[The names of the city and schools have been changed.]
Yesterday, I had what was the worst substitute teaching experience of my relatively short career. There was no single event, but rather it was one thing after all day long. One of the interesting things about being a substitute is that you are dispersed among schools. I substitute teaching in a town named Redstone. A predominantly white, blue collar place that’s been on a downhill slide for some time now. It’s actually a place of relative equality, because rich people don’t want to live there (there is a huge doctor shortage, for instance) and the unemployment rate is astonishingly low (I did a double-take when I saw it). You wouldn’t think that one school would be all that different from the next, but you’d be wrong. The differences are immediately apparent and, without even seeing the test scores, I was able to judge the schools pretty accurately as to where they stood. The best has a a nearly 80% proficiency rate and the worst less than half that. Church Elementary, where I was yesterday, was second from the bottom.
As it happens, I had a direct comparison between this school and the best school, Rushmore Elementary. One of the students I had last year transferred. At Rushmore, she was somewhat middle-of-the-road. I only remembered her because she kept hugging me. At Church, though, she was the far and away the best student I had. There was only one other that came close. At Rushmore, I had to struggle to decide which kids to give Gold Stars to. At Church, it was a matter of which ones to single out amongst the chaos.
I mention disciplinary problems, but it goes well beyond that. Every minute spent trying to keep order is a minute spent not-teaching. And time spent not teaching results in misbehavior from the otherwise good kids. The end result is, precious little gets taught.
I was discussing the various problems I was having with the other first grade teacher. She commented “The main thing is to keep them from killing each other. If they learn something along the way, even better.”
I believe the remark to be a reaction to, rather than the cause of, the problems. I’ve gotten tremendous support at every school I’ve subbed at. The main difference I see is one of atmosphere and the response to the atmosphere. The degree to which the mission objective to keep order and whether it is to impart learning establishes itself quickly enough (and is made apparent before I even see the students). If the other teacher introduces herself and lets me know about the lesson plan, that’s a great sign. If she introduces herself and says, in effect, “let me at’em if they give you any trouble” it’s a sure sign that there will be trouble. (I should note here that not all classes within the same school are created equal. But patterns emerge.)
The entirety of the experience gives me a somewhat nihilistic view of what, if anything, you can do to “fix our education system.” The same Direct Instruction that works in one place works much of the time fell apart at Church. We can question my competence as a substitute teacher, but I am equally good or bad wherever I go. My success of failure depends, in large part, entirely on the class, the school, and so on. How do we even begin to turn the Churches into Rushmores? And this is in a place without the grand economic inequality that pervades much of the country (though there is some inequality to speak of). Would shuffling the kids around make Church better, or Rushmore worse? Would changing the teachers help? Something akin to “pay for performance” would almost certainly lead to teachers avoiding Church to the greatest extent possible, where their job is far more difficult and the test scores make them look bad. The principal at Rushmore is hailed as a hero, though I haven’t a clue whether he really is that good or was just given a good hand. The principal at Church sends his daughter to Rushmore. I’m not really sure what else he can do.