Substituting As A Subversive Activity
Reflections from a radical sub
Being a radical substitute teacher is like being a secret agent.
At least that's how I experience it. Less than six years ago, I
strolled into high school in Anchorage, Alaska as an unrepentant
punk rock kid with a strange haircut, weird clothes, and plenty
of scrawled political messages. Now I walk into schools in the
very same district with a nondescript haircut, a shirt and slacks,
and political messages tucked discretely into my briefcase. Somehow
it works. How I look, along with my privilege as a white, middle-class,
seemingly straight guy, gets me through the door.
Perhaps I'm the most surprised. As a recently graduated college
student activist, I'm more accustomed to challenging authoritystate
and corporate authority in the streets of Seattle, or administrative
authority at my former college. Yet, with no questions asked, administrators,
secretaries, and teachers all give me authority. They trust me
as a sub.
I should clarify: I am a trustworthy person. I'm not sneaking
into classrooms to abduct or indoctrinate students. No, I work
as a substitute teacher because I want to do something really subversive:
assist young people in thinking and acting critically in their
lives, their schools, their communities, and ultimately their world.
Paulo Freire would call it "educating for freedom." That,
with my commitment to fundamental social change, makes me an unabashed radical
substitute teachera rad sub.
There are fringe benefits. With no credentials but a college degree,
I get an insider's view of the US educational system. Under few
other circumstances would I be able to read the small quote tacked
in one social studies teacher's office: "Our bombs are smarter
than the average college student. At least they can find Kuwait." No
other way would a 'special ed' teacher confide in me that she wished
she could work with students who actually "think."
Being a sub gives me the opportunity, unavailable to even most
full-time teachers, to see a broad range of students and classrooms.
So, of course I see the disturbing social realities. At the same
time, though, I see so much promise, self-determination, and critical
minds that I encounter in young people every day that I venture
Along with plenty of promise, my job is also full
of complexities and dilemmas, insights and outrages. Indeed, radical
substitute teaching is an incredibly multi-faceted experience.
Here, I hope to offer some glimpsesvitally
and necessarily connected to student experiencesinto it. Consider this
a crash course, beginning with the politics of the job, pointing to troubling
ironies, pulling out some critical lessons, and ending with a constant sense
of hope. This is rad subbing as I know itsometimes discouraging, sometimes
inspiring, always enriching.
Politics and Power
Last winter, I joined with several dozen other subs in a bleak
school district conference room to munch on snacks and listen to
a recently retired teacher. Her words offered countless precious
jewels of wisdom, particularly concerning students: "they'll
do anything for free time," "I don't mean to make excuses
for them," "they have a different reality than you do." This,
of course, was substitute orientation training, where young people
are viewed as a different species and "behavior management" is
the phrase on everyone's tongue. In a room full of scared subs
(many fearfully anticipating their first classroom experiences),
more than a few obviously found our trainer's words reassuring.
Ostensibly, we're teaching and learning. Yet, if I were to take
my sub training seriously, I would likely accept that my job is
to monitor, anticipate, and "manage" student behavior.
I would understand that actual opportunities for teaching and learning
are, regrettably but inevitably, rare in my life as a sub. In other
words, it would be clear that what I'm supposed to be doing is
deciding and enforcing when students can talk, move, question,
and much morepolicing as teaching, teaching as policing.
Ira Shor reminds us that the classroom has its own micropolitics,
its own relations and legacies of power. Usually we don't hear
them labeled so clearly, but they are always present. With a careful
eye, we can see them in how teachers talk about the classroom.
Our sub trainer, for instance, warned us about students saying "deflating
things that make you as an educator lose control of the group." Her
example? "History sucks."
If subbing chiefly means outsmarting adversaries, otherwise known
as 'students,' then, yes, that comment can be construed as disruptive.
But for those of us who remember our own school experiences, "history
sucks" is really a very reasonable and fairly moderate complaint.
Indeed, it can even provide an opportunity for grappling with some
key issues about what history is and how it is taught and learned.
Of course, that would mean validating student concernsthat
is, intervening in the micropolitics of the classroom, undermining
what is normally expected of a sub.
It can be done. One of my favorite lesson plans is in fact called "why
school sucks." I first used it in a high school English class
with a sudden teacher absence and some tired fifteen-year-olds.
Grabbing two volunteers to write ideas on the board, I asked students
to tell me all of the reasons they thought school sucks. At first
cautious, they offered generalities like "getting up early" and "homework." Seeing
that I was actually listening to them, though, they grew more bold,
discussing particularly punitive security guards, examples of dreary
learning experiences, and even details about the physical structure
of their school. Soon the board was full.
With more time and energy, we could have gone furtherinto
student visions of what learning should look like, for example.
Within the space of minutes, however, it was obvious that they
had plenty of meaningful ideas. And contrary to my training, the
classroom wasn't disrupted; it was engaged.
Interestingly, one of the last brainstormed words that went on
the board was "subs." Most of the folks at the sub training
months before would do well to know that. However young people
may express it, they perceptively see what most subs (and teachers)
ignore: the choices educators make are often about powerpolicing,
if you will. To students, subs are the most widely recognized and
distrusted cops in the classroom, but certainly not the only ones.
Ironies and Inequities
When I was originally considering the idea of subbing, I mentioned
it to my fourteen-year-old friend Neotony. "Just remember:
you're not forced to be there; kids are," she warned. Of course,
she's right. When social psychologists Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo
wrote their article "It's Tough to Tell a High School From
a Prison" in 1975, they weren't saying anything that generations
of students didn't already know. For anyone who recognizes that
but still chooses to work in schools, it's a tough tightrope to
I'm grateful to Neotony because she keeps me in check. She encourages
me to see the ironies of maintaining radical politics while working
within established institutions like schools. This is not literary
ironyno idle wordplaybut, rather, the ironic incongruity
between what I believe and what I must do. Indeed, 'ironic' is
the only word to explain, for instance, the fact that during classes
I have to write licenses, otherwise known as 'passes,' simply for
students to use the restroom. And nothing else could describe the
reality that I have to steadily endure using brain-draining, stultifying,
white-washed history textbooks no matter how much I hate them.
Sometimes the ironies are even more bitingas much because
of the harsh social realities of schools as my politics. For example,
one day I found myself presenting a bland list of vocabulary words
to a junior high social studies class, the majority of whom were
low-income students of color. They carefully copied down each one: "capital," "tariffs," "means
of production," etc. Half a year earlier, acting as an organizer
with the Direct Action Network, planning protests against the World
Trade Organization in Seattle, I echoed the slogan, "Let our
resistance be as transnational as capital." Standing before
these twenty-five students, though, I realized that those well-intended
words would make about as much sense as those on their next vocabulary
That particular school, located in the 'bad' part of town, sticks
out in my mind. Above all, I remember the rundown facilities, the
lack of computers, and the students struggling to keep up with
their rote assignments from outdated textbooks. There, irony merged
with inequity. Still, the students were enthusiastic, helpful,
and sinceremore so than in most other schools at which I've
A week later, the inequity was unmistakable as I found myself
at the high school, largely white and upper middle class, on the
opposite side of town. With two computers in my classroom (and
abundantly stocked computer labs elsewhere), not to mention newer
textbooks, I was in a completely different world. At one point,
during a class discussion about the Great Depression, a young white
man offered his view of a major difference between the US in the
1930's and now: "today, most people own stock." Around
him, many students nodded in agreement. Obviously, most people
they know own stock. I suspect that the eighth-graders in my social
studies classes at the first school would have a different take
on the matter.
Students at both institutions, no doubt, experience the iron grip
that school has on their daily lives"bars on the windows
and chains on the doors," as one young man puts it. We shouldn't
forget that. However, for the white middle-class students, circumstances
are mitigated by their race and class, their access to resources,
indeed their insulation. Not so for those low income students of
color. For them, a lack of resources compounds the social inequalities
that already surround their lives.
The bite in this irony is that it's more than an illustrative word choice;
it has to do with the very real forms of privilege, power, and oppression that
young people see and feel every day. For me, the bite is that at times all
I can do is bear witness.
Lessons and Limits
Some of the most important lessons have to do with openness and
honesty. That sounds corny but it's true. I'm not certified, I
don't have years of classroom teaching experience, and I don't
try to pretend otherwise. Moreover, I sympathize with students.
So I don't hide my distaste for issuing bathroom passes, taking
attendance, and assigning busywork. I'm clear about who I am and
how I feel.
Students usually return the favor. One day in a geography class,
for instance, I noticed a young man sitting quietly at his desk
while most of the other students busily worked on extra credit
assignments. Walking over, I asked if he was okay. Sincerely, he
replied that on most days he "worked hard," but on that
day he needed to "take a break." We agreed that it was
unfortunate that he had to have his break in a place like school.
Certainly I can think of plenty of ways that I could have "managed" that
situation, but none so open and honest.
Beyond myself and my interactions, I've learned that there is
something else to be open and honest about in the classroomthe
limits of educators. At their best, even full-time teachers face
institutional constraints. With thousands of students crammed into
one building, with uniform class periods and just minutes for kids
to rush in between, with racially and class-stratified tracking
systemswith all of this and more, even the most dedicated
teachers have limits to what they can accomplish. For subs, it's
double. One day in the life of a school is barely enough time to
get comfortable in a classroom, much less influence an institution.
As a rad sub, then, I recognize my limits. Alone, I can't transform
the schools where I work or fundamentally change the lives of my
students. But I can encourage student reflection, honestly present
myself, andwith othersstruggle outside the classroom
to change social conditions that affect us inside the classroom.
The alternative is to approach teaching simply as a 'social service,'
momentarily improving students' livesjustified, of course,
but insufficient. As teacher Stan Karp asks, "Is our job essentially
to create 'safe spaces' inside an often ineffective and oppressive
educational system?" Clearly not, which means that those of
us who are educators have to keep learning lessons as well as pushing
and probing our limits. This is radical subbing, indeed radical
teaching, at its best.
Seeds of Hope
Being a rad sub can be difficult, tiring, even depressing. I come
back, though, because it gives me hope. I can count on the fact
that each day I spend in the classroom I will have at least one
experience that will make it all worthwhile, whether it's a conversation
with a student, a critical class discussion, or a shared laugh.
That's how I understand bell hooks when she writes, "learning
is a place where paradise can be created"not in the
sense that a school can be a perfect, cheery place, but, rather,
a place of possibility.
Hope usually comes in glimmers, occasionally in the most unlikely
circumstances. I was fortunate, for example, to be subbing one
day in a discussion-based world history class in which students
were going over the rise of Hitler and the Holocausthardly
inspirational topics, for sure. In the midst of it all, one student
intently asked how a country like Germany comes to terms with such
a legacy. Leaping in, I pointed out that the US has its own comparable
holocaustthe relocation and genocide of the indigenous inhabitants
of North America. With some gasps, a brief uncomfortable silence,
and then many slow nods, students began seriously discussing and
grappling with that legacy, one which affects us all. Moments like
that sustain me.
Hope comes in other forms, too. For one, I remember that I don't
work in a vacuum. Through chance social encounters, random sub
calls, and friends of friends, I've met a diverse array of deeply
committed progressive educators. For example, after giving a speech
about mounting struggles against capitalist globalization at a
local church, I was surprised when a number of activist teachers "outed" themselves
to me. Some are radical simply in caring enough about their students
to build inclusive, participatory classrooms. Others have more
explicitly political orientations and analyses. And there is a
lively spectrum in between. Beyond all of them, I also realize
that there are other radical educators and students doing incredible
work that I will likely never hear about.
Moreover, the political climate is changing. Many younger radicals
like me are even tentatively referring to "the movement," that
is, the burgeoning and at times uneasy coalition that challenged
the WTO in Seattle, confronted the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund in Prague, and disrupted the Summit of the Americas
in Quebec City. It's altogether unlike anything we've seen in the
last twenty-five years. And although still absorbed in birthing
convulsions, it's growing, changing, learning. I never forget that
what I do in the classroom is directly connected to those struggles,
which are global in scale.
My experience in the classroom, in fact, reassures me that those
struggles are vital. I think, in particular, of an economics class
for which I subbed. About halfway through a lesson, I noticed the
vacant stares as I wielded supply and demand charts. "Tell
me," I asked, "why is economics so boring for you?" Slowly
but surely, students came up with answers: the way it's taught,
how abstract it is, the examples used. Finally, one said, "if
we had more control over economics, we might care." At that,
many agreed. Unknowingly, they had leveled a fundamental critique
of capitalismone that we used, incidentally, in the streets
I'm not blithely hopeful. To my core, I'm still an unrepentant
punk rock kid, relentlessly critical of schools. My mind rarely
drifts far from the students I've seen who fall through the cracksthe
bored young man who played video games through an entire mind-numbing
geography assignment or the driven young woman who looked tiredly
upon another dreary chapter in her social studies textbook. While
unforgiving of the institutional constraints and structural inequalities
of schools, though, I remain equally hopeful about what can be
I'm sure some of this hope is related to the potential of those
who are still young. And I admit that there is nothing new about
seeing the possibilities of the future in the eyes of youth. But
I hold out. I see a promisenot in kids that can be manipulated
to accept my or anyone else's version of a 'better world,' but
in young people who can learn the skills to grasp their own destinies
and work together to challenge and change prevailing social, political,
and economic orders.
As a rad sub, I try to do my part. With a growing awareness of
classroom politics, biting ironies, and critical lessons, I enter
schools. With openness and honesty, I work with students. And collaboratively,
we sow seeds of subversionsometimes imperceptible, sometimes
overwhelmingwhich are unmistakably seeds of hope.