8 Hours in a Struggling School

By Amanda Grigg

Disclaimer: While I have an interest in education policy I am by no means an expert. My experience in this school probably won’t be shocking to anyone working in public education or studying education policy, and probably shouldn’t have come as as much of a shock to me as it did. I’ve read about failing schools, I’ve heard war stories from friends who teach in underfunded schools, but experiencing it firsthand was another matter entirely.

In search of a way to earn a bit of extra money while finishing my dissertation (without suffering the soul-crushing world of retail) I decided to try substitute teaching. In Michigan, the majority of K-12 institutions have outsourced their substitute hiring to staffing companies, so I signed on with one of the two in the area.

In order to substitute teach I had to send in official copies of my transcript, authorize a background check, go to the police department to have my fingerprints done (who knew they charged for that?), fill out a mountain of forms, go through several hours of online tutorials followed by quizzes that weren’t scored, and attend a torturously long in-person meeting. We spent approximately half of the meeting filling out forms together and another half hour being warned not to touch the children or use school computers.  The one interesting thing I learned in the meeting was that by the time students graduate, they have spent an entire year with a substitute teacher.

Classroom_desks_chairs_and_chalkboardI took this to heart, and was ready to lay down some serious knowledge at my first substitute teaching gig, filling in for a high school english teacher. It was the Friday of the first week of school. As recommended, I prepared a backup lesson plan, forced myself into dress pants for the first time since my last academic conference, and arrived at the school a full hour early to make sure I had time to find my classroom and prepare for the students’ arrival. It was still dark when I got to the school. The secretary at the front desk looked at me curiously then laughed when I told her I was a sub. She said I wouldn’t be able to get into my room for another 30 minutes at least.

When the secretary eventually handed me my assignment and asked me to sign in I noticed that I had been assigned to substitute for a Spanish class. I don’t speak a word of Spanish. I told the secretary as much, but she waved me off and picked up a walkie talkie, requesting a security guard to unlock my room for me. We had been warned at the sub meeting that we might be asked to fill in for another position occasionally, and that the staffing company recommended that in these cases we just “pitch in” and help out (and implicitly that we do so regardless of whether we’re equipped to teach in the subject area).

Following the directions of the secretary I made my way through the building, past the cafeteria and several banks of lockers. I paused at a bulletin board listing colleges students might want to apply to. Several were historically black colleges, the rest I had never heard of. Few if any had average ACT scores above 20. None of the major public universities in Michigan were listed.

I found my way to my classroom where I was welcomed by the other Spanish teacher, and then promptly joined by another substitute. Neither she nor the administrator who had ushered her into the room explained why they were placing a second substitute in the class. It turned out that she had subbed in the class earlier in the week, and wasn’t needed in the job she had signed up for for the day. She began filling me in on what they had worked on, and on what was going with this class.

BudgetCutCartoonMiamiHerald1According to my fellow sub, I was about to be the third substitute the students had had in their first week of school because the school had yet to hire a new Spanish teacher. She said that the school had had such low test scores in previous years that they were being looked at closely by the state (this turned out to be mostly true). As a result, they had fired about half of their teachers at the end of last year and had yet to replace them all. In their first week of class, the Spanish I students had learned to count to 10 in Spanish. They had no textbooks or workbooks, because only full-time teachers can request textbooks from the school. There wasn’t a notebook, piece of scrap paper or pencil to be found. When students asked to borrow a pencil we had to ask other students to lend them one. Most of the technology in the room didn’t work. The Spanish II teacher offered us a binder full of worksheets for the students but the school’s copy machine was broken. Earlier in the week they had used the projector to project worksheets about the numbers 1-10 onto a screen, but now the projector was broken and regardless, the remaining worksheets required the students to speak basic spanish. And they couldn’t cancel the class and move the students into classes with full-time teachers because they were required by the state to offer two years of Spanish.

As soon as students began filtering in I realized that the vast majority of the students were black. This might not be surprising in a school district that’s predominantly black (or if you, unlike me, hadn’t forgotten how segregated Michigan is) but the population of the school district this school is in is only 20% black. According to schooldigger.com the student body is 77% black.

We spent the first two periods of the day doing as much as we could with uno-diez. By the third period an administrator brought what they thought was a dvd for us to play for the students. But that turned out to be a software disc. Eventually they brought in a set of beginner’s spanish dvds.

At the start of every period the students, without fail, asked if I was their teacher. At first I said yes until I realized what they meant, “No, are you our real teacher?” When I said no I could see the (completely justified) frustration on their faces. Early in each period the students humored us. They knew their work was meaningless because there wasn’t even a “real” teacher for it to be turned into, though the second sub assured them several times that it would be carefully guarded and passed on once they had a real teacher. Their patience didn’t last long. They asked us whether we spoke Spanish, how they were supposed to learn anything if we weren’t actually Spanish teachers (fair points), complained that the first week of school had passed without them getting a real teacher, and joked that they were going to call the “Problem Solvers” (our local news station’s investigative team).

Throughout the day students regularly left the room without saying a word and returned halfway through the period or not at all. Students from other classes wandered in to visit with friends (greatschools.org reviews of the school suggest that this is the norm). When I followed a couple of students into the hallway to ask them to come back they ignored me and continued walking. The school has their own security but neither they nor administration ever ushered a student back into my class. A young woman interrupted class to ask where she could charge her cell phone. Several students got into a mostly playful yelling match, standing up in the middle of class to shout at one another.

There were also students who dutifully filled out the meaningless worksheets, asked questions, had us check their work. Students who volunteered to write on the board or share their answers with the class. And there were students who ignored the work who were clever and funny enough that I had a hard time not laughing at their jokes, students who walked out of class but returned to offer to help us fix the broken projector, students who I was sure would have been engaged if they trusted that their work was meaningful and their teacher was qualified. The students who spoke fluent spanish corrected the videos where they were dated – explaining that no, they don’t refer to e-mail as the spanish equivalent of “electronic mail.”

During lunch the second sub and I went to the teachers’ lounge, where she told me a bit more about the school. She predicted that at least half of the new teachers wouldn’t stay on past their first year, “the kids will break them.” Thinking back to the staffing meeting I worried aloud that we hadn’t taught anyone much thus far and she said “Don’t worry, they don’t expect you to teach them anything here. As long as they don’t hurt each other they’re happy. When I go to [a predominantly white school] I’m expected to teach but here, no.”

In 2012 just 1.3% of the school's students met standards for math proficiency. As of 2014 this number had reached 3%.
In 2012 just 1.3% of the school’s students met standards for math proficiency. As of 2014 this number had reached 3%.

I met a handful of other teachers, including two of the new teachers. When I mentioned the difficulties we were having they conspiratorially admitted that they didn’t have anywhere near the support or materials they needed. A new math teacher told us that she had been hired late in the summer and told to take the first week of school off as a professional development week, to get to know the school, prepare her materials, etc. She stopped into her classroom halfway through the first week and asked the substitute what her students had been working on. The sub said “Oh, I’m a health teacher, we haven’t been doing any math.” She came to work the next day. Several teachers came in to use the copy machine only to find that it was (still) broken. One mentioned that things might be easier once the students received the Nook tablets the school would be handing out soon. I assumed that they were part of some company promotion or technology grant, otherwise why in the world would the school invest their limited funds on tablets when they can’t keep teachers in the classrooms or maintain their existing technology?

By the end of the day the students were restless. A young man on one of the athletic teams (easily identified by his dress shirt and school-color striped tie) spoke Spanish and was clearly fed up with the week of sub-par Spanish. He rushed his fellow classmates through the work, chastising them when they couldn’t copy down the vocabulary words quickly enough. A student came in late with a sucker, then asked to leave class to go back to the cantine for more candy. His classmates made fun of him for eating so much, and he managed to look both hurt and humored by them. He later began yelling that a fellow student’s purse had been stolen. The young woman in question seemed unworried, and when I asked her what was going on she smiled and pointed to the boy who had hidden it, who quickly returned it to her.

I turned to look at my own purse perched on the teacher’s desk and realized that my cell phone wasn’t where I had left it (in a pocket of the purse). I had taken it out earlier to check the time because, of course, the clock in the room wasn’t working. I looked for it behind the desk, in the depths of the bag, in my lunch bag, to no avail. The other substitute walked over and I said, “I can’t find my phone,” and (not wanting it to be true) said, “no one would have taken it would they?” This time it was her looking at me in disbelief. “Of course they would.” The next 30 minutes sped by. The second substitute announced that my phone was missing and asked if anyone had seen it. The students let out a collective “oooooh someone’s in trouble” noise. An administrator and a security guard were quickly summoned to the room. They demanded that the phone be returned. The security guard asked me to call my phone, it went straight to voicemail. He announced to the students that he was leaving to review the video of the hallway outside of our room to see who might have left with the phone during the hour (you might not be surprised to learn that the cameras weren’t actually on at the time). Two of the students who were dressed for game day stood at the door, telling the administrator (their coach) that they were making sure no one left the room. The student with the candy stood up and began yelling that he had to leave the room to make it to his community service on time, “Lady, you better let me out of here!” The administrator came back and a security guard escorted the student to the main office. The security guard asked me to show him where my purse had been, what kind of phone I had, when I had last seen it. He explained that cell phones “unfortunately” go missing pretty regularly in the school. A few students stood in the hallway talking to their coach. Later the student athlete who had been frustrated with his classmates (and guarding the door) came into the room, took me aside, and explained what was going on. At this point it felt a bit like the students were taking care of me, shaking their heads and explaining that this happens all the time, offering to let me use their phones to call my cellphone company, asking whether I had Find My Phone turned on. The student athlete told me that a friend had seen the person who took my phone, and that they were in the process of searching him. He didn’t have the phone on him, so they let him go, and I left a number with the security guard and headed home.

School-to-Prison-IllustrationI didn’t hear from the school again until Monday afternoon. During the final period of the day they got a written statement from the student witness, which they said allowed them to call the parents of the student they now referred to as “a credible suspect.” Though I was still working exclusively with school officials, the language was entirely that of the criminal justice system.

Sidenote: they told me that the student had probably sold the phone for $30, which is apparently the going rate for stolen iPhones.

On Tuesday the student’s mother told the Dean of Students that she hadn’t seen him in two weeks, and that she had just reported him as a runaway. The Dean had already suspended the student for stealing the phone – a punishment thatI have never understood and which seemed particularly counterintuitive in the case of a runaway. He hadn’t turned up in school on Monday anyway, probably waiting “until the heat died down” about the phone. According to the Dean of Students, the student’s mother said that she was fed up with him and hoped that I would press charges. I told him that I wasn’t planning on doing so, that I was only interested in getting my phone back and saw no point in tying this kid up in the criminal justice system when he clearly needed help that it couldn’t and wouldn’t provide. He said he understood but urged me to press charges, saying that this wasn’t the first time the student had been in trouble, he’s done things like this before etc. He told me that if the student returned to the school they would hold him there because he’s been reported as a runaway, and that they would contact me if and when he does. I haven’t heard from them in two weeks.

I’ve done some research on the school since I left. I learned that enrollment has been declining over the past seven years and that white students are leaving the school in droves. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of students declined from 1357 to 651 and the percentage of white students went from 23% to just 5.8%. Meanwhile the number of students eligible for free lunch has skyrocketed – up from 29% of students in 1999 and 56% in 2002, it’s held steady above 80% since 2006. On the upside, graduation rates increased from 54.9% in 2012 to 67.6% in 2014.

Test scores are certainly poor enough to warrant attention from the state. In 2014 the school’s test scores ranked worse than 82% of schools in Michigan. In the 2009 Michigan Merit Examination (MME)  only 14.5% of students met the state standard for english language arts proficiency, compared to 28.4% in the district and 52.1% in the state. In 2014, 29% of students were MME proficient in reading (compared to 39% in the district and 59% in the state). In the same year, just 3% of students met the state standard for proficiency in math and science (compared to 14% in the district and 28% in the state).

In 2010 the school was one of 28 Michigan schools awarded a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) as part of a recovery act program targeting low-performing schools. Only the bottom 5% of schools in each state were eligible. Michigan received $115 million in funds in the first round of SIG funding, $5.3 million of which went to this school. The school district opted to implement the SIG “transformation plan” which is likely what my fellow substitute referred to when explaining the recent changes in staff.  According to the technology associate at the school, they spent roughly $1.5 million – a fifth of their grant – purchasing a nook tablet and ebooks/subscriptions for every student in the school. The Nooks arrived at the school last year and will, as another teacher mentioned, be handed out to students later this month.

Reviews on greatschools.org offer more examples of the day to day life at the school. A parent explains that “everyone is frustrated and burned out.” Another sub says they were “shocked by the behaviors of students. Each class had only 4-8 dedicated students while the rest of the class kicked chairs down, called me names, ripped up assignments and threw the remnants on the ground. I called security, and no one came.” Another parent says “in my opinion this is a terrible school for your students to go to.”

Three of the six student reviews call for greater parental involvement. One review is particularly heartbreaking  “For the adults who claim that there is no hope for our school, this shows how much support we have. I am a student who has earned my 4.0 gpa and I don’t believe that because there are bad apples in the bunch we should all be classified as hopeless children.”

I finished writing this from the Starbucks I frequent. It’s coincidentally next to a high school that’s less than 3 miles from the school where I subbed. This high school ranks in the 98th percentile of schools in Michigan, fewer than 10% of students qualify for free lunch, and the student body is 90% white. In 2014, 68% of students met standards for MME math scores and 60% met the standard for science (compared to 3% each in my sub school). Students regularly stop in Starbucks after school or during their free hours toting Macbooks, the girls outfitted in Ugg boots and NorthFace jackets. I’ve seen their mothers replicate a J Crew catalog outfit down to the bracelet. The girls next to me at the moment are reviewing for a quiz – “Who was John Winthrop? He was the city on a hill guy, the Puritan leader. Who was Montezuma? Umm. Who were the Aztecs? Why are we learning about this?” I ask them if they know anything about the school where I subbed, “I have no clue, I’ve never been anywhere near it…but I’ve heard it’s really different.” That’s one way to put it.


If you need to laugh after this (I know I did) here’s Key & Peele’s “substitute teacher” sketch