This fall, I have been occasionally working as a substitute teacher at the local public high school. Chatting with a regular faculty member, I described it as an adventure. Half an hour later — slightly bored, watching ninth graders take a math quiz — adventure seemed like an odd word choice. After solving the quiz problems, I recalled a boring afternoon on a real adventure decades ago: In the 1980s, traveling solo in central Java, I waited hours for a delayed train in a small town station and took some photos to kill time. That afternoon is only memorable because one of those photos sticks in my brain. At the high school, waiting for the students to finish their quizzes, instead of taking photos to entertain myself, I started hand writing this blog post on a piece of lined paper. Adventures often include long boring hours and part of the adventure is how you choose to fill those hours.
Adventurous aspects of substitute teaching also include the huge adrenalin rush the first day, the result of doing something totally new that might have turned out to be an epic fail plus the familiar first-day-of-school anxiety, which I had not experienced in decades.
But to me, the best aspect of an adventure is unanticipated beauty and glimpses of life from another angle. On that trip to Java, one revelation was the traditional dancing, gracefully syncopated and — back then, at least — woven into daily life. With substitute teaching, the revelation is that high school kids are not slightly smaller fully formed adults, the way I remembered them. No, most of them are children! Heartbreakingly young, fronting whatever attitude each has chosen, and adorable in their own funky ways. I imagine how much their parents probably worry about them, facing this increasingly harsh world, and how much they must love them.
I decided to try substitute teaching because I thought I would learn something new, and even after only a few days, I see ways that differences among teachers impact the quality of the learning. I hope I can internalize some lessons about leadership from this but I am sure subbing has much more to teach me.