to do with us for 40 minutes, so she had us read aloud from our social studies books every day for the many weeks that Mr. Motley was absent.
On cue, the entire class would go to the pencil sharpener, or stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Stuff like that. No guns or threats, but we were as bad as we could think to be back then.
After the principal threatened to suspend the lot of us, we settled into a passive-aggressive thing. We pronounced every word we read about South America and its exports with a long "i."
Whatever they paid poor Mrs. Frece -- and her own son was in our class -- it wasn't enough.
Today, substitute teachers earn between $35 and $55 a day -- not even a third of a regular teacher's average daily pay. It is ridiculously small compensation for an urgent phone call at 6 a.m. and six hours with kids who think it is open season and whose parents are sure you failed to teach anybody anything.
"It isn't awful," says Pam Crane, a regular substitute at Tracey's Elementary in Anne Arundel County. "You have to let them know you are boss and not let them walk all over you. If you lose control in the first five minutes, you will not get it back."
Pam was a teacher before taking time off to raise her family. Substitute teaching keeps her head in the game and her ear to the ground at her kids' school.
"When you are a sub, you know the kids are going to give you a hard time. But I'm not going to go in there and come home with a headache. I let them know we have work to do and if they cooperate, there might be something pleasant waiting at the end of the day."
Teacher contracts provide for an average of 10 sick days and two personal days a year. And there are in-services and meetings that pull them out of the classroom often. But any teacher will tell you that it is harder to be out of the classroom than it is to be in it.
"It takes almost as long to write down your routines for a sub as it does to do it," said Paula McKnight, who teaches second grade in Annapolis. "It is a nightmare to be out of the classroom."
"I think, 'Oh, my God, I can't be absent,' " said Nan Jarashow, who subbed for years before returning to the classroom full time. "So much of what I do is impossible to put down on paper."
Nan has some of the same students now that she taught as a sub. She sees clearly how differently they respond.
"It is not that they always are perfect or they don't test me. But I am sensing an authority as their teacher that they did not grant me as a substitute."
In part, she said, it is the pride of possession. She is their teacher now; a sub is an interloper. Part is the old Baby Sitter Syndrome: "That's not how my mother does it." "My mother always lets me."
Most significant may be the loss of structure. A change in a child's routine blows the lid right off the pot. "And then they bring out all their tricks," Pam says.
I know how my kids treat the baby sitters, and so I have this awful video in my head of how they must be treating a substitute teacher. When I hear that she simply showed a movie, my teeth grind. Another lost school day.
But I can barely get through homework with my children, so I can't imagine what it must be like to teach a room full of kids in whom you have no biological stake. I cannot begrudge their teachers a day off. The substitute system -- a trained professional waiting in the wings to do your job when you need a day off -- is an excellent one.
I just wish there were a number I could call when I have those kinds of days: "I won't be in today. Get me a substitute mom."