Lessons from substitute teaching

Substitute teaching isn’t exactly a glamorous job, but I knew it was one I really wanted.

I had gotten back from South Africa not too long beforehand, and substitute teaching in Bakersfield seemed to be the ideal next step. After such a long time away from Deanna, we needed to both develop a steady rhythm of life. But with her also being on an academic schedule, it was great for me to have a job with extremely flexible time off. If I needed to take a day off for whatever reason, it would be as simple as not answering my phone.

The job also paid well. Not by most people’s standards, I suppose, but it met my needs. Each day as a substitute would earn me about a hundred dollars, which would come out to about two thousand dollars a month. I had really cheap rent that year, and I realized that with careful budgeting, that would be enough of an income to start saving up for plane tickets, and perhaps an engagement ring. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Deanna and I were headed in that direction.

I tried to imagine myself taking charge of a classroom as a sub.

When I was in school, days with a sub were almost always the fun days. They could go one of two ways- either the sub would be clueless and easy to take advantage of, or the sub would be cool, relaxed, and have a bunch of interesting stories. It was a win-win scenario.

Of course, I hoped to fall in the category of the “cool subs.” I remembered one I would often get in high school. An older gentleman. Short, white haired, and mustached. He had an endless amount of stories to tell from his travels and camping trips. The students complied with him just because he was so cool. And it seemed like he was probably an experienced teacher who was subbing as a retirement job.

There was also Kevin, a substitute teacher I had in high school. Kevin was barely older than us, in his mid-twenties. He used subbing to pay the bills while being a bassist in a local band. A lot of us would go to see his shows.

If I got lucky, I could maybe earn my status as a cool sub. We would find out.

My first day on the job went fairly smoothly. I filled in for an English teacher at Deanna’s old middle school. The school was on a rotating schedule where I teach class for about an hour, then get a new batch of students where I’d teach them the exact same thing. It made time seem to go by a lot quicker.

Of the five batches of students that came in, only one of them proved to be difficult. A girl had broken her arm and the pain medicines she was on gave her made her restless. It totally escaped me that I could have just sent her to the office.

My second day on the job was a completely different experience.

I went to the other school district that hired me, Bakersfield City. Many of the kids who went to its schools lived in rougher parts of Bakersfield. Its schools generally had higher Black and Latino populations, and I was warned about its middle schools and how they were the worst in town, with kids fighting and joining gangs.

I didn’t have any gang members or fights on my second day, though it would have been terrible if that was the case because I filled in for a kindergarten teacher.

As soon as I stepped onto the colorful playtime rug, I found myself surprised at how many five year olds they expected a single teacher to manage. There must have been over thirty tiny faces in that room. I think my kindergarten class had five students in total.

On the teacher’s desk were her written out lesson plans. After they sung a few songs and listened to me read to them, they were supposed to complete an art project.

Quite ambitious! I tried to tell the teacher telepathically, wherever she was. I did what I was told and distributed the paper, macaroni, cotton, and scissors to all the kids.

I had my gut feeling that this arts project would not go the way the missing teacher hoped it would. I walked around the room while the kids all cut and pasted. I passed by a small table with a few kids working away.

Two girls sitting next to each other looked up and smiled at me.

I smiled back.

The blonde one then held up a braided lock of tightly knitted black hair that clearly used to belong to the girl sitting next to her. They both started laughing.


After a few weeks, I finally got a phone call from the most notorious school in the district, Emerson Middle School.

Everybody had told me not to accept a job at this school. There were fights every day. Students brought weapons sometimes.

Naturally, all the buzz made me just a bit curious. I gave in and took my chances with a one day stint, filling in for a math teacher.

It took only a couple hours for the school to live up to its reputation. Nobody did any work. Every few minutes, students would get up out of their seat and start messing with each other. I couldn’t always tell if they were just engaging in friendly horseplay or if they were really fighting, but either way, it definitely wasn’t math.

I started wondering how I should intervene when I soon learned that I didn’t have to do a lot. The school was so rowdy as a whole that it hired somebody whose entire job was to keep kids in line.

Mr. Matthews was in his early forties and built like a mixed martial artist. He had the booming, threatening voice of a drill sergeant, and to top it all of, long hair he kept pulled into a ponytail. The moment I saw him I figured he could have been a Steven Segall body double in another life.

Whenever there were substitutes, he patrolled the area in front of their classrooms like a hawk. That made my job easier, but not easy. I thought it would make me look bad if he had to come in too frequently.

The notes the teacher left me told me not to feel bad if the kids got frequently out of hand. She plainly mentioned that her students were unruly and unlikely to get anything done. Fair enough.

After a few weeks, I started to find my sweet spot among the middle grades- the third, fourth, and fifth graders. I also started to develop something else, my substitute teaching name.

Initially, I was surprised to notice how many teachers simply wanted to be called by their initial. Mr. C., Mrs. S. I had a couple teachers do this when I was in school, but it now seemed like it was the thing for every teacher to do.

Soon, I found out why.

“My name’s Mr. Lazaro,” I wrote it on the board for the class I was teaching.



After handing out worksheets, a hand would shoot up to ask me a question.

“Could I go to the bathroom, Mr. Lo… Mr. Larz…”


“Yeah, sorry, it’s a hard name. Can we call you Mr. L?”

I wish I could say this was a one time experience, but it was actually something I ran into very frequently. “It’s a hard name!” a student complained, which was kind of unfortunate because my last name is as phonetic as it gets. I didn’t want to give in to the abused trend of going by a letter, so I came up with a compromise.

Mr. Laz. I started writing on the board.

“Mr. Laz?”

“That’s me.”

It worked well. Every now and then I would get the “Are you lazy?” question, to which I had a just-about-automated reply of “Yup! So don’t make me do any more work than I already have to..”


I spent most of my time teaching with the City School District, which generally catered to rougher neighborhoods.

These schools were usually very rough. I would go into fifth or sixth grade classrooms, and the kids would be dealing with issues related to drugs or sex or gangs that were foreign to me when I was that age. In my suburban school experience, having a substitute teacher generally meant having a less-than-competent authority figure to pull pranks on or take advantage of.

In my Bakersfield classrooms, substitute teachers meant anarchy. Students were too apathetic to think of clever pranks or to put up much of a fuss about not wanting to do work. Instead, they would take advantage of the loosening of structure in order to settle their issues with each other. Fights were more likely to break out, along with other activities you would rather not deal with as a sub.

At first, it was pretty easy to write these classrooms off as a big mess and to stay disengaged. After all, nobody had terribly high expectations for substitute teachers. At many of these schools, low exepctations for anybody seemed to be the norm. I remember taking a lunch break at a teachers lounge, being amazed at the way some of the teachers would talk about their students. It was like they were at war.

“I handed my kids a sheet of subtraction,” complained one of the teachers, “I think only four of them knew how to do it. And those four weren’t doing it anyways.”

“It’s terrible,” lamented another. “These kids are on pace to be out of school within three years… on to God knows what.”

Hearing the teachers talk like that was surprising, but at the same time, it wasn’t too difficult to be able to empathize. Some days I would walk into a classroom with the kids being really bratty, making things as difficult as possible. In some ways it was comforting to know that even their regular, full time teachers had just as hard of a time as I did.



Overall, I liked being “Mr. Laz.”

One of the perks of being a substitute was the flexibility. I could decline assignments at schools I knew would be really bad. I could also turn down assignments if I wanted time off. As I got more and more familiar with the online system for substitute assignments, I learned how to compete for the jobs I really wanted. Special education classes.

I accepted a one-day assignment in Mr. Combs’ class.

Instead of the usual overcrowded classroom filled with thirty to forty students, I saw about eight students and three adults, all women who looked only slightly older than myself. They turned out to be Mr. Combs’ aides.

I came into the classroom early, to get a head start reading the notes Mr. Combs’ left for me. They turned out to be fairly minimal.


Thanks for coming in.

The aides will be able to take care of most things, the schedule is on the back wall.

For math, have the kids work on the folder. For writing, have them practice their words.

Hope your day goes well!

            –Mr. Combs

The letter made it seem like the day should run smoothly. As soon as I had finished reading, the tallest of the aides, Miss CeCe, spoke up authoritatively.

“Alright, let’s get started! Whose turn is it to lead the pledge?”

“I think it’s Adrian’s,” informed the only girl in the class.

“Alright, Adrian. You know what to do.”

A slightly heavy kid with a head of shaggy, uncut hair stood up promptly. “Iiiiiii. Pledgeeeee. Alegianceeeeee,” he started reciting, in an absurd voice.

“Um, excuse me, no,” Miss CeCe stopped him. “You know how to do it right.”

Adrian started again, bashfully articulating each word at a normal rhythm.

The school district divided its special education classes into two categories– mild to moderate and severe. In reality, these two distinctions were less of a spectrum. Mild to moderate mostly indicated behavioral issues, like in Mr. Combs’ class. The kids were high-functioning and able to communicate and work competently. In many cases, the kids would be apt enough to be in a regular classroom if not for their behavior. Many students with attention deficit disorder were put in these classes, along with students who had a history of fights, tantrums, and outbursts.

The thing that made these classrooms far easier to manage were the aides who were properly trained to deescalate aggression and physically intervene if necessary. Typically, however, they kept things running smoothly, using a number of rewards and consequences.

After the pledge, I introduced myself.

“Hi everyone, I’m Mr. Laz.”

“Mr. Laz?” repeated a small blonde kid.

“Yup. Mr. Combs left me a note so I’m just going to do what it says, and the first thing on there is for us to go to our math stations, you all know what to do?”


“Yes,” nodded most of the class.


“I know you guys know,” added Miss CeCe. “Let’s get to it!”


I was able to help lead the kids through their math. Whenever any of them got fussy, Miss CeCe or one of the other aides was able to talk to the kids and sort things out fairly quickly.


Having a lot of structure was helpful in these mild to moderate classrooms. When it was time to move from one activity to the other, students would split into smaller groups of two or three and rotate from one station to another to work with me or one of the other aides. I actually felt like I was teaching. The kids would put in a decent effort.

Every now and then, though, something would occur to remind me why these kids were in a special classroom.

On one of the walls of Mr. Combs’ class was a poster, designed to look like a football field. I quickly figured out that it was a chart meant to track and maybe reward good behavior. Cutout pictures of the kids faces were tacked with velcro to various points along the field. The small blonde kid was in the lead, somewhere around the seventy yard line. Most of the kids hovered around thirty or forty yard mark. The only girl in the class was at the ten yard line. The only kid lower than her, in the opposite end zone, was Frankie, who I saw sitting across from me in the front row.

Math time finished up, and I dismissed everybody to go out for a ten minute recess.

“Not you,” interjected Miss CeCe. “You know where to go, Frankie.”

Frankie put his head down, buried in his arms, defiant to anything Miss CeCe had to say to him.

“Frankie, I know you hear me.”

He stayed motionless.

“Frankie, quiet room.”

He did nothing as she pointed to a wooden cubicle in the corner of the classroom. The quiet room had nothing inside of it, nothing adorning its bare, raw wood walls.


He jolted up, slamming down his desk and chair in the process, and made his way towards the line.

“Frankie, do you want to go to the quiet room now, or do you want to have to spent recess there for the rest of the week?” asked Miss CeCe.

“I don’t want to go to the quiet room,” he insisted.

“Not an option.”

Frankie sat on the floor.

At this point Miss CeCe looked at me and asked, “Mr. Laz, will you and Miss Eliza take everybody out to recess, I’ll be in here with Frankie.”

As Miss Elizabeth and I started leading out the group of other students, who seemed unfazed by what was probably pretty common behavior from Frankie, he remained defiant. He attempted to join in our procession, at which point Miss CeCe stood in his way.

The last kid walked out, and the door shut behind him, but I could hear lots of moving around in there, and the banging of chairs and desks.

After the ten minute recess, I led the kids back in, and Miss Eliza started distributing snacks to each of their tables. I looked at the folders that Mr. Combs had left and found more math worksheets to administer.

Miss CeCe and Frankie weren’t in the classroom at this point, and least not where I could see them. However, I could definitely hear them. Frankie had resorted to physically trying to attack her, screaming and crying. She stayed in the quiet room with him, having him mostly restrained, while he kept trying to wrestle his way out.

As Miss Eliza and I carried on with the classroom routine, Miss CeCe poked her head out of the quiet room, spreading her arms and legs to block off its doorway.

“Miss Eliza,” she called, “I think we need to talk to Miss Gonzalez. This is the third time this has happened this week.”

At that point Frankie tried to rush the doorway and make his exit, slamming his body into Miss CeCe’s back. She remained firmly planted in the doorway, and again, subdued his rush.

The two continued to struggle. I would hear slamming noises and the sounds of kicking and hitting, the banging of walls, and Frankie’s incessant cries, wails, and screams. The rest of the kids, seemingly accustomed to this, did a much better job than I did of not being distracted as I tried to lead them through the rest of their math.

Both the math and Frankie’s wrestling match continued into lunch time.

After I had taken the kids to the cafeteria, where they remained with Miss Eliza, I went back into the class to retrieve my lunch. I found a very different Frankie inside. Instead of trying to attack his aide, he was now being consoled by her. An older woman with Indian features had joined the two of them and she was taking notes on what had happened.

Frankie sat at his desk, on edge. “I don’t like it,” he said.

Miss CeCe had her arm around his back, letting him know things were safe.

I quietly extracted my lunch from my backpack and pulled out a book, although it was difficult not to pay attention to what was going on and how radically different it was from before. I caught a look at Frankie, and he looked absolutely frightened.

Miss Gonzalez looked at Frankie, compassionately, and put her hand on his back like an older aunt.

“Frankie, why do you have to listen to him?” she asked.

“He’ll hurt me if I don’t,” Frankie cried.

“Who is he?” asked Miss CeCe.

“His name’s Chuckie.”

“Do you hear him at home?”asked Miss Gonzalez.


From Deanna’s background in social work and mental health, I realized this seemed to fit the description of schizophrenia, although Frankie was technically too young to be diagnosed. At the same time, watching Frankie transform from his aggressive raging self to now being a helpless, frightened kid was nothing short of eerie. At the moment, I felt as if I had witnessed something bizzarre at the intersection of mental health, the effects of a rough environment, and something freakishly supernatural.

Even though I believe in God, I tend not to dwell too heavily on the darker side of the supernatural world. I believe that there is a spiritual side to darkness, the kind of twistedness that takes over when kids walk into classrooms with guns and ill intentions, or the kind of lost humanity that happens in the world of human trafficking.

I know many religious people and believers who have very in depth and detailed descriptions for how darkness operates in a spiritual sense. From my standpoint, I’ve always found that exploration to be a distraction from a deeper focus on God.

Also, I’ve always struggled with the language and imagery associated with these sorts of things. It’s harder to believe in devils and demons in a world where our mind immediately goes towards Halloween masks, cartoon devils, and Dante’s Inferno.

At the end of the day, however, I do believe that there is spiritual darkness in the world. I think there’s substantial overlap between darkness and things like depression or mental illness, the lies that drive people towards greed or eating disorders, or the voices that lead people to committing acts of violence, seemingly against their will. I’m no expert on evil, but I believe it exists, and humans are often its collateral.

After seeing Frankie’s episode, I realized that has mental health was affected by something dark, and if he had a life outside of school similar to most of the other kids in the district, his home environment was also probably pretty dark. I started to realize that all these things were linked in ways that went beyond human understanding. All of our best vocabularies, whether developed by religious scholars or expert psychologists only scratched the surface.

I felt drawn towards those special education classes, though. They seemed to the an area where I often encountered the effects of this difficult-to-describe-darkness.

The kids who ended up in these classes because of behavioral issues were often acting out as a result of instability at home or in their personal lives. Absent parents, abusive relationships, and unsafe environments were issues I saw repeatedly affect kids’ behaviors.

I began to substitute at the same ones pretty regularly and I would see some of the same kids numerous times. I became Mr. Combs’ favorite sub, and he and a few other teachers would request me regularly. I liked that, because it allowed me to develop my own relationship with the kids. It’s one thing when you see them once, and only get one day’s worth of an impression from them. At that point, it’s like you’re just trying to put out the fires they start. After seeing the same kids over and over, though, and after learning bits and pieces of their lives it became all the more motivating to work with them.

It didn’t always make it easier though. Sometimes it got harder.

There was one class I would substitute for often that had a great set of kids, with one exception. The class bully couldn’t refrain from hitting and he was usually the one who got all the other kids riled up. Whenever he was absent, the class was as smooth as it gets, but when he was around, he was a frequent guest of the quiet room. This kid, who happened to be larger than all the others and almost my size, was easy to get angry at. My aide in his class, Miss Letty, usually dealt with him, but he had an odd way of getting under your skin. That was until I learned more about his background, and saw his dad pick him up from school one day.

“I’m here to get my boy,” announced the unkept guy with a ponytail, baggy jeans, and missing teeth. It was clear that drugs had done a number on his ability to function.

I looked to Miss Letty, as she had informed me that his kid came from an dangerous situation. She stepped in and started talking to the man. I looked at his son, who no longer looked like a bully, but a frightened child. This was a really common scenario for the kids with the worst behavior issues in the classes I would see.

Of course, this was true even outside of the special education classes, and on the occasional moments where I would be assigned to regular classrooms, remembering the effect of the kids’ home lives helped me be more patient with the kids. It was harder though, with too many of them and not enough support, to notice any impact being made. Plus, after a while, I got to know most of the special education kids in the school district. I didn’t have the same rapport built with the rest of its students.

The areas served by the City School District were typically low income, and full of gang activity, and drug use. Kids were often pretty young when they were exposed to these issues. I started to see how their in-class outbursts were really just the result of mismanaged pain.

I soon learned that Frankie’s dad had overdosed a short while ago, and his mom was barely keeping it together herself. I had personally never gone through anything that dark, but I realized that this job was giving me an opportunity to be present in some way for the kids with what they were going through. It was very similar to some of the stuff I saw in South Africa. The amount of darkness and negative influences in their lives was tremendous. I knew I was just a substitute teacher, and that in the long run, they probably wouldn’t remember me at all. But I also knew that most of them lived day-to-day, and every positive encounter and every positive influence was unimaginably vital.



A stark reminder of how challenging these kids’ situations were came about a month into my job. There was a news story that I caught wind of. I didn’t own a TV, but for a short while it was all the kids and teachers were talking about at the schools I went to.

There was a kid named Cortez. One night, he went to sleep over at a friend’s house. This is where things get hazy.

The friend fell asleep earlier, somewhere around ten o’clock. He apparently decided to walk home. Somewhere around two in the morning, some neighbors reported hearing gunshots. The next day, his body was found. He had been shot six times and left for dead along a set of railroad tracks.

This kid was only twelve. He attended Emerson, and by everyone’s account, he wasn’t one of the kids they would’ve expected to end up like this.

When school was in session, and fights would break out seemingly every day, it felt easy to write it off as a caricature of an inner-city school in a rough neighborhood. Cortez’ murder served as a reminder that it was a very real place, where drug abuse and violence were leaving an imprint on the kids who were growing up there, kids who were statistically likely to continue this cycle and keep these things going for future generations without some heavy intervention.


The next time I had an opportunity to teach at Emerson, I took it. I was assigned a special classroom, one labeled mild-to-moderate. I figured an Emerson classroom would be a lot more manageable with a teacher’s aide.

I only had one aide in the classroom that day. Mr. Kevin. Unlike most of my other aides, who were typically female, Mr. Kevin was a male, and pretty close to me in age. Actually, based on the way he dressed, he could’ve been closer to some of the kids in age.

Man, I thought to myself at only nine in the morning. This class feels a lot more like a prison than a middle school.

There were only about nine students. The classroom, like Mr. Combs’, was outfitted with a solidly reinforced time-in room made out of plywood. Of course, all that was out of necessity.

“You don’t tell me what to do!” shouted a thirteen year old, his arm outfitted in a sling from punching a wall the previous week.

“You ain’t got control of these kids!” shouted one of the students, the only female, shouted aggressively at my aide. “They be controllin’ you!”

Mr. Kevin just laughed.

“We’ll see about that,” he responded. “Try and pull something, I’ll have you in restraint.”

It wasn’t the most surprising interaction, other than the fact that Mr. Kevin would verbally demonstrate his no-nonsense approach quite frequently. It seemed kind of funny, coming from a teacher wearing a backwards hat and skateboarding shorts, but it seemed to be working. The kids’ aggression was especially heightened in this class.

Mr. Kevin built up enough of a rapport with his students that he was able to keep class moving along, in spite of their frequent challenges.

I wondered if his streetwise appearance gave him some sort of insider advantage among the class, but it didn’t appear so. The kids still tried to act out against him, he just knew how to get those situations worked out quickly from his experience.

Above the teacher’s desk hung a poster.

The kids who need the most Love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.

I looked around the room at the students. In only a couple of hours, the behavioral challenges in each student had already managed to manifest themselves. I could believe what the poster was saying, though.

After working in classrooms like these every week, I’d come to see that many behavioral issues stem from serious hurts– the bureaucracy of the foster care system, an abusive home, parents hijacked by drugs, and living in a world where the most available sense of belonging is in the form of a gang.

“I got to try some of that alcohol,” claimed one of the kids, in a way that made it apparent he didn’t really know what he was talking about.

“You don’t wanna mess around with that,” Mr. K interjected. “That stuff kills.”

“Who’s it gonna kill?” challenged the kid.

“Killed my brother.”

The room fell silent with students eyes turning towards Mr. K.

“You have a brother?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “I did.”

“What happened?”

“He was depressed, and drunk, and shot himself.”

The room was quiet. Something in the eyes of each of these students, who had been acting our the entire morning had shifted.

“Does it still hurt?”

“Oh yeah,” said Mr. Kevin, straightforwardly. “All the time. Last weekend I cried, thinking about how much I miss him.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” consoled the kid in the cast.

For the next few hours, the kids were surprisingly docile. Of course, the impact of the moment began to give way to a few more misbehaviors, but something in the room changed when Mr. Kevin shared his horribly tragic story. The class felt like a single unit, forged together, making it through a tough world.

That day, I got to see that most of what we think of as pure malice from other people, is really just a reaction to deep pain. I started to see that the things that impact people, far more than ideas, beliefs, creeds, or dogmas are moments of deep Love and extreme hurt. These are the moments that make us who we are. When it’s the latter we experience, it is so easy for hurt people to hurt people.

However, when we share our scars, it’s a reminder. We aren’t the only victims.

Other people have faced extreme hurt. Almost everyone carries some sort of heavy baggage that they’re sorting through, even those of us who are relatively emotionally healthy. That’s just a part of life. Pain.

We think life is supposed to be easy, and that idea messes us up. When we experience pain, we think of ourselves often as an abnormality, and are more prone to acting out towards others and playing the victim.

But, when we see somebody engage in vulnerability and share our scars and allow the pain that is in our stories to bind us, we are free to be more humane. More tender to each other. Better human beings. That cliche of being kind because everyone is fighting a hard battle holds true. The scars we share can lead us to deeper connection.

Philippe Lazaro2014