What I Learned about Public Education from Subbing


For the last several weeks, I have worked as a substitute teacher in a local public school. It happens to be the school where I taught English throughout the 1990s. It has been a fascinating experience — disconcerting and inspiring at the same time.

The school is just as crazy as it was when I worked there. It is a predominantly minority school that serves the lowest income communities in our city. It faces all the struggles common to such schools — poor attendance, high dropout rates, low test scores, periodic violence, etc.The school has four full-time security personnel who patrol the hallways and remove unruly students from class. It also has a full-time uniformed beat cop who carries a gun with extra clips and a taser. The hallways are monitored throughout the day by security cameras. All attendees at sporting events must pass through metal detectors. The students in general are boisterous, disrespectful, and uninterested in education. It’s hard to imagine learning happening in a more inefficient and unconducive environment. It is borderline chaos from the opening bell to the mad dash for the exits in the afternoon. But, believe it or not, I still come away every time amazed and encouraged.

The experience reinforced my conviction that public education as an institution in this country is a giant mess. But despite the million disadvantages of the system, learning somehow still happens and young people are prepared — at least to some degree — for a productive future. This is true because within these walls are teachers and administrators with hearts for kids and a passion to make a difference. I spent time one day with the principal, a tenaciously optimistic educator, who was eager to tell me about a recently adopted program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). Teachers in AVID identify young students with academic potential but any of a number of risk factors — poverty, abuse, family dysfunction, etc. These kids are given a special elective class period where they get concentrated attention by teachers determined to help them overcome their obstacles. The principal told me that after just a few years that group now rivals the students in the school’s IB program for college scholarship money!

I was introduced to a teacher whose job is “graduation coach.” All day long, she tracks down seniors to make sure they are getting things done so that they are ready to walk on graduation day. She is their friend, their taskmaster, their advocate, and their surrogate mom. The principal boasted that the school was starting to attract the cream of the crop of new teachers even though the school is still the toughest place to teach in the city, and that he didn’t care about lesson plans and red tape as long as teachers were getting the job done. He noted that in his mind, a quiet class doesn’t mean people are learning. He told me the trick is to figure out how kids learn best and find a way to make that happen. I couldn’t agree more.

I met a dozen teachers fighting the battle not just to teach lessons, but to convince students that what they were teaching is worth learning. That an education is worth the effort.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no regrets about our decision to homeschool our kids. As a system, public education is in many ways a disaster. I’m thankful that my family has had the means to do it ourselves. This is unfortunately not true for everyone, and for them, I’m glad that there are courageous, persevering, good-hearted teachers and administrators out there making the best of a challenging education system. It’s a mess. But it’s not nearly the mess it could be because it’s filled with so many good people determined to help kids make their lives better.


Please leave a comment below!




About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Rebecca

    This is the problem, that we talk about what is good, and then stand around and say how wonderful it all is, while realizing it is not working, but oh, there are such dedicated teachers. If we took a hard look at this, would we not see that this is the problem, accepting what is unacceptable and then making it sound like we are trying so hard and that makes us such good people! This is not problem solving. And then, we have these hopeful endeavors that reach the gifted.
    All children learn to crawl and to walk, this is an innate executive function, which means they all have great absorbent capacity, just like feral children. Obviously the very form of the industrial model school system is the problem, because it is in separation from reality, it is a construct of offering learning within a closed box, using a code only, and if one does not know the code, one gets lost.
    That principle cannot be a good principle if conceptually this very basic reality is not directly seen. But then again, his memory was built from a closed box.
    There are schools unstopping, there are countries changing the grouping, there are children learning outside of school, having access to things and computers, where they teach themselves, using their innate desire to touch and interact with everything because it was not taken away in some pre-school where every moment was regimented and their absorbent ability constantly interrupted to the point where this became a pattern and the insecurities accumulated as a lack of follow through.
    Common Core is a scam, because there is no research for it, and the states ask the Fed, to do this research! And our administrators as our principles, never looked, they took the federal money and blamed the state, who begs the government.
    When placing that natural absorbent mind into such a narrow and limited four walled room, giving directions every minute, one suppresses the life in the child, It is overall, a design that is criminal. Until we really begin to realize this, and change, they polarized emotional blogs will continue, and we each will get our chemical much of feeling good, as though we have REAL feelings, when in reality, it is an excitement that lacks all real considerate responsibility for the real value being life.

  2. Alan H
    Alan H03-04-2015

    You were across the street from mgt house and didn’t tell me? Darn! My pastor’s wife teaches there. She has good things to say too.

  3. Pat Eickman
    Pat Eickman03-04-2015

    Thanks for writing such a hope-filled column about your recent experience at a public school. As a retired public school teacher who still subs occasionally, I am often in awe of the dedicated, effective teachers and counselors I encounter in public schools. The problems in public schools are immense, of course, but there are also places where things are going right. And that’s an excellent thing because the vast majority of families will continue to depend on the local public school, as they have for generations.

  4. Rhonda Barfield
    Rhonda Barfield03-04-2015

    Beautifully said, Brian!

  5. Julie L. Casey
    Julie L. Casey03-04-2015

    Great post, Brian! As a homeschooling mom married to a public school teacher, I see much of what you have seen: apathetic and lazy students not interested in learning and the dedicated school personnel who work tirelessly to to teach them. Luckily though, my husband teaches in a very small rural school, so violence is not often a factor. I can’t even imagine working in or sending my kids to a school like the one you describe. It sounds almost as bad as a prison. As always, thank you for your insights!

Leave a Reply

If you like a post, please take a second to click "like," and comment as often as you like.
We promise not to correct your grammar!