Man Seeks To Right Childhood Wrongs By Substitute Teaching

Writer Rob Hiaasen found the idea of becoming a substitute teacher inspiring enough to give it a try. Hiaasen chronicled his experience as a substitute teacher for the Washington Post Magazine, and he talks with host Michel Martin it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.

Coming up, an upset in the world of step, thats a dance involving synchronized claps, stomps and steps traditionally performed by African-American fraternities and sororities. But a white sorority recently won a high-profile step contest and seems to have stepped into a controversy. Well hear more about that in a few minutes.

But first, do you remember any of your substitute teachers? Do you remember how badly you treated them? You can admit it. So, can you imagine wanting to be on the other side of the desk? Well, Rob Hiaasen can. He signed up to become a substitute teacher in Marylands Baltimore County, and he wrote about his first day of school in latest edition of the Washington Post magazine, which we dig into just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

Rob Hiaasen is with us now from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. ROB HIAASEN (Journalist; Substitute Teacher): Thank you very much for having me. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: So, Im going to put the question to you that I just asked the listeners. So, do you remember how you treated your substitute teachers?

Mr. HIAASEN: Not well. Not well at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIAASEN: I remember them mostly being rather older ladies, and theyd come in and often we told them that class only lasted 15 to 20 minutes and they seem to buy that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIAASEN: And then wed scurry off and be on our way.

MARTIN: I remember being lectured to quite sternly by our substitute teachers, who were retired teachers who would be pressed back into service. And what I remember their constant refrain being how much worse than the students they used to teach we were. That was my recollection of that. So, having established that, what made you want to sign up for that duty?

Mr. HIAASEN: Well, I come from a family of teachers and was a journalist for many, many years, and still consider myself a journalist. But I left my newspaper a year and half ago, and I was really looking for plan B.

MARTIN: Was it kind of like a try out, in a way? You thought if you like substitute teaching, you might like it full time, was that the idea?

Mr. HIAASEN: Absolutely. And I wanted to know how I would feel in front of a class. I mean, as a writer, I like the solitude of working behind a computer by myself. But to be on stage all day long was something that overwhelmed and intimidated me at first. And I wanted to see really if I had the chops to do it and I had the interest and the passion to do it as well.

MARTIN: One of the things that interested me is when you talked about your first. And I just want to emphasize, you didnt just kind of wandering off the street, there was some sort of a process. You were fingerprinted, you were -there was some...

Mr. HIAASEN: All of those orientation, oh yeah, I...

MARTIN: ...orientation. Uh-huh.

Mr. HIAASEN: Exactly.

MARTIN: One of the things that got me is you were given a list of pointers for classroom management. And number one on the list was dont smile at first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Whats up with that?

Mr. HIAASEN: Thats from my wife who has been a teacher for many years. And she said smile a little later maybe, but not at first because youre trying to establish credibility, especially as a short-term sub where immediately the kids think they have the day off. And so, I certainly didnt joke around at first. I wanted to let them know that it wasnt their day off. And then if that went well, I could sort of smile here and there. But I tried to have some sort of a semblance of authority.

MARTIN: But you also admit and Im not Im kind of peeping your card here, you said I havent been so afraid of high school freshmen since I was a high school freshman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIAASEN: I was petrified.

MARTIN: Sorry, Rob. Cats out of the bag.

Mr. HIAASEN: Well, theyre scary. I mean, theyre...

MARTIN: Why were you yeah, why were you scared? Come on now.

Mr. HIAASEN: Theyre sweaty and hormonal and talkative. And they look like they could eat you at any time, you know. And then you realize, wait a minute, I was that exact same person back then. Again, its this notion of being on stage.

MARTIN: So, it was like performing all day.

Mr. HIAASEN: All day and having answers to questions all day, and looking and acting the part of a grown up which Im not sure Im really up for all, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I was going to ask you what was the hardest part and what was the best part?

Mr. HIAASEN: The hardest part was the first time I walked into a classroom and stand in front of these kids and wondering what am I going to say thats going to set the tone, so they have a productive day. Because Im in someone elses classroom, I take that very seriously. Ive been trusted with their classroom and Im trusted with spending that hour wisely. And so, you really dont have a lot of time to be thinking about how nervous you are you have to get to work and you have to figure out what that work is.

And the best part is at the end of that class period, knowing that you did your job. I love the feeling of doing a job well. And thats why Ive become very interested in teaching.

MARTIN: So, was it worth the princely, what did you earn for that?

Mr. HIAASEN: Short-term subs is about 90 bucks a day.

MARTIN: Ninety bucks.

Mr. HIAASEN: And then if youre a long-term sub you get a little more. And if you go ahead and get certified, you can certainly make a living teaching. But you dont do it for the money, but I never got into writing for the money.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, how do you feel about the term sub? Is it one of those terms that people in the field cant stand like flack or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIAASEN: I dont use it and...

MARTIN: Is it okay to call you, sir?

Mr. HIAASEN: ...I dont...

MARTIN: No.

Mr. HIAASEN: I dont use it. And there is something about the word. It suggests, of course, that youre not the real thing. Youre substituting for the real thing. And, you know, in some ways you are. But I never used the word. And I actually find myself correcting students as saying, no, Im your teacher today. I think thats a more respectful way of treating subs, at least much more respectful than I treated them...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. HIAASEN: ...30 years ago.

MARTIN: Well, thank you, teacher for the day.

Mr. HIAASEN: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: Rob Hiaasen is a writer living in Baltimore. His latest piece appears in this weeks issue of The Washington Post magazine. If you want to read it in its entirety, we hope you will, just go to our Web site. Go to npr.org click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. And Rob Hiaasen joined us from member station WYPR. And, you know, the title of the piece by the way is, hate to tell you, The Substitute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIAASEN: Well, all right.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Mr. HIAASEN: Thank you.

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