I was substitute teaching in a middle school English class when the office called over the class loudspeaker.
“This is Mr. Davis.”
“Can you substitute for Mrs. Thornton’s seventh grade math class the next three days?”
“That would be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday?” I asked just to make sure I understood the request.
“Yes, that is correct. The rest of the week,” said the voice.
“Yes, ma’am, I can,” I said.
I arrived early for class on Wednesday morning. I wanted to make sure I read any information the teacher left for her substitute so I would be ready when class began.
I sat at Mrs. Thornton’s desk and waited for the students. Since this was my first time in Mrs. Thornton’s class, I had written my name on the board: “Mr. C.D.” And, I had my rock and little pieces of paper for the rock drawing.
A lady opened the classroom door and walked back to the desk. She was carrying an armload of papers.
“I’m Mrs. Thornton,” she announced. There was nothing welcoming in her voice. “I know you were called in to sub for me, but I decided to come in for first period. I can only be here for first, so if you want to sit in one of the chairs and watch, then the class is yours the rest of the day.”
“Would you rather I go to the library during this period?” I asked, thinking my presence might make her uncomfortable.
“That’s not necessary,” she responded. “You can actually help me. While I’m teaching you can walk around the class and make sure the students are doing what they are supposed to be doing, such as paying attention and not copying each other’s work.”
“Sure,” I said and I sat down in one of the student desks in the corner to watch.
The students began filing in as Mrs. Thornton placed a large, cloth bag on her desk. As she spread out its contents it appeared that she was preparing to demonstrate an entire line of make-up instead of teach math.
She began making up her face and glanced up only briefly to speak to the class. “Get out your work and no talking.” She said flatly, pronouncing the last two words slowly and with no small hint of danger should there be any infringement of her order.
For a moment, the only sound was the movement of papers and the sharpening of pencils. There was no talking.
As I watched Mrs. Thornton put on her face, I saw a woman in her element. On went the blush while she looked in a hand-held mirror. I sensed that she did her make-up like this every morning. This was Mrs. Thornton’s turf, her piece of the planet and she ruled it with a no-nonsense seriousness. Brush, brush, comb, comb.
During the next hour and a half I became impressed with this lady. I decided she was one of those Master Teachers I often hear about. She knew seventh grade math and was truly prepared. She explained the subject in detail and which step to present in which order. As I sat and listened, brain cells long dormant from my public school days began to remember pre-algebra. I was learning along with her students.
It was now second period and Mrs. Thornton had left—for the hospital I was later to learn. She was looking after her father and he had been admitted for observation.
In most public schools, teachers have what is called Plan. Plan is a period set aside for teachers to grade papers or set up their schedules for the next day or just to get caught up on work. I remembered the many evenings and weekends my English teacher mother spent grading papers or planning the next week’s work. There was no Plan Period when my mother was alive.
Of course, I didn’t need a Plan Period. If it was a nice day, I usually went outside and walked around the school. If not, I stayed inside and read a book I brought to pass the time of Plan. I especially liked it when Plan was either the first or last period of the day. They I didn’t have to be at school so early or I could leave school before the normal school day ended. But, in this room, Plan was second period.
It was raining, so I sat at Mrs. Thornton’s desk and pondered my experience of watching her teach math to seventh graders. Yes, I had been impressed at how she held the class’ attention. But, as I thought about the previous hour, I was aware that it had left me feeling depressed, and I’m not easily depressed.
Mrs. Thornton had conditioned her students that they dare not fail to learn under her watch.
Even if they didn’t care.
And that is exactly what I was feeling as I watched each student dutifully following their teacher as she solved equations for x and y on the board and then plot the answers to x and y on the proper graph coordinates. If they didn’t end up with the same line or figure she showed them, they had to find out what they had done wrong.
Even if they didn’t care.
The Question hung in the air like a presence. It was the proverbial “elephant in the room” and I sensed it passing through nearly everyone’s brain like the undisciplined thought that it was, ready to challenge the entire public school philosophy of education. Of course, no one asked it. It was never worth asking because the entire System would have to change in order for The Question to be given any validity. However, I knew that, one day, one hundred and fifty years of standardization would finally come to an end and The Question would finally be considered.
As I had watched the class that morning, I whispered The Question under my breath. “Why do we have to learn all this stuff, anyway?” “There,” I thought, “I’ve said it for the millions of kids who aren’t allowed to say it.” Not so anyone could hear, of course. That would be disrespectful.
Naturally, some students need to learn this stuff. After all, we do need mathematicians and scientists and engineers and statisticians. But does every thirteen year old need to know how to plot graphs on x and y coordinates?
As I sat there during Plan, I considered Mrs. Thornton. She was a math teacher and, as a math teacher, she was tasked with teaching math. Nothing more. If some people think learning how to plot x and y coordinates on a graph is a little (or a lot) like taking medicine, what does that matter? Medicine is good for you. If the one administering the medicine knows how to “make the medicine go down”, that is helpful. If the teacher has a great personality, or the students respect her, or if she can make math fun, or even give it some practical application, those are real pluses. But teachers are not tasked with being nice or friendly or even knowing how to give practical meaning to their subject. Their only real task is to make as many students as possible learn the subject they have been hired to teach. Be whatever kind of person you have to be in order to put math into the heads of your students. At the end of the day (or the year), no one will ask what kind of human being you were. The Test will expose how well you accomplished your job.
Now it was third period and another group of students was back in the room.
“I have good news and bad news,” I said as I held a stack of papers Mrs. Thornton had copied for the rest of the week. “Which do you want first: the good news or the bad news?”
“The bad news,” was the general response.
“OK, the bad news is that we have busywork to do.”
“Great,” said one of the boys with disgust. “So, what’s the good news?”
“Since I’m a substitute, I don’t have to make you do it!” I said cheerfully.
They brightened. “You mean we don’t have to do all that paperwork?” they asked gleefully.
“I didn’t say you don’t have to do it. I said I don’t have to make you do it. I only have to tell you what Mrs. Thornton said you were supposed to do.”
“Right!” they all said with resignation. They did the work.
Classes were over and I walked around the room picking up the little pieces of paper that always accumulate around students’ desks during the day. A table was butted up against Mrs. Thornton’s desk and on it was a poster displaying the Pythagorean Theorem.
I suddenly had a brilliant idea. “Mrs. Thornton is supposed to teach the Pythagorean Theorem. Well, I will teach it for her while she’s gone.”
I was delighted with myself. “What a happy thought,” I reasoned. “That should be a lot more fun than doing sheets of problems. If Pythagoras is medicine, I know how make that medicine go down.”
I sat in Mrs. Thornton’s chair and smiled. “I am so smart,” I thought.
Little did I know that I was about to learn a painful, but valuable, lesson. I was about to unleash the displeasure of The System.