The illusion of expertise…I had a lot of that when I was a substitute teacher. The school district sub caller would wake me early with a phone call – before 6 am usually. They’d give me a couple of choices of assignments, I’d decide which class sounded the least dangerous, and I ‘d begin to set my focus on what role I would play that day.
Elementary school subbing was a pretty good gig. I could still do the math and science, the social studies didn’t get too bogged down with historical details and the language arts lessons were fun. Plus, teachers in the primary grades tend to over plan in order to keep the students busy, so there were always plenty of work sheets and art projects and the like. But – give me a good chapter book and an attentive class and I would read way past the allotted 20 minutes after recess. Time passed quickly. Most days I didn’t feel like the local grade school was a dangerous place and being the teacher didn’t require me to fake my role at all.
As my own kids got older and moved on to the middle and high school, I took more substitute assignments in the upper grades. The course work was more specific – like, I actually had to look at the lesson plans beforehand to figure out how I was going to get any teaching done. ( As a tax payer in the school district, I felt it was my duty to make sure my presence in the classroom did not mean it was a day off for the students. I’m funny like that.) I was willing to teach just about anything – except agriculture – a mainstay the high school. I knew nothing about that subject and the male students were really big. The ag wing of the school terrified me.
The English classes were some of my favorites. Most days it was like having my own little book club. We had discussion questions which lead to some great insights…I learned so much. But there was that one class, the one with the fight. I have no idea what provoked one of the boys to pummel the other. But they went at it, in a crowded classroom. Desks knocked over, students scrambling for safety. Slightly unnerving. Lucky for me there was a student teacher with me who was willing to separate the two boys while I called the office. No faking expertise on that day – I was a chicken and not ashamed to admit it.
Subbing in music classes …they could be tough for me. I possess, what some might call, a dangerous amount of knowledge. Several years of key board and vocal training, plus a love of music gave me enough background to kind of know what I was supposed to teach. But not really. The one-on- one music lessons were always a treat. Especially the percussion lessons. Everyone knows that drummers are kind of cocky, so give me a 20 minute lesson with a kid who thinks I don’t know my flam from a paradiddle, and I’ll show them a thing or two. (My two older kids were drummers…at minimum I know drum lingo.)
But the best subbing assignment I ever had was a long term position as a Spanish teacher. Fully armed with (inferior) high school French lessons, I was hired to teach third year Spanish for a month. And I think I did pretty well. I had excellent coaching from the other Spanish teachers, top notch lesson plans to follow and lots and lots of colored markers to use on the white board (always makes you look like you know what you’re doing when you use multiple colors to diagram sentences in a foreign language that you don’t understand). The students were amazing, too. Some of the brightest in the school. Still, it took them three weeks to figure out that I didn’t speak Spanish.
To set the record straight, I was very clear that I lacked the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter to properly teach any of these classes. My objective was to appear that I had the information and credentials to be the master in the classroom. And for the most part, it worked.
Ahhh…the illusion of expertise.