On Subbing, and Why I’m Slowly Losing the Will to Teach

A few years ago, once I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that taking the time to get a doctorate in the humanities is impracticable in today’s academic job market, I decided that I would get an MA and then teach English at the high school level. I can’t say I was ever thrilled by the idea of teaching teenagers, but since finding full-time work at a community college is increasingly difficult (as it is at any kind of college or university), I concluded that it was the only financially viable option, assuming I wanted to teach English at all. So, after failing to land a position at a private school immediately after finishing graduate school, I decided to become certified in order to improve my odds. And in the course of the certification process, I applied to work as a substitute teacher—partly for the experience, partly to complete the requisite number of “field hours” my state requires.

I should say at the outset that as a substitute, and as someone new to teaching, I expected to have classroom management problems. What I did not expect was to be sexually harassed by the students. I’m probably naive, but not once—not in all the certification training I completed, not in the substitute orientation—was this mentioned as a possibility, and yet, it has been an absolutely pervasive problem; I have not, as of this moment, managed to make it through a full day without becoming the target of some kind of unwanted attention. My first day was particularly bad. It was not one or two remarks but—at least in some class periods—an almost constant stream of words and actions on the part of more than one student. The following is just a sample:

“Are you religious? Because you’re the answer to my prayers” (one of many corny pickup lines)

(After introducing myself as Ms. —): “Can I be Mr. —?”

“Are you scared, being in a room with so many guys?”

“I’m legal,” by way of propositioning me.

(After a student put his lips, open-mouthed, against a pane of glass in the door as I unlocked it to let him into the room): “You were supposed to put your lips there.”

To be clear, I’m not particularly angry at the students themselves. I don’t like the harassment, of course, but it’s not like it’s something I’ve never encountered before, and it is infinitely more obnoxious in cases where the perpetrators are, without doubt, in a position to know better (looking at you, college students who catcalled me when I was thirteen or fourteen and taking a walk with my father. Also, looking at you, father who seemed to take that as flattering proof of his daughter’s attractiveness, rather than a) offensive, and b) creepy as hell, considering how old I was at the time). These are teenage boys in a conservative town; I get that gender equity isn’t going to be high on the list of topics they’re familiar with.

What I simply can’t stand, though, is the position the administration tacitly places you in as a female instructor. It’s hardly a secret that many schools and districts have a willfully blind attitude towards adolescent sexuality (“We can’t teach sex ed! They’re innocent children—we might corrupt them!”), but what I had never really considered was how that attitude might alter the experience of sexual harassment when the harassers themselves are adolescent students. To be blunt, it entirely validates all of the misogynistic myths about sexual harassment and assault that, in other circumstances, it has become at least less acceptable to voice. After all, they are just children; you are the adult. If sexual remarks were made, they must have somehow been solicited by you. What were you wearing? How did you respond to the comments? Could anything you did have been interpreted as somehow welcoming the advances? Have you ever had impure thoughts? Conclusion: you are dirty, it was your own fault, go home and think on your sins.

It doesn’t really matter whether this is your usual train of thought when subjected to harassment (although I’m sure that for many women, it unfortunately is); as a teacher, or substitute teacher, the training you receive virtually guarantees that this will be your response. You are told, repeatedly, that everything that happens in the classroom is your responsibility. You are told that students only misbehave when the teacher allows it to happen. You are told that students naturally defer to authority, and that any students who act out must have sensed weakness. As a sub in particular, you are told that if you cannot manage the classroom and are forced to send students to the principal, you will be fired for failing to maintain order. And because you are given no hint that you may find yourself dealing with sexual harassment, you are forced to assume that this is just like any other student misbehavior, at least in the eyes of the administration—your fault, your responsibility, your problem. In reality of course, the responsibility for dealing with (or coping with, as the case may be) sexual harassment often falls on the woman, but whenever that sad truth becomes, effectively, institutionalized policy—when women are forced to manage their own harassment or risk being fired—I think there is ample justification for outrage.

Of course, the idea that female teachers are responsible for whatever fantasies their students indulge in is really just part and parcel of an educational system that refuses to acknowledge any kind of systemic problems—be it misogyny, racism, socioeconomic inequality, etc. At least in Texas, would-be teachers are told repeatedly that a good teacher can make up for anything that might be holding a student back—poverty, family troubles, etc. If a student fails, or misbehaves, it’s not because of administrative policies, or a stultifying curriculum, or the fact that they’re forced to work to help support their families and have no time left over for studying; it’s all on the teacher. So, really, why would schools regard sexism any differently? Why wonder whether male students might harbor attitudes that would make them think that all females are there for the taking? It’s so much easier to simply ignore the fact that while a female teacher may be nominally in charge, the balance of power cuts very much the other way when it comes to gender—even when the “men” are adolescent boys. But of course, if we actually acknowledged any of this, we might have to actually devote some time and money to addressing systemic sexism, racism, etc. and, again, it’s just so much easier to comfort ourselves with the idea that a good teacher can fix everything. It’s aggressive individualism at its worst—the idea that, since nothing can stand in the way of a strong will, all it takes to change anything is a bunch of strong wills cheerfully plowing over whatever problems stand in their way. And if you’re not strong-willed—if you can’t or don’t want to put up with sexual harassment with little to no support—well, too bad. You have nothing to offer, there’s no place for you, and you should just go hide your face in shame.

The upshot of all of this, personally, is that I have refocused my attention on applying for adjunct positions at community colleges. Yes, there’s plenty of sexism in higher education, and yes, pay for part-time instructors is nowhere near a living wage, but hey, maybe I’ll at least be able to sleep in past 5:00 AM.



Filed under Non-Literary Adventures

17 responses to “On Subbing, and Why I’m Slowly Losing the Will to Teach

  1. I decided not to teach after observing all the back-biting and other hjinks in the English department at my revered university during my days of graduate school. Eventually, I chose a career in technical writing and satisfied my desire to teach by taking part-time work at local universities. Although the pay is truly atrocious, having a real career allowed me to do it without being impoverished. I also substitute taught at one time, but at the elementary school level. Your experience with harassment sounds truly atrocious, though. I never had to deal with anything like that.

    • Intradepartmental dynamics have also been a factor in my decision-making process. In fairness to my own grad program, I should that it was a pretty friendly and straightforward department, but I’ve certainly heard horror stories about other universities, and the job market is so cutthroat already that it just doesn’t seem like the kind of environment I could work happily in. I am leaning towards finding part-time work at a college and supplementing it with some other source of income, so it’s good to hear that that worked for someone else.

      • Yes, I knew people who were trying to support themselves by working at several different colleges at once, teaching a few courses here and a few there, but that was a tough life and they were making a very poor income.

      • Definitely. Working several adjunct jobs has basically the norm for the former grad students that I know, and it’s a shame–not just for them, though of course it’s a very stressful and precarious life, but I’d imagine for their students as well. No matter how good an instructor is, I can’t imagine he’s going to be at his best when he’s spread that thin.

      • Yes, lots of classes, and in the case of the people I knew, lots of driving, all over Houston.

      • I actually nearly took an adjunct job in Houston this year, but at that point I was still holding out for a full-time teaching position of some sort. It’s been years since I’ve been there, but I remember the traffic being a huge headache–you’d spend virtually all your free time commuting.

      • Yes, I believe that some of the people had horrible commutes, because the campuses were not close together.

  2. The notion that “boys will be boys” is one of the most dangerous, hierarchy-sanctioning ideas in the world today. And quite frankly, the worst thing about mass cultural patriarchy is just how invisible it is. As you pointed out, your entire self is subject to a sexualized gaze that men would never put up with if they faced it every day of their lives.

    This is why conservative, male-dominated cultures like that of Texas are so terrified of homosexuality: it threatens to erode male heterosexual power by placing the lascivious gaze on the straight MEN who hold power (think about irrational fears of gay men leering at straight ones in locker rooms, the military, etc.). What this culture fears is experiencing what women have to go through all the time, and, as you noted, you’re just expected to deal with it. It really sucks.

    • Right. I waffled quite a bit on whether to even include the bit about whether you can really expect any better from adolescent boys, because of course on a fundamental level, you can and you should; the last thing I want is to imply that that’s simply the way things are, now and forever. At the same time, though, I’d be lying if I said the entire situation didn’t feel somewhat inevitable to me, if only because young men are so overwhelmingly socialized into that patriarchal role; that’s not a justification, of course, but it does temper my feelings of annoyance into something more like fatigue. Besides, I can’t help but be uncomfortably aware of the privileges of my own position–not the job title per se, but the fact that a lot of the students are coming from families with very different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds than my own–and that also tips the scales of my irritation more against an educational system that doesn’t even allow these kinds of issues to be aired and discussed (let alone tackled).

      In any case, you’re dead on about the fear of objectification/sexualization playing a huge role in homophobia. I wouldn’t frame either homophobia or misogyny entirely in terms of the other, of course, but it is interesting (if depressing) to look at the ways they feed off of one another (e.g. female same-sex attraction being culturally acceptable only when it exists within the framework of the heterosexual male gaze).

  3. This is absolutely horrible! I never would have imagined. Just after undergrad I thought I would teach high school English as well, entered the graduate teacher training program and after the first semester decided no way. I was in Los Angeles and told that as a new teacher I’d be placed in the worst schools. As a smallish female who looked much younger than her age, I decided that I would very likely turn into one of the horror stories my classroom management teacher regaled us with. So I switched and got an regular MA thinking I’d then move a another university for a Ph.D which my school didn’t offer. But after the departmental politics and the behavior of my fellow students (the more sucking up you did the more you increased your chances for a good recommendation letter) I decided to not get a Ph.D after all. I’ve ended up never having an actual career, but I have had many jobs I have enjoyed and learned loads of interesting things. And now I have library degree and am working in a law library. I don’t get to teach classes but through the years and even now I still get plenty of teaching opportunities. I wish you the very best with the adjunct route!

    • I totally sympathize–I look younger than I am too (I’m also working part-time in the LSS program at a college, and I’m regularly mistaken for an undergrad there), and I know that that isn’t helping matters. When I sub, I do my best to make myself look older (pencil skirts, hair pulled back, etc), but I can honestly say I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gotten some remark along the lines of “I thought you were a student!”, “You’re really young for a teacher,” etc.

      Anyway, I definitely appreciate hearing from someone who’s survived without having a career in the traditional sense, since I’m increasingly inclined to try to patch different sources of income together rather than go the established route. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing with my life, for sure, and it would be nice to have the (somewhat greater) security of a career, but at this point, I can’t really imagine teaching high school and not quickly burning out, which would hardly be an improvement. I’d be interested to hear more about your experience going back for a library degree, though! I can’t do that now, since I’m still nowhere near paying off my other student debt, but it’s something I’ve toyed with the idea of doing in the future, if I could ever manage to afford it.

      • I definitely haven’t ended up with the working life I thought I would! But it hasn’t been bad. It did take a bit of a mental adjustment to be ok with it though and sometimes I still find myself thinking about that Ph.D but it never lasts long 🙂

        When I turned 40 I found myself at a crossroads. I had gotten myself into doing technology for nonprofits and had reached a point where I needed to get a computer science degree to continue or try something else. Technology was the buzz in the library world so I did an all online MLIS program part time which took me 3 1/2 years to complete. The economy crashed and so did library budgets and library jobs are really hard to find. If I wanted to sell my house and move across the country I could find the perfect library job for me but because my husband and I decided not to move I am working in a paraprofessional position at the moment. But it’s a good gig for now. Who knows what the future will bring? 🙂

      • That’s definitely good to hear. I do often worry that one day in the future I’ll wake up really regretting the decision not to pursue a doctorate (assuming, of course, that I stick with that plan). I loved the research and creativity associated with graduate school, so I’m drawn to that aspect of it, but I think that the long-term stress associated with publishing, conferences, and going on the academic job market wouldn’t be a good thing for me.

        And yes, my mom works in a library (though not as a librarian), so I had heard that that’s a pretty tough job market as well–unfortunately, that seems to be the common denominator in careers I’m drawn to. Glad to hear it’s more or less worked out for you, though, even if, again, it’s not quite what you imagined!

  4. Jenny

    I am so, so sorry you have to put up with that bullshit. How wearying, and to the bone. I’m a French professor at a university, and I’ll say I’ve never had to deal with sexual harassment from my students (one of the nice things about university teaching, I guess.) There are other patriarchy-related problems, certainly, and some of them derive from the students, but not that. Adjunct teaching would oppress you in other ways, but I’m guessing it would take some of that particular pressure off your life.

    I’d be interested to sit down with other female teachers and get their take on the situation. I wonder whether they’d have ideas, either on how to “manage” (shudder) the issue, or on what might be done more generally to shut those guys up. How to teach Feminism for Men (or boys), I mean. This kind of pervasive crap has got to be stopped somehow.

    • Well, it’s definitely not an ideal situation, but it’s at least been gratifying to have gotten such supportive comments here, given that I haven’t encountered a lot of support elsewhere. But yes, I definitely am interested in knowing how common this is as an experience. I looked into it in a very cursory way (re: quick Google search), but most of what’s out there is anecdotal, except for one or two papers that I haven’t had a chance to look at. From what I’ve been able to gather, it definitely seems more common at the high school level (although I did come across a couple of anecdotes about college students), but it honestly seems to be a sort of taboo topic–again, probably not surprising, when you cross the general denial of systemic gender inequality with the willful blindness towards teenage sexuality. I definitely think this is the kind of thing we should be talking to students (of all ages) about, but it’s hard for me to imagine that happening any time soon; in Texas, the curriculum has been revised to explicitly avoid any sort of critical thinking on gender, race, etc. (in fact, one board member was pushing for the curriculum to include instruction in traditional gender roles).

      Adjunct teaching can definitely be rough, but in some ways, I think I’m more prepared for the realities of that than I was for teaching at the secondary level. I obviously know a lot of former grad students who are now doing the part-time teaching thing, but my mom also worked as a part-time Arabic instructor for about 20 years, so I saw firsthand how difficult it was. She had a pretty “good” position, as these things go–healthcare, a kind of retirement plan, and so on–but she still wasn’t ultimately able to make ends meet. I’m counting on being able to find ways to supplement the income outside of teaching–I do not want to become one of those instructors who teaches at three or four different schools and can’t really devote any attention to any of them.

  5. I’ve had this post in my inbox for a while and just got around to reading it. It’s not what I was expecting at all — I’ve heard many, many criticisms of the education system in the United States, but sexual harassment flowing from students –> teachers doesn’t seem to get talked about very much, at least in comparison to other problems. The examples you provide are shocking, but thinking back to the way my fellow female classmates talked to me about the “hot” male teachers at the school (I assumed the male students had separate conversations about this), it’s not as surprising. Keep in mind that I also attended a public high school in Texas. What you have to put up with is undoubtedly worse because obvious male –> female expressions of attraction are more sanctioned, but it’s not right for a teacher of any gender to be subjected to sexual advances from his or her students. Complicating the matter further is the intersection of socioeconomic status and romantic expression. I don’t want to get into that too deeply, because I’m afraid that I won’t describe it justifiably, but your observations here remind me of those that a friend serving in the Peace Corps in Morocco repeatedly makes on Facebook and her blog about men catcalling her in the street, etc. It also reminds me of that all-too-common movie montage when a parent starts wondering why their kid isn’t doing well at school. They request a teacher conference, and bam! Turns out the teacher is so good-looking that the student can’t concentrate. Instead of reprimanding the kid, the parent smiles knowingly, as if acknowledging that it’s impossible for their kid to have behaved any differently.
    Sorry this isn’t a very cohesive comment. Just trying to say that I’m horrified by what you’re going through, and the more I think about it, the less surprising it is.

    • No need to apologize for coherence, since I think my post was a little on the rambling side anyway. I actually struggled writing it, not so much because of embarrassment/anger/whatever, but just because–as you point out–the subject is such a minefield in so many ways. The socioeconomic angle was weighing on my mind in particular; I’ve been hyperaware of the fact that I’m coming from a very different educational and social background, and it does incline me to see the problem more as an institutionalized one than one of individual students misbehaving (sidenote: I’ve actually spent time in the Middle East, so I’m familiar with what you’re talking about). In any case, my frustration is much more directed at the educational system that makes it effectively impossible to air any of these questions for discussion (I didn’t grow up in Texas, and have been more than a little dismayed by the curriculum). But as you said, in retrospect, I’m not really surprised at all, because the whole question of sexual harassment seems very much intertwined with a lot of the other problems in the educational system.

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