FORT WAYNE — Displayed on the back wall of the second-floor Spanish classroom at New Haven High School is a sign that reads “Learn a Language & Open the Door to an Exciting New World.”
At 7:30 a.m., 15 minutes before the school day begins, Susan May, in a white sweater and black slacks, walks through the open door.
Is she entering a new world? Yes, in a way. Although she has been a teacher for five years, overseeing a second-year high school Spanish class is a bit unique.
“I don’t even speak Spanish,” she confides long before class begins. And with the day still ahead of her, how exciting her world will be all depends on the six classes she’ll have to teach.
“When you have to go in cold, it’s a little more challenging,” May says. “Every class is different. … You have to play it by ear. You just walk into a different situation every day.”
“Ms. May,” as she writes on the lower corner of a chalkboard, is a substitute teacher who was summoned several days before to fill in for the regular Spanish teacher, Mrs. Schreffler.
Beneath her name, and to answer the question before it’s asked by students hoping to escape, she also writes, “No Passes!”
If anyone knows about not getting a free pass, it is the substitute teacher. Be it high school or middle, phys-ed class or physics, speech or Spanish, a fill-in teacher is the unproven stranger who has stepped into what occasionally has the feel of a lions’ den.
“It’s intimidating, especially when you’re a younger sub,” says New Haven assistant principal Keith Edmonds, who spent nearly three years as a substitute with Fort Wayne Community Schools. “Obviously you want to come in and establish that this is your classroom, but the kids, of course, know it’s not your classroom, that you’re just visiting.
“I think if you establish yourself as far as what you will and will not tolerate, kids know that this is not the sub that we’re going to have the party with today. I think as long as they’re aware of that, the day goes pretty well.”
The day starts off well for May, who has been given explicit instructions for each of her classes.
To keep the first period students occupied, they must complete a six-word vocabulary exercise. Because the lesson involves students talking one-on-one, the room fills with chatter, not all of which involves the lesson at hand.
May takes it all in stride as she slowly walks among the desks. A few students ask questions. Others stop talking about basketball as she gets closer.
“You kinda have to pick your battles – not be too overly strict, but you have to be firm with them, too, or else they’re going to railroad you,” May says. “I kinda learned to know what to make a big deal of and how to let go, ’cause you’re not going to change the world in a day. You have to just get through it and keep order in the classroom.”
While each school district – East Allen, Northwest Allen, Southwest Allen and Fort Wayne Community – has its own set of guidelines for hiring substitutes, those teachers from a pool of between 100 and 150 may bounce from one district to another, as long as they are licensed and have undergone background checks.
And not all substitute teachers are in a holding pattern, waiting for a full-time position to become available.
May, a mother of four, works full time as a confinement officer with the Allen County Sheriff’s Department. And she’s content to substitute-teach a couple days a week.
“What happens is they apply to be a substitute with us, then they register through the Educational Services Center Region 8 office,” EACS spokesperson Amanda Ricketts says.
“Let’s say I’m a substitute, and I apply at East Allen County Schools, and I go through the registration process and background check process, and I also want to make myself available to other school districts. I apply through their processes as well, and then I register with Region 8, and Region 8 makes the automated calls each morning, depending on the needs of each school district.”
On this particular day, the need of New Haven was the second-floor Spanish classroom.
A bell rings at 8:35 to signify the end of the first period. Five minutes later, different students occupy the chairs, and Susan May begins the process anew by taking attendance.
“OK, listen up,” she begins. “Here’s the plan.” And she informs them that their vocabulary assignment is due the next day – but if it’s completed, she’ll take it now.
No one steps forth with their completed lesson. Mrs. Schreffler will have to collect them the following day.
May’s second period class seems more active. A few boys are hesitant to take their seats. When May tells them to find them, they do.
She prefers teaching at the elementary schools, she says. The kids listen better, and they respect authority more.
“But they’re also a lot of work because you have to keep them engaged all day,” she says. “There’s no breathing room at all, whereas the older kids can work more independently.”
But as she said, she’s learned to pick her battles. Life as a substitute is much harder, she says.
“You don’t have a relationship with the kids necessarily. The more you sub at the same school, the more you get to know the kids, and the easier it gets ’cause you tend to get a good rapport going with them.
“But when you just walk in cold and you don’t know anybody, they just see you basically as a piece of meat, just a game, and see how much fun they can have when the sub’s there.”