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 Memories of a Substitute Teacher 

Ruth 0. Richards

Originally published in the Emmitsburg Dispatch
Republished in the Emmitsburg News-Journal

Call it what you willóstand in, substituteóI was determined to take the step of filling out the application to become a substitute teacher in the Frederick County Schools. I had heard horror stories about the discipline problems in the Emmitsburg School, but that didnít deter me. I had behind me an incident in the South Dakota school where I had spent one year that gave me courage.

A freshman boy about my size decided to become the class clown in a study hall. I let his shenanigans go on for a while, and then I struck and took matters into my own hands. I went to this boyís seat, dragged him up onto his feet, took him by the waist and set him back down firmly. I used that occasion to prove to the whole study hall that I meant business when I was in charge. Word gets around, you know.

I didnít want to be a full-time teacher as I felt an obligation to be home most of the time with my children. But I also wanted to have a bit of money of my own.

My first call came very soon. I have no idea whose class I was in, but when Mr. Jones called and asked me to come in, I went. Substitutes must be ready to drop everything, all plans for the day, or even for several days. Too many refusals and the calls donít come again. So, many mornings I put aside my ironing, my baking, a shopping trip or even a good day for reading, and went.

I had lots and lots of calls which means of course, that I substituted in many areas in the schools. I know that I was in very nearly all of the elementary classes in Emmitsburg and most of the high school classes. I think, however, that I never taught for Miss Stull. She was so strong minded that I suspect that she never allowed herself to be sick.

Regular classroom teachers have a responsibility to substitutes in that they are required to have a set of emergency plans for each class so there is no "What am I going to do today?" There must also be a list of names and a chronology of the hour-by-hour activities. Without these "helps" there is always a risk of chaos.

I was very lucky in that I had the ability to learn names very quickly. When I called the roll, I watched to see who responded and was able to remember that name almost immediately. Knowing the studentsí names, I think is the first step in keeping order.

I donít know where in the Emmitsburg School I began this venture, but I have some memories of this experience I want to share with you.

Opening exercises in each grade consisted of Bible reading by "the student of the day" and the salute to the flag, the words of which Mr. Eisenhower altered by inserting "under God." I was surprised by the Bible reading in a public school, as such a reading would never have happened in any South Dakota school. (Separation of Church and State). I didnít bat an eye, though, as the children were used to it and it was one time to get them to act as a group.

I practically prayed that Iíd never be called to go to the first grade as I was sure that the wiggling of the six-year-olds would drive me crazy. Not to worry. When I did go to Mrs. Learyís room I found the most complete set of plans, plus comments about which child might be a disturbance or which ones would and could be helpful.

As an example of the kind of information she had in her notes, Mrs. Leary wrote, "Joey is different. He likes to do things his own way. "Helpful? Indeed it was. During reading class Joey got out of his seat, put his fists up to his chest and began chugging around the room. I let him chug on. The other children, apparently accustomed to his behavior, simply ignored it, and the class proceeded. Joey finally stopped chugging and went back to his desk.

I like to read aloud to children and I knew from experience with my own children that reading was a way to still a restless group. I was in Mrs. Eliotís 5th grade class one day and after I had read a story to the group in the reading circle, Maxine said, "Mrs. Richards, you read just like a movie star. "Wow! I would have read on forever if Maxine had wanted me to.

Every teacher knows that elementary children do a lot of tattling. The more a teacher is willing to listen to the tattling, the more complaints that are heard. At recess time one day a boy came to me, "Mrs. Richards, Bobby called me "snot rag." I said to him, "And what did you call him?" "I called him a snot rag." "Well, then youíre even, arenít you?"

Both regular teachers and substitutes rely on inventiveness at one time or another. In some ways I had to use my inventiveness more in the high school than in the grade school. For example, I didnít have the ability to really teach music even though I could play the piano a bit. I found that rather than letting the students "do homework," singing would please them more. So we sang. Usually there was one student who could play the piano, but if not I would play. We sang favorite songs. The singing got a bit rowdy at times, but that didnít bother me. It was one way of getting rid of energy.

Other classes where I had to be inventive were math, science, shop and ag. Weíd have spelling bees, math bees, and all the other "bees" I could think of. Then there was "Show and Tell," taking the kids back to first grade and giving them a touch of public speaking.

Probably my most memorable substituting day was one spring when plans were being made for the May Day celebration. Mr. Jones called and asked me if I thought I could carry out the Home Economics. part of this program as Mrs. Remavage was sick. That challenge was made easier by the fact that the high school girls thought highly of Mrs. Remavage. She had been practicing with them before she got sick.

We practiced according to her instructions and when the day came, all went fairly well except for the fact the lights werenít on in the Auditorium. I didnít know how to turn them on and neither did anyone else nearby. The show was fine, but the parents and patrons sat in the dark and only saw the girls in their class-made finery while they were on the stage.

Mr. Corl always tried to make the students behave in the manner of human beings. At the end of one school day as the students were being dismissed for the buses, a male student for whom I had little affection said something nasty to me as he left the room. Mr. Corl heard he remark and sent this boy back to apologize. I accepted his apology and said, "It didnít change my opinion of you at all." He went merrily on his way not realizing I had insulted him.

Early in my substituting there was a day I wish I could erase from my memory. It was hunting season and word was about that the teacher I was in for had gone rabbit hunting. One of the boys remarked that he hoped all the pheasants would be shot as pheasants ate the rabbits. I of course disputed him. Pheasants were seed eaters, not flesh eaters. We argued and argued. "Do not." "Do, too." There was no way I was going to change his mind, and he certainly wasnít going to change mine. (Today, Iím wondering if pheasants do eat rabbits. I read in the paper recently that chicken offal is being fed to cattle.) Any argument there?

Twice I really had more days of substituting than I really wanted. One time was when Sue Martin was in the 9th grade, I believe. The other was the school year Ď57-58, the year of the Asian Flu.

A ninth grade teacher decided after the first month of school that he didnít like teaching and resigned. Mr. Jones wanted me to take the class for the rest of the year. I declined and was glad I had. I had no idea what I was to teach and got very little help, leaving me to feeling that I had done a very poor job.

When the Asian Flu struck it affected the whole school. I was in every class until I got sick. That too was not very rewarding as students as well as teachers were in and out and no one, including me, felt very well. I donít know if there was a substitute for the substitute and at the time it didnít matter.

My substituting days ended when I was offered a full-time job teaching English at the Thurmont High School, which eventually led to teaching at Catoctin.

What did I take away from all those days in the Emmitsburg School? One, in may ways it prepared me to be a better teacher when I got a real job. Also I felt good that I got to know all of the teachers and all of the students. I occasionally see some of the students and am able to recognize them. I got to know most of their parents as I was involved also in the PTA from 1954 until 1966.

And not least, by any means, I saved all of the money I earned ($18.00 a day) and bought myself a new Volkswagen. I loved that little car which I knew I had really earned. I have to say that I never had any discipline experience that I would call "a horror story." I managed to get along very well with most of the students and they managed to get along with me.

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Read other stories by Ruth Richards

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