Teacher subs: subhuman day at substandard pay

April 02, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A retired schoolteacher named Bill Keyes is winning attention for sartorial statement around Annapolis. He wears a $47.15 price tag on his necktie the way Minnie Pearl used to stick one on her hat. But Minnie did it for comic effect. Keyes is saying "Howdeee" to poverty wages.

He wears the $47.15 price tag when he works as a substitute teacher. That's what they make for working a day in Anne Arundel County's public schools. What they actually earn is much more. Who can put a price tag on combat fatigue?

Remember, when you were a kid, and you heard the grand news that your high school math teacher was out for the day? It meant the sudden arrival of a spitball mentality. It meant, instead of the joy of logarithms (whatever the heck logarithms were; 34 years later, I've discovered neither algebra nor trigonometry actually exists in the real world), you'd get to spend an unexpected hour seeing who could be the first in your class to drive the substitute to a nervous breakdown.

"Kids were like a pack of dogs that smelled blood," remembers my friend Alex. (No last names: it's not clear if the statute of limitations has run out yet.)

"We had a substitute teacher in chemistry," remembers my friend Don. "We grabbed some empty acid vials out of a closet and filled them with water. We staged a phony acid fight. Guys would be screaming, 'Oh, no, I've got acid in my eyes.' The poor substitute just about had a heart attack."

"We had a kid who worked after school in a butcher shop," remembers my friend Suzanne. "This old woman arrived as a substitute, and he put 'All Beef' stickers on her rump. She walked around like that all day."

At City College, some of the guys in my class would roll marbles across the floor. It sounded like a miniaturized bowling alley. Or we'd switch names on the sub, and then switch them again. Very mature stuff. And this was during the so-called Golden Age of City College.

What Bill Keyes hasn't figured out, and what the Anne Arundel Teachers Association doesn't want to acknowledge as it asks for higher pay for substitute teachers, is that the job of a sub has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with keeping kids from blowing up the building.

A lot of kids have no use for schoolwork in the first place, and no use for teachers in the second place. The arrival of a substitute signals, it's payback time. For all the hours spent under some adult's thumb, studying the vicissitudes of irregular French verbs, this is the hour of revolution.

It's almost never the hour where academic pursuits will take place. When young people actually behave in school, they do it for reasons that are erased when a substitute arrives. They want to avoid bad grades to avoid failing and summer school. They want good grades to get into college one day. They don't want to be embarrassed in front of their friends. Or they want to impress the teacher, because some kids still think teachers are authority figures.

Substitute teachers have no authority at all, except the threat to send you to the principal's office. Big deal. The principals don't know what to do with unruly kids, either. In the old days, the kids were scared of their parents. Today, the principals are scared of lawsuits. So all the kids resentful of real authority figures let it out on the poor souls reduced to taking $47.15 a day for what is essentially a police job.

This Bill Keyes fellow used to be a teacher in Washington, D.C. He's been substituting in Anne Arundel County schools since he retired 12 years ago. He says he hasn't gotten a raise since he started.

He shouldn't hold his breath waiting for one. Usually, the Anne Arundel schools need about 200 substitutes a day. Multiply that by $47.15 (here's some of that math you missed when the substitute teacher showed up) and you get what? Let's not see the same hands all the time, class.

Right, $9,430 per day.

Whoever got it right can stay after school and beat the erasers.

While this request for higher substitute pay goes on, we have the current struggle -- in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties -- where the county executives say that negotiated raises for full-time teachers have to be cut. In Carroll County, teachers are conceding they'll have to give back most of a raise negotiated a year ago. In Howard County, teachers have agreed to no cost-of-living increase.

All of this is in response to tight money. Budgets are being squeezed everywhere. Yeah, it's a shame Anne Arundel's substitute teachers only get $47.15. But, in the current atmosphere, they should be happy for the $47.

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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