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Substituting As A Subversive Activity

Chris Dixon

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 authority—state 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 teacher—a 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 into classrooms.

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 glimpses—vitally and necessarily connected to student experiences—into 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 it—sometimes 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 more—policing 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 concerns—that 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 further—into 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 power—policing, 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 walk.

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 irony—no idle wordplay—but, 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 biting—as 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 quiz.

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 sincere—more so than in most other schools at which I've worked.

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 classroom—the 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 systems—with 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, and—with others—struggle 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' lives—justified, 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 Holocaust—hardly 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 holocaust—the 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 capitalism—one that we used, incidentally, in the streets of Seattle.

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 cracks—the 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 accomplished.

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 promise—not 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 subversion—sometimes imperceptible, sometimes overwhelming—which are unmistakably seeds of hope.

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