thermometer 2I’ve been sick this week, which reminded me of the diverse administrative reactions I’ve encountered due to illness-related absences.  Having taught for so many years, my earliest absences occurred well before automated substitute systems were in place.  In fact, I had to call the principal directly to explain my absence.  These calls were SO unpleasant; I felt that I needed to prove that I was gravely ill, since finding a substitute was difficult.  I had one principal who tried to convince me to come to school, regardless.  The truth was that I almost never missed a day, sick or not.  Once, while teaching a self-contained class of kids with behavior disorders, I had strep throat and was unable to speak.  I remember using an alligator-shaped party clicker to get their attention, communicating my intent with gestures and facial expressions.  In retrospect, I wish I had that day on videotape.  Or maybe not.

I have found that teachers are likely to work while sick, no matter what substitute system is in place and regardless of their classroom assignments.  Sometimes the pressure is administrative.  Many principals are compassionate and tell teachers to stay home until they’re well.  But others get angry, implying that there’s an unethical or unprofessional component to being absent.  I do think that the pressure to teach while sick is often self-imposed; we chide ourselves for not having bodies of steel or for “abandoning” our students.  There’s a certain hypocrisy to all this.  We give parents a document explaining the conditions under which their kids may not come to school (or for how long they must remain at home), while we come feverish and contagious to the classroom.  Don’t tell anyone that I did just that!

* Survival tip #7 : Never leave class without one

Without what?  A substitute teacher!

Ask any teacher and they will tell you about the multiple times they’ve worked while sick.  Shh.  You’re not supposed to be in school with a fever.  I think there’s some kind of guilt complex and performance thing that affects teachers as soon as they’re licensed.  But a special education teacher?  It’s much more complicated.  How many subs are standing in line to work in a self-contained classroom?  As a self-contained classroom teacher of kids with behavior and emotional disabilities, I was VERY unlikely to get a sub.  As in, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.  Fortunately, I had an amazing assistant who could carry on if I got really sick.  She and I always joked about what would happen if we were both sick at the same time.

You guessed it:  Both of us got strep throat at the same time and we were flat on our backs.  Neither of us knew the other was out, which was the only reason I stayed at home.  Of course, there was no one willing to sub in my class.  The brave assistant principal and an even braver resource teacher took turns with the class.  I heard through the grapevine that the assistant principal gave up, I think after being locked out of my room.  And the resource teacher got chased out of the room by the kids.  Neither one ever talked to me about that day.  The kids were silent when I asked how it had gone, so I knew it had been bad.  Troubled water under the bridge….

As a resource teacher, subs were usually available at least one time, but they had their work cut out for them.  The problem was that I had no way of finding out how things had gone unless there was actual damage in the room.  When my blinds were broken, I knew the day had not gone well.  Or when parents called the principal, saying they would not send their child to my room with a sub.  I always attempted to pry information out of the kids, but they were usually reticent, still a bad sign.  When the kids did talk, I knew it was serious.  One sub went through a massive bag of Skittles in two days, giving out handfuls of candy to induce cooperation.   Even with the bribes, kids were quick to tell me that she was mean.  On another occasion, the kids gave me odd looks when I asked the usual, “How did it go?”  One student said, “Maria got on the table and showed us her underwear,” so I figured that was not a great day either.  In case you are wondering why I needed subs, since I have certainly taught while sick, these absences were strictly professional leave.  (I can HEAR you!)

I do not understand why anyone would ever want to be a sub, as much as I have (sort of) appreciated them.  I had to sub for a classroom teacher who was the antithesis of me.  She had the “recess” voice, of course.  That’s the booming voice of authority that penetrates cinder block walls.  She also had a certain flair for sarcasm and a knee jerk response to any sign of insubordination.  Me?  I have a teacher “look” but I didn’t know the kids’ names, I had little idea what they were to do, and no one seemed to hear me speaking.  It did get better over time, but it wasn’t my finest hour (or three).   The turning point occurred when some students were picking on a special needs kid.  They saw the fire in my “look” and that seemed to clear the air.

My best info on substitutes came from my son when he was in middle and high school.  I was always pleased that the classes were well-behaved when a sub was there (of course he was telling me the truth).  It seemed that that by 6th grade, kids and subs had a clear working relationship:  the kids would be quiet if the sub didn’t ask them to do anything.  OK, I’m not sure that was the whole story.  But it does seem like one way to survive as a substitute teacher.