Imagine you have been substitute teaching at a school just down the street from where you live for more than ten years. You love your work and you love the impact you have on your students. In addition to your teaching responsibilities you use your training as an accountant to help people with their taxes. The teachers you sub for love your attention to detail, your genuine concern for the kids and your work ethic. It’s a quiet life, but it has its rewards and makes you happy.
One day as you are teaching a man enters your classroom and watches what you are doing. He does not identify himself, but watches intently. He appears to be getting angry. In time he lets his anger get the best of him as he asks you what you are doing in a tone that is rather demeaning. You explain that you are following the teacher’s instructions and having the students copy down the classroom rules in their composition books. The man explodes in anger. “Why,” he asks, “are honor composition students having to do busywork when they could be doing so much more?”
This seems like a bad dream, but it actually took place in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The man in question later turned out to be School Superintendent John Deasy. The substitute was ten year veteran Patrena Shankling. Over the next few minutes, as the argument between the two escalated, barbs were cast back and forth about what they were doing and why. The superintendent felt like the students were capable of far more and were thereby wasting their time. Ms. Shankling tried to counter with the fact that A) she was doing the work that the teacher assigned, and B) having students copy the rules was a good way to avoid the most common excuses teachers often hear from students.
After Deasy left, Shankling had the students write an essay on what had just happened. They felt like the “super attendant” should have talked to the sub quietly if he had a problem. At the same time, they also felt like it was inappropriate for the adults in charge to be arguing in front of the students. Most of the students identified with the sub, calling Deasy “rude… aggressive… nasty… mad.” As one student put it, “Super attendant or not, he should have shown some respect.”
As easy as it could be to take issue with Deasy’s lack of tact in this situation, he does have a huge job in front of him. Only 40% of the students in Los Angeles County who start high school will graduate. Only 5% of students test proficient in math, only twenty percent in English. It’s an overwhelming job and Deasy certainly appears to be… well, overwhelmed.
One teacher, writing in defense of Shankling wrote, “He’s a bully, to walk in there and disrespect a teacher the way he did. It’s so easy for him to talk about what students don’t have. A lot of what they don’t have is respect.”
If you have been a sub for any length of time you have most likely experienced the kind of treatment Shankling received. Most schools talk a good game when it comes to substitutes, but in the end they see them as expendables. In Ms. Shankling’s case, she learned the next day that she had been banned from any further teaching assignments in Los Angeles County. Clearly, being a school superintendent has its advantages.