Author’s note: I was hired as a long-term substitute teacher for the 2021-2022 school year. Every morning I reported to school and was assigned as needed to 6th, 7th and 8th grade classes as needed for all subjects. These are my impressions and observations during that year.
In 2017 then-President Donald Trump proposed cutting State Department spending by some $54 billion. In response, Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattias told Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” General Mattias, a man who had devoted his life to waging all-out war, was warning us that short-changing diplomacy would result in more war. I make my living as a substitute teacher, and in the spirit of Mad Dog’s remarks my recommendations for public education in this country are as follows: Either we need to re-build our public educational system, virtually from scratch, or we need to build a lot more prisons because, from what I can see, aimless lives of misery, poverty, despair, substance abuse, crime, and imprisonment are what American public schools are preparing our kids for today.
When people ask me what I would do to fix education in this country, my answer is as follows: I would burn every school in America to the ground, I would fire every schoolteacher in America, and I would start over from scratch. This might strike some as being a bit extreme, but the problems with our schools are so systemic, to use a word that’s in vogue these days, that I believe my proposal has a lot of merit.
I am a substitute teacher in an upscale but not outright wealthy suburban public middle school (grades 6 through 8) in flyover country. A typical school day for me includes leisurely taking attendance, reciting the teacher’s lesson plans, telling teenagers to stop talking and checking my phone. In the school where I work there are almost always at least two adults in the classroom, although there are sometimes as many as four adults. Extra “teachers” are there if one or more students have been deemed “special needs”, which can mean anything from having genuine cognitive deficits to a simple refusal to do any schoolwork of any kind. It’s not unusual for me to be assigned to a classroom in which there are more teachers than there are students. I am not so much a schoolteacher as a glorified babysitter, security guard, chaperone, life coach, and nominal authority figure, like when a kid has to use the bathroom.
How did I get here? In late middle age I discovered that there are agencies in my state which provide public schools with substitute teachers. You don’t even need to have a bachelor’s degree to be a sub. If you’ve got 60-90 college credits under your belt and no recent felonies on your record, you’re in. When I started subbing three or four years ago the pay was $70 to $90 per day. Now the demand is such that the pay has more than doubled and there still aren’t enough substitutes. They’ll pretty much take anybody they can get these days. At a recent social occasion, I mentioned that I was a substitute teacher in the local school system. A woman I didn’t know replied, “Me, too! What school do you teach at?” I’m not sure what this person was teaching but I think we can rule out English. Some schools are now offering substitute positions to virtually any adult working in the system. Custodians, bus drivers, even cranky old lunch ladies with Spaghetti-O stains on their smocks are now being tasked with teaching your kid what the three branches of government are or how a quadratic equation works. What the schools are looking for right now is, almost literally, warm bodies.
Teaching, at its best, is a dynamic, challenging, and stimulating exchange. A good teacher presents new information, puts it into some context, and introduces some new skill, some new understanding of the world, or both. Students take in the new information, reconcile it with things they already know (or think they know), work towards mastering their new skill, and ponder each lesson’s relevance to their real lives. I regularly see this process led by the real teachers at the school where I work, and it’s inspiring. Substitute teachers like me are another matter. Some of the subs I see in class are wonderful, dedicated educators. Some are uninspired, but harmless placeholders for when the regular teacher calls in sick. And some…well, let’s just say that it’s obvious why they’re freelance substitute teachers. As noted, it’s a seller’s market for subs these days, and schools are being forced to take whatever they can get.
I recently sat in while a substitute teacher I’m friendly with supposedly conducted a math class. Meaning, he recited the regular teacher’s lesson plan for the day in a robotic monotone, then half-heartedly suggested that the students get to work, but no biggie. This listless attempt at teaching I saw had the air about it of a final, sparsely-attended pitch session at a trade show in the Dayton, Ohio Holiday Inn. Everyone in that room, myself included, was just waiting for the bell to ring. My heart ached for those students, as difficult as some of them can sometimes be. One thing’s for sure: the taxpayers didn’t get their money’s worth that day. To paraphrase that old joke about working in the Soviet Union, substitute teachers pretend to teach the kids, and the kids pretend to learn.
So why am I being paid not to teach? Good question. I have a bachelor’s degree from a top-ranked, if not elite, university. While never an honors student, my college coursework included English, U.S. and world history, chemistry, biology, statistics, math (up to calculus), French, Spanish, and other subjects. My lived experiences include a vast array of jobs, everything from being a cook, assembly line worker and common laborer to high-profile, highly paid stints in the creative arts. I have traveled the world, befriended people of every background, met U.S. presidents, movie stars, and scoundrels. My people skills, to be honest, are probably in the top 1%. On paper, I would seem to be the ideal candidate to teach. And every day I report to school hoping to be asked to teach something to somebody. But after four years of being a sub I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been asked to stand in front of a class, present a lesson, and then lead my students through an hour’s worth of mastering that lesson.
Every day I think, “Maybe today I’ll get to teach!” And almost invariably I’m just the second, third, or even fourth adult in the room. I take attendance, pass out or collect worksheets, or just circulate throughout the room making sure that students are on task and offering them help, which is almost always declined. Some of the legit teachers seem to appreciate my presence, others seem annoyed that a seemingly useless adult is in their classroom. One teacher gives me assignments like photocopying images, then coloring them and cutting them out with scissors for the bulletin boards she’s always assembling. Another has me grade quizzes. Others assign me miscellaneous clerical tasks that any child could do. Once it’s obvious that I’m in for yet another day of not teaching, I take a seat in the back, occasionally scanning the class for signs of inattention, and try not to look at the clock, or my phone, every two minutes.
What makes this especially sad is that I truly love actual teaching. On those rare occasions when I’m teaching a student something—not something trivial but something conceptual and new– there’s that moment when the student looks away, and I can almost hear the wheels in their young brain turning, and they slowly look back at me, our eyes meet, and their face breaks into a smile generally reserved for Christmas mornings. That’s when I know, and they know, that they have just learned something. In that moment, their life has changed forever. Being a part of this process is one of the most gratifying things that a human being can experience. Moments like that are why people become teachers. If teaching was like this every day I’d do it for free.
I was recently asked to take over a dramatic arts class, a subject I know something about. I ignored the ho-hum lesson plans and, instead, led the students through a couple of improv exercises. Suddenly the room lit up. As each of those formerly bored, indifferent kids hit the stage and gave it their all, to the applause and roaring approval of their classmates, I realized that the kids were learning, and that I was teaching them. What a novel idea! Suddenly, instead of wondering how I was going to fill up the remaining 23 goddamned minutes of time remaining that hour I was thinking, “Oh, no! There’s only six minutes left! OK, actors, now please welcome to the stage, the incomparable…!” That day of teaching improv was a smashing success. I know this because those students were approaching me in the hallway for days afterwards and thanking me. One stopped me in the cafeteria and exclaimed, “You’re a great teacher, Mr. _____!” To which I replied, “And you’re a great student!” The next day I returned to my usual routine of telling Ezra to stop talking and checking my phone when I thought Ezra wasn’t looking.
Education worked well in this country when schools were being run by teachers and, by proxy, parents. Today’s public schools are being run by the students. This Bizarro-World arrangement has created a kind of educational mass insanity with an almost unlimited budget. While most children are blessed with a healthy curiosity about themselves and the world, most are also disinclined to do the hard work required to actually master various subjects. Schools used to be places where well-behaved children were guided through the world of knowledge by adults. Expectations were high. Assignments were graded rigorously. Deadlines weren’t simply suggestions, they were honored. Tests were demanding and carefully designed to measure each student’s progress. The smartest, hardest working students went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, or at least married well. The rest left school with minimally a working knowledge of the English language, basic arithmetic, a little U.S. history, and having read The Outsiders.
There was a deep respect for teachers then, sometimes bordering on a healthy fear, because classroom misbehavior had real consequences. The occasional unruly child was dealt with swiftly and predictably. The biggest motivating factor keeping students in line was the frightening prospect that if they didn’t behave the teacher would do the truly unthinkable: placing a phone call the student’s parents.
Today that system has been turned on its head. Students once behaved because they lived in fear of having a teacher call their parents. Today, teachers live in fear of having a parent call them, demanding to know why their Wyatt didn’t get an ‘A’ just because he failed every test and didn’t turn in any assignments.
And now a word about discipline and classroom order in my school: there isn’t any. About 30% of students at my school will never do any schoolwork, of any kind, no matter what you say or do to them. Some of these non-participants devote their entire days to being disruptive and defiant. Others simply stare silently into space until the day’s last bell rings. Another 30% of students are studious and well-behaved. They are in school to learn. A disproportionate percentage of these students were not born in the U.S. and do not speak English in their homes. The remaining 40% of my students are up for grabs.
I remember telling a student who was wearing a hood to remove it in compliance with the school’s No Hoods or Hats In Class policy. He looked me right in the eye, and said, “No.” I told the other sub in the class what was going on, and his reaction was to shrug and say, “Well, OK then!” Then I happened to see the assistant principal walking by and advised him of what was going on. The assistant approached the hood-wearing student, whispered something in the kid’s ear, and waited. No reaction. Then he whispered something in the be-hooded kid’s other ear. No reaction. Then, apparently satisfied with his efforts, the assistant principal left. Sometime later teachers voted to abolish the No Hoods or Hats rule on the grounds that it was unenforceable. Yes, clearly.
Part of my job as a sub is to circulate through the classroom making sure students are ‘on task’ and not playing video games or downloading porn. I approached a student once and said in a cheerful, friendly way, “Hey, let’s see what you’re working on!” “Nah, I’m good”, he responded without looking up. Translation: “Get lost, Teach.”
On another occasion I saw a longtime classroom veteran teacher trying to explain the concept of classroom order and obedience to a student. “You don’t have to like what I’m saying you have to do”, she explained gently, patiently. “You don’t have to agree with it, either. But you have to do it. Do you understand that?” The child was genuinely puzzled. He looked into the teacher’s eyes, stared off into the distance, then finally shrugged and walked away.
The level of disrespect for teachers is now such that many students treat us like the help. I recently corrected a student (from across the room) for being loud and disruptive. In response the student crooked his index finger in the universal “come hither” motion and said to me, from across the room, “Hey, c’mere.” This wasn’t a Mafia leg-breaker from Staten Island talking to me, this was a seventh grader. Not “Excuse me, Mr. ___, may I please speak to you?” Momentarily speechless, I approached him and asked, “What did you just say to me?” He shrugged, then resumed his outdoor voice conversation with nearby students. On another occasion the phone in the classroom rang and, without my permission, a student answered it. I walked over and said, “Please give me the phone.” Without making eye contact the student raised his index finger upward in what every Mom knows as the “Not now, I’m on the phone” gesture and continued his leisurely conversation with the caller. Imagine trying to maintain order and conduct any level of instruction in such an atmosphere. I can’t, either.
In an atmosphere of such blatant disrespect teachers have very few viable options when dealing with an unruly, disobedient child. Teachers are often reduced to bargaining with the reluctant student in hopes of getting them to learn. Instead of being banished to the office or being deprived of recess, the teacher gently suggests to the child run amok that they “take a break”, go for a walk, have some water, take a minute to “re-set”. The teacher, a grown adult, is now haggling with an indifferent, willful child, trying to find the exact mixture of magic words to convince the kid, who is now running the show, to behave until the next bell rings and he becomes someone else’s problem. The little scholar is then offered extra free time, excused from the assignment, sent to the gym to shoot baskets, even offered snacks if they’ll only stop screaming and throwing furniture. The unruly child is now being rewarded for misbehaving. I once saw a school principal, having been summoned to deal with a child who refused to return to the classroom, literally scatter a trail of candy across the hallway floor, in the direction of the classroom, hoping to entice the child, a la Hansel and Gretel, to go back to his seat. Right. Like that kid’s never seen candy before.
Instead of getting in trouble that student got exactly what he wanted: exemption from schoolwork, the rapt attention of his fellow students, and candy. I remember having a conversation with a principal in another school whose views on classroom discipline and order were quite different from my own. I asked her what she would do if one defiant child’s behavior was so out of control that it was bringing any opportunity to teach or learn in that class to a screeching halt. This principal, no doubt a person with an advanced degree and many years of experience in elementary education, told me that in that situation she would remove all the other students from the class—the ones who were behaving, the ones who were there to learn—rather than make the disruptive child feel bad by removing him from the class. Mind you, this was the principal. Remember when principals were slightly scary figures of absolute authority? You do? Wow, how old are you?
What happens when a kid just won’t behave? Well, it’s not pretty. First, the teacher issues a verbal warning, or in some cases 20 verbal warnings. If that doesn’t work the errant student is subjected to the dreaded Tabbing In, during which they are compelled to…leave their assigned seat and go to a different seat. If the behavior doesn’t improve the teacher has no choice but to go to the next Dickensian level: Tabbing Out. For this the student is banished to another room with a piece of paper and a pencil and told to write down what they did wrong. I’m not sure why the problem student would be more likely to obey this direct order any more than he was the previous ones, but that’s the theory. Eventually the student is allowed to return to class. Which, by the way, is now in a state of utter pandemonium thanks to the wayward student’s hijacking the entire hour that was supposed to be devoted to learning for his own amusement. And what if the surviving child continues to misbehave?
An African-American teacher at least 6’8” in height and tipping the scales like the defensive tackle he once was is summoned, at which point old-fashioned coercion and physical intimidation takes over. A call home to the kid’s parents is now a possibility, provided the parents speak English and have a cell phone. And remember, this is in what’s considered a “good” school district, not some crumbling, inner city institution or extremely rural, one-room backwater schoolhouse. This is in an area of the U.S. where the median household income is well above the poverty line and a high percentage of parents are married and have a college degree.
By now some of you are convinced that I’m a heartless ogre because the behavioral problems I’ve described are often just the result of the abusive homes that difficult kids come from. Leaving aside the part about me being an ogre, you’re correct that the home lives of many of these kids are deplorable and I grieve for every one of them. When a ten-year-old child peppers me with ‘F’ bombs and ‘N’ words, then calmly assures me that she’ll cut a bitch, I have a pretty good sense of what her home life must be like. But I remain convinced that regardless of a child’s circumstances the misbehavior itself cannot be tolerated.
Ask any teacher: the current system of kid glove treatment for chronically unruly students clearly isn’t working. It’s truly sad to me when a little kid’s life is so miserable that they only way they can deal with it is to throw chairs around and tell the teacher to go ‘F’ herself. That child isn’t just raising hell, they’re refusing the marvelous, free educational opportunities that have been laid at their feet. Clearly, such kids need our help. That said, what cannot be tolerated is for a student who’s chronically disruptive, for whatever reason, to rob his fellow students of their chance to get an education. Someday these unruly students will be out of school and, one hopes, working. In some job where they will be expected to be on time and to complete assignments correctly and on deadline for bosses who don’t really care about their crummy childhoods. What they’ll discover in the real world of adulthood and work is that insolent, unproductive, defiant troublemakers don’t get held back a year or miss recess, they get fired.
So what, if anything, are kids at Lord Of The Flies Middle School being taught these days? Instead of the three ‘R’s, the public schools I’m familiar with are mainly teaching kids that:
- Their actions have no consequences.
- They’re in charge, adults are just there to serve them.
- Very little is expected of them, academically or behaviorally.
- That they’re all incredibly special, gifted, and wonderful!
In terms of academics the curriculum at the middle school where I teach is about 80% (1) social justice (slavery, Jim Crow, and intractable white racism) and (2) climate change. The remaining 20% of classroom time is devoted to a variety of miscellaneous topics. In other words, it’s remarkably similar, both stylistically and in terms of content, to a typical day’s programming on National Public Radio.
Not only that, but social justice and climate change messaging has a way of bleeding over into lessons on seemingly unrelated subjects. For example, in a Social Studies class I recently sat in on students were discussing the history of political cartoons in American politics. The teacher showed the kids several political cartoons– every one of which was about climate change. A math class began with a lengthy tribute to Ketanji Brown Jackson, who had recently joined the Supreme Court, followed by the math lesson itself: a discussion of how world and U.S. maps were being updated to reflect the effects of climate change. This was in math class.
Thanks to my generation, the Baby Boomers, public schools have become places whose main purposes are (1) providing a daily dose of progressive indoctrination, and (2) the endless pursuit of a strangely concocted version of self-esteem. Someone forgot to tell us that for it to be genuine self-esteem must be earned, not conferred like that phony diploma the Wizard of Oz gave the Scarecrow.
Here’s a little hint for you Baby Boomer teachers out there: The surest path to genuine self-esteem is achievement. It is the accomplishment of something. It is setting a goal, working hard towards achieving it, doing more than you thought you could, and, finally, the satisfaction of having done something you’re proud of. That’s the stuff of self-esteem.
Here’s what’s NOT the stuff of self-esteem: being told, endlessly and for no apparent reason, that you’re incredible. Special. Amazing. And that workhouse in the self-esteem movement’s toolbox of adjectives, awesome. Think about that word for just a moment. “Awesome”. Have you ever been genuinely awestruck in your entire life? Have you ever witnessed a perfect ‘10’ floor exercise at the Olympics from a front-row seat? Ever watched an iceberg shrug off a 10-ton section of steel blue ice at close range? What about witnessing up close the birth of your first-born child? If you’ve ever done any of these things you’ve actually experienced something that was truly awesome– a word which means “that which would inspire feelings of awe”– during your life. The way students today are being told that they’re awesome for the most modest of accomplishments is nothing short of verbal child abuse.
Apart from being phony and patronizing, excessive fawning over students leaves educators in the position of running out of superlative runway. What would you say if the kid whose ass you’re kissing every day actually did something remarkable, like turning in a great book report or getting a ‘5’ on an AP test? He’s already been told dozens of times every day since birth that he’s “awesome”. How do you top that? Thanks to your extravagant use of superlatives that kid is numb to praise. Worse, she knows you’re an apple-polishing BS artist who pathetically sucks up to little kids, someone whose word means less than nothing. Why should she believe anything else you might have to tell her, much less teach her?
The daily praise-a-thon that public school students must endure isn’t just an ad-libbed stream of unearned accolades. In my school it begins with the morning announcements. After mentioning the date for school pictures and yesterday’s girls’ soccer results the students hear– I swear to God– “…and now for today’s Daily Affirmations!” Which go something like this:
“Dear students—as you go about your day, please know that you are loved and accepted for the unique and wonderful individual that you are! Remember that you are important to every single adult here at _______ Middle School. You are smart! You are talented! You are beautiful! And the entire team here at _____ Middle School believes in you! Always believe in yourself. We love you and we will always support you in every way we can as you learn and grow. Have a great day, always be kind to others and to yourself, and, of course, stay safe!”
The kids have heard this syrupy pablum so much that most tune out completely. Which is good because the messages it contains are so insidious and foolish. For example:
- Who goes on a public address system and tells hundreds of people they don’t know personally, “I love you!”? How do you know you love them? All of them? You haven’t even met most of them. You’ve turned the most beautiful three-word expression in the English language into white noise.
- I’ll grant you that every human being is unique and intrinsically worthwhile. But it is just a lie to tell every student that they are all smart, talented, and beautiful. It’s simply not true, they all know it, and you cheapen those words every time you do this.
- The whole “stay safe!” mantra has nothing to do with anybody being safe. I once saw (at another school) a child fall off a merry-go-round at recess, at which point an assistant teacher grasped the child by the jacket and bellowed into his face, “ARE YOU SAFE?” Not “Are you OK?”, or “Hey, what happened, buddy?” or something a sane person might ask a child who had just had the wind knocked out of them. Fact is, these incessant references to being “safe” are simply the school’s way of indemnifying themselves in the event of a tragedy such as a school shooting. In the same way that testing employees for drug use has nothing to do with drugs (it’s how the company avoids liability in case of a work-related accident), students are constantly, incessantly being asked if they’re safe, and urged to “stay safe” (whatever that means) so that the school can claim to have done everything possible to prevent high-profile tragedies if and when they occur. “Are you safe?” or “Stay safe!” are the school equivalents of “Sending thoughts and prayers” following a high-profile tragedy. A bunch of words, strung together on the advice of our attorneys, consoling nobody and signifying absolutely nothing.
Browbeating students into feeling good about themselves for no particular reason has turned our public schools into a totalitarian regime’s re-education camps. But instead of extolling the virtues of collectivism our schools endlessly remind students of just how special they are. The Big Brother-like Daily Affirmations emanating from the P.A. speaker on the wall in every classroom are eerily reminiscent of messages blaring 24/7 from the giant loudspeakers inside a North Korean prison camp. At first they’re oppressive and demoralizing, but after a while you don’t even hear them anymore. How special!
I understand, respect, and admire the fact that today’s students are exposed to vast new vistas of knowledge and gifted with a dazzling array of skills, particularly in the digital and global realms, that were simply non-existent when I attended public school. And I give my students a great deal of credit and kudos for having endured the past two years of pandemic lockdowns and the resulting losses in both academic and social development they suffered. Still, I am appalled at how little is expected of students today. In my experience less than half of a typical 55-minute period of classroom time is devoted to actual instruction. The remainder is frittered away in minutia such as chit-chat about weekend plans, monitoring each student’s emotional vital signs, and the constant struggle to coax students into taking their seats, putting away their phones, shutting their (often useless) laptops, being quiet, and paying attention. Teachers are reduced to literally begging their students to spend just a little time focusing on the subject. In exchange for doing just a few minutes of work students are enticed with the promise of unhealthy treats, permission to listen to music, even extra “free time”– as if the bulk of their time in class is anything but free time with just a hint of instruction.
I recently assisted in an “educational support” class which consisted of students who were, shall we say, unenthusiastic about the learning process. The teacher gently reminded them that there was a big test tomorrow, the results of which would be key to their academic progress. To my amazement the teacher then projected a “cheat sheet” for the next day’s exam on the screen and explained that all information they would need to pass the test were contained on the cheat sheet (the mere possession of which would have gotten you expelled back in the day, hence “cheat sheet”). As the teacher explained, if they would simply copy the information on the screen onto a sheet of paper– which they could have in hand while taking the test— they were virtually assured of passing. This news was greeted with yawns and blank stares. “Do I have to copy down the whole thing?”, one asked. “It doesn’t matter how I do on the test”, said another, “I’m gonna be a welder.” The teacher, clearly a veteran of decades of classroom skirmishes, was almost in tears as she literally beseeched the students to allow her to help them, in effect, cheat on tomorrow’s science test.
To be clear, this was not about the knowledge these students should already have absorbed. That ship had already sailed. No, this was about students regurgitating information provided to them the day before the test so the entire class wouldn’t fail that test. I couldn’t help but imagine what students in places like India and Japan were doing in class that day while a teacher here begged our kids to care. It’s hard to say for sure, but my guess is the kids in those countries weren’t being spoon-fed a cheat sheet for tomorrow’s science test. If this is the new normal I suspect that most of the “brilliant, talented, and special” American students I “teach” are looking at a future of working for Uber and DoorDash, minimum wage servants of their wealthy counterparts from India, Japan and other countries where education is taken seriously. Well, as many before me have sagely observed, at least the American kids will feel good about themselves.
Not surprisingly, loads of talented teachers who are sorely needed are now retiring in droves, some even opting for less lucrative early retirement, because they’ve just had enough. You can learn a lot from eavesdropping on your fellow educators in the teacher’s lounge. Here are the two most common remarks I hear, and what they mean:
- “Well, things have REALLY changed.”
Something you hear from teachers on the home stretch towards retirement. It means, “Every year it gets harder to teach because of all the shit we have to put up with. The kids are defiant and their parents don’t care. Some parents even encourage this behavior because their precious Aidyn can do no wrong. I bust my ass to teach these kids, but if the tests we give them were legit at least half of my students would fail. And then guess who’d get blamed for that?”
Other complaints, mostly spoken in whispers, are more…problematic. “I teach U.S. history, and what we ever seem to talk about is how awful the United States is. Slavery, Vietnam, Nixon, and last January 6th. That’s it? That’s our whole take on American history?” Or, “I teach science and all we ever talk about is climate change. There’s more to science than climate change, right?”
Or even, “I have to think twice before I discipline a child who isn’t a white male because there are people who keep track of such things and the worst thing any teacher can be accused of is being racist.”
And the other whispered remark I overhear on a regular basis is,
- “Hey, if they don’t want to learn, well…(SHRUG).”
This is the most heartbreaking thing to hear because “they” refers to their students. Embittered teachers, some of them relatively young, who’ve been rebuffed by reluctant students and beaten down by the system say this. Some leave the profession altogether. That’s our loss. Others will become “lifers” who phone it in for 30 years, working half-heartedly with the easy students and ignoring the rest, passing them through the system like flawed piecework on a factory conveyor belt until the kids graduate without having learned much of anything.
I am mystified by the enormous gaps in practical knowledge students of today have. Spelling is a lost art, thanks to SpellCheck. Cursive writing might just as well as hieroglyphics. Analog clocks? You’re kidding, right? Then there’s that mysterious labyrinth of dark knowledge once known as “the multiplication tables”. When I was in fourth grade I was forced to memorize the multiplication tables. It took me over a month, armed with just a set of laminated cardboard flash cards. To this day the multiplication tables are imprinted on my brain, accessible to and used by me regularly. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if the last words spoken by me, on my deathbed, were, “Nine times seven is sixty-three.”
Memorization currently resides in the dustbin of educational history, like the diagramming of sentences, long division, and corporal punishment. Still, I despair when an otherwise normal, seemingly bright 7th grader needs to use a calculator or, worse, to count on his fingers to tell me what six times seven is. “You mean you don’t know your times tables?”, I used to ask, like a wizened old crone asking the intrepid time traveler, “You mean you don’t know the Seven Curses of Belzebub?” I want to ask these kids, do you happen to know all 26 letters in the English language, in alphabetical order? How did you learn that? Didn’t you memorize your home address? The names of the days of the week, the months? The passwords for all of the many digital devices you own? So why don’t you know, right off the top of your head, that seven times seven is forty-nine? How do you shop? Sorry, I mean, how do you order things on Amazon?
Students are endlessly capable of generating new distractions designed to avoid schoolwork. Gender fluidity, this generation’s version of the hula hoop, is the latest one. Yes, the age-old complaint of, “Mrs. Phelps, he’s staring at me!” has been replaced by, “Mrs. Phelps, he mis-gendered me!” I discovered this new wrinkle in education after referring to a student as “she” because, despite her tomboyish hairstyle and androgynous attire, she was clearly a very pretty, very feminine young lady. A nearby student shook her head at my faux pas, then gently corrected me with the news that, “She’s a boy.” Well, exactly. Of course, she’s a boy! I couldn’t have said it better myself if I were a record-breaking member of the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swimming team.
At the risk of starting a debate on the whole trans movement, I’ll just say this about our schools’ whole-hearted embrace of this curious phenomenon: By all means let’s continue to use precious classroom time to explore the currently on-trend gender fluidity experiment. Who better to discern, then announce this week’s gender identity than the students themselves! Because if there’s one group of people in this world with an absolute stranglehold, an airtight, impenetrable headlock on who they are, what they are, what they want, where they’re going, and how the world works, it’s girls in the seventh grade. Yes, even the ones who are boys.
As I’ve noted my favored approach to educational reform in this country would be to scorched earth the current system, root and branch, and start over from scratch. Failing that, here’s what I would do for education in America if I were a younger man: I would round up some investors and start my own charter school, called the Your Kid Gets Into A Good College Or Your Money Back Academy. Students at my Academy would all wear simple, comfortable, affordable uniforms. They would always address teachers as, “Miss”, “Sir”, or M’am”. There would be a zero-tolerance policy towards excessive talking, horseplay, or similarly disruptive behavior except for on the playground, where such behaviors would be encouraged. While the school would be co-ed, individual classes would be all male or all female since roughly 80% of classroom distractions consist of boys trying to win the attention or approval of girls, or vice versa.
No students would be allowed to have a cell phone in school, period. Students would not be issued a calculator until they had memorized the multiplication tables and learned to perform routine arithmetic up to three figures using a pen and paper. Starting in the sixth grade every student would be required to study a language other than English. Strict, on-time deadlines for homework assignments in all classes would be maintained. Students would be tested regularly to determine their academic progress. Academic subjects would be presented as free of partisan political overtones, celebrity culture-based influences, or mainstream media-approved social trends as possible. Students from every legitimate political persuasion would feel welcome, validated, and heard during classroom discussions.
Above all, the policy with regard to any form of misbehavior, truancy, defiance, physical violence, abusive language, disobedience, or other disruptive behaviors in class would be as follows: (1) For a first offense the student would be removed from the classroom and their parents informed by phone of the infraction and, (2) for a second offense the parents would be told to report to school immediately to pick up their now-expelled student, in which case no refund of tuition would be forthcoming. Graduates who failed to secure acceptance by a top-tiered college or university would receive a full refund for all tuition paid during their education. And every year our football and basketball teams would kick some ass.
Be assured that the waiting list for my Academy would be long, its graduates would be happy, successful adults, and tuition refunds would be rare.
A note on education and money: If there are two things every right-thinking adult in the United States can agree on, it’s that our public schools are chronically under-funded and that our public school teachers are cruelly underpaid. Everyone knows this, right?
Wrong. As a substitute “teacher”, and I use the term advisedly, performing the mundane daily duties I have just described, I am paid $225.00 per day, every day, which is a tidy $31.00 an hour, or $1,125.00 per week. Because, as you know, all U.S. schools are chronically under-funded and all teachers are cruelly underpaid. And don’t even get me started on the vast sums of money spent on the mountains of textbooks that are briefly glanced at, then recycled a year later, the literal millions that are spent equipping every student with a state-of-the-art laptop computer that’s mostly used to play Minecraft, or the cafeteria food chock full of healthy choices, most of which goes directly into the garbage can every single day.
Where does all this money come from, I often wonder. COVID relief funds? The Lotto? Are there massive bake sales going on every week that I’m not aware of? I sometimes picture myself and my fellow substitute teachers as random strangers gathered around a broken Las Vegas slot machine that spews out an endless deluge of silver dollars. We shrug our shoulders and avoid eye contact as we scoop up our ill-gotten gain. Every so often some goody two-shoes says, “Hey, shouldn’t we call the manager or something?” We ignore the idiot who’s going all civic minded on us, and soon he’s stuffing his pockets, too. We’re humans, we tell ourselves. If I don’t take this free money, somebody else will, right? I don’t understand it, but I’m getting mine. Who cares?
I’ve got lots more to say about the joys and heartaches of being a substitute, but I’m off to another grueling day of babysitting eighth graders at an underfunded school for seven hours for the paltry sum of $225.00, which is $31 an hour or $1,125.00 per week of somebody’s tax dollars. Kids, always remember that we love and support you because you’re special and awesome! Have a great day of learning and growing, don’t forget to hydrate, and stay safe! AND GOOD LUCK IN PRISON!
Your Fake Teacher
E.G. Reiss was a network television script writer for 25 years in New York and Hollywood. After being outed as a conservative and fired from show business Reiss returned to America’s Heartland where he teaches school, does occasional political commentary, and pretends to work on his memoirs. Note: Reiss is not currently, and never has been, suicidal.