A Day in the Life of a Substitute, er Supply Teacher


I snarl at the thin man who is going by me pushing a cart. He clears his throat vigorously and rings his bell to get my attention. He’s selling samosas, pakoras and gulab jamun. He jettisons betel nut juice from his mouth onto the broken asphalt road and it blends into the red-stained pattern already there. He says something unintelligible to me, except for the word sahib. I bark at him to stop the noise and the spitting. He stares at me as though I were crazy. He rings his bell again. I feel like slapping the idiot stare from his face but just as I start towards him my dream world collides with the real one and I awake. My phone is ringing. At 6:23 a.m. that could only mean one thing. Damn! I swear quietly as reality sinks in.

I’m a Substitute, er Supply teacher. The school board dispatch is calling me for some leftovers. I’m torn. It is a frigid Friday morning in January and I would prefer to go back to sleep and return to my dream of India. I had lived there for two years and it has never left me. Or maybe I never left it, in spite of the hacking and spitting. India tends to have that effect on you. But that was long ago and I have to get on with making my reality tolerable.

I pick up the receiver and wait with morning breath for the cheery voice that usually greets me. After two years you would think she knows my voice by now. But I suppose she has to stick to the protocol.

“Sam?” she asks. No, Sam is in India, I want to tell her. But I muzzle my infectious charm and reply in matching cheeriness, “Yes, Sam here.”

“Sam, can you do a full day at JRC Secondary today?” I’m skeptical. I know the scenario only too well by now. Some weary teacher wanted a long weekend and decided to call in sick. And I’m the schnook lucky enough to get his or her job for the day. Hooray! Another hundred and something dollars in the kitty. But I must not look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Of course I can,” I reply, looking on the positive side. If I’m going to get dressed and go out for the day, it pays better to do so for a full day.

“Super!” my bright-voiced one replies. “You’ll be supplying for Jack McCallister. He teaches English. And they go in at… 8:40.”

“Okay,” I say, pretending I had written down the information. In reality, all I ever pay attention to is the name of the school and the start time.

“Have a great day,” she wishes me. I could hear in her voice the satisfaction of having successfully filled a vacancy.

“Wonderful!” I exclaim. “Thank you and the same to you.” At least it’s not one of those assignments where they call you at 8:00 and tell you that the starting time is 8:20.

I hang up the phone and sigh wearily as I think of all the things I had planned for my life but for different reasons they hadn’t materialized. Water under the bridge or over the dam, I grumble. Either way I have to high-tail it out of bed. Visions of smart-mouth kids dance mockingly before me as I pry myself away from the bed.

My struggle wakes my wife. “What’s the matter?” she asks huskily.

“Nothing,” I croak. “Go back to sleep.” Her obedience is astonishing. She pulls the cover back up over her head and is asleep again even as I stumble towards the bathroom. Petulantly, I think, “One of these days I’m going to be dead and I won’t have to be bothered with any of this—give or take twenty or thirty years. Okay, I could probably stand another fifty or so. Depending. Please God.”

I make it a point to be thirty minutes early for my assignments. Depending upon the situation, you could be dithering around for ten or fifteen minutes before you get instructions about what you’re really doing for the day—and where you’ll be doing it. And as if to complicate your life further, there seems to have been a conspiracy on the part of the builders. I sometimes get this feeling that they decide on the job where the next hallway is going to be. Not only that, but they seem to run out of numbers in a particular sequence, so they place an out-of-sequence number next to it. Today is one of those times.

“Oh, excuse me, but I’m looking for 122. This says 121 but the next one is 154.”

The teacher I ask for directions smiles sympathetically. He’s been asked this question innumerable times. He points and explains and I repeat. I go to the end of the endless hallway, turn left, go to the middle of that hallway, take the short flight of stairs down. I can smell the cafeteria from there even at that early hour. I follow my nose, make a right and go to the end of that hallway. Et voila! Nothing could be simpler.

The warning bell has rung and I’m about a pound lighter when I finally reach the classroom. I stand, locked out, listening to expressions of both delight and disdain as students begin to arrive to find their regular teacher is away, and that I’m the poor schlep they get stuck with for the next hour and fifteen minutes. “Are you our Substitute today?” one student asks.

“I’m your Supply,” I correct him. He has no thoughts on the distinction. “Substitute! Yeah,” he shouts elatedly to his comrades. This is never a positive.

I pounce on a passing teacher with a key who offers to let me into the classroom. I seize the opportunity to ask him quietly, “Oh, and by the way, where’s the nearest washroom?”

“Don’t they give you guys keys for anything?” he asks with a mixture of sympathy and impatience. It’s a rhetorical question and he begins to give me directions. “Go down this hallway…” I tune out. I’ll think of something when the moment comes.

Fridays are dog days for Supply Teachers—most of the time. I know it, the students know it. They make it so. I valiantly but vainly try to keep the dogs at bay, to get them to work. But two minutes into the period and I’ve read the signs and I have to decide which of my hats I’m going to wear: standup comic; games master; moderator of some topical debate. Or I’ll be the no-nonsense, off-to-the-office-with-you disciplinarian. Then again I could be the aloof, dispassionate, expressionless you-are- beneath-me elitist. This is what I do with my spare time, don’t you know.

I get through the period wearing my standup comic and games master hats. Then just as I’m enjoying my free period I’m informed that I have the first half of lunchroom duty. Here’s your walkie-talkie. Here’s how it works. “What am I supposed to be guarding against?” I enquire.

“Keep the hallways clear. Students do not bring food out from the cafeteria and eat with their friends in the main hallway. Students must clear away their own garbage. No rough-housing or throwing of food.”

Nice. Now I’m a security guard. I wish. Security guards are making a lot more than I make.

The anim…, I mean students are fed and happy. Lunch is over and I move to my next location: Shop! Welcome to hell. I hate machines and engines and tires and the smell of gasoline and oil and grease. And I hate raw wood and polish and varnish and tools, endless tools. Sinner man! Enjoy your rewards.

The period ends but hell isn’t over. One more period remains. It is the AR, where learning-challenged students go for assistance with their assignments. I show up and they don’t quite know what to do with me. Eventually one of the practitioners gives me a choice between reading the newspapers or actually helping one of the students. This is not why I got a degree in English, I think disgruntled.

I look about the room. One student who doesn’t like strangers regards me with suspicion—and a dare in his wild eyes. I won’t be offering to help him. Another is studiously picking his nose. And he likes to shake hands. I won’t be going near him. And then I notice one student who is working quietly alone, but seems approachable. I go towards him. He looks up at me and I ask him, “Need any help?”

“Yes,” he says. I sit down in the chair next to him. His name is Eli. He is reading an article to which he must answer comprehension questions. I listen to him read the paragraph. He isn’t too bad really. In fact he sounds quite normal. Then he sets about answering the questions. I watch him struggle for a few minutes then I make a small suggestion to him. “One sentence at a time,” I advise him. “Look for key words in the questions. The same words are found in the text. And where you find the key words, you usually find the answer.” We try another paragraph and he attempts an answer to the first question. I guide him to the key word. It takes him a bit but he tentatively points to the answer. I feel a strange warmth inside of me. I say to him, “That is correct. Now try the next paragraph. He does and he answers another question. And then he answers two and then three and by the end of the period he has answered all the questions in one section—on his own!

I feel something like a lump in my throat. I swallow hard and resist the urge to put my arm around him. I could see he’s feeling something like pride. Funny, I’m feeling the same thing. Finally I say to him, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can do anything you want to—if you put your mind to it. Give me five.” He high fives me as he grins from ear to ear.

I watch Eli and the others rush off to their weekend and their lives. They’ll be back in these same seats and these same rooms next week. And the weeks after that. And teachers will teach them and help them and yes, take a day off every now and then because they’re human. And me? I have this warm, tingling inside of me as I pick up my pay slip and hand back the little folder of rules and regulations to the Supply secretary. I tip my hat to her and wish her a good weekend. She smiles and thanks me. “See you again,” she says.

“You bet,” I reply.


Gil Brathwaite
Guyanese born, Gil Brathwaite has a PhD in Education from University of Toronto and has been involved in both formal and non-formal education for much of the last twenty years in Canada, US, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Gil’s two passions are teaching and writing. He published his first novel, Nothing But Ashes, in 2010. In addition to polishing up several short stories, he’s currently working on two manuscripts.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2012 issue.

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