Primitive Survival Instincts Bred in the Toxic Classroom Environment
It all changed after a series of bad days. Especially after one particularly tough day where I ended up reaching a turning point. It started, innocently enough, in a kindergarten classroom. Within the first 20 minutes of class, one troublesome boy raised both his middle fingers and yelled ‘fuck you’ to a classmate. Accepting his correction, but not changing his behavior, he continued to harass and hit other students throughout the morning. Later on, a tardy student walked into the class, promptly stealing some chapstick from another student. After refusing to correct her actions and to make amends with that student, she became defiant. “Make me, motherfuckin’ bitches,” she called out as she ran around the room, “Go ahead—call the principle. She’s a bitch!”
The afternoon, unfortunately, got worse. Instead of kindergarten, I was switched to a second-grade classroom. Older kids did not mean more mature behavior. Instead, when the students came in from lunch recess, they immediately proceeded to physically fight with one another. One student raised a chair above his head and threatened to throw it. The principle had to be summoned—the quarrelling students had to be removed. While waiting for backup to arrive, I held the most intent student back by the shoulders. He had been insulted by another student and was now deadest on pummeling him. I got down on the student’s level to reason with him. He made no eye contact, he spoke nothing. All I could see was the glazed, glowering expression of a young boy narrowly focused on physical atonement on those who he felt had wronged him.
Both classrooms ended in chaos. That school was not a safe learning environment. It was a place where physical and emotional violence was dripping at the seams. Driving home that day, I reflected on what I had just experienced. It was a lot to process. Once back to the safety inside my house, I plopped down on a chair in the living room. A visceral sense of relief finally settled over me. As I debriefed my day with my housemate, my body started to physically tremble, sympathetically, autonomically. While at school, my adrenaline was flowing in the moment as my attention was focused on the extreme behavioral challenges in the classroom. Once fully removed from the situation, my body was left quaking from the trauma of the day.
That was the turning point for me. At my third week of substitute teaching, I came to a crossroads. It was either get tough or get out. I knew I couldn’t continue in the teaching position with my idealistic attitudes of kindness and compassion. So I got tough. Instead of focusing on nurturing the development of the students, it became more imperative just to control them. It was an unfortunate reality, but this change of focus was a move for my own survival as a teacher. The situation had devolved to a point where basic jungle survival instincts kicked in.
As an idealist, I came into the job soft and compassionate, motivated by the belief that I could make a profound impact upon the youth. I wanted to look favorably upon children as kind and innocent. I wanted to run the classroom with fairness and generosity, giving the students the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Fundamentally, I wanted to foster holistic personal growth in the students—all within the short day-long duration of my stints as a sub.
Instead, I shockingly found what could become a very corrosive environment inside the classroom. These kids don’t know you, and they don’t respect you because of it. They aren’t of the upbringing where they learned to respectfully listen and obey adults or authority. To them, you are a stranger with no weight or consequence to their lives. They see you and think they don’t have to follow because “Man, I don’t even know you,” or “You’re not a real teacher.” The relationship I developed with the students never reached my idealized version of youth mentorship; instead, what organically developed was a predicament of antagonistic adversaries. As a substitute, you have to be stern and assert your authority, lest you quickly lose control of the class. You budge an inch, the kids take a mile. Eventually, you begin to develop the mentality of a prison guard controlling your wards. Your task as a sub is to force your prisoners to follow the lesson plans no matter how much they try to derail your efforts.
In the end, I became a much more callous person. My patience shortened. Authority and control became my goals—not out of a desire for control itself, but out of sheer necessity. Each morning, I had to prepare for battle with the mindset that these kids are out to tear me down. In a behaviorally troublesome classroom, I had to enter drill sergeant mode quite frequently, barking the students into a terrified submission. Often, I had to publicly shame certain students in front of the classroom just to make an example of them. Teaching was not an uplifting experience—for me or for the students.
For all those reasons, I had to quit being a substitute teacher. The person I feel that I am and the person I feel like I want to be did not line up with who I was becoming as a substitute. So I had to quit while I was ahead, before my integrity became corrupted by the corrosive classroom environment. I honestly enjoy working with children, but how did teaching become a position where children are viewed as the enemy? I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be that kind of person. But I am as much a product of my environment, and those toxic classrooms created a menace in me. I never wanted to yell at kids. I didn’t enter education to yell at children. But nevertheless I found myself slipping into the mire of the circumstances.
More than anything else, I was appalled by what I witnessed as the toxic learning environments that predominated in many school classrooms. It started with a culture of disrespect for the teacher and for the learning process, then broadened to include a disrespect for any students interested in learning. In my classrooms, there were numerous fights and countless episodes of crying. There were times where I as a teacher did not feel safe in the classroom. No doubt that my students, young and vulnerable as they are, felt any safer. Instead of becoming an opportunity for inquiry, learning became the punishment for misbehavior. How, then, can you expect anyone to value or invest in the educational process? Thus, I had to remove myself from the situation once I felt myself contributing to the culture of school as a penal system.
In stark contrast, life was much easier in the suburbs. I found I could be more relaxed and compassionate towards the students, reaching closer to my idealized vision of classroom flourishing. Instead of being a punisher and enforcer, I could be a friend, mentor, and teacher. But even though the suburbs are easier, I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I could never feel right about selling out to the suburban school districts and contributing to the flight that attracts resources away from the already under-resourced districts. I felt it more important to be in the urban school districts where the behavioral issues were most pressing and the impact of a teacher is most needed. But I also found that I couldn’t survive there—at least, I found I couldn’t survive there while being the type of person I was striving to be. Being in the inner-city classroom for too long reverts one back to primitive survival instincts. Values like kindness and compassion take a backseat when your main goal becomes surviving the day.
The Inevitable Predictability of Career Tests
I’m a sucker for a good personality test. Still am, even as I get older and my personality seems to cement. I habitually take and re-take old favorites like Myers-Briggs, True Colors, or Enneagram just to see what my results are—generally, to see if they match the way I feel about myself. Retaking the tests as I mature, I’m always curious if my more recent results still match my results from earlier. Partly, this fascination stems from me always searching for new insights into myself—particularly, the kind of insights that feel certain and definite, like those garnered from the results of a scientific personality test.
My early college career was a particularly fruitful time for taking such tests. As an emerging adult trying to understand himself in a college context, such tests provided reassurance; they were like a friend who knew me well enough to point out that I’m not altogether crazy or odd. And with the personality tests came the related career-matching tests; young college me also needed to discern what role he would play in the adult world.
One test that stood out to me way back when and still stands out to me now was a career-matching test—the Strong Interest Inventory—taken at the career counseling center midway through my first semester. When I took this test, I was not looking for career matches in particular—I was still a stubbornly committed engineering major who was only taking the test as part of another class’s assignment. Given my doubts about the necessity of career counseling to begin with (I can figure everything out on my own, right?), offering the test as class credit was a great way to incentivize one reluctant college freshmen to venture into the career counseling office. However, upon having the test explained to me by the career counselors, I became intensely intrigued out of the sheer curiosity of what insights these tests might provide about myself.
The Strong Interest Inventory was not exactly just a career-matching test. Rather, it was a query of what I was good at and what activities I found fulfilling—and then the test metrics compared my results to the jobs in which people with similar aptitudes and interests described as fulfilling. Essentially this test was a comparison of how well my personality and interests would fit into a wide range of career fields.
A week later, after the results of the test were processed, I went back to career counseling to see the outcomes. As a college freshman blindingly intent on the engineering program, I wasn’t too happy with what I learned. Although already disappointed by the lack of joy that I was encountering as an engineering major, I was even more disappointed with the results of the career match survey. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that engineering was not in my top ten job matches. In fact, engineering scored rather low on the list, which gave some validity to the less-than-amorous feelings I’d been having to the engineering discipline. But—what I couldn’t get over was what my top career matches actually were.
Sitting there smack dab in my top ten matches were jobs I’d never even think of considering: chiropractor, corporate trainer, school counselor, nursing home administrator…on and on. Sure, I definitely could have seen myself as a carpenter. But match number two as a minister? (oddly enough, writing a blog post seems peculiarly similar to writing a sermon). And my top match…an elementary school teacher?!? What?!?!? Are you sure you didn’t mix my results up with someone else?
To my abundant surprise, my top ten career matches were vastly different than expected. As high school me had thought so strongly of his performance in the ‘hard’ disciplines of math and science (my stronger subjects in high school) and had greatly relished his introversion (i.e., I didn’t want a job working with people), he couldn’t have seen himself touching any of those occupations with a ten-foot pole. Opposite of my hard-science, asocial bias, my top ten matches were all very much centered on the social disciplines.
As a college freshman, I found the results so far removed from my expectations that they were amusing, borderline comical. I quickly dismissed the results and switched my major from engineering to…biology (to stay in the sciences, of course). I was not quite ready for such a radical switch from the picture I had of myself as an elitist physical scientist, nor did I believe I would desire such a socially-oriented job either. Sure, engineering was not for me, but even less could I envision myself in those other careers.
I tucked the results of that career-matching test away in a folder, somewhat out of personal respect at the mound of high-grade paper it was printed on, and partly out of the sheer curiosity of how wildly unexpected the results were. I mean, c’mon…nursing home administrator?
But reality found a way of having its last laugh on me. Though I shunned the outcome, I nevertheless kept making choices that wound me closer to the results of the test. My majors in biology and environmental studies deepened my love of nature, a passion that I couldn’t help but share with others. So I decided to begin working in the outdoors in a capacity where I could share this passion, first becoming an outdoor guide and then later teaching environmental education. After gaining some experience with youth in education, it wasn’t such a big leap to take on classroom substitute teaching when the circumstances called for filling in a gap in employment. That, of course, led to working in public schools—where the bulk of available assignments come at the elementary level. Thus, out of economic necessity more than sheer personal desire, I found myself working as my top career-match from that test of my freshman year. Inevitably, I have worked as an elementary school teacher.
And you know what? I agreed with the test results. Far from the discordance I felt earlier while in the engineering discipline, I found the elementary job to be meaningful and fulfilling. Being an elementary school teacher was a challenge that I could both accomplish and feel like I was making a positive difference in the world. Somehow the results of that career test snuck up on me. I’m glad they did. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t even have begun to suspect that I would enjoy such a job.
Maybe there is a degree of validity to all these career tests that we take. After all, I didn’t go out in search of the types of jobs matched for me. Rather, one thing just led to another and I ended up stumbling to results myself.
(Perhaps maybe the results of another career-test will sneak up on me—during graduate school, I took a different career test that gave me the top occupations of nanny, combat soldier, gynecologist, and underwater welder. Of those, I’d take the underwater welder!)
Things Your Substitute Teacher Probably Never Told You
I’m not a certified teacher, nor do I have any training or classroom experience (but I won’t tell the the students this). The field is generally short-staffed, so any decently educated, mature adult can fit the bill. The work itself isn’t lucrative, and the pay isn’t too enticing either. Lots of us working this job are only doing it temporarily until something else comes along. And nothing irritates me quicker than having a student claim that I’m not a ‘real’ teacher.
I don’t know this school very well. In fact, I likely may have never been to this school before. So much of working this job is figuring things out on the fly—room locations, educational culture, school policies, etc.—and one of the best strategies is to find the nearby teachers who will be helpful throughout the day. In the classroom, much of the time I’m going to be relying on the students to ascertain whether I’m following classroom protocol correctly. And if I don’t do something exactly as your teacher does it—DEAL WITH IT!
I arrive at my assignment early enough to read over all the sub plans, always entering the classroom with a slight hint of dread upon the possibility that no material was left to teach in class. Though I may have read through all the plans ahead of time, I’m usually just a topic ahead of the class and I’ll use every spare moment to plan my next teaching move.
I often don’t know the material I’m teaching myself. I do know enough, however, to talk my way around things in order to give off the impression that I know. When I don’t know, I often ask for a student volunteer to do an example problem in front of the class—doing this might help jog my memory, but more importantly it makes the students feel more engaged in class.
I only have three sets of professional teaching clothes. I can get away with this because I’m usually never at the same school more than three days in a row.
I generally feel very appreciated by the school staff, even though often I don’t feel like I’ve done much in a day. I may not be a great teacher, but what’s more problematic for the school is having no responsible adults available to oversee the students. And at some schools, even making it through the entire day in the classroom is an accomplishment in itself.
My threats of punishment may very well just be empty. Since I don’t know enough about the punitive system at this school and where to send students for misbehavior, I often rely on the perception that a student will get punished as a method to gain cooperation. When I say I’ll leave names for the regular teacher about misbehavior, I make sure I do—but then I never know if the regular teacher ever does anything about it. When I do know where to send disruptive students, it is an incredible tool for classroom control. Sometimes all it takes to control a classroom is to remove one particularly disruptive student. At some schools, one of my initial tasks upon arrival is to learn how to call for security.
The teachers that the students fear most are often the teachers I fear as well. I’m not kidding when I tell the students that they don’t want Mrs. So-and-So to come into the classroom because she won’t be happy when she is forced to come in to chastise a deviant class. It’s not that I get scolded by the teacher for doing a bad job—it’s more like every time a teacher comes in to quiet my class, I feel like I’m not meeting the expectations of the substitute job.
I’m not just here to babysit. I’m here to teach, and I actually really love teaching too. Though much of my time is devoted to managing the behavior of the class, when I have a really engaged group of students, it makes up for the shortcomings of many bad days in a row.
I like it when students love me, but I think it’s often more fulfilling when they hate me. My goal isn’t to be the students’ friend, but if the students are mature, then I’ve found I can be more lenient as long as they are able to self-direct themselves to finish their work. If the students misbehave, though, I also like getting strict with them to the point where they clamor how their substitute is the worst one ever. When I hear that, I often feel accomplished for bringing some discipline to the classroom.
Sometimes I actually prefer the more difficult assignments. Sure, the suburbs can be nice and easy, and the kids can be very polite and well-behaved. But that gets really boring really quickly—those are more like the‘glorified babysitter’ assignments. At the other end of the spectrum are the really tough inner-city schools, where no one really ever has control of the classroom. I personally like the challenge of having a trying group of students with their myriad behavior issues, but only to the extent that their behavior is possible to be controlled. Not all days end up going well, and on those days where I fail I often get to learn more about how I could become a better substitute.
I also prefer working with younger grades—not necessarily because I enjoy younger students more, but because younger students need the teacher more. By the time students reach high school, they can pretty much take care of themselves. Younger students are often a squirrely handful, but I’d much rather have the day fly by with the many concerns young students bring to the teacher rather than spending the day being generally ignored by high schoolers.
I dislike showing videos in class. In fact, I often bemoan those assignments. Fortunately, I don’t show videos that often. Part of my dislike stems from having to watch the same video multiple times in a row—but more likely, I don’t like it because if the students aren’t interested in the topic, then making them watch a video leads to even more behavior issues difficult to control.
I can’t promise to remember everyone’s name. There’s only one of me, but there are 30 of you. And some of you may look similar to other students I’ve had before. I’ll try and pronounce you name right, but I’ve probably never heard of it before, nor will I understand how the letters in your name make certain sounds (like how ‘Aja’ is pronounced ‘Asia’). I feel bad for a lot of students based on their names—like the 7th grade girl named ‘Isis’. And with some names, like ‘Sir’ and ‘Everythang’, I have to hold back a chuckle while taking attendance.