For a year, I worked as a substitute teacher but I didn't realize that my humble job would one day be the subject of a New York Times Best Seller. Nicholson Baker worked for a month as a substitute teacher and shared his experiences in his book Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.
Substitute tells, in detail, Baker's 28 days as a substitute teacher. The minute details of each day, from what the first student in the door said to him to the sound of the passing bell to what he ate for lunch are recorded within l 719 pages. When a day as a substitute has that "Groundhog Day" feel, the kind of sandwich you had for lunch is a pretty significant detail.
There are plenty of statistics about public education out there, and plenty of books out there to throw those statistics at you. However, no statistic tells you what it is like to live through a day in a classroom 20, 30, 50 years after you graduated. If you want to know what it looks, feels, and sounds like to be in a typical public education classroom today, you can't find a better book than statistic-free Substitute.
For most of the book, Baker narrates what happened to him throughout the day: the teacher's note to him, the posters on the wall, his little conversations with the students, the assignments he is required to hand out, who had time out at recess, announcements, what the kids are learning and what is going over their heads. Some of the chapters are tedious, but then again, so is the school day. His writing style matches the experience of being a substitute.
A few weeks into his new job, he has enough data to start forming opinions about the school system though he typically just shows what is happening in the classrooms that he is in to let the readers judge for themselves, occasionally he states his opinion.
The early-release day should have ended right there. In fact, all school days should be early-release days, I thought, eating a peanut butter cracker. Nobody learns a thing after lunch--the cafeteria is an endurance roaring contest. Keep teachers' salaries the same--no, increase them--but cut their hours in half. That should bring in some new blood. And fire the worst of the ed tech and enrichment specialists--the ones who are paid bullies. --Substitute p. 255
I think Baker would likeFinland's schools and their four hour days..
Baker admits often that loves the kids he teaches and recognizes that they are smart and interesting. He's filled with compassion toward the elementary student who states that he's bad at everything and is rightfully concerned about the side-effects of medications that are too liberally prescribed to students.
He acknowledges the challenges of being a teacher gives a nod to those who are doing well. When teachers and staff throw their creativity and intelligence into doing the best they can within a system that is far from perfect, the students benefit. A well run classroom with happy, learning kids is evident even on days the teacher is gone. However, Baker does not gloss over the actions and words of those who should not have so much influence over kids lives.
When it comes to the actual work done in school, Baker shows that the things that work are good literature that is read aloud, time set aside for silent reading, interesting projects, and open ended writing assignments. A lot of what counts as school work doesn't actually work, too. Overly structured writing assignments result in very awkward writing, taking recess time as a consequence doesn't inspire better behavior, and when it comes to worksheets, most students just make sure the blanks are filled in with little attention to quality. He questions teaching strategies like teaching students super technical words at a young age and not helping new writers with spelling.
If Mr. Baker ever gave up his writing gig, he'd probably do pretty well as a public school teacher. After all, even though his ideas for school reform are original and likely to work better than what we currently have, it isn't likely that the Department of Education will to pick him up as an adviser for public education reform:
How easy and pleasant it was to be in a large classroom with one student, or two, or three--even four or five. Above five was when the noise problems began. One grownup can't teach twenty digital-era children without spending a third of the time, or more, scolding and enforcing obedience. What if we cut the defense budget in half, brought the school day down from six hours to two hours, hired a lot of new, well-paid teachers who would otherwise be making cappuccinos, and maxed out the class size at five students? What if the classes happened in parental living rooms, or even in retrofitted school buses that moved like ice cream trucks or bookmobiles from street to street, painted navy blue? Two hours a day for every kids, four of five kids in a class. Ah, but we couldn't do that of course: school isn't actually about efficient teaching, it's about free all-day babysitting while parents work. It has to be inefficient to fill six and a half hours. --Substitute p. 493-4
Substitute is available from Amazon in hardback, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. The copy of Substitute that I reviewed came from the library and I was in no way compensated for this post. All opinions are my own.