Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Week in the Life of a Substitute Teacher

The past two weeks have been very challenging and I appreciate you readers for bearing with me while I've been away from the blog.  I've wanted to update more regularly, but I thought it would be best to organize my experiences into a single, cohesive post.  I must have been overly optimistic (or overly ambitious) when I agreed to substitute teach during the day while still working as a nanny in the afternoons/evenings, especially because I believed I would still go for a run every day.  Silly Jessica.  Silly, naive, ignorant Jessica.  For those of you who are not teachers or who have never worked with elementary-school-age children, I hope that this post will put an end to the myth that teachers have "easy" jobs or get "too much time off" (things I've unfortunately seen some of my friends post on Facebook).

I woke up every day sometime between 5:30 or 6 in the morning.  This gave me enough time to check my email and the weather, eat breakfast, shower, pack a lunch, and get dressed in time to be in my car by 7 a.m. (and that's because I don't wear much makeup or do anything with my hair).  I drove 40-45 minutes in traffic to the school, which is a specialized charter school in South Jersey.  My main function during these weeks was to replace kindergarten and first grade teachers who were assigned to work one-on-one with special needs students during NJ ASK testing.  Last week was particularly difficult because I was dropped into an "inclusion" classroom (meaning that it has a relatively high percentage of special needs students) which typically has three teachers, but during this week had only one -- me, with no special needs training or preparation.  Now, this school is particularly well equipped for special needs students, and of course my experiences are not representative of all schools, but it is likely that many schools around the country just don't have the resources to provide special education teachers and teachers' aides to every classroom with multiple special needs students (or there may be many students who have undiagnosed disabilities).  In those cases, the teachers probably have experiences very similar to my own.  So, all teachers are constantly trying to accomplish multiple layers of mandated goals (state, district, school, etc.) while trying to address the varying needs of 20-30 different people, some of whom require one-on-one help with every assignment.  Add in the fact that these students are six years old and are still getting used to the idea of following directions and sitting still for most of the day and you can pretty much guarantee that elementary school teachers (if not all teachers) are on their feet, using every ounce of their energy and intellect for the entirety of the school day.  I had five students every day who had to sit at the table with me so that I could go over every step of every assignment with them, then about five more students who were far behind the rest of the class in reading or math and needed individual help as well.  Then, there are several more kids who are quite advanced compared to the rest of the class and who get bored easily, so they start acting out and causing distractions for the rest of the students.  Between those three groups, I never had a moment of peace.  Unfortunately, this also left a final handful of students who were neither behind nor advanced and received almost none of my attention during the day (a more experienced teacher would be able to balance their time and attention better, but it's still a problem that requires a lot of energy and effort).  I did get a 20 minute lunch break each day, but I need you to understand that most teachers work through their lunch periods or at the very least spend their lunch breaks dealing with school-related issues.  By the time I left the school at 1pm, I already felt like I had worked for a full day.  If I were a full-time teacher, I would only have a couple of hours left of work and then I could go home (although teachers often have to take their grading and prepwork home with them).  Instead, I drove an hour north to my next job.

My nanny job usually involves picking up the kids from school, helping with their homework, organizing some activities to get them off of the TV/computer, and driving them around between various sports and lessons.  The kids are both very smart, polite, and easy to deal with in comparison to the first half of my day. I really enjoy working for this family and get along with them very well, but they can also be a little bit disorganized and sometimes spring things on me at the last minute.  I don't mind it so much when I'm only working four or five hours a day, but when I had already been working for seven or eight hours, I sometimes felt like I just couldn't take any surprises... like the one night that I ended up working an hour late with no warning and didn't get home until 8:30.  On Tuesday night, I came home and cried for an hour.  These two weeks just seemed so long to me and I was already at the breaking point.  It was one of those times in my life when I felt like I needed things to slow down but there was no way that they could.  On Wednesday night, I came home with a fever.  I was sick all weekend (but still worked Friday night and went to a work event on Saturday) and ended up skipping the 5K on Sunday so that I could finally give my body a rest.  I literally have two hours of free time each day and I haven't gotten used to this new schedule enough yet to find the strength for otherwise necessary things like washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking, etc.  And I mean like I'm so lazy that I have to eat those salads that come in a bag.  How do people do this in real life?  I know there are people who work 12 hour days all the time and I have to believe that they are either investment bankers/corporate lawyers who can afford nannies and maids OR they are just like me and end up being worn down and very unhealthy by the time they reach middle age.  I do have one teacher friend who wakes up at 4 in the morning so that she can get a workout in before she goes to school for the day, but then I'd have to go to bed at 8:30 instead of 9:30... and if I'm already getting home from work after 8pm, that's just not happening.  I could go without sleep, but I guess I'm just one of those people for whom that is not an option, especially when I'm sick.

The bottom line is that I would never be able to do this job if I didn't have scheduled, regular vacations to break up the time into more manageable sections.  As lovely as your children may be, they are exhausting in large numbers and full of germs.  I know all of this even though I am someone who loves teaching and genuinely wants to do this full-time (although I now know that I would never cut it as an elementary school teacher)!  And yes, [public school] teachers are [generally] well-compensated with healthcare benefits and retirement packages, but there are still a lot of teachers out there who have to get second jobs in order to support themselves or their families.

I know every job can be hell sometimes and everyone has weeks when they just feel like they're not going to make it to Friday, but for my modest income and jobs that have a pretty low level of prestige, it's a little ridiculous to be spending thirteen or fourteen hours working each day (and yet that's what people who get paid hourly wages for part-time work end up having to do).  I don't have kids and I do have a partner on whom I can rely for support and help around the house, and I have hope that there's something better for me just around the corner, so I still consider myself incredibly fortunate.  I finally have Friday off and it's going to be a long weekend because of Memorial day.  In my efforts to just survive these two weeks, I've been neglecting my health and my job with the magazine.  I'll need to renew my focus on both of these things once this week is over.  And then it's only four more weeks until my summer vacation!  I'll be back to normal posts soon... thanks for sticking around.

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